From Father to Son

How baseball forms forever memories and unbreakable bonds

If you're as lucky as I was, and am, your dad (or mom) wired you with a love for baseball that is as unshakable as any of the other wondrous and often confounding genetic stuff that binds us to the only people on the planet we can never shake.

Sometimes, of course, this helpless and occasionally hopeless love for a ridiculous game is a curse, as pernicious as alcoholism or depression; and often enough baseball can aggravate and contribute to those maladies. (I could provide plenty of harrowing personal testimony to that effect, actually, but for now the gods are smiling.) The game can drive you to drink and despair, and it can wreck your central nervous system for weeks and months (and even years, if you're a Chicago Cubs fan) at a time. It can break your heart. It can also put it back together.

At it's best--even at its worst--baseball provides a refuge and a diversion from life's harder stuff, a vast umbrella, a planetarium stitched with bright constellations of statistics, history, and memories. Sometimes you need that sort of shelter while you wait for the clouds to lift (a gift, as the poet Louis MacNiece once wrote, that was never mine) and I've never found a better substitute.

All the lofty horseshit that has forever been blathered about baseball likely sounds like so many armpit farts to those who don't care. But for those of us who are hopelessly bound to the game, that old hogwash is truer now more than ever. Go ahead and call me a loser (guilty as charged), but this baseball season has been a blessing in more ways than I could ever articulate--and the thought of a strike disturbs my already disturbed sleep.

It's none of your business, of course, but last week I lost my father. Like countless other baseball fans, my dad was my first link to the game. Through my many stretches of drifting and unseemly behavior over the years, baseball anchored our relationship and provided an entry to countless sprawling conversations. We had lots of other things in common, but our shared love of baseball was the one constant, and through it I was able to learn over time that we were more alike than I had ever suspected. The qualities that a life-long appreciation for the game fosters were the most important components of my dad's personality: things like optimism, faith, steadfastness, and a willingness to occasionally sacrifice personal ambition for the good of the larger community; a zealous appreciation for play and excellence and hard work; and the recognition that every day offers the opportunity for redemption.

That one-day-at-a-time business that you hear spouted so much in locker rooms and at AA meetings was the central tenet of my dad's unsophisticated yet devastatingly effective philosophy. The beauty of baseball is that it is eternally a game of second chances--every at bat, every game, each new season is another opportunity to get it right, and that was how my dad encouraged me to see life. I couldn't always share his optimism, of course; I suffered through the Twins dark years in the early Eighties and the late Nineties, after all. But even then my father's credentials and capacity for suffering trumped my own; he was a lifelong Cubs fan, but he always found plenty of satisfaction in the day-to-day pleasures of the game and the comfortable routine of the long season. In my dad's world there really was always a next year, and he could never find any reason to think it wouldn't be better than the last one (granted, that's never been a particularly tall order for Cubs fans).

My dad was a baseball fan, but he also lived in the real world. Right to the end, we talked about the widespread malfeasance that is eating at baseball and eroding its status as the greatest game on earth. We talked about that when we should have been talking about the amazing season the Twins are having, and how much fun we both had watching it unfold. In his last days, he tried to keep his mind active by reconstructing line-ups and remembering great games he had seen. But he couldn't understand what's happening with baseball's labor situation any better than anyone else can understand it.

My dad always appreciated that baseball players have a right to fight for their rights within a system that has been historically rigged against them. He had his own big-league dreams once upon a time, and as a guy who grew up with baseball when players worked for relative peanuts and held down other jobs in the off season, he also understood that today's players are blessed beyond all measure. Like a lot of other old-school guys of his generation (and plenty of other fans of the current generation), he had a hard time recognizing today's wealthy conglomerate of players--players who wouldn't know Cesar Chavez from Eric Chavez--as a labor union. He didn't give a rat's ass about all their wrangling over money, and neither does anyone else. My dad envied today's players their gifts and their opportunity, and he was willing to pay to see them play baseball every chance he could. And I'm sure that if the players and owners find a way to bungle this baseball season he'll be up there raising holy hell in the heaven that he believed in as fiercely as he believed in his beloved Cubs.

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