My father and I were quite different. He was dark. I am fair. He was short. I am tall. He never completed high school. I was considered the “intellectual” of the family, usually at the top of my class, with my nose buried in a book as often as not. I believe my father loved me and I loved him, but we just did not have very much in common. I never thought he had much to teach me. We never spoke about what or how we felt, or why. But we both loved baseball.
His chief entertainment in life was following the national pastime. From April through October he would watch the Yankees, and, from 1962, the Mets on TV, and when that was not possible, he would listen to their games on the radio. Before every game, he would use a ruler to draw a scorecard on a legal-size pad. He wasn’t concerned with who did what in which at bat, but he did keep a close count of runs, hits, errors and left on. I remember blobs of ink spoiling the crisp lines. He would complain when the home teams played poorly, but, I think, the results were never really that important. It’s not that he was a student of the game, although he did read the sports sections of the Daily News, the Mirror and the Journal almost every day. It was more of a ritual. From the sculpting of his personal scorecard to the falling asleep in his chair, usually by the 8th inning, it was a reliable sequence of events. My brother and I could always count on him sputtering “I was just resting my eyes” when he woke, after an hour’s snooze, and we snickered as we asked him what the score was of a game completed during a REM period.
If I wasn’t out with my friends playing stickball, punchball, or engaging in the usual sacraments of early malehood, I would watch with him. We had a garden variety black and white, sheathed in a cabinet of ersatz maple, a talking tabernacle which provided a measure of comfort, or at least distraction from the stress of raising five kids on almost
no income. I would sit on the floor next to his chair. His hand would rest on my shoulder. He kept score and I prepared lemonade by the glass. I would flash to the kitchen at the third out, with empties, ten-ounce fragile things my uncle had gotten free as an inducement to use some brand of gasoline. They had Revolutionary War scenes in black and gold. I would return at a funereal pace, an overfull glass in each hand, like an altar boy with Sunday cruets prepared by a tippling priest. He would caution me every inning to not fill the glasses too much next time. His lap would often get a surprise christening anyway. This bought me a glower but it was always gone by the first pitch of the new inning.
In Spring of the year I turned 13, he retired from a lifetime of carrying other people’s bags through the cathedral of Grand Central Station. In December of that year, he was diagnosed as having cancer. By the time the season began the following April, he had dropped from 185 to 155 pounds. The drugs and chemotherapy which tried to keep him alive with a minimum of pain took the seventh inning away from him. The rosary beads he fingered in his bathrobe pocket proved inadequate to the task of bringing that inning back. My brother and I no longer asked him the score when he woke. I found myself playing more stickball and punchball that Spring. I spent more money than ever replacing Spaldings which I had launched into University Avenue traffic, three sewers and one aqueduct away from home plate. When I did stay home to watch a game, I carried not only the mandatory lemonades, but bowls of pretzels, popcorn, potato chips and sandwiches on an overburdened tray. By June, I started turning the TV off after the top of the fifth. I tip-toed out of the living room after putting a light cover over his lap with the same stealth I usually saved for escaping Sunday Mass after the sermon. In August he was down to 135. Occasionally, he would last through an entire game. I started to have some hope that his condition might be improving, but by the time the leaves started turning brown in noticeable numbers, he was lucky to get through the fourth inning. On a cool day in early October, the Yankees dispatched their National League opponents in the fifth game of the World Series. Yet another pennant would grace the hallowed grounds of Yankee stadium. That night my father died.
I avoided the sports pages ever since. I made my way through high school, college and graduate school and stopped going to church, having acquired atheism along with my education. I replaced a belief in an inscrutable deity with a belief in the value of work and culture. In place of Sunday Mass, I substituted afternoons in museums and concert
halls, at lectures, or at the beach. On Saturday mornings I run or sleep late, depending on the weather. It seems that all my waking hours are taken up with surviving in a fast-track world, doing chores or fulfilling social and familial obligations, whenever I am not working. Along the way, despite a crazy existence, I got married. My son is now seven years old, a tornado of a red head. His friends had all signed up for Pony League, and he was eager to join the throng. I kept putting off filling in the application, until his daily queries inflated my guilt to unbearable dimensions. When I did, finally, put pen to paper, I entered the wrong amount on the check, twice. I also fouled up the application form so badly I had to get several more, before finally getting it right. He plays second base every Saturday from April through June. Last Saturday he played his tenth game of the season and his fielding and hitting are much improved. I smiled and hugged him after the game, told him how well he had done, that I was proud of him, and that it did not really matter that the other team had scored more runs. It was more important that he enjoy the experience of playing for itself. I don’t think he was convinced.
When we arrived home after his game, I sat down in the living room and switched on the TV. As I clicked through the various channels looking for something inoffensive to sedate me past a hot, dusty, tired few hours, I happened across a Mets game. I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually watched a game on TV. In the kitchen, my little bomber told his mom about his two hits, then spotted me sprawled on the couch, still as one of the statues in church. A minute later, he came in, with a coke in his hand, and, standing in front of me, extended his right arm. He poked me with his left, and I opened my eyes with a start. “Here, Dad,” he said. A large, snaky, balloon started inflating in my chest. It filled my throat and expanded to full right behind my eyes, forcing a sudden liquid gush. I put the coke down on the end table, and seized my son with both arms, crushing him to my chest. He looked perplexed. I wiped my eyes on my shirtsleeve, smiled and asked him “Did I ever show you how to make a scorecard?”