In May, my 5-year-old son and I draped his bedroom in blankets from wall to wall, crawled inside and flew our imaginary ship all over the world. Jacob chose to visit places we couldn't go because of the coronavirus, and we landed on the roof of Grandma's house in the country and on the tippy top of Big Ben in London -- so our first mate, Paddington, could see his city.
The baseball season was on hold at the time, so we didn't swoop into Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, but those were two more favorite places we couldn't go together this year. Among the sacrifices and losses of this pandemic, not being able to take your son to a baseball game is nowhere near the top of the list. Still, I missed going with him, and with his baby brother, Peter. Especially because, though Jacob knows baseball has something vaguely to do with his dad's job, he's recently begun to develop a bit more of a big-kid interest in the sport, asking new, more sophisticated questions about the games as we watch on TV.
Jacob is particularly curious about how the Houston Astros used cameras to cheat. He's obsessed with cartoon villains and their evil robots and flying factories. He's got an out-of-this-world imagination and loves to cause mischief himself, most notably by spying on his mom and dad. He's terrible at it -- he'll crawl all over my feet when he's under my desk "spying" on me while I work -- but I play along and he loves it. We love it.
Which made the idea of seeing his face in a place he couldn't go this year, spying on the New York Mets all season long as a cardboard cutout, irresistible. When I heard about the cutouts, an idea adopted by more than half the teams across Major League Baseball this past season -- and in the Mets' case, with proceeds going to the team's charity -- I asked him to pose for a quick photo. I didn't tell him why. I didn't want to disappoint him if he never got to see it. Then I bought one.
Not long after, I got an email that Jacob's cutout had been installed at Citi Field. I couldn't wait to catch a glimpse of it. I wrote to the Mets asking for a location -- or better yet, a photo -- but initially they weren't providing that information.
So I took advantage of one small perk of my job as an ESPN MLB editor -- unfettered access to hi-res game photos. In my spare time, I must have scoured hundreds of photos and videos of Mets home games looking for Jacob. I never found him.
And then, when I'd mostly settled on it being enough just to know that he was there, the Mets sent me his exact seat number and section. He was in a prime home-run spot in left field.
Later I'd catch glimpses of him in highlight videos, including Pete Alonso's Subway Series walk-off against the New York Yankees in September -- but first I found this photo, taken by Mike Stobe of Getty Images:
I zoomed waaaayyyy in -- and there was Jacob. With the long-awaited photo finally in hand, I did some intentionally low-fi editing and ended up with this:
I couldn't stop laughing. I sent it to Jacob's mom and grandparents and aunts and uncles and my coworkers and just about everyone else. It was also time to tell Jacob. I wasn't sure if he'd appreciate it, but I figured he'd at least have a typically unexpected way of seeing it.
I was right.
"But Dad," he said when I proudly showed him the photo, "where are you?"
The team was generous and green enough to not just toss thousands of cutouts in the bin, instead letting fans safely stop by and take theirs home. So the morning of Game 7 of the NLCS, we drove up to Mets fan cutout pickup day.
We waited about 45 minutes, inching along Seaver Way, wearing our masks, eventually pulling up to Station 3 in front of the Jackie Robinson Rotunda.
A Mets employee -- I didn't catch his name -- took our info and disappeared for a bit. He returned with Jacob's cutout and, knowing precisely what all the excited dads like me wanted, held it above his head for a photo.
Jacob loved it. We were on our way to a timed-entrance Halloween event at the Bronx Zoo and he was wearing his pirate costume. He took off his skull-and-crossbones hat and placed it on his cardboard cutout's head.
"I want to put it on the ceiling," he declared, "so I can look up and see it from my bed."
That evening, we took it home, and, at least for the time being, I rested it on top of Jacob's bookcase, right behind the T-ball trophy every kid in his league got last year but of which he's inordinately proud. He didn't get to play T-ball this year.
I read him a bedtime book and went down to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Atlanta Braves in Game 7. I thought about what he'd said when I told him I'd bought the cutout and what it meant. How he'd asked, before anything else, where his dad was.
Part of me wished I'd gotten two -- or even a third, for his little brother. I didn't get to sit next to my sons at any ballgames this year.
We could have it a whole lot worse. And, if our luck holds, I'll be sitting with them next year. For real.