Thursday, November 10, 2011

Baseball and My Family

Sports have always been a part of my life. When I was a kid, I played the traditional big 3 (baseball, football, basketball) each corresponding season. As I grew, I found my specialties and strengths. Once done with school, I played on and off with friends in pick up games and lost interest over time as I grew older and more ticked off by the corporatization of professional and even college sports infected more and more with criminals and the weird obsessive behavior at the little kid level. While I rant and rave on how much a waste of time sports are or the evils of college sports programs covering up rapes of female students and, now at Penn St children, there is another element of sports I have overlooked that is a positive. It can bring people together. Not in the cheeseball crowd of strangers cheering on one event, but in the personal connection way.

I live in a geographic spot that is between several MLB franchises (6 are roughly equidistant). There is no hometown team for my kid, and I am not forcing him down my team's path. One team I was leaning towards was the St. Louis Cardinals team which is also my grandfather's favorite baseball team. My boy already had a little onesie as a gift earlier this year, and the photo of him in the onesie is in the center stage showcase for the grandchildren and great-grandchildren at my grandfather's house. This past baseball playoffs really drove that 'sports can bring people together' theme home for me. I spent a month calling my Pepere before every Cardinals game to tell him that my infant son would 'watch' the 1st or maybe if he was good the 1st and 2nd inning. I'd let my boy sit in his swing or on the floor with the TV on for one inning while I got his bath and final bottle ready. As the weeks rolled on and the Cardinals' wins kept coming, it was a nice joke between my Pepere & I. We called my son the good luck charm. It was a nice way for us to talk on the phone for 20 mins a few times a week.

I'm not going to lie, my grandfather and I had a cold relationship for the first 17 years of my life. He wasn't warm to me or supportive. He was with my other cousins and he was with my sister. I grew up wondering what I had done wrong, and it took years for me to figure out, it wasn't me. Now I had two grandfathers who loved baseball. I'd talk about it with them often. My paternal Grampa was an excellent player. Only freshman to play varsity as a short stop for 50 years at my high school. He'd tell me stories of playing short or catcher, or the season when George H.W. Bush played for another team in his semi-pro league after WW2 (he played 1st base and could hit well). The Grampa who I had a better relationship with never once came to any of my games. He was the same with his sons as well who all played ball. The other would occasionally show up. I lived no more than 8 miles away from either grandfather. People say kids don't care if grandparents show up. They might be annoyed at you showing up all of the time, but believe me, never show up and they will notice.

I would have killed for either of them to show up consistently and be supportive. It hurt. It hurt even more because my Dad did coach me, and while my Dad has a brilliant baseball mind, he never should have coached me. Our relationship with baseball was like the kid in Bad News Bears who has the awful father as his coach. I have multiple friends who's most distinct memories of little league involve their first hit, the hardest time they got beaned, a bad play they recall, a close win/loss on the final play and my Dad yelling at me for some dumb reason. Here's the thing: I was good. I played short stop mostly with great range and a good arm, or other infield positions when needed. I was a great hitter. I got speed as I grew up. I would hit in the basement before the season began, and would work with my sister when she started playing softball. Somehow that wasn't enough. I played on edge with high stress levels. When my Dad wasn't there, I played entirely different, enough so that my friends would notice it. I would have loved my Grampas to have come to games because every time one of my uncles showed up or my Gramma showed up, my Dad would have to behave and they'd always shout out encouraging words for my friends and I. I stopped playing after tearing my shoulder in back to back school seasons, I found out I was very fast for track, and honestly, I grew to hate playing. Looking back on it, I hated how my Dad made me feel when playing. He made it a job, and one that I'd fail at no matter how many game winning hits I had or game saving defensive plays I made. I really wish my grandfathers had shown up.
Both my grandfathers went through heart trouble around my 18th birthday. They both changed, softened up, and became friendlier men like the Grampas in movies. They had faced death. One had actually died on the operating table. I vowed to never live my life so that facing death would change how I feel about family or friends. I know where I was when my Pepere was dead for several minutes on the operating table. I was 17 and it was Halloween of 1997. I could have left that waiting room knowing he died and not cared. We've spent over a decade now actually having a friendship and relationship. This playoff run by the Cardinals will always stick in my mind for the little connection between my Pepere, my son and me. When the miraculous game 6 comebacks were needed, my son woke up screaming. My wife brought him downstairs, and he calmed down, sitting with me watching the game. Like in the movies, the Cardinals rallied to tie it up. Roughly half an hour later, the same cycle repeated itself. Cardinals go down by 2, my son starts wailing in his crib, he comes down, watches the game, and the Cardinals come back. The next day I told my grandfather and he was laughing his little old man giggle. He reminded me to keep my son up for as long as possible because the good luck charm was working. My mom, his daughter, was visiting that next day. She took a bunch of photos of my son in his swing watching the game with a Cardinals bib on. When the Cardinals got the final out in game 7 and the game & series were won, I called him. It was late but he answered laughing at age 87. "The little good luck charm worked".

I don't have a lot of happy, friendly moments from my childhood with my Pepere. I can't change that. For the time and moments we have spent since that Halloween in 1997, I've learned to let those awkward years go and enjoy what we have had since that night. We've spent too many Christmas Eves talking until 1am, too many afternoons talking about WW2 & the good ol' days, and too many hours chatting about history & books we recently read. When my son is grown, I will tell him about his first World Series and the magical month of October 2011 for the Cardinals. I will tell him how separated by 1000 miles, the three of us, my grandfather, my son and me, with our TVs on and phones on speaker all shared a great feeling. When I take my son to Busch Stadium to see the Cardinals for the first time when my grandfather is gone, I will think of him. For all the bad there is with sports, that month of baseball can shine bright as a special memory for us.

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