Father’s Day, 2003: One of my sisters had the bright idea of giving my dad tickets to a Yankees game for later in the season. The game itself was on September 11th against the Tigers, and was the one and only time our entire family went to a game together. My niece wasn’t even a teenager yet, my nephew barely even had started his own baseball journey. I had only met my wife a few months before, and hadn’t yet proposed. It is one of those moments that is frozen in time – a game you can barely remember the details of, yet a day that may as well been yesterday.
My dad loved baseball. My passion (addiction?) to the sport started with him. He coached me from the time I was hitting a ball off of a tee until I got to high school. Kids from my side of town would probably still remember to this day how my father would, after a day of work, make his way over to the playground to be the “steady pitcher” during our daily stick ball games. He probably threw hundreds of pitches per night, making a tennis ball do things that only he was able to do. Suffice to say, his mission on the mound wasn’t to make us look good – his mission on the mound was to try to dominate, throwing fastballs, change ups, and curves as we would often flail away helplessly. Of course, there was a method to his madness: He wasn’t preparing us to hit .750 in random stick ball games. He was preparing us for our futures playing organized ball, where pitchers certainly would not lob balls over the plate for us to hit a mile. Getting a hit off of him was an accomplishment – something to brag about.
When I was a little boy in the 1970s, when Home Run Baseball by Atari was seen as a true act of video game genius and your playtime was dictated by your own imagination and not an app programmer on the other side of the world, my Dad was once with me on the playground, doing what he loved to do: Teach me baseball. A kid we had never met before decided to wander over that day, wanting to partake in whatever it was we were doing. My Dad, always the willing teacher, took him under his wing that day, introducing him to the world of baseball. In what is an interesting and cool story to tell, that kid became a friend for a lifetime. The sport my father loved to play and teach became a connection that would last well beyond a random summer afternoon.
It never mattered to him as a coach if you were the best player he ever saw or a kid that may have been a bit behind the curve. He wanted to help – he wanted to coach everyone. Don’t get me wrong – he could be as competitive as any coach when it came to the scoreboard, but he also understood that a satisfying conclusion for every child wasn’t the thrill of victory nor was the ultimate sadness from the agony of defeat. Just getting on that field to PLAY was the ultimate joy. Balancing it all out was what made him a great coach for my teams, and my sister’s softball teams that preceded my baseball journey. If you were a kid playing baseball in Manville, NJ through the 1980s, you likely had the privilege of either playing for or against my Dad. It would be nearly impossible to forget him, as he had a way to make himself unforgettable without even trying.
My passion for the Yankees, which also has been passed down to the now 18-year old nephew mentioned above, comes straight from him. When I (finally) left my parents’ house, modern technology allowed us to occasionally text about that day’s game. I don’t have the text anymore (well, I might if I rebooted up my old flip phone), but the last text I ever received from my Dad was when the Yankees were eliminated in the 2012 playoffs. I don’t remember it verbatim, but it likely was along the lines of “Pathetic.” It didn’t matter if my father was healthy or if he was sick in the hospital – a poor Yankees performance was not something he was going to brush off easily.
The Yankees were always a passion. He didn’t care who I rooted for in basketball, football, hockey, or badminton. I was going to be a Yankees fan even if it meant closing me off completely to the other 25 teams (at the time) that occupied the sport. I write extensively about the sport today mainly because of what he ingrained in me over the course of 35 years. Part of it is the love of the game – part of it is a work ethic that he ingrained in me that doesn’t allow me to stop.
It was in 2012 that my Dad passed away from lung cancer. Or, as we may refer to it as, this is the fifth baseball season without him. We never got to see him watch my nephew’s high school baseball career, though he was always there in spirit and I am sure we all thought about what he would be saying if he were there. He did get to watch my niece play softball, and I doubt he ever missed one game. I still remember all of the emails I got from him describing the games, describing her abilities, and of course telling me all about classmates he ran into at the pizza parlor (I swear he kept more in touch with them than I ever did)
I can’t give a number on the number of times he drove us to games at Yankee Stadium. He would always take Jerome Avenue to get there, something that has been passed down to others who drive to the games today. Every game was an event, something we would look forward to. We didn’t go often, but when we did, it was always a day that would be special. In addition, he was often a chaperone on bus trips to Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia, back when artificial turf ruled baseball stadiums and cold pretzels from vendors were a rite of passage. Food choices consisted of hot dogs on a bun. You didn’t go to a stadium to buy sushi or build your own gourmet organic salad. You ate a hot dog and sat down in your seat.
I will spend this Father’s Day like I have many in the past, whether I was a child at home or a grown (?) man with my wife and two dogs: Sitting back and taking in a Yankees’ game. I am sure at some point, I will think about what my dad would be saying when the Yankees leave the bases loaded or make a boneheaded play in the field.
Dads from my father’s generation talk about Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Dads of my generation may bring up their opinions on Pete Rose and Roger Clemens, while marveling over the abilities of Pedro Martinez and Derek Jeter. The generations may clash over whether the 1998 Yankees would beat the 1961 version (for the record, they would), but that is what has always made baseball special to me: No matter how much the game may change, it remains the same on the most basic of levels. That is what allows fathers to hand down the game to their sons and daughters – it is still all about pitch the ball, hit the ball at the most basic level.
To all fathers out there, Happy Father’s Day! To all children currently blessed with an awesome father, take a timeout to play catch, or whatever it is that makes your father tick. (This is a baseball blog, so yeah – forget woodworking and play catch!). Create all of those memories that will last you a lifetime, just like that baseball game from 2003.