Seasons in the Son
Baseball is inherently so many things. It is a perpetual dream world, where the players stay forever young as we age before the canvas of their dreams. It is an escape, a brown and green, red and white, ash and hickory oasis on the border between reality and escape. It is a mirror to childhood. As Roy Campanella said, “To be a big leaguer, you have to be a grown man, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too.”
And that is why, at its heart, baseball is about fathers and sons.
We all have our stories of fathers, grandfathers, uncles, or brothers opening us up to baseball. They first flipped a ball to a toddler, first switched our misplaced hands on the handle. They were our first fans. They came home from a 9 to 5 and then some, fought fading light, rain, Texas heat, or bitter cold to grab a glove and have a catch.
Mickey Mantle, somehow 20 years gone but forever young in our mind, took us ever younger in recounting his childhood. His father, a righty, would come home from the Commerce, Oklahoma coal mines, scrub his face, grab a glove, and throw to Mickey between the house and the barn, right handed, with Mick hitting left. Then Mickey’s uncle, a lefty, would take the ball, the Mick would switch, and therein lie the roots of a hero to millions across generations.
They are there for tough love, too. Mick told the story of being broken down and flailing at everything at 19, in Joplin, after his monster spring training, and calling his father, lamenting that he couldn’t do it. His father said not to leave, he’d be right there. Mickey expected a pat on the shoulder and support. His father drove the 30 miles to Joplin, walked in, pulled his suitcase from the closet, and started to fill it. As Mick sobbed for another chance, his father said, “I thought I raised a man. You’re nothing but a coward. You can come home and work the mines with me.” After Mick managed to beg him to a stop, he started hitting and never looked back.
Some, like Delino DeShields, Jr., have a rather unique gift: a major league father. Delino DeShields was a 13-year big league, primarily with Los Angeles and Montreal. His son followed in his father’s fleet footsteps, but as Senior will tell you, it was direction, not motivation, that came from his father. From the LA Daily News:
“I always knew,” DeShields said. “Things got tricky when he started playing football, but baseball was in his blood. He grew up around the game. It was no surprise that he gravitated towards baseball. I introduced him to the game, but he took it and ran with it.” … “Obviously, ‘Lino was blessed with the physical ability to play the game,” his father said. “But physical ability will only take you so far. I’m more impressed that he’s become a student of the game.”
Fathers never lose the pride in their sons, regardless of the heights they’ve reached or the struggles Junior might undertake. Senior’s advice for Delino? Take every day as another day to do your best:
“You have to have a short memory to play this game. Baseball is a ‘what have you done for me lately’ business. No one cares about last year, last month, or even yesterday. It’s all about today. I try to text him every morning, and basically what I tell him is ‘Today is a new day.’ “
One of the better father-son stories involving Arlington centers on a future Hall of Famer, Cal Ripken, Jr. As some of you may know, before the Rangers came to town, what would become Arlington Stadium was Turnpike Stadium, a 10,000-seat broiler of a Double-A ballpark. The team was an affiliate of the Orioles, managed by Cal Ripken, Sr., with Cal Jr. as batboy. In the summer of 1971, the team was taking infield when shots rang out. Some lunatic – drunk or stupid has never been established – was taking pot shots at the field from above the outfield fence near the highway.
Doug DeCinces, who would go on to a 15-year career in Baltimore and Anaheim, scooped a young Cal into the shelter of the sweltering dugout until the firing stopped. Cal has always said those years following his dad on the minor league circuit were invaluably formative, but if not for a Gold Glove play from a future All-Star, baseball’s all-time Iron Man might have fallen to lunatic lead before puberty.
There may be no better image of a father and son this season than we saw on Tuesday, June 2. When Joey Gallo homered to DEEP right in his second big league at bat, both his parents were ecstatic. But if you noticed, it was his father who most visibly lost it, without a bit of self-consciousness, right there in the stands. I saw that and cried. Anyone who grew up with a father or son in baseball did, too, I’d bet.
My grandfather and father both played huge roles in baseball for me. For my grandfather, I introduced him to baseball, and he became the pre-eminent 80+-year-old BP pitcher in the world. My dad sacrificed time, blood, sweat, and at least one toenail helping me live my dream. He built a wall in our back yard and spent the rough equivalent of a 4-year degree from SMU at the batting cages at Twin Creeks in Richardson.
Most importantly, he introduced me to the true love of baseball. See, I was almost 9 on a hot August night in 1989 when he came to pick me up from a friend’s house. I’d gone there after school, as he and Mom both worked, and this night, both worked late. My friend only had rabbit ears … if you’re under 30, you’ll probably not understand that, but just understand, this was NOT HDTV. But there was a spotty image of a 42-year-old Nolan Ryan kicking his knee to his chin and throwing 96 MPH. On that day, when Rickey Henderson swung through a grainy 3-2 fastball and I saw a house explode in cheers, I fell in love with baseball.
Later that year, Dad took me to my first game, a simmering September game in the Arlington bleachers, and before long, he was building backstops, spending evenings at batting cages, and losing toenails to maybe the only sharp curve I ever threw in my life.
Maybe most memorably, he took me to the bookends of baseball – spring training in Florida and Cooperstown in New York. At the former, he taught me to both ignore and enjoy the hijinks of drunk fans. At the latter, he taught me how to narrate a video tour without use of the word “Um” every tenth syllable. He’ll get both those references.
Baseball honors fathers and sons. Whether your name is Bonds, Griffey, Boone, Bell, Deshields, or just simply Connor, you form memories of childhood framed in the dust and rosin of the ball fields. You laugh and sweat, cheer and love. In baseball, father and father figures give us some of our first lessons in life, and if you’re like me, they live in you a lifetime.
Remember and give thanks, next weekend and every day, for all they did for us. Then, if you’re blessed enough to be able, have a catch.