Diamond Hoggers Sunday Sermon: Fathers and Baseball go hand in hand

What else would I write about this week? It’s fitting that Fathers Day falls in the middle of the baseball season.

I wanna tell you a story about the OYAA Little League Blue Jays. It was the summer of 1995. As we battled through that summer and the intense heat that was the hottest I ever remember playing baseball in, Hideo Nomo and Randy Johnson faced off as the All-Star pitchers. The Cleveland Indians were mighty. And the OYAA Blue Jays of the central Ohio Recreational League were unstoppable in their own right.

I had gotten cut from the select team or traveling team. Basically, it was done with politics and ran by a bunch of fathers who were more worried about scratching their own backs then having the best kids available on the team. Admittedly, I also got really nervous during tryouts. I knew going in that I’d have to look really good and for a 12 year old kid I put a lot of pressure on myself. It meant so much to me. It meant too much to me. I pressed and didn’t have a good tryout that day and I got cut from the team.
I was heartbroken. So my father who is a rugged and hardened man; did one of the most loving acts that he could. He decided he was going to coach that summer. He was going to make sure that I played every inning of every game and although my dad knew little about actual baseball, he did a pretty good job.
Athletics were never important to my father. Not like me. He was a father to my older brothers when he was just a kid himself at age 18. He took up smoking early on. He was much more interested in hunting and fishing. He has killed as many animals as any man that has paced the earth. Where my brothers had a passion and thirst for finding out how to kill fox or deer, I had a thirst for hitting fastballs. My dad bought me a Remington shotgun that same year for Christmas. But he understood that my first love was the game of baseball.
So there we were. The boy who loved baseball and his father; the retired cop who now drove a dump truck to support his family. We set out that early spring and my dad took my to the league draft. He figured I could help him with the picks, as he didn’t know the kids in the league and who could play and who couldn’t. As we selected player after player, I kept looking up and down the roster telling my dad that we were going to have something really special. We had a lot of talented players who could have played select baseball if not for the Godforsaken politics that existed for us during that period. It was magic from that night forward. We were going to kick people’s ass. It also didn’t hurt that my dad had the finest player in the league on his team, me.
Back then you see I had a passion for pitching too. I don’t know why. I really liked it. As I became older I hated to pitch in a game because it took away from my mental approach hitting. Back then, I loved to pitch though. We made out our first lineup, I was in the clean-up spot and on the mound; just like my dad promised. We headed for the park and the nerves got to me. I stayed up late the night before listening to my Sony discman thinking about my dad and me lifting the little league championship trophy at summer’s end. I was going to dominate and my father and I were going to steal the headlines.
Well I put too much pressure on myself. I walked the bases loaded. Then I walked in a run. And then I walked in another and another. I kept walking guys. Dad pulled me and put me on first base. We were in a 6-0 hole before the first frame was over with. I was heartbroken. I have no trouble admitting that tears streamed down my face as I stood on first base, feeling like I let my dad and my team down. We battled mightily that day but in the end we fell short. We lost the game 6-5 and on the ride home I was completely heartbroken. My dad urged me to knock it off and ‘stop showing any sign of weakness’. He told me that our day in the sun was ahead of us and that we were going to rack up some wins in that league and have a good summer. I wasn’t so sure. My dad, as he has so many times in life; was right in seeing the foreshadowing when I could not cut through the fog and see it myself.
I went on some kind of tear after that. I had a string of 3 for 4 and 4 for 4 and even 5 for 5 ballgames. I ended up hitting .538 that summer and winning team MVP with over 30 RBI and 4 home runs. The Blue Jays went on to win 14 games in a row that summer. Teams around the league hated us. It was every little leaguer’s dream. We showed up for a game to find the other team’s ‘expert’ coach making the other team run wind sprints. My dad relaxed the boys by telling them to ‘grab some bench with their ass, let them heat themselves out before the game even starts.’
He was unorthodox but he had a way with those kids. There’s still a gleam in his eyes when he talks about those little league Blue Jays. All I have to do is say the name of certain players on the team, from the runts to the guys who made the league All-Star game. That’s saying something for my father who doesn’t remember his kid’s exact birthdays. But once again, he’s got his own style about him. He’s not perfect, but in so many ways he has a beauty about him.
We got into a certain routine that summer. I’d lay in the air conditioned house all day and mentally prepare to go out and put on a display of great baseball that evening for the game. Dad would speed home in his truck in time to throw on his uniform and head out to dominate. He’d expect me to have the lineup done by the time he arrived. He’d quickly look it over and sign off on it. We were on the same page mostly. It was the lineup he wanted usually. We’d head to the park in time for some routine warm-ups and for the course of the game, my dad managed that team to the best of his ability. The guy may not know what a squeeze play is, but he likes
to win. He’d suck down Lucky Strike non-filtered cigarettes for the duration of the game. He managed in sandals while the other dads coached in tennis shoes. But those kids loved my dad for his differences just like I did. And every day, part of that routine became coming home and sitting on the porch to talk about the victory that we’d earned that summer. Over and over again that summer we did it.
Dad fell in love with that team and we kept on rolling, as did I. I even got my pitching under control. That team that beat us on opening night of the league, the A’s; the next time we faced them we beat them 13-3 and laughed at them. Dad wasn’t big on sportsmanship. He taught me that when you are between the white lines your only friends are in your own dugout and you have to decide if you’re there to beat someone’s ass or not. The Blue Jays definitely were.
We rolled all the way into the League Championship tournament, and we were the odds on favorite to win it all. There was no mystery to it. As we were in the semi-finals I had one of my finest games. Our offense was stifled that day. We had an ace, and I was not that guy. A pitcher that we had to save for the championship game and even Dad knew this was a key. We had to use me to get there, and my shaky nerves and control. Our bats were stifled that night against the OYAA Indians. It was 2-2 until the late frames. I actually remember earlier in the game that I’d drawn a walk and we were down a run. I had to steal a few bases because we weren’t hitting. The opportunity was golden and pivotal and even as a kid I felt the urgency. I took off for second base and I knew the throw down was perfect and had me beat. Then something happened that I remember being in slow motion. I slid head first short of the second base bag. I rolled sideways out of the way of the shortstop’s tag and reached around him for the base. The hunger that lived inside me for me and my father to get to that base is something I cannot explain. It’s just too deep. I looked up to the umpire and he was right on the play. He awarded me fairly, I’d stolen the bag. I stole third and then scored on a ground out to tie the game.
I came up in the top of the 7th (games were only 7 innings in Little League) and there were guys on 2nd and 3rd. I knocked a big base hit into the left center field gap and gave us the lead. Dad handed me the ball and told me I’d gotten us that far, take us home. Take us to the title game. I had pitched really well that day. No semblance of a pitch count, dad knew I had to take us home whether my arm fell off our not. I didn’t complain one time that summer about it hurting and this time was no different. I’d laid in bed so many nights and thought about this moment, and I could taste it now. You think I was going to let down my father and what had became our little slice of dream together?
I could feel it now. In the back of my mind I was scared of shitting the bed and sending my team home. Collapsing as I had did on opening night. But on this night, in this inning; I let it rip. I blew away the next three hitters 1-2-3, all strike outs. The final was 4-2. The Blue Jays were going to the title game and my father and I had another night to celebrate. We’d done it.
The Championship game was after a several day lay off and as far as we were concerned we were already the Champions. We weren’t safe about it. We were brash, cocky, and down right counting our chickens before they’d hatched. The league commissioner spoke to my dad the night before the game about being gracious champions when we won it and told him he’d really done a heck of a job in the league. He asked my dad how he had this success as a first year coach, as he couldn’t ‘get his own team to gel’. But to be humble wasn’t our style. We were going with the girl that brought us to the dance. In fact, family friends made banners that day congratulating the Champion Blue Jays. A newspaper article was already set to run about the Little League Champions with the team photo. Our side of the ball diamond was lined with distant family members from all of my teammates, and my own family. It was a huge outpour and the post-game celebration was organized by our mothers. I woke up that saturday morning like I had all summer, ready to go out and take home that league issued trophy in my dad’s Buick Skylark. I wanted the trophy to wreak of Lucky Strikes and Michelob’s (dad’s favorite and only beer as long as he’s been my dad).
And we went out and baseball taught me and my dad a life lesson. It just wasn’t meant to be. The champions from the other division, the Rockies were on a mission that day. They’d all caught wind of our shit talking. Our cockiness. Our considering ourselves the champions before this game was even played. And it hurt us. Our ace pitcher that we’d wisely saved and rested up didn’t have it at all that day. I had been used up to get to the game. We had to turn to our 3-guy early in that game and he wasn’t really on either. Most of all our mighty bats were silent as well. I felt so helpless. I looked at my dad on the bench late in the game and saw the hurt in his eyes and he saw it in mine. He often talks about what I said to him at that moment; trailing 9-2. “Dad, you gotta do something! We’re going to lose man”.
I know that quote stuck with him forever. And he talks about feeling helpless like I did. We scratched across a few late inning runs, and we lost the game 9-4. The dream was over. There were moms crying in the rented out concession stand for our ‘championship celebration’. The Rockies were the champions. We’d let it slip away. All the dreams I had when I listened to that walkman all summer long and thought about nothing but being a champion with my pops were gone.
My dad said at our banquet that ‘no matter how long any of us boys played the game of baseball, we’d never have another summer like that one or be on a team that won that many games in a row and took a league by storm like we did’. He was right. He saw the future once again.
He’d coach the next season as well and the magic was gone. We had a late surge but for most of the season we played .500 ball. That’d be my last summer in a recreational league, as I’d once again go on to hit over .500 and a few area coaches caught wind of what I had done. In fact, the coach who cut me for his select team ended up being extremely embarrassed about it and apologizing to me and my family years later. I would go on to play in high school and college ball and it never would have been possible if not for my father.
He’s a tough son of a bitch. He instilled that in me the hard way. He doesn’t own a computer or know how to use the internet so he can’t read this post. But my father showed me what it’s all about to be a dad in this way. I owe him forever, but you know what? All in the same he really ended up digging in and enjoying himself.
Happy Fathers Day to you and your dad.