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Most people know actress Alyssa Milano as the former star of “Who’s the Boss?” and “Charmed” — but not many know that she is a serious baseball fan. Her new book “Safe at Home: Confessions of a Baseball Fanatic,” excerpted here, falls somewhere between a memoir, a manifesto and a love letter to baseball.
Chapter One: The First Pitch
Let the beauty of what you love be what you do. — Rumi
I long for the old days my father talks about. The days when kids stuck baseball cards in the spokes of their bicycles and rode the streets of Brooklyn until they came to a stickball game, at which point they jumped off, put their kickstands down, and jumped in. He actually got weepy about it a few years back when he told me of this time (and mind you, it wasn’t the first time he told me of this time). He told me about how a city of immigrants welcomed a team of immigrants, and how no other place in the world, and no other team, could have done what his team did, which was to hire a black man named Jackie Robinson as its shortstop, and end segregation in baseball.
Was there ever such a Utopia? Were there really streets filled with kids playing games, free, apparently, from Wal-Mart’s Corporate America, and all the other things that are part of modern society, as we now know it? My dad says such a world existed, and that its center was Ebbets Field, a magical place where heroes named Robinson and Reese and Campanella and Snider didn’t just rule the neighborhood, they lived there, walking the streets and shopping at the corner stores with the rest of the locals. Kids snuck into games under the bleachers, and everyone hated the Yankees because they were cocky and affected and didn’t reflect what that era was all about.
“Baseball came of age while our country came of age,” he recalled ever so proudly.
Memory is a tricky thing, and the good old days always look good a few decades later. Revisionist history, especially when it comes from a father who never misses an opportunity to discuss what Brooklyn used to be like. But when my dad talked about those days, he gave me a glimpse into a world where men played like kids, and kids played hooky to cheer the men, bought Tootsie Rolls for a nickel, and drank things called egg creams on a big street called Flatbush. It’s a far cry from where we find ourselves today. But those differences are all part of the fun.
I was born in Bensonhurst. If you look at a map of Brooklyn, Bensonhurst doesn’t seem far away from Flatbush, but apparently, in the seventies, they were worlds apart. My parents were twenty-five years old when I was born, and like most new parents and young couples, they were struggling to make ends meet. In fact, when my parents found out that they were pregnant with me, they had both just lost their jobs.
I never knew of those hardships. The colossal amount of love that they shared for each other and life in general masked those financial struggles well. To this day, forty years after their wedding, their love is the kind that Rumi wrote of. I am, and everything that I’ve achieved is, a direct extension of that love. Every decision they made after I was born was selfless and in my best interest.
When I was four and crime started to rise in Brooklyn, they left the borough they grew up in and moved the family to Staten Island, where they could fulfill their American dreams of better schools and a safer neighborhood for their daughter. It was hard for both of them to leave the place where they had grown up, a place so inextricably linked to their memories of youth. My father in particular wanted nothing more than for me to enjoy the same egg creams that he had; but that Brooklyn, the Brooklyn of his past, had long since faded, passing into New York’s history alongside Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds.
We lived in a simple house in Staten Island. We didn’t have a pool in the backyard or anything extravagant. Our only refuge from the hot humid summers was a fire hydrant on the corner that the locals would open so the kids in the neighborhood could run barefoot through the cascading water and look at the rainbows the water made. (Yes, that idyllic New York City summer image really did happen.) My family didn’t have a dishwasher or a rose garden or any luxuries that defined “success.” What we had was love and each other. My dad’s mom, Nanny Connie, lived downstairs in the apartment that was attached to the humble house. She had plastic slipcovers on her furniture and those thick plastic runners over all the carpet that made funny noises when you dragged your feet on them in that specific way. Nanny Connie would stand me up on a chair and let me knead the dough of whatever Italian pastries she was cooking up from memory, and for dinner she would cook me pastina, which was my favorite food.
My earliest childhood memories are of my mother sketching in her sketchpad (she was a fashion designer at the time) and my father playing the Beatles on the piano or the guitar (he was a musician who gave up his rock-star dream to put food on the table). And there I was, in all of my innocence, donned in a black leotard with pink tights, legwarmers, and ballerina shoes, doing interpretive dance for my audience of Madame Alexander dolls and imaginary friends. I remember the smell of potatoes and eggs on the stove, and when they were ready we would eat them on Wonder bread with ketchup. I remember our brown velvet couch that itched my legs when I sat on it. And ... I remember on those nights, when creativity and interpretive dance ensued, that off in the corner was our old TV with rabbit ears, and on that TV seemed always to be a Yankees game.
The game on TV was never intrusive. Periodically the reception would hiss and the static would infiltrate the screen. While the game wasn’t always the focus of the night, its presence was constant. Our family coming together with the sounds of umpires, crowd roars, and base hits — not to mention the unforgettably excitable voice of Phil Rizzuto screaming “Holy cow!” like he was sitting on the couch next to you. Little did I know how much those early days would shape the woman I eventually became. The creativity I was surrounded with back then became the foundation of a career that’s now twenty-nine years old. Meanwhile the sport, which started as background noise, grew into a member of the Milano family and became a love of baseball that’s now twenty-seven years or so young.
I got my first professional acting job when I was seven. I don’t know how it happened. I mean, I know the story of how it happened, but I don’t remember much of the specifics. The story goes like this: My sweet aunt Sissy took me to see the Broadway musical “Peter Pan” for my seventh birthday, and I looked at her all wide-eyed and said, “Aunt Sissy, I can do that.” Before anyone knew what happened I was at an open audition for the play “Annie.” Fifteen hundred kids auditioned, and four were picked. I was one of the four. I didn’t choose to be an actress. It chose me. I still don’t know why it chose me, but I feel blessed for it and this powerful thing called destiny.
My mom and I blissfully toured with the second national touring company of the play, hitting twelve cities in eighteen months. I remember loving it even though it was very hard for me to be away from my father. He would come to visit us. I hated it when he left. My mother, bless her, did the best she could. She tried to make my life as normal as possible. She enrolled me in the Girl Scouts in every city and helped me do my homework; we would read Shel Silverstein’s “Where the Sidewalk Ends” out loud, and play jacks on the floor of whatever place we parked the trunk and called home. When the run was coming to an end, my parents asked me what I wanted for a wrap present. “A flute and a brother,” I replied.
I got both.
Shortly after I got off the road, my brother, Cory, was born, and it was the best day of my life. Everything was back to normal. We were all together. The Yankees on TV, the sauce cooking on the stove, me creating some fairy tale in my head, and my baby brother screaming his head off in his playpen. The only way Cory could fall asleep was if my mom had the vacuum cleaner on. True story. This led to a lot of vacuuming, and while our house went from clean to immaculate pretty quickly, it became a lot harder to hear the Yankees games on TV.
It was the early eighties, and the Dodgers were long in Los Angeles by then, and every so often Dad would say what a terrible man Walter O’Malley was for stealing the Dodgers and moving them out west. My father’s sadness and anger were part of the magic. So was his telling me what a great player Reggie Jackson was, and how if anyone ever tried to boss me around like Yankees manager Billy Martin tried to boss Reggie around, I should do what Reggie did, and tell him no one bossed me, and then go out and hit some more home runs, or something.
I learned how to love and follow the game by watching with my father every night as he propped himself in front of the television set and debated whether Thurman Munson was a better catcher than Yogi Berra. (Tough call.) I was Daddy’s little girl, and that meant that he and I could admire Reggie’s spirit for the Yankees and feel sad for the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers together.
It was only years later that I figured out that my dad was all of ten years old when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, and that he wasn’t even born when Jackie Robinson took the field as a Dodger and broke the color barrier. It was only later that I puzzled at how his onetime hatred of the Yankees seemed to coexist so very peaceably with his love of all things Reggie. It was only later that I realized that his hatred of the Yankees turned into love when the Dodgers abandoned him, and a community of people just like him, to move to Los Angeles. But that’s baseball. That’s memory. That’s life.
As far as my budding career was concerned, I continued to do theater in New York, pursuing a lot of off-Broadway, small productions in small houses with bigger-than-life people. I learned what it meant to have a strong work ethic, be professional, and say tongue twisters like “The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick” to warm up my mouth before a live performance. I loved every minute of the creative escape that acting gave me, and also the pride it brought my family. I was an actress because it was a game that I played, and like baseball, it was one I happened to love. I was in the minor leagues and mastering the fundamentals of my sport. Well, as much as any nine-year-old could master anything.
In between jobs, I went to normal public school and continued to audition for roles. My dad used to bring me into work with him in Manhattan when I had auditions. We would take the ferry from Staten Island into the city. He was working as an insurance adjuster at the time and would let me play on the typewriter in the reception area. I would write stories that of course began, “Once upon a time, there was a little girl ....” Isn’t that how all fairy tales begin? We would walk to my auditions from the office, because people actually walk in New York, and I would point out everyone in a Yankees cap along the way, kind of like punch buggy, only without the buggy. And the punch.
On one of these walks, we ended up at an audition for a pilot called “You’re the Boss.” I didn’t know what a pilot was, or much of anything special about this pilot other than that the cute guy from “Taxi” was going to be in it and that I was auditioning to play his Italian daughter from Brooklyn. Needless to say, that wasn’t much of a stretch for me.
A week after the audition that didn’t mean any more than any other audition we got a phone call that changed our lives forever. It was a phone call from my agent informing my parents that ABC wanted to fly me to Los Angeles to audition for the network and with Tony Danza (who will forever be the cute guy from “Taxi” in my eyes). It was a callback for “You’re the Boss.”
Had I known at the time what was riding on that audition, I probably would not have been as calm as I was when I got in there. It truly is amazing how resilient children are. I was ten years old, testing for a big television series, and I didn’t feel an ounce of the pressure that should come along with such a daunting process. Actually, it wasn’t even that exciting for me. What was exciting for me was to be in Los Angeles with my dad and taking the back-lot tour of Universal Studios. Now that was exciting.
Well, as you probably know, I got that pilot. We shot it in Los Angeles and after what seemed like an eternity and a one-word title change to “Who’s the Boss?” we got our pickup for the fall 1983 season.
This was good news, right? Well, yes and no. It was good news for all the obvious reasons, and bad news because it meant that my family had to relocate from the East Coast to the West Coast. My brother was a year old at the time, and my mother had worked her way up as a fashion designer and owned her own store on Eighty-sixth Street. My mother wasn’t ready to put her life on hold and fully commit to the move for a gig that was as uncertain as a television show. What if it didn’t find an audience and got canceled after the first year? What then? Would we move back to New York? It was a difficult decision, but after a big family meeting, my parents decided that it would be best for my mother and brother to stay in New York until we got some idea of the show’s potential. In the meantime, my dad and I would go to Los Angeles.
It’s not easy being a kid in Hollywood. (Actually, it’s not easy being an adult in Hollywood either, but that’s a different story.) But being a child actress out in L.A. is even harder when you have to leave behind one of your parents in order to do it. It was just my dad and me for the first year of the show’s eventual eight-season run, and during that time I did everything I could to bond with my father. Neither one of us was accustomed to such a different lifestyle. He was really lost without my mother, and I tried to take care of him. I would cook pastina for him, and no matter how gross it was (and let me tell you, it was gross) he would eat it all up so that I wouldn’t feel bad for trying to poison him. On the weekends, we would go to the park, where I would watch him play softball on the “Who’s the Boss?” softball team. Tony was the pitcher and my dad was the first baseman. Don Mattingly had nothing on my father.
It was during this year of my life that my father and I created a bond that went beyond just the normal father-and daughter bond, a bond that still exists to this day. I found solace from the instability of a new environment in his voice. We did fun things together and made up for the time when he wasn’t around and it was just my mom and me on the road. This was our time.
And then one afternoon, out of the clear blue sky and with no warning, it happened. Bam! Just like that.
I was in my bedroom in our tiny apartment in Studio City listening to the sound track of “Footloose” on my Walkman. Other than the many pictures of my beautiful mommy and brother, there wasn’t really much left of the New York life I once reveled in. I missed them. I missed the way she smelled and I missed his little face. As a kid you don’t always have a great idea of the sacrifices your parents make for you, but I knew pretty well what my parents were giving up to let me pursue acting. My Walkman clicked and it was time to change sides.
(God, remember that? When you had to flip the tape over? Insert old-lady joke here.) Anyway, while my headphones were off I heard a noise from the living room. It was a very familiar sound. I walked into the living room and there was my dad, on the couch watching baseball on TV. It was 1984. There was no satellite TV with the baseball package at the time. There was no Internet simulcast or online radio play-by- play. It wasn’t the Yankees he was watching. He was watching the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he was loving it.
I casually came up beside him and sat down on the couch. I knew it wasn’t the Yankees, but all at once, I saw a look on his face that made me feel like we were back in Staten Island again with the vacuum cleaner running in the other room. I sat down next to him and he began to point things out, telling me how the sound of a wooden bat connecting with a ball could make me feel safe at home when I was three thousand miles away. Other than this occasional game commentary, we didn’t speak much while watching the game — we didn’t have to, really. All we had to do was watch. Together we comfortably shared the quiet spaces between pitches and the desire for the boys in blue to win.
And so it began. A father and daughter found common ground that day. And even now, baseball connects us. Despite the life experience and time that could have come between us as I grew up and became a woman, despite sometimes not having anything to say, we can always talk about baseball.
On that day back in the early 1980s, baseball and the Dodgers gave me new ways to connect with my father. It wasn’t the same as watching the Yankees back in our living room in Staten Island, but it was as close as we were going to get. It was something that we shared as a father and a daughter, something that tied us to home, like the pastina I tried to make, only better because you can’t overcook baseball and make it inedible.
When “Who’s the Boss?” finally premiered on prime-time television, it was a hit. “Happy Days” was our lead-in — that’s how long ago this was (insert old-lady joke here, too). Because of the success of the first season, ABC picked us up for a second season. Once we got that pickup, Mom and Cory moved out to L.A., as did my Nanny Connie, and Aunt Sissy and her son, my cousin Jesse, and then my uncle Mitch, and oh yeah, my mom’s friend Janice moved out as well. Everyone took apartments in the same building in Studio City. Once again we were all together.
It’s been twenty-four years since then. My immediate family still lives in Los Angeles. My brother and I live together, splitting our time between our condo in Hollywood and our ranch forty miles outside of the craziness. I like to call the ranch the “paparazzi-free zone.” Cory is now twenty-six and still needs noise to fall asleep. Thanks to the Dodgers of the eighties having their most successful decade in the club’s history, my father is a full-fledged Dodgers fan once more. We’ve been season ticket holders since 2003, and our seats are right behind the Dodgers dugout. We go to games, watch them on TV, or listen to them on the radio. If we aren’t all together we will call, text, or e-mail when something unfathomable happens. Even now, baseball is the one thing that can connect us no matter how far apart we are.
And during the quieter moments of every game — as the batter walks to the plate or when the pitcher is shaking off the catcher — suddenly I’m back on my father’s lap, watching the Yankees of the late seventies and hearing stories about the Dodgers of the fifties. Playing my part in a generational loop that goes back a few grandparents, probably all the way back to the day Abner Doubleday threw out a ball.
As baseball has changed and grown over the years, I have, too. I’ve come a long way from Bensonhurst to Hollywood. And yet, oddly, I am pretty much the same. I’m still the eight-year-old on that itchy couch in Staten Island, listening to my dad’s tales of the greedy villain O’Malley. All of which is my way of saying that I come by my nostalgia honestly. I love my family. I love baseball. And ... I am still looking for my happily ever after.
This excerpt was reprinted with permission from “Safe at Home: Confessions of a Baseball Fanatic” by Alyssa Milano (William Morrow). Check out Milano’s blog on MLB.com here.