From age 10 until roughly my second year of college, for me, baseball was life. I played it, I watched it, I lived it. I read every book, and could quote every historically significant statistic. I could tell you Ricky Henderson’s leadoff home run record (81), why they called James Bell “Cool Papa” (because he was unexcitable, a real cool customer), as a pre-teen I could argue intellectually why Gary Carter should’ve been a first ballot Hall of Famer, and why Walt Hriniak’s hitting method works.
Ever since I could remember, I fantasized about being a late season call up for the Texas Rangers; lifted from the minors to give veteran catcher Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez a much needed night off. And that night, in my dreams, I would catch the final pitch of my all time hero and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan’s illustrious career, walking off the field each inning shaking my head that I could be living this perfect life.
The strike of 1994 removed a lot of baseball’s luster, and over the years, as I’ve separated further from the game, I’ve become less and less of a fanatic. But visiting the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown brought it all back to me like I’d never imagined.
Walking the halls, reading the stories of the sports heyday, seeing classic memorabilia like Babe Ruth’s bat, a hat from each of Ryan’s record seven no hitters and watching videos of guys playing for the love of the game swept me up in memories I’d never expected.
I thought about the friends I made playing baseball in high school. I thought about all the adventures we had – my three-year’s younger nephew Joe and my best friend “Shmeeg.” I thought about my favorite coaches, Mr. Chismar and Mr. Jasinski and the way they challenged me not only as a mediocre player, but also as a young man. I remembered all the times I was able to escape the melancholy of adolescence by just grabbing my glove and heading out to pitch a tennis ball against the barn.
But most of all, I thought about my dad. I remembered the many hours he spent watching my games – never missing even an inning. I thought about him trying his hardest to comfort a stubborn, know-it-all kid when I’d gone “0-fer” or planted a throw from behind the plate squarely into centerfield. But most of all, I thought about how much different our relationship might have been had we not had my baseball to bond over.
I hardly remember much of a relationship with my dad before I started playing baseball in the fifth grade. Not that there wasn’t one, I guess I was just more of a mama’s boy and for a man entering the latter half of middle age, it was probably difficult to relate to a ten-year old. I can remember the Saturday mornings we’d spend together reading the newspaper – him the news, me the comics – or helping out in the garden, or watching the Browns on Sunday. We had a relationship, it was just a much more formal one.
But once I fell in love with baseball, he followed suit. We had found something we could spend time on together. I can’t remember every “having a catch” with dad, and he was not a fan of Major League Baseball by any means – refusing to spring for more than one annual outing to see those “overpaid SOBs” at Cleveland Stadium. But, he knew how much I loved it, and he always tried to get tickets at least once a year.
It was almost a quarter century ago, but I still think about the dusty, oily cab of the pickup truck. I can see my dad’s dark hair combed back haphazardly and his bushy eyebrows flittering in the wind from the car window as we rushed on some weeknight to yet another game or tryout or camp in Spencer or Vermillion or Oberlin. I can see him pacing behind the backstop while I’m catching, and hear him telling the umpire for the 20th time this inning that he missed a call in the last half while the other parents only encouraged him with their giggles. He was thrown out of more than a couple games, but was always there in the parking lot waiting to take me out for ice cream or to the concession stand.
I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to relive famous baseball moments, see the records and touch the plaques. But, I was really there to revisit wonderful, lost moments in my life. Times when I can remember my dad full of energy, up at the crack of dawn sipping black coffee not so carefully through his shaving cream, or snapping out of bed after a couple hours sleep to catch some time-and-a-half that no one else wanted, but was work that needed to get done.
But most of all, I remembered that through it all, my dad was there for every pitch, every game; never late, and never anything but encouraging and proud.
And all this time, I thought it was baseball I missed.