Road trip breathes new life into Bay Area couple
93-year-old man, wife attending every road Giants game this season
SAN FRANCISCO -- Bert and Le Anne Steinberg were in their seats at Petco Park in San Diego on the Fourth of July when a video commemorating the 75th anniversary of Lou Gehrig's farewell speech played on the scoreboard.
A big sports fan, Le Anne had heard Gehrig's "Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth" line many times before on television. Bert, on the other hand, heard it in person.
Bert, now 93, sitting with his father that afternoon in 1939, bid adieu to his childhood hero from the Yankee Stadium bleachers.
"His retirement had been announced, so the emotions to his not being there had already transpired," Bert recalled. "Hearing my guy say thank you to everybody, I thought to myself, 'That's why I like this guy.'"
Added Le Anne: "For someone to have been there at Petco who'd heard the actual speech, that was a 'wow' moment."
Here's another: Bert and Le Anne, 56, who each became Giants fans after moving to California, are attending all 81 of San Francisco's road games this season.
The Fourth of July tilt between the Giants and Padres was game No. 38 for the couple, who have become quasi celebrities in the Bay Area. Announcers Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper mentioned the couple's plans on an early-season road game broadcast and their "not-cheap vacation" (it will cost them between $25,000 and $40,000). They became local legends.
Bert came up with the idea for the seems-more-like-fantasy trip about five years ago, he said. The Steinbergs spent this weekend in New York, Bert's hometown, for the Giants' series against the Mets. They will then fly to Milwaukee for the Brewers series and then later this week drive to Kansas City for a series against the Royals.
It's Bert's desire to fill a void he's carried throughout his life that's leading "The 81 Couple" around the country.
The son of a grocer, Bert said he didn't have much of a childhood, growing up in Queens.
"[My father] opened the store at 6 in the morning and closed it at 10 at night; I'd come home from school and be in the store," Bert said, remembering having to pack two-pound bags of flour and sugar. "But whenever I could, I was out in the street playing ball."
A malformed hip and small stature restricted him in those neighborhood stickball games and he says he never got a hit. His teenage years were spent as the scorekeeper for his high school team.
Bert's fascination with baseball began at the age of seven, when he attended his first game and saw the 1927 Yankees in action. Though he was always the last guy picked in neighborhood games and never played on an actual diamond, Bert was in love with the sport.
He just was never the type to try to achieve something he didn't deem plausible.
"I never fell in love with Marilyn Monroe; why waste my time being in love with Marilyn Monroe?" he said, so baseball remained an obsession rather than an activity.
"I was going to be the drama critic to replace Brooks Atkinson at The New York Times," Bert said. A theater aficionado, he still has playbills from each of the 1,100-plus Broadway shows he's seen. "That was my goal. It just didn't work out that way."
His New York University journalism degree never came in handy. At 32, he became a financial planner. He had a "pretty good career" and retired in 1985. Four years later, at age 68, Bert finally recorded his first hit.
To experience playing the sport he dearly loved -- with real bats, on a real diamond -- the reformed Mets fan attended Ulti-Met Week, a fantasy camp for adults in Port St. Lucie, Fla.
"Here I am, 68 years old," said Bert, who wore No. 4 in honor of Gehrig. "I couldn't reach the plate from the mound and I had never batted before."
The camp's 120 participants were drafted onto 10 teams. The oldest camper, Bert was the last player selected by Clint Hurdle's team. Now the Pirates' manager, Hurdle was then managing the Mets' Class A team and ran the camp. In the second inning of the camp's final game, Bert roped a single over second base.
"I turned to Clint and I said, 'You son of a gun, you just cost me $3,500,'" Bert said with a smile. "'All week long, you've been coaching me. I've never hit the ball, really. Now I've got a clean single, so I've got to come back next year.'"
Despite having moved from New York to the Bay Area, the 1989 camp's "Most Outstanding Mets Fan" award winner made the cross-country trek again in 1990. He still has a few copies of the personalized trading cards that were printed for each camper, and the plaque for his fan award still hangs in his San Francisco condo.
"When you got like a 70-year-old-man doing that, it sticks with you," Hurdle said. "He wasn't very good, but he was a very unique individual. You need characters, and he was a character. He was engaged, had a lot of fun and took advantage of every moment. He spent his $3,500 wisely."
Bert's on-field decisions weren't as sound, like when he bunted with a full count, thus earning himself a brown rope, the dubious award given for the worst play of the day.
"I was catching them by surprise -- who would've expected me to bunt now?" Bert said. "Unfortunately, it wasn't a fair bunt, so I was out. That was the stupidest play I could do."
"It didn't surprise me at all that he won the rope," Hurdle quipped.
Hurdle was caught off-guard when told of Bert's current journey, a voyage that Le Anne made possible.
Bert's first wife died after 56 years of marriage. He then had a relationship with her best friend, Lucie, for 16 years. When Alzheimer's forced Lucie to enter permanent care five years ago, Bert, depressed and lonely, came up with the idea of going to every Giants road game in a season to get a taste of the daily grind baseball players go through. But he had nobody to accompany him, so the idea remained just that: an idea.
"It's depressing to see somebody you love fade out in front of your eyes. I was worried about him," Bert's only child, David, said. "Older people, their partner dies and within a year, the other one dies. I was beginning to think that could happen to my dad."
And then along came Le Anne.
"The next thing I know," David said, "he's all bright and shiny again."
Bert met Le Anne on a cruise two summers ago. Their political ideologies and opinions of Barry Bonds are as contrasting as their ages, but they found a common thread in their obsession with sports, particularly baseball. Le Anne ran a business collecting and selling sports memorabilia. She said she'd never dated anyone more than five years away from her age, but, thanks in large part to their mutual admiration for baseball, the two fell in love and married last December.
By January, plans for the season on the road ("81 For 93," they call it) had been made. Bert was hesitant to commit, wary of his age. After all, the Rabbi had to break the glass at their Jewish wedding after Bert's step wasn't strong enough. His attempts to bust a pinata with a cane at his 93rd birthday party proved futile, too.
"I said, 'What do we have to lose? Let's book the first two trips and see how you do,'" Le Anne said.
The first two trips went seamlessly, so they continued. Aside from troublesome hips he had replaced 38 years ago and declining hearing, Bert is healthy -- so healthy that a doctor predicted during the All-Star break that Bert could live another decade.
"I did all of the wrong things: I never watched my diet, I never exercised regularly all my life, and I'm an anti-vegetarian," Bert said. His best guess at the key to such good health was that always being set financially spared him stress.
Added Le Anne: "Bert doesn't really care what he eats."
No food (thus far) on the trip has topped Primanti Brothers sandwiches in Pittsburgh, though Bert and Le Anne said they could do without eating Rocky Mountain oysters again.
They have no intentions for a sequel to the trip, either.
"No way," Bert said. "I try to nap in the afternoon, but it's tiring. When she says she's tired, that's when I know it's hard."
His unmistakable, pin-laden Giants cap -- "I stopped counting after 40 pins," he said -- has complicated trips to the restroom, since the television exposure has led to Bert experiencing an unexpected facet of Major League life: autograph seekers.
But however taxing the trip has been, it's proven to be rewarding.
Whether it be the Braves usher who explained how baseball united her with her future husband, or the Giants fan from Kansas City who's offered to buy them barbecue while in town, or Le Anne's father, who gets his daily exercise by dancing every time the Giants score a run, the Steinbergs have been amazed at the impact a game can have.
The Giants clubhouse has taken notice of the couple, and they're just as astounded by the power their sport can wield.
"It shows you how deep this game runs for people," reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. "We all get to play as a kid. He didn't, but he still loves it and has loved it so long through his life that he still wants to travel to different stadiums. It shows you what this game means to people."
Like the 14-year-old boy the Steinbergs met during a Giants series at Coors Field in Denver.
He and Le Anne were both trying to snag home runs during batting practice, which was a more successful endeavor for the youngster. Eventually, Le Anne gave up and rejoined Bert at their seats. A few minutes later, the kid found them.
He'd felt bad for Le Anne, so he decided to give her a ball. His youthfulness reminded Bert of a 79-years-younger version of himself, and the two started talking ball. Bert eventually showed the kid one of his Ulti-Met Week trading cards.
Delighted that he thought he'd just met a professional ballplayer, the kid asked Bert to autograph his glove.
Said Bert: "I guess he thought I played for the Mets."