One of the really bothersome things about Father's Day is when your father is no longer around to thank.
When my father was living, I gave him a fair number of tacky gifts, made the requisite phone calls, and stuffed his mailbox with Hallmark cards. But one thing I never thanked him for was making me a baseball fan, though how he did that was not in any conventional way.
Some of my earliest memories are of sitting in the living room playing with my toys while Daddy watched the Game of the Week on television, and I definitely remember the names Dizzy Dean and Pee Wee Reese, listening to their voices as they called the game.
Here's a link to an NBC Game of the Week broadcast, and the sounds bring back a flood of memories. I can still picture my father watching the TV from his easy chair.
Daddy took me to my first baseball game at the old Mission Stadium in San Antonio. I recall little about the game itself, but the sights and sounds left an indelible mark.
There was the vendor under the grandstands who was loudly hawking seat cushions for rent. I badly wanted one, but Daddy said no. I vividly recall the emerald green of the outfield grass as I looked over my shoulder while climbing the steps to my seat, but the thing that really drew my attention was the billboard outside the park with its massive brown bottle of Lone Star Beer rotating on top. As a child, the game didn't interest me much, but that giant, spinning longneck was fascinating!
Years later, Daddy drove us to Houston to see the Astrodome in its first year, and I remember the baking heat and how awe-inspiring it was to see baseball being played in air-conditioned comfort under that wondrous dome. And no matter what the score of that first game — or games during any subsequent visit — we would never stay for nine innings because Daddy always had to leave early to beat the traffic.
I never played Little League ball. As a youngster I had allergies, and the doctor told my mother that the flying dust on a Little League infield would worsen my condition, so she refused to let me sign up. The reality of it was I didn't care much, though Daddy tried to make up for my perceived disappointment by taking me out in the back yard to play catch, berating me as a "sissy" if I ever dared back away from a hard throw.
Sometimes I'd take batting practice, too, and usually Daddy threw a real baseball, though the time I remember best was when he lobbed rotten peaches over the plate for me to pulverize with a swing of the bat. Our small trees always produced fruit, but it was never any good, and I think peach pitching was a way for him to work out his frustration over another bad crop.
Truth is, I never was much of an athlete. Even in his 40s my father was the fastest guy on a church softball team populated with much younger men. But his only son inherited thick legs from his mother's side, and I was always a plodder, even in my prime.
It must have been disappointing for Daddy, who spent hours outside with me, throwing footballs, basketballs and baseballs. He was proud that I eventually became a pretty good outside shooter and dribbler, but I couldn't jump, and I was way too short and slow to excel at competitive basketball.
I loved my father and never doubted that he loved me. But to say we had a smooth, easy-going relationship would be stretching the truth. He was vocal and opinionated, and those qualities seemed to grow more intense as he aged.
At some point he began to lose interest in baseball.
You see, my dad was a man of action, and baseball was too slow for his taste. He was a football guy first and foremost, but later, when the Spurs came to San Antonio, he rarely missed a televised NBA game. If the Astros were playing on another channel, too bad.
Daddy didn't have the patience for baseball, and I remember him grousing about why it was necessary to throw four balls on an intentional walk. "They should just tell the umpire to put him on base!" he'd say. "Why do they have to waste time throwing the ball four times?"
He hated pickoff throws to first, and multiple, late-inning pitching changes would aggravate him to no end. "He can't be tired already!" Daddy would say.
Life with my father often seemed like a competition, and perhaps it was the many things Daddy disliked and didn't understand about baseball that finally gave me my edge. Appreciating the nuances of the game was something I could do that he couldn't. Watching a game, I was patient, Daddy was not.
Oh, I enjoyed the action, sure, but I also learned to enjoy the moments between the action, and to understand that even when there supposedly wasn't any action, a whole other kind of action was taking place that many fans, such as my father, missed entirely.
How I loved it that time when, during an intentional walk, I saw the runner on second advance to third base on a wild pitch, then score the game-winner on a sacrifice fly. I wondered what Daddy, with his four-wasted-pitch theory, would have thought about it.
On Father's Day I'll probably watch a baseball game and think about my dad. I'll wish he could be watching the game alongside me, even if it meant we'd have to watch without the sound because the noise aggravated his hearing aids. No doubt he'd leave the room long before the final out, but I will still want to be with him because there's nothing quite like death to make you realize that the bad times maybe weren't so bad, and the good times really did outweigh them.
I'll also think about my own son, now grown, and about the time I cruelly backed him up against a chain-link fence to keep him from stepping away from any of my hard throws. "Got to stop him from being a sissy," I thought to myself then. Yes, I'll remember, and I'll think — not for the first time — that despite everything, I truly am my father's son.