On fathers and sons and baseball

say something to make sense of the Dad falling to his death trying to catch a baseball for his son

My grandmother’s favorite story to tell me is the story of my younger brother’s birth. While my parents were at the hospital, I was a little boy with just two years and four days experience in the ways of the world, and I had no business bouncing off hospital waiting rooms or dodging between stretchers and wheel chairs. So I stayed home with grandma, and we occupied the time with a game of baseball. “You were only two,” she tells me, literally every time I see her, “and you had a big, red plastic bat.” She pauses here for emphasis. “I would pitch you that ball, and you would hit it every time!” Since that day, I’ve graduated from high school and college, learned to play the violin, played varsity baseball and ultimate Frisbee, earned a job, become engaged, and yet nothing seems to make my grandmother prouder than this moment. I was precocious! Athletically gifted! Not a care in the world except baseball! The perfect grandson: photogenic, dimpled, too young to talk back.

Over the years, my batting average began to steadily decline from that perfect day of 1.000 hitting, and my Dad took up the pitching duties. We played in the backyard day after day. He’d throw me tennis balls and I’d swing and miss and get pissed at his pitching and throw the ball back to him–hard–because it wasn’t my fault I couldn’t hit, dammit, it was his. So he’d up the ante. We owned no fewer than two pitching machines in my youth, one to throw specially designed foam balls, one that pitched out golf-ball sized whiffle balls. The latter would surely improve my hand-eye coordination. The former, my timing. When my arms were achey, we’d go inside and grab a soda and sit down on the couch and watch a hitting video. Dad would pause and rewind wherever necessary. We’d look at swing mechanics, he’d draw up diagrams. We’d talk philosophy of hitting. Then, we’d go back outside and I’d take a few cuts on the tee while he loaded up ball after ball, adjusting my feet here, tweaking my hand position there.

When the light faded away, we’d get in a few final cuts and then we’d go inside for dinner and catch the end of whatever game was on TV that night. The Padres were our favorite team because of Tony Gwynn–pure hitting machine with a work ethic to feed his mechanics. We’d watch his swing and try to figure out what he was doing right and how I could replicate it in the yard the next day. In between, we’d scoff at Gary Sheffield’s wild bat or the way that goofy no-name big-leaguers would lunge at the ball without keeping their bodies steady. They could probably use the video we’d watched earlier that day, we’d agree.

It wasn’t just about hitting, either. We built a pitcher’s mound in the backyard when I made it up to the high school level and we both sort of realized that I wasn’t ever going to be a good hitter, but I could still be a good ballplayer by being a good pitcher. Dad bought a catcher’s mitt to go along with his first-baseman’s glove so that he could squat down with his newly purchased (used) shin guards and cup (“check out what I got!” he would tell me, holding the cup right up to my face).

It’s amazing to me, upon reflection, that his two mitts were each for receiving. He had a floppy, oversized first-baseman’s glove that I couldn’t even hold up when I was younger, and then the brand-new amber-colored catcher’s mitt that he bought on a whim one day at the sporting goods store. Both gloves were all about being a big target for a young arm. He just wanted to get the ball and get it back to me so I could throw the next pitch, make the next play at first, hit the glove right in the spot. On days when we practiced hitting, he’d only ask that I throw him a few tennis balls for five minutes at the end of our two hour BP marathons. Dad had played as a boy, and his dad sure as hell never pitched to him. He wanted me to love the game like he did, and always wanted me to have someone to throw the ball with.

My first pro ball game was at Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego when I was six years old. I still remember, as all little boys do, the first time I came out of the tunnel and saw that beautiful green ballfield in front of me, lit under the lights, framed by the biggest scoreboard I’d ever seen and forty-thousand screaming fans. Fred McGriff hit a first-inning Grand Slam that day, his second consecutive first-inning slam, and people went batshit. Whether it was the popcorn and sodas or that important moment in baseball history, I was hooked.

We didn’t have a hometown team in Phoenix until 1998, but we got our baseball fix through season tickets to Sun Devil baseball, the occasional Pads game on television, and Vin Scully calling the late Dodgers game on the radio as I went to sleep. In the early days of Sun Devil baseball, I’d be the obnoxious ten-year-old who was just hoping to catch a foul ball. Any shot off the bat that went into the field of play was a mild disappointment for me. I’d look for lefties, because they gave us the best angle at catching a ball, and so I couldn’t care less about right-handed hitters up to bat, even at a late moment in a close game. I learned that if I just waited until the fifth inning to ask for a run for nachos and sodas, I’d have a much better shot at an “okay” than asking in the bottom of the second. I think of these as the years that my dad “tolerated” my presence at games, hoping that things would get better with age. They did.

As I got older, we became more of a team. I lost interest in foul balls by the time I hit high school, and we focused instead on the nuances of the game. We talked situational baseball after every out in every inning. “Would you bunt here?” “What pitch are you throwing in this count with a runner on second?” We kept a scorebook–he’d do the visitors’ offense and I’d do the Sun Devils. In a game with particularly bad umpiring, we’d work on our heckling. He’d look at me after yelling something and ask whether it was a good one or not. I’d give him a so/so signal. We bought sunflower seeds and practiced spitting. I gradually warmed to the idea of jalapeños on my nachos. Going to games was something for just the two of us, and we made it our own.

In our photo books back home, there are about thirteen different photos of me in various uniforms for tee-ball and little league and high school baseball teams. In all those years of playing, my dad never missed a game. He’d show up a little before game time whether we were playing at home or an hour away, whether it was a mild spring or in the dead of the Arizona summer. He’d always bring his fold-up chair, his wide-brimmed straw hat, flip-down sunglasses over his prescription lenses, and a scorebook. He wasn’t the sort to yell or cheer or even acknowledge to me that he was there–but I knew that he was. We’d talk about the game afterward, over dinner. We’d replay situations here and there. If I’d pitched that day, he’d talk pitch selection, strategy, what felt good and what didn’t. He asked more than he told. He still wanted to learn. Baseball was our thing to connect on, the stuff my brother and mother knew a little about, but not on the level that we did.

We built this stuff over sixteen years. From the first time I picked up that plastic red bat to my first Big League ball game to my first coach, our first pitching machine, my first $180 fielding mitt, my last pair of cleats, baseball was our thing. In the last few years, since I left for college, I’ve lost all interest in baseball. Portland doesn’t have a team, for one thing, which makes the Big Leagues much tougher to follow. But more than that, I don’t have someone to watch it with. I’ll grant to my friends that baseball is an infinitely boring sport–there’s more dead time between action than any other conceivable thing that human beings are willing to consider “entertainment.” And that’s why you need somebody with you. Your Dad. To watch the games and keep score, to spit sunflower seeds and talk strategy, to look at girls when you get a little older and he’s finally okay acknowledging that you think about sex more than baseball these days. It’s a perfect game on which to build a relationship. The discoveries you make in baseball are shared experiences–the moments that you remember are more about who you were with, not about what happened on the field.

Last week, a father fell to his death at a Big League ballgame in Texas, trying to catch a souvenir for his six year old son. A couple of days after that, my dad sent me the one-line email that you see at the top of this story. No punctuation, no subject, no capitalization except that one word: Dad. “make sense of this to me,” he said.

I saw a headline in an article on ESPN.com shortly after this tragedy that simply read, “Baseball is Fathers and Sons.”

When you’re a father, you reach for that home run ball for the same reason you buy two pitching machines when your son is struggling at the plate. The same reason you renew your season tickets to college ball year after year. Your father never took an interest in your batting average. He never took you to a ball game. You never sat in the first row of the outfield when you were a boy, and your father sure as hell never leaned over an edge to try and catch a ball for you.

Or maybe he wanted always wanted to, and you always wanted him to, but he never had that chance. Now, with a home run hurtling towards the stands, you have a moment to make that day at the ballgame something your son will always remember. When you’re a Dad, you want to build these memories with your son. And sometimes, all it takes is a home run ball. Even if it looks like it might be a little out of reach… it’s worth it.

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2 thoughts on “On fathers and sons and baseball

  1. Ian,
    That was very well written. I couldn’t help but reflect on my own experience. My parents supported me in sports by not withholding permission, and occassionaly asking “how was the game”. I’m not complaining mind you. I pretty much wore out baseball by the end of little league and moved on to tennis and basketball. I played both in HS and tennis in college. While I do wish that my Dad had attended a few games, I certainly did not want him at practices. Sports were mine. My desire, my accomplishment, my passion. I confess I feel sorry for “sports parents” today with 4 kids playing soccer, lacrosse, baseball, etc. All weekends gone, total focus on the kids results, I don’t think this is healthy. The guy that fell out of the bleachers trying to catch a ball for his kid? Sad, stupid, tragic. I guess we just need to keep this all in some kind of perspective.

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