By Mary Buckheit
Special to Page 2

One year ago, I went home to enjoy a few of mom's famous meatballs and watch Game 4 of the World Series between the Yankees and the Marlins with my dad. I remember resting my head on dad's shoulder as we watched the flashbulbs light up the South Florida sky while Roger Clemens dramatically struck out Luis Castillo, pumped his fist, tipped his cap and made his way to the dugout for the last time.

"Can't believe we'll never see him again," my dad said.

Sitting there that evening, I never could have imagined that The Rocket, in fact, would make a return. Nor did I imagine it would be the last time I ever saw my father.

Four days later, on a cold golf course in upstate New York, my old man -- the healthiest 65-year-old I've ever known -- died unexpectedly. He had a heart attack in the middle of the fourth fairway and passed away quietly and alone. Exactly the way he would have wanted it.

You can't plan for these things; you just have to deal with them. I miss my father more than I know how; and there's something about baseball and October, a poignant anniversary for me now, that make my memory of dad weigh even more heavily on my head and heart. As I sit in my home in the middle of New England, ever more immersed in this postseason Red Sox project by the incessant reminders here at the World Wide Leader, I feel like I finally understand the real significance of all those dinner-table stories my dad told a million times about his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers.

My dad was born and raised in Queens, attended Brooklyn-Tech High School and started working for IBM in Manhattan the day after he got his diploma. He was an ardent New Yorker through and through -- right down to that ear-piercing accent that today, I'd give anything to hear again. But this New Yorker was NOT on the Pinstripe Bandwagon. In fact, he could give you five reasons to revile the Yankees: 1941 ... 1947 ... 1949 ... 1952 ... and 1953. Need another? Throw 1956 on the list, just for good measure.

He loved his Dodgers. Names like Furillo, Campy, Gil, Jackie, Duke and Pee Wee were all part of our household vernacular. My dad was forever trying to explain to his six kids how gut-wrenching it was to bleed Dodger Blue for all those years. He'd tell us eyebrow-raising tales of how it took his dear Bums eight tries before they finally toppled the Yanks and won the World Series in 1955. And, boy, were they bums -- bums who remind me a heck of a lot of Boston's shaggy 'idiots' in red. You know, the ones currently a win away from being crowned champions of the world.

These Red Sox, errors and all, are somehow scripting a long-anticipated sequel to a season my father told me all about. Do you know the last time a team won a World Series game while committing at least four errors? I do. In 1952, when the Yankees did it against, you guessed it, the Brooklyn Dodgers. I say that's an omen.

Media slant or not, it seems as if almost everybody is in some way rooting for these lovable losers. I went to church in a Boston suburb last Sunday, and the priest called attention to the Red Sox prayer cards distributed in the pews. He urged his devoted congregation of loyal parishioners and dutiful citizens of Red Sox Nation to "keep the faith" -- an admonition that sent my mind sailing toward another of my father's favorite stories. How, as a boy of eight or nine, he was sent down on his bike to the Chinese restaurant a few blocks away to pick up a quart of fried rice. When he returned home, he handed the change to my grandma -- a frugal mother of nine. Later, she counted it vigilantly and beckoned my dad, middle name and all, down from his room.

"Jimmy, where is the rest of the change from dinner?"

"What change, Ma? Oh. Uhhh. Well, I stopped in church on the way home, see. I put some money in the collection box. I had to light a candle so the Dodgers will beat the Yankees tonight."

"Don't ever do that again, Jimmy."

Then, as he related the story, my father would smile proudly and tell us that the Dodgers triumphed that night, and that if he had put that 13 cents toward anything other than the church renovation fund, his mother would have beat the living daylights out of him right there.

As I read the postseason headlines about the Red Sox, the stories of faithful fandom for these two eternal bridesmaids are so similar that my dad's words are never far beneath the newspaper ink.

Saturday evening, I was lucky enough to attend Game 1 in Boston. As I gaped, open-mouthed, admiring the glossy ticket I pulled from an envelope, I was reminded of my dad's tattered stub from a 1955 Yankees-Dodgers World Series game. As I held this year's version, I understood why it had been his prized possession. His World Series ticket stub ... which nobody has seen since I took it to school with me for eighth-grade History Day. Sorry, Dad.

With my ticket tucked snugly in my pocket, I caught my mind wandering back to my first-ever trip to the ballpark, accompanied by my dad, of course.

I miss him so much.

And I smirked as I listened to the row of rowdy Boston boys behind us, whose mouths would have brought forth a reprimand from my father no later than the first pitch of the second inning.

But their commentary in the eighth, after Manny's infamous error, was priceless.

"Damn it! How the hell did he miss that?!"

"Dude, Manny's half-retarded; you never know what he's going to do."

Even dad would have smiled ... and told Manny to replace his divot or get off the course. Especially a course as beautiful as Fenway Park. As I sat behind Pesky's Pole and looked across to the Green Monster, I thought of the storied ballparks my dad often described: Ebbets Field, the Polo Grounds and all their idiosyncrasies. He had such a respect for the game and the overwhelming majesty of his hallowed pastime.

I missed having dad with me at that game as much as I have ever missed him before. But I knew that he was reveling somewhere in the sweet symphony of Yankee Nation's 'Wait 'til next year' song. He is smiling down on this year's "bums" and cheering his heart out from a seat with a view that beats the right-field box every time.

In loving memory of James J. Buckheit. February 28, 1938 -- October 27, 2003.

Mary Buckheit can be reached at mary.j.buckheit@espn3.com




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