[Author's note: I've been traveling the past two weeks, so I haven't been in town to record any new commentaries. However, with Father's Day upon us, I decided to re-run this from last year. - JUB]
My dad grew up in Scarsdale, NY – but, as he’s quick to point out, before it became “Scahsdahle.” His dad, a dentist, told him to always root for the underdog, and my dad took it seriously.
All his friends were Yankees fans, but he loved the Dodgers. He and his best friend would take the train into Brooklyn, hide in the bathroom when the asked for tickets, and watch the Dodgers.
A perfect Friday night for him, when he was a young teen, was to go up to his room with a Faygo Redpop, a Boy’s Life – he was an Eagle Scout – and listen to Red Barber, who wouldn’t say something so prosaic as, “the bases are loaded,” but “the bases are saturated with humanity.”
He was a decent athlete – baseball and golf – but didn’t make the high school team. But he had a star turn as the short stop for his fraternity softball team in college, which won the championship when he pulled off a perfect squeeze play. People never forget those moments.
He and my mom raised three kids, all decent athletes, but hardly great. That still meant my parents had to spend most of their weekends shlepping to swim meets, baseball and hockey games.
I remember my dad waking me up at the ungodly hour of five in the morning, then piling me and my hockey bag into our 1965 Volkswagen Beetle – which had no radio and a heater only in theory – and hauling ourselves to a local rink for a game.
I’m not a morning person now, and I wasn’t one then, either. I’m sure I complained every time he came to wake me up. He didn’t complain once.
My dad didn’t play hockey, but he taught me the important things: Play hard, play fair. Losing was okay, loafing was not. And hot-dogging after a goal was unacceptable. You’re better off not scoring than doing that.
We also spent countless hours together watching George Kell narrate the Tigers’ games on TV, and Ernie Harwell do the honors on the radio.
In high school, rather surprisingly, my brother and I both made the team, and played together for one season. My dad is not one to brag on his kids, but he couldn’t help but gush about seeing his two boys standing together on the blue line for the national anthem. It didn’t seem to matter much to him that that was usually the most ice time we got. We had made it.
But, since I had become a sullen teen – at least at home – we didn’t have much else to talk about. But like Daniel Stern’s character said in City Slickers, we always had baseball. That kept us connected, when it seemed like few things did.
After I got out of the house and eventually on my own, we started becoming good friends. As Mark Twain’s famous quote goes, “It was amazing how much he had changed.”
We formed another bond when I started coaching baseball when I was still in college. I loved it immediately, and coached baseball and hockey on and off for most of two decades.
But the apex – or nadir, take your peak – occurred when I took over my old high school hockey team, Ann Arbor Huron. The team had not won a game in a year and a half. My dad’s reaction: “Why would you want to do that?”
It was hard to explain – but I did want to do that. Definitely.
Well, he said, assessing my team’s situation: “When you’re on the floor, you can’t fall out of bed.”
I gave my parents a schedule, but I didn’t expect them to go to the games. But they came to every one of our home games at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube. And the games in Trenton, and Muskegon, and Traverse City, and even Culver, Indiana. They handled it quietly, but soon became valued members of the parents’ gang.
When we won our first game, they were there. When we finally beat Pioneer in my third season, they were there. The lobby crowd was loud, but not my dad. He didn’t say a word to me, but I’ll never forget his glassy eyes as he reached out his hand to grasp mine, and held it, firmly.
He knew how much it meant to me. And I saw how much it meant to him.
We always had baseball. But we’re lucky enough to have a lot more than that.
When I asked him what I could possibly get him for his birthday a couple months ago, he said, “Just your friendship.”
Consider it done.
Hope that’s what you want for Father’s Day, too.
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Radio stuff: I’m back to my original normal of 9:05 Friday mornings on WTKA (semester’s over!), and sticking to my new normal on Michigan Radio of 8:50. And yes, there will be a quiz, so “stop what you’re doing, and listen!”
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“Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football” can be ordered now.