On life, love and baseball

Editor’s Note: The following may be the hardest article I have ever written.  But deep down, I write.  It is how I express myself and it is why this site exists in the first place.  I appreciate you reading and visiting the site on a regular basis.

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet
That very easily could have been the theme song around my house growing up.  While the winter months were passed by paying attention to the National Football League and the NCAA March Madness tournament, nothing compared to baseball in my youth.  Sundays during the summer meant trips to St. Louis to see our beloved Cardinals play.  Weeknights were spent watching the game on television, if it was on, or listening to it on the radio if it was not televised.  The love of the game was not something that I had to learn, it flowed through my blood and was enhanced by the wisdom handed down by my father.

When someone is born with material items (money, cars, homes) at their disposal without any work needed on their part, we say they were born “with a silver spoon in their mouth”.  If that is true, members of my family must have been born with a baseball in their hands.  The old stories handed down through my family involve children who could throw a ball before they could walk and children with the knowledge to explain the infield fly rule before they knew their alphabet.  For many of us, there was no choice: we loved this game.

Love of the game was nurtured and enhanced in my home.  My father spent time explaining the rules and the strategy of the game while watching with me.  He showed me the things to watch for during those times that the casual fan considers to be “inactivity”: the movement of the defense, the adjustment in the batter’s box, the adjustment of the catcher.  The poetry of the game was instilled in me as I watched and listened to each pitch.

He taught me about the game and also painted a mental picture of larger-than-life individuals.  Stories of great players that I would later research and learn more about were told through his own eyes.  From hard-nosed, hustle style baseball that he would later teach me to play myself to chance meetings with legends from his era, I felt like I sat next to him during countless games featuring players like Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Bob Gibson and Stan Musial.  Careers of players like Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Robin Yount and Lou Whitaker bridged the gap to the players of my generation and his.

Those Sunday trips to St. Louis were filled with moments that would stand out in my memory forever.  I met ballplayers, developed friendships with other fans, and learned the ins and outs of being a “bleacher bum”.  My dad was a different person when we were at the ballpark.  All the stress of life was gone while we were there.  He very seldom had a drink at a game, he did not want anything to distract him from the moment.  He was vibrant, fun, and genuine.  Opposing players were subject to his cat-calls and heckles.  Umpires were subject to his ridicule, something he would never allow himself the liberty of while playing.  He would teach me incredible life lessons on sunflower seeds and peanuts.

Baseball was not just a game that was played in front of me, however.  At a young age, it manifested as games of catch in the back yard.  When friends were over, it was a game of “hot box” or “Indian ball” that involved grand dreams of game sevens and home town fans.  As I got older, it was hours and hours of defensive drills and, if I was lucky, a little batting practice.  It was ground balls and pop-ups, learning the spin and identifying where the ball would go, and ultimately bonding.

He would eventually become my coach, working me harder than anyone else and expecting me to be flawless but spending the time to make sure that I understood what I did that caused a mistake and how to avoid it in the future.  When he had taught me the fundamentals and was seeing fewer mistakes in my physical game, he made sure I understood the mental side of the game and, most importantly, the respect it deserved.

It was an early spring day when we arrived to practice before anyone else.  We stepped out of the dugout so that we could warm up with some catch and then some long toss.  He squatted down in the same way that I had seen him do numerous times before, scooping a fistful of dirt and letting it pass through his hand and back to the ground.  I do not remember how old I was, but I remember finally asking why he did it.

He explained the physical benefits of drying his hands so the ball would not slip.  He also explained the old hustle mindset of not feeling that he had been on the field if he was not dirty.  He also told me that it was a time for him to reflect on the respect for the game and the field.  His explanation was based on his thoughts when he did this each time he stepped on a field.  He told me:

“You are not now, nor will you ever be the best player to play on this field.  Thousands have been here before you and countless will be here long after you.  There is always someone better.  All you can do is give this field, this game, everything you have.”

It was then that he laid down a new set of rules for me.  Rules outside of the rule book, outside of the document game, rules based in respect and history of the game.  Some were the typical “unwritten” rules that you hear about: don’t step on the foul lines, adjust the dirt in the batter’s box to cover the chalk if you needed to crowd the plate, not talking to a pitcher during a no-hitter.  The one’s I held on to were the one’s that he played the game by:

  • Absolutely no cussing while on the field
  • A strikeout was the worst thing you could do at the plate
  • A fielding error was worse
  • there was only one way to play the game: hard
  • not running, at any point, was unacceptable.  Walks, home runs, onto the field and off the field were no exceptions.
  • respect the umpires on the field and discuss your opinions with them after the game
  • “showing up” an umpire, another player, or any coach would get you removed from the game and benched for the next one

I don’t think I realized until I was much older that his rules for the game and his dedication to the time he and I spent surrounding the game were life lessons.  He had a physically demanding job that worked him incredibly long hours during the summer but he always found a way to make some time.  Some days it was watching the game instead of playing catch, but the time was always spent.

He was hard on me, there is no denying that.  Some said it was because of his military background.  Others have said “you’re always hardest on your child”.  Looking back, I realize that he knew what I was capable of and the time we had put into everything and he felt just as disappointed as I did when it did not work.

Baseball stayed at the center of our relationship when I became an adult.  Many phone conversations were made longer with a simple “did you see the game last night” or a “any word on the trade front” question.  Visits were centered around watching the game together.  During the summer of 2003, we made a whirlwind weekend driving trip to Cooperstown to see the Baseball Hall Of Fame and Museum.  We spent that weekend watching Class A minor league baseball, youth league games at Doubleday Field, and the sites and sounds of baseball history.  I had no idea at the time that it would be one of the last trips I would make with my father before he lost his ability to walk.

We both watched bewildered as the Boston Red Sox would celebrate their World Championship on the infield of Busch Stadium.  I was with him, kneeling on his floor, in 2006 when the Cardinals won their first World Championship that we would both remember.  We were almost 300 miles away from each other in 2011 when they completed their magical run, but I was on the phone with him soon after.

On August 3, 2012, my father left this world.  He was honored by the military for his dedication to his country and remembered fondly by family and friends that loved him very much.  My children sent flowers that were red and white, contained a baseball, and a cardinal bird.  There were flowers from friends of mine that are bloggers, people I have only met because of a mutual love of this game, that felt the need to reach out to me at this time.  It was very fitting of the man to have his country and this game present.

Just thirteen days prior to his passing, I was united in marriage to someone that I met through the game of baseball.  Angela Weinhold was writing on her site, Diamond Diaries, when I interviewed her for Baseball Digest.  We took a modest honeymoon to St. Louis to see our team take on the Dodgers and to spend some time seeing the tourist type attractions in the city that we both love so deeply.  During this trip, Angela brought up the idea of going to the site of Sportsman’s Park, which is in an area that I was familiar with and generally did not go.  After some convincing, I agreed.

Shortly after arriving there, I found myself walking onto a little league field where home plate sat in the same location it was inside of Sportsman’s Park.  I walked up and stood there for a moment, taking in the history of the moment.  I remembered my father telling me about those that had walked on a field before me.  I imagined the players, both Cardinals and opposing, that had played on that field.  I imagined him sitting in the stands watching them with my grandfather and his uncle and cousins.

Looking back, I now realize that it was his love of the game that gave him the opportunity to show his love for me.  That the game gave him the basis of numerous life lessons to pass on to me.  That this game forever bound us together.

Watching the game now reminds me of him, as it should.  It bonded us forever and far beyond this Earthly plane.  It is because of my father that I love this game and now it is because of this game that I have so many fond memories of my father.

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