My son is getting married Saturday.
Times like these make a person become reflective (they do me, anyway) and one of the advantages of having a blog is that they give you an outlet to express your feelings on whatever topic is on your mind. This week, this is what’s on my mind. (OK, I admit I’ve had the Twins/Sox series on my mind a little bit, too.)
I know I’m going to get emotional about the wedding. I do that. Heck, I still tear up at the end of Field of Dreams (“Hey dad… you wanna have a catch?” sob). Fathers and sons and baseball… it gets me every time.
Before I go on, let me get this out of the way… the young woman he’s marrying is great and they are great together. Our family loves her, her family loves him. Everyone is thrilled (in fact, some among the two families think the wedding is long overdue). I’m not reflecting on all of this because I’m afraid I’m about to “lose my son.” I lost him a long time ago… and yet I’ll never lose him. Such is the relationship between a father and son. At least that’s the nature of the relationship in my case. But the upcoming wedding has had me also thinking about my own dad… and I can’t think about him without thinking about baseball, too.
My dad turned down a low-minor league contract offer from the White Sox to finish school and get a “real job” long before I was born. He was a high school baseball coach in Albert Lea as I was growing up. He coached some basketball and even some golf, too, for a while, but most of my best memories revolve around the mid-to-late 1960s when he was primarily a baseball coach. I not only didn’t miss many games (unless I was playing in one, myself), I rarely missed practices. I lived and breathed baseball. Nothing was better than being around baseball players… and my dad. I lived for the day when I’d get to do more than just be a batboy or keep the scorebook for one of those teams… when I’d get to play for the Tigers… for my dad.
And then things changed.
My dad gave up teaching and coaching to start his own business after his 1969 Albert Lea team finished second in the Minnesota State Tournament and I suppose that made a difference in our relationship. But I think the fact that I became a teenage boy that summer probably had more to do with any change in things between us.
If you have been reading my posts for a while, you may already have come to the conclusion that I’m an idiot. I can’t really argue that point. But the fact that, as a 14 year old “youth league” ballplayer, I decided I wanted to play on a team coached by a local auto parts store owner instead of for a man who had not only taught me everything I knew about the game but had virtually been teaching baseball to kids far more talented than I was since before I was born, should tell you all you need to know about just HOW LONG I’ve been an idiot. To my credit, however, I corrected my mistake the following year and had the most enjoyable summer of baseball in my life in the one season I played for a team my dad coached. A couple of years later, he and I even coached a youth league team together. That was great, too. Any time I spent with him around baseball was a great time.
My dad often told me that it didn’t matter to him what I chose to do with my life, as long as I strove to be “the best” at whatever career or profession I chose. I didn’t become a professional ballplayer or a successful doctor or lawyer and it was clear even by the time I was in my 30s that I would never be “the best” at my chosen profession. My dad loved me and I loved him and we had some great times together on and off the baseball field, but I could never escape the feeling that I was not living up to his expectations. I never felt he was really proud of me… not as a teenager, not as an adult making my way in the world… not to this day.
My own son was only 8 years old when, after a decade-long fight, cancer took my dad… and my son’s grandpa… away from us. I won’t bore you with a recitation of the experimental treatments and surgeries my dad endured to last as long as he did, but suffice to say he didn’t go down without a fight. In return for all of that, among other things he got to hold his granddaughter (my daughter*, born less than a year before he passed) in his arms. He also got to play a little ball in the yard with his grandson and watch him play some T-ball games.
Dad passed away during the 1991 World Series (which is why I really don’t remember much about watching that Series). I was still playing baseball at the time, myself, in a “senior” baseball league, and the team I was playing for had a tournament game the day after my dad died. I showed up and pitched that game. I’d like to say I played because that’s what my dad would have wanted me to do, but the fact is he thought I was nuts for continuing to try to play baseball at the age of 35. Nor did I play that game to take my mind off my dad. Quite the opposite. I played because I never felt closer to my dad than I did when I was on a baseball field. I still feel that way today.
I continued playing ball for a few more years, but I also started getting more involved with coaching my son’s baseball teams. I was never one of those fathers who drove his son to become a professional ballplayer (having my genes pretty much doomed his chances of that), but I was determined to make sure he and the other boys learned how fun it could be to spend their spring and summer on baseball fields… just the way I had learned from my dad.
I also took my own son to Twins games… just the way my dad had taken me. Yes, these were indoors at the Metrodome, while my dad and I had shared sunny days (and some rainy ones) at Metropolitan Stadium, but that doesn’t matter. Even winning and losing didn’t matter. Of all the Twins games I saw with my dad, I remember the result of exactly one… a pitchers’ duel between Sam McDowell and Jim Perry that the Twins lost 1-0. What mattered then (and what matters now) is that I shared those experiences… this grand game… with my dad and with my son.
Over the past few years, my son and I have continued going to ballgames, sometimes with other friends and family members and sometimes just the two of us. We’ve been to Target Field a couple of times this summer. We also share season tickets for Iowa Hawkeye football games. Lately, I’ve become fully aware that I’ve passed the age at which my own dad was diagnosed with cancer, so I’m feeling my mortality a bit. But his fiancé has become a Twins fan, too (her favorite player is Michael Cuddyer and she seemed to really like the “Cuddy is My Buddy” t-shirt I bought her), so I’m confident that the next generation of my family will be enjoying Twins games well in to the future.
So anyway… this Saturday, I won’t be joining the Knuckleballs GameChat when the Twins face the A’s at noon (the schedule my soon-to-be daughter-in-law has distributed tells me I’m supposed to be picking up cake at noon and delivering it to the reception hall). By late afternoon, my “little boy” will be married and we’ll all begin an evening-long celebration of the event. But no matter how dressed up and grown up he looks on Saturday, I’ll still be seeing the two-year old I held on my lap at the 1985 All-Star game at the Dome, the 5 year old playing whiffleball with his grandpa in the yard and the boy hitting his first “over the fence” home run at a tournament in Apple Valley.
He’s never going to play first base for the Twins, become a celebrated doctor/lawyer or even become the most financially successful person in his chosen career. But he’ll be a good father some day. I know that because he’s been a terrific son… and I can’t imagine being any prouder of him than I am now. – JC
*Please don’t think that, just because my daughter got only one mention in this post, that she’s played any less of an important role in my life or that I’m any less proud of her. She may have developed a much greater interest in the fine arts, rather than sports, but I’ve treasured every play or concert I’ve been blessed to attend with her, whether she was performing or we all were just enjoying together from the audience. It will be very emotional for me to watch my son get married, but I can’t begin to imagine what it will be like some day to watch my little girl do the same. (That’s why, even now as she begins her second year of college, she is not allowed to date.) My kids have both turned out terrific. Thank God they have a wonderful mother to make up for their screwed up dad.