Saturday, June 19, 2010

Thoughts on Father's Day II

Playing Ball

There was a little preview of spring Tuesday. The sun was shining, the temperature was in the 60s and the breeze was gentle. There was another harbinger of spring that afternoon: the fellow next door and his son were out with a bat and ball.

It made me think of my dad. Long ago, during Eisenhower’s first term, he and I, and later my brother Ed, would get the bat and ball and walk to the playground at Bethel Memorial School. By the early 1960s, Dad was also playing ball with our younger brother Jim, but we had moved by then and the venue had changed.

In any event, Dad pitched the ball, and I tried to hit it. Listening to the neighbor, I heard my dad. The fundamentals of hitting haven’t changed much. I watched as the guy next door stood behind his son and reached down to move young boy’s feet, so that when he stepped into the ball, he’d step toward the mound.

“Get your bat up,” he said. “Get your bat up. That’s it.”

Then the little boy took a few swings.

“You’re taking your eye off the ball,” the neighbor said. “You’ve got to keep your eye on the ball. You’re watching everything but the ball.”

It could have been a recording of Dad talking to me all those decades ago. Then the boy next door made contact, sending the ball back through the box, as they say.

“That’s the way. That’s the way you want to hit,” the neighbor said.

Dad used to say that too, although not very often. But that was my fault, and the reason, Dad would tell me, was I was had my foot “in the bucket.” The neighbor didn’t tell his son that, which bodes well for the boy’s future.

About 15 years ago, I read one of George Will’s baseball books, I think it was Men at Work. Early in the book, Will told of his father taking him to Forbes Field to see his first Major League game. I’m not sure what grade I was in – probably third or fourth – when Dad took me to see the Pirates for the first time.

I don’t recall what the occasion was, but we were downtown, and he asked me if I wanted to go to the ballgame. “Sure.” So, we caught a streetcar and headed out to the Oakland section of the city. In his book, Will writes that he was struck by how green the grass seemed as they walked into the park.

I don’t think I’ll ever see grass as green as the grass in the outfield at Forbes Field that night. More amazing to me were the lights. When the sun went down, it was still daylight on the field. I couldn’t believe it. I’m not sure who the Pirates played that night, but the Buccos won with the help of a Dale Long homerun.

More recently, I thought of Dad while reading David Maraniss’ biography of Roberto Clemente. In the chapter about the 1960 World Series, Maraniss talked about Pittsburghers taking the streetcar to the games.

Dad never drove. So, by necessity, he became an expert on public transportation in Pittsburgh. He passed some of that knowledge on to sons, and we were able to get to the ballgames on our own long before we learned to drive.

“Going out, you can take any car with a number in the 60s or 70s,” Dad told us. “Coming back, you can take anything coming down Fifth or Forbes except the 77/54.”

If we took the 77/54, also known as the Flying Fraction, he warned us, we’d end up taking a long, slow trip to the North Side, which wasn’t where we wanted to go.

The last time Dad played ball with his three sons was on Christmas Day 1996. We were all in San Antonio to celebrate the holidays and my parents’ upcoming 50th wedding anniversary. That morning, Dad found a football and told us to get outside. As he had done countless times before, he motioned for us to go out, and then he delivered the ball to each of us in turn.

“If nothing else, at least you guys catch the ball with your hands instead of your bodies,” he said as we went back in. “I guess I did teach you something.”

Dad is 93 now and much more spry than I am. He doesn’t remember much anymore, but I do, especially on spring days when fathers are out playing ball with their sons.

This piece was originally published in the Star Beacon.

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