Sunday, June 21, 2009

Of fathers and sons and baseball.

Below is a reprint of a story I wrote precisely 11 years ago* for The Washington Post; it seemed as apt a tribute to Father's Day as anything else. A lot of things have changed through the years, but I hope that at least some of the dads in the audience can relate to it.


“When I get out of here, son, we should do the Bat-Away.”

The words startled me; my father had been silent since his last dose of painkiller, 30 minutes earlier. Meanwhile, I’d been staring absently through the frost-covered windows of Brookdale Hospital at the accumulation of two-day-old snow, filthy and unappealing as only two-day-old urban snow can be. Lost in my thoughts, I was brushing Dad's hair back off h
is high, noble forehead. The huge shock of wavy black hair had all the nurses astonished, refusing as it did to so much as lose its luster amid the relentless batteries of radiation and chemotherapy. This was a point of enormous pride with my father—perhaps the only one left to a man who had watched with mounting despair as all the forces of modern medicine seemingly were marshaled to strip him of each of his physical and mental faculties in turn. Running out of organs to remove, the doctors had now logged him as a “no-code” and put him on desensitizing dosages of morphine. But every once in a while Dad would emerge from his medicated stupor to say something.

“Sure, Dad,” I replied, playing along (though we’d not been to the batting cages together in the decade since I left high school). “We’ll do the Bat-Away. When you get out of here.”

He nodded, and with a small but commanding jerk of his head, beckoned me closer.
“The thing is, son, you gotta have quick wrists. That’s what every hitter needs. And remember, keep those elbows up, and those hands loose.” He could just about lift his own hand off the bed, but the jittery movement of his index finger told me that if he’d had the strength, he’d be wagging that finger at me in his familiar admonishing way. “You keep at it, son. Quick wrists. Loose hands.”

I couldn’t suppress a grin. “I will, Dad. I’ll keep at it.”

He smiled back, shutting his eyes and, for once, seeming at peace. At peace in the past.

My father had grown up in the literal shadow of Ebbets Field
hallowed ground to men who came of age in Brooklyn of the 1930s and ’40s. Again and again I heard the story: how his arm was “as live as they come,” how he “could’ve gone all the way” were it not for that unseasonably cool afternoon at age 17, when he tried to overthrow to impress a girl. He hadn’t warmed up fully and he felt something pop in his shoulder. (This was before medical science learned to work its arthroscopic magic on torn rotator cuffs.) His arm was never the same. He had to give up pitching.

The dream itself was less easy to put aside. Once I was passing my parents’ bedroom when I noticed a tall shadow making jerky movements on the wall opposite their open door. I could hear Ralph Kiner, inside, doing the Mets play-by-play. Curious, I entered and found my father in the midst of a full pitching windup, in sync with this young Mets phenom, some kid named Seaver. Dad froze with his left leg in midair and smiled sheepishly. Embarrassed by his embarrassment, I simply backed right out of the room again. A few moments later I looked down the hall. The shadow was winding up again on the far wall.

I’d come along as something of a surprise after two daughters and a span of nearly a decade. Early on my father determined that I would share his joy for baseball, which he passed along as though bestowing a precious heirloom: He would stand there by the hall closet, holding out my glove to me before a catch, bearing the same expression I saw on his face when he watched us unwrap presents on Christmas morning. Though I would not approach the level of play he wished for me, it wasn’t for lack of trying on his part. Saturdays were given over to the aforementioned Bat-Away, an oasis of delight wedged between two of Brooklyn’s most forbidding neighborhoods. On Sundays and summer nights after dinner, we’d walk to the park with his arm draped over my shoulders, a real-life version of those syrupy commercials you see on TV. Once at the park, we hit and caught, caught and hit. During the catches, few words passed between us. Few were needed. Something in the flight of the ball—back and forth, father to son, son to father, the sphere itself growing ever warmer to the touch—made language superfluous.

Away from the field, on the other hand, the talk was nonstop, invariably unfolding in the form of some colorful baseball metaphor—Dad’s idiosyncratic way of interpreting the world. Coy politicians “threw curves” at their constituents. A dishonorable act of any kind was a “spitter.” Menacing words were “chin music,” the late Leo Durocher’s vivid slang for a knockdown pitch. Someone who failed to follow instructions was said by my father to have “missed the sign.” In the same way, he judged the changing American scene in terms of baseball’s own evolution. By the time I’d moved out of the house, in the early ’70s, the sport’s timeless traditions were crumbling. To my father, no better symbol existed for the greed and egotism of the onrushing “Me Generation” than free agency. “Where,” he would ask, “is the loyalty? If not to the owners, at least to the fans?”
Similarly, he came to loath Big Business, for throughout baseball, the sportsmen were giving way to the businessmen, and business was what had lured his beloved Dodgers away to the West Coast. It was a betrayal he never forgave. After he took ill he would sit in his recliner, six-packing his way through the afternoon, mourning the loss of Campy and Pee Wee and Gil

All of which ran through my mind as I sat there on that final night, brushing back his jet-black hair. The hours passed. As light snow floated down through the street lamps, painting the brownish drifts with a pleasant white veneer, my father lapsed into a coma.

When he left us in the wee hours, I remembered his last words and the smile that came with them, and I thought something I’ve thought a hundred times since, at this time of year, when the season moves into high gear:

It says something about the place of baseball in some men’s lives that a father’s parting words to his son would be
quick wrists, loose hands.

* It ran on Father's Day, June 21, 1998.


Anonymous said...

Steve; My 84 year-old fater is celebrating his final Father's Day: his heart is plugged up, and he's in no shape for another by-pass, stents or anything else.

We've always had football to keep our lines of communications open. When I was in college, he could not hide his disgust with my decision to not go to law school; and I thought he was the dumbest old man on the planet. But we could always discuss the Miami Dolphins no matter how much friction there was between the two of us.

Today after church, I stopped by to see him - he's at home with 24-hour nurses he wants to die at home, in his own bed. He was resting comfortably when suddenly he opened his eyes and said to me "The Dolphins are going to bench Woodley next week and go with Marino. I dunno... Woodley can run and pass; but that Marino kid is a pure passer."

There is a special bond between fathers and sons and sports - I am sure there is a middle-aged man discussing NASCAR with his dying father in the south; Cricket in England and soccer in Brazil.

I wonder what my boys will discuss with me when I'm on my deathbed?

Anonymous said...

Nicely done, Steve. I'm sure your dad himself would be moved, and happy to know he was able to give you such warm memories.

Anonymous said...


Debbie said...

Steve, I always love reading about your father. Thank you.

Steve Salerno said...

Deb: Thank you. I wish the man had lived longer. I think I would've led a different (better) life.