This is my favorite baseball photo. My friend Devin is on the left, I’m on the right, and that’s a cutout of Kevin Mitchell behind us. We’re at a game at Candlestick Park for our favorite team, the San Francisco Giants, sometime around the summer of 1990. I must be about seven. There’s a great story behind how this photo came to be.
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I was born in Los Angeles in 1983. My mom’s from Northern California, my natural father’s lived most of his life in London, and when I was a few months old, we moved there. My natural father didn’t treat my mom well, and in September of 1985, she had enough. Telling him one day that she was taking me out to shop for fall clothes, she and I got on a plane instead and returned to California. My memories start a few months later in the living room of my grandparents’ house where we wound up. I remember my mom on the phone with my natural father. I remember wondering why I couldn’t talk to him. I remember the feeling of absence that lingered long after I had new family and friends. It would be 20 years before I saw him again.
Some people bounce from one sick relationship to another. My mom had been 20 when she met my natural father less than a year after dropping out of college to become a stewardess, being swept off her feet by a man at turns charming, manic, and self-destructive. My natural father may be the most enigmatic person I know, and I’ve spent much of my life trying to understand him. It’s one of the reasons I write. But my mom knew enough by her mid-20s to know she needed something different. She got back in college after we returned to California and fell in love with one of her professors, a kind, decent, and steady person. They’ve been married 25 years now.
My mom and dad bought a house on a quiet street in Sacramento a few months before their wedding. I met Devin a year or two later. He was a couple months older than me and lived around the corner with his mom, Nancy and his sister, Kenna. Devin quickly became my best friend, and in my family’s photo albums, we’re climbing trees, visiting amusement parks, and, in one of my favorite pictures, walking around his front yard in a cardboard box. I owe something to Devin and his mom, too.
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When I think about who got me into baseball, I generally credit three people. There’s my grandfather who gave me a 500-page book of baseball history when I was eight which I read over the course of about three months. Then there’s my dad who gave me my first cards when I was three or four and in time, some of the books he’d had growing up. And then there’s Nancy, the tough woman who raised Devin and Kenna as a single parent. Nancy loved the Giants, tuning into their games regularly, and Devin and I followed suit, becoming fans of the World Series contending team San Francisco had at the end of the ’80s and their young stars, Mitchell and Will Clark.
One day at Devin’s house, I noticed a framed picture of him and Clark. It took me aback, and I wanted more information. Oh, Nancy told me, Will just stopped by. She loved to tell me stories like this. Later, I learned there was a cutout display at Candlestick that people could have portraits taken in front of for a fee, $10 or so. I had pins and baseball cards of the All Star first baseman with the black paint smeared under his eyes and the looping, Ted Williams-esque swing. I had a poster on my wall of animated, behemoth versions of Clark and Mark McGwire towering over San Francisco and Oakland for the 1989 World Series, the Battle of the Bay. Now, I had to have the photo as well.
There was one issue: money. It was always tight when I was young in the early years after my mom left my natural father, and while I never lacked for anything I needed, my family often didn’t have 10 extra dollars. I remember going to restaurants and being allowed to order the two cheapest things on the menu. I remember frugal Christmases and birthdays. My mom also was and is an avowed bargain hunter, one of the most savvy people I know at stretching the value of a dollar, and it would be almost antithetical to her to have paid $10 for that picture. But I think the solution that she and Nancy came up with was much better.
My mom took the photo atop this page. Candlestick used to allow people to snap their own photos for free from the sides of their displays, and if there’s been one thing I miss with the Giants’ move to a new stadium a decade ago, it’s that such practices are seemingly a distant memory amidst the more upscale culture of AT&T Park. Nancy and my mom both got photos that day, and while I was initially disappointed, since there was no display of Clark and the photo we got of Mitchell, Devin, and myself looked nothing close to real, it’s become one of my favorite childhood photos. Better than any $10 fake photo could, it captures the realities of my youth. Of not having a lot. Of close friendships. Of baseball.
I’m lucky and thankful to have the life that I do, a life filled to this day with family, friendships, and a game that gives me perspective on it all. It’s funny when I think about it. We could have paid $10 that day at Candlestick for an official picture, and I doubt we’d have gotten our money’s worth. I’ve learned that the best things in life, like the photo my mom took, sometimes don’t cost anything.