A very important part of my youth was sports. I was a huge devotee of New York sports teams, in particular the Giants and the Yankees. I was a fan thru many a lean year for the Giants, so it was rather gratifying to see them win a couple Super Bowls when I was still a big fan. I started following the Yankees just in time to catch their mid to late 70's success, so I was kinda spoiled with them at first. I stuck with them thru their lean decade of the 80's though, and then was pretty much out of pro sports before their return to glory.
I've gotten extremely burned out on sports in the last couple decades, finding it rather hard to pay attention to the exploits of millionaire convicted felons and drug addicts whose sole reason for existing is to pound their own chests and jump around like idiots in an effort to be highlighted on SportsCenter, caring nothing for the team's fate, or for the regular-joe working stiffs who devote far too much of their family's income to supporting these greedy selfish bastards.
The following is a letter I wrote to Graig Nettles, Yankee third baseman from 1973 thru 1983. I was crushed the day he was traded to the San Diego Padres in early 1984, due to his book Balls that was about to be published speaking in less-than-flattering terms about George Steinbrenner, the Yankee owner who was just about the worst thing to happen to professional sports in this country. Regardless, this letter was written and sent to Nettles in April of 2009, and I post it now because despite my modern cynicism, I was once more...pure...
Dear Graig Nettles,
My name’s Ken Fries, and I grew up being a huge Yankees fan, and in particular, you were my favorite player. Even though I lived in Queens, I always preferred the Yankees over the Mets (although I followed them too). I was around 4 or 5 when I first started following baseball, and while I enjoyed Bob Murphy, Ralph Kiner, and the other Mets announcers, I really came to like Phil Rizzuto and Bill White (I didn’t really care for Frank Messer at the time…I watch old telecasts now and realize how great he was too!). So that’s what probably drew me to be more of a Yankee fan in the first place.
At the time, my next door neighbors had season tickets, and I must have said something (pestered them is probably more like it…), because they wound up giving me their tickets for my 7th birthday, July 16, 1978 (sorry, I’m probably younger than your kids). My first time ever to Yankee Stadium…any MLB game, for that matter. Already a thrilling experience for any youngster, it got better when the seats turned out to be around 10th row, field level, between home plate and the Yankee dugout! I remember realizing that bringing my glove was now useless, being behind the screen…I was OK with that.
The thrill wasn’t even lost when the Yankees went on to lose 3-1 to the Royals (another thrill, seeing the Yankees go up against the hated and fierce rivals from the AL West), because the sole Yanks run came from a home run off the bat of…well, do I need to tell you at this point that it was you?!?
You couldn’t have given a 7 year old a better birthday present. Going to the Bronx at that time was like going to China for my family (aside from a yearly trip to Cape Cod at the end of summer every year…which I hated, because it meant that school was starting when we got back), due to our not traveling much. So getting to go to what was already a Mecca for me was fantastic. Just so you know how serious I was about my New York sports, I’d been a Giants fan since I was 2. Probably my earliest memory involves running around the house pretending I was Ron Johnson, a running back for the Giants at the time, with a football about half my size, leaping onto the top of the offensive line (which was the living room sofa, and I really had to leap to make it!). So to be able to then see my favorite player hit a home run in person on my birthday cemented that you would always be my favorite.
Turns out I couldn’t have made a better choice. As the years went by, I grew to respect and admire your work ethic, your leadership by example, and your wit and willingness to say something when the silliness or stupidity just got to be too much. I also loved the fact that you were not a glory-seeker; you did your job consistently and you did it well, because that’s what you were supposed to do. Mostly due to my parents, who were the same way, but also at least partially due to you, I turned out much the same. Granted, I’m a mailman (for the last 13+ years), not a ballplayer (like I’d hoped…oh well), but still…
I actually did play Little League baseball for 4 or 5 years. I spent a good chunk of time in the outfield, but I also played my fair share of 3rd base, and I took my fielding responsibilities very seriously. I was always a better fielder than a hitter, but I tried my best at both. I also got to wear number 9, which was another thrill for me, especially when I was at third!
Your ability to see the humorous side of many bizarre and absurd situations is something else I always liked about you, and have incorporated into my daily life (you may or may not be surprised to know that the Post Office and the Yankee Bronx Zoo are remarkably similar…). Again, not that you are the sole influence, but you pick up certain things here and there from lots of sources over the course of existence, and you were definitely one of them. I need to read Balls again, I remember enjoying it immensely the first time.
Which I suppose brings me to the entire point of this. You’ll find nothing enclosed with this letter, because I’m not really looking for autographs. Besides, I prefer to have things signed by people I admire in person, so every time I look at whatever item, I’m reminded about the time I got to meet and briefly chat with them. I had such an opportunity with you at a card show in Long Island back in 1997, and I had you sign a few pictures of you I’d torn out of Yankee yearbooks many years before. They used to hang on the walls of my room, so it meant a lot to me that I was finally able to get you to sign them for me years later. One now is at the front of a binder containing dozens of your baseball cards, and another hangs framed on the wall of my home office, just off to my right. I’ve glanced at it a number of times while writing this, and it’s been in that spot probably since I got this house nearly 8 years ago.
So, my point, you ask? Pretty much just to say thank you. You played a large part in my formative years, although you obviously didn’t know it. So I just wanted to let you know that you did, and to thank you for it. It may not have been your responsibility (hell, you were just playing baseball!), but it sort of worked out that way. Thanks.
Hopefully I’ll run into you at another signing or something someday, and say hi and thanks in person, but for now, this will have to do.
Hope you are enjoying life and your family and everything else.
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