My father schooled me in the game of baseball. The lessons started when I was four. While the action happened before my eyes, he became my personal play-by-play announcer, colour commentator, umpire, scorekeeper, statistician, and rules-master, all rolled into one. Summer evenings at a city-owned baseball diamond, we’d lie in the grass, out of the way along the third base line – ‘best place to watch the game’ – and watch men’s fastball. He’d nudge me, nod silently and I’d follow his gaze to the left fielder. Dad would whisper “watch his feet” and eventually I knew that meant the left fielder was anticipating where the batter would hit, and the placement of his feet was a ‘tell’ on which direction he would run to field the ball.
Dad (on the game): Baseball is a game of nuance, subtlety, and precision. It’s not fast-paced; but it’s magical. It’s more than balls being batted over the outfield wall.
I learned the game from someone who bought into its magic. Not in quite the same way as Ray Kinsella in “Field of Dreams” but someone who was entranced and enthralled by it all. Dad appreciated the finer points of baseball. He grew up listening to it on the radio, staying wrapped up in a game that could go on for hours, paying attention to an announcer describing the play, understanding the nuances, imagining the subtleties. Fans of the game of baseball who grew up listening to it on the radio are a dying breed.
Dad (on the differences): Fastball, softball, T-ball, slo-pitch. Just different names for the game called baseball. The rules are the same. Use a bat, hit the ball pitched to you. Run the bases. Run past three bases and get to home base, score a run. Simple. How the ball is pitched to the batter is the only major difference.
Dad taught me how to catch a ball. Eventually we progressed to playing catch with gloves. Catch is a mindless game that can go on for hours. Catch the ball, lob it back. The rhythm of playing catch became an intimate, quiet, mindless after dinner past-time. We’d play until the sun went down, putting off going into the empty house.
I never felt the loneliness he must have felt when Mom left. How could I miss someone who I couldn’t remember? How could I feel lonely for someone who was never present even when she lived with us? He didn’t talk about it. I didn’t understand it at the time. Kids don’t know those things. Now, forty years later, as I’m losing him, tsunamis of regret wash over me and I can’t catch my breath at the thought of how he must have suffered.
Dad (on what to expect in little league): When you’re six and playing little league baseball, everything is smaller. You hit the ball off a tee. The diamond is smaller. You don’t have to run so far. In the major leagues, everything is bigger. Baseball players are worshipped for their batting averages, their ERAs, their stolen bases and their RBIs. But don’t worry about all that in little league.
Our housekeeper thought it was unseemly that I wanted to play baseball. “Girls can get hurt,” she’d tell me as she braided my hair. I’d tuck those braids up under my baseball cap and run for the backyard to throw balls for hours into the netting rigged up behind the garage, keeping myself amused. At age five I hadn’t yet decided if I would be a center fielder or a pitcher.
Dad (on realities): Batters get hit by pitched balls. It hurts. A lot. Most times the pitcher doesn’t mean to hit the batter. Sometimes brawls break out between the teams if someone thinks the pitcher hit the batter on purpose. Back in the day though? Brawls were unseemly. Baseball players were notoriously lazy. They were better known for lounging around in the dug-out and chewing tobacco than running the bases or fighting.
Have you ever buried your face inside a new baseball glove and breathed deeply? The smell of new leather is intoxicating and whatever it is that tanners treat the leather with, they should bottle it. I’d buy it. Dab a little under my ears every morning.
Dad (on equipment): If you treat your baseball glove with love, you might have it for decades. Sometimes it takes a couple of years just to break it in. Smear Vaseline on the pocket every night, place a softball in it, and tie a skate lace around it in a religious, evening ritual. This softens the glove, making the perfect deep pocket for catching fly-balls.
When the snow would fly and I’d reluctantly give in and accept that baseball season was over, my beloved glove would winter in a large, flannel pillowcase, beside me in my the bed. If I had trouble falling asleep, I would take the glove out of its winter hibernation place and play an imaginary game. Sitting cross-legged on the bed, glove on my left hand, ball in my right, I’d slap the ball into the glove, over and over, all the while calling an imaginary game. It was always a Yankees game.
“No swearing, it’s not ladylike,” Dad would tell me. Years later when we co-managed a little league team, he was thrown out of a game for cursing at the umpire, a sixteen-year old teenager who hadn’t started to shave. I was amused. Dad was not.
Dad (on the finer points of baseball insults): When you’re a spectator of the adult game of baseball, it’s acceptable – actually, expected – to yell at the umpires. And the other team’s batters. And the pitcher. Feel free to make fun of the center fielder’s large feet, small hands, and his mother. It is not okay to make racist comments or swear (even if you are a Boston Red Sox fan and feel secure in your masculinity while being protected at Fenway Park).
“Hey ump, I thought only horses could sleep standing up.”
“Your mother wears army boots.”
“Hey ump – need me to clean your glass eye?”
“Oh, come ON ump!”
The year I turned nine I got a transistor radio for Christmas, small enough to fit in your back pocket. Wrapped in a leather case it was very cool, until my ever-practical father attached a large, nine-volt battery to it, taking away its coolness. On summer evenings we’d sit on the front porch and tune my transistor to WCBS and listen to Mel Allen, Phil Rizzutto, and Red Barber call games. Listening to the big teams’ games on the radio can be boring for a little kid but it’s a great way to learn the art of concentration.
Mom left us the week pitchers and catchers reported to spring training. Every year since then, when spring training officially starts, I put her out of my mind for the next nine months. Dad could never do that. I’d look over at him when he didn’t know I was watching. Lying tight beside him in the grass, I would glance up and follow his gaze that sometimes went further than far right field, wondering what he was looking at. There were times when we listened to a game on the radio and I knew he wasn’t paying attention. Especially when Phil Rizzutto got all excited and was yelling about a triple that Mickey Mantle had just hit. But when he didn’t react, I knew he was thinking about her. Dad was a soldier, and he was rough and tough and loud and proud. But sometimes he let down that guard when he thought no one was paying attention and that’s when he looked like a lost boy.
Jimmy Dugan famously said, “There’s no crying in baseball!” but that was in a movie. In real life, baseball makes you cry all the time. When you’re eight years old and a line drive hits you square in the stomach. Finding out that Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash just wanting to be a good Samaritan. Sometimes it’s frustration that makes you cry. When your team doesn’t make the playoffs – because they don’t deserve it. Or flying to New York to see your beloved Yankees play and the umpires go on strike and you never get another chance to see Yankee Stadium. Or finding out at eleven that you can’t pitch for the Bombers. Because you are a girl.
Dad (on how to watch the game): If you go to a game and only watch the batter, you’ll be asleep before the end of the first inning. You need to watch for the subtle nuances happening around the field. Watch the dugout (if you can see it) and observe the bench coach touch his cap, tug his right ear, tug his left ear, pat his heart three times, touch the tip of his nose, tug his right ear, tug his left ear, touch his belt, and rub his stomach. Translation: he’s telling the shortstop to move two inches closer to second base.
There was no sign, no tugging on ears or patting belts when my mother left us. She was as serious as a train-wreck (Dad’s words) and was waiting for him when he came home at the end of the day. A vague memory of a suitcase and Mom in her Sunday coat tickle my memory every so often. I don’t think I miss her. How can you miss something that wasn’t there long enough to count? (Remember, there’s no crying in baseball.)
The summer I was fourteen, we managed a baseball team together. At try-outs we sat close together in the bleachers. The memory of his nudges as we scouted players comes back to me. Nuances and subtleties were tested. Watch the batter’s hands. Notice how quick the fielder is on his feet. How fast can that catcher snap the ball and throw it to second? We chose all the boys who tried hard, who hadn’t found their ego yet, most of whom had no real talent. Years later we told people the movie “Bad News Bears” – about a team of misfit baseball players – was based on our team. These boys were ten years old. There was crying at some games despite what Jimmy Dugan said. The first year we only won a single game but everyone wanted to come back for another season. We managed that team for three years.
After Mom left us, Dad took over. He’d wash my hair in the bathtub and twist it round and round on top of my head, wringing out the water. There weren’t a lot of smiles from him but I know he tried hard not to be sad in front of me. Decades later I could still tell when his mind would wander to her. He seemed to be happiest when we were listening to baseball, or watching the men’s fastball league. Lately he claims to be over the moon watching his grandson David play T-ball. I find myself repeating all of Dad’s advice to David, wanting to school him in the game.
Tucked up beside my dad with the thick, fragrant grass tickling my legs is the quiet place I go to inside myself on endless, cold winter days when the start of spring training seems so far in the future. It’s also the place I go to now as I massage his legs while he lays in a coma after his heart surgery. John Sterling’s voice is coming through a portable radio beside his bed in the ICU and we are listening to the Yankees’ game. I keep up a running commentary as he would expect me to, bad mouthing (in a lady-like way) the opposing pitcher’s mother, wondering out loud if the first baseman can move faster than a drugged tortoise, lamenting the amount of money the team is paying the shortstop.
He faded away today. I think he decided he’d tried hard enough and didn’t have any more to give. I sang him a soft version of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” before I left him with the nurses. Now I’m home, sitting on my bed, cross-legged, with my old baseball glove on my left hand, slapping the ball into the pocket. Over and over again.
I feel him nudge me, and I smile.