When I was five or six and it was time to learn to ride my bicycle without training wheels, my grandfather held the seat of my bike and steadied me as I pedaled around the cul-de-sac in front of his house. I have a vague memory of the moment I pulled away from him and rode free of support for the first time.
Last weekend I traveled to be with my family and to attend his funeral. I’ve been thinking about family a lot in the week since.
My grandfather, Pete Fisler, began suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease nearly a decade ago, when I was still a young kid. He and I could share little after that, so my memory of the moment he helped me learn to ride a bike is one of the sweetest memories I have of the time I shared with the man after whom I, Peter Fisler Martin, am named.
Bike riding has been one of the great constants of my life since. Living only a few minutes from Central Park, I found joy in a six-mile loop through the park that I rode thousands of times on weekends, summers and evenings after school. For longer rides, I would circle the island, up my native East Side and down the West Side Highway, sometimes crossing the Brooklyn Bridge before turning around to come home. My first ride through the park in spring was a beautiful moment I enjoyed each year, after winters that always lasted too long. And then I would ride that same loop over and over until the weather grew too cold again in the fall.
In middle school, I found a new athletic passion when I began playing baseball. Other boys around me had been playing for years, but my family had never signed me up to play. I forced my way into the sport in sixth grade and found myself at the bottom of the lineup for several years. Small and weak as a pre-teen and having never played before, I didn’t deserve my automatic spot in the 12-player lineup.
My parents, mostly ambivalent to sports, embraced baseball as their son fell in love with the game. My dad joined on as a coach for a few years and tried to hide his complete lack of interest in the other players on the field. My mom managed more genuine interest. When I developed a similar passion for professional baseball, she took me to games and rooted with me all season long. Devoted as she was, she grew to care about the teams and the players as much as I did.
My passion for baseball gave my extended family an easy way to connect with me. My other grandfather, my dad’s father, built a special bond around the sport. My dad’s parents lived the last 55 years of their lives in the same home, a one-story house in Flushing, Queens, near Shea Stadium, the longtime home of my New York Mets. As I grew into young adulthood and my grandfather faded into old age, we shared my interests, baseball and politics, rather than his lifelong passions, engineering and science. He emerged as a Mets fan in his final years, a development that surprised and touched me.
Shortly before he became housebound, he took me to a Mets game, where he slowly and painfully handled the stadium stairs to reach the seats in which I wanted to sit. And as he, in his eighties, learned to work a computer and send e-mails, I began to receive article clippings online when he read about the Mets. I responded with my thoughts on the team’s prospects. He probably didn’t care much about the team, but he loved to share with me anything I loved so much.
Several years ago my mom bought me a book, a piece of true Americana called “Fathers Playing Catch With Sons: Essays on Sport [Mostly Baseball].” On the cover is a painting of a 19th-century baseball scene: a batter and catcher in antiquated uniforms. The batter, she had learned, was West Fisler, a professional baseball player in the game’s early days and an ancestor of ours, a Fisler before her father, herself and me. West Fisler was a member of the Philadelphia Athletics from 1871 to 1876 and, although his career was short, he is immortalized in that painting and by an obscure record: His 10 plate appearances in a single nine-inning game are the most ever. Back when I still dreamed of being a pro ballplayer, finding a family connection to one was thrilling.
The title of the book is not true to my immediate family, for my father never worked to instill a love of sports in his son. But the family connection on the cover might mean something. Maybe I have tapped into a deep-rooted familial appreciation of athletics and competition.
If I have not, and my devotion to sports is entirely self-created, the reality is more inspiring. Sports have allowed me to share moments and have created memories that would not have happened otherwise, as far back as my youngest years.
Pete Martin is a sophomore in Morse College. His column appears every Thursday.