We buried my father beside his baby girl this past Sunday. The service was very well done by the pastor from our old church, Sunset Forest Baptist. I think there was a ball game going on at Fenway at the same time, on a channel lost to those in Carolina and points southward. The Oakland A’s beat the Boston Red Sox quite handily if I recall, but you would have to double check ESPN.com or the like to know for sure. Actually, I have no real desire to know what the final score was. If you can recall, there’s a famous line from a relatively good movie out there that goes something like this: “there are more important things in life… than baseball.”
My father was a great man, something that you don’t find often in the world we live in today. He was a baseball fan, first and foremost. Football, specifically Green Bay and (I’d like to think) Notre Dame came after the Boston Red Sox. Pop was a fan of the game, when it really was a game. Guys played for next to nothing, just to be playing. Instead of players like Bonds, Canseco, Grimsley and Palmeiro tainting the game, you had DiMaggio and Williams, Mays and Matthews, Koufax and Gibson. The highlight of a twelve year old’s weekend would be in front of the television set on a Saturday afternoon, watching the Yankees take on Carl Yastrzemski and the Red Sox at Fenway. I learned first hand that it was actually okay to like the Yankees of the 1950s and 1960s. There were very few teams back then that can draw the ire of real baseball fans today.
I am most definitely growing up in a different generation, at least when it comes to sports. Team loyalty is a novel concept these days, best left in the back room of an antique shop along with Elvis posters and faded baseball cards. We live in an era where Bubba Crosby has a higher salary than the President of the United States. And while Bush has the fate of the nation resting in his hands, Crosby has a fly ball off the bat of a modern day Colossus resting in his. Football is the sport of choice to everyone except non-Americans, basketball has street cred and the cool factor about it, and baseball is brushed aside into a pile of dirty uniforms and empty syringes.
I had a chance to see one last baseball game with my dad last week. We were in Washington, D.C. and had purchased tickets to go see the Nationals play the San Diego Padres. It was a special night, even before this past week. Catching Alfonso Soriano in the process of hitting the game-tying home run with a disposable camera is about as lucky as one can get. The seats were great, even if the ballpark and most things in it were as decrepit as the area around it. We left around the sixth inning, unsure of how badly the Nationals were getting beat. It didn’t really matter, because dad was busy having the time of his life watching the ball game. He always did.
There isn’t much that I can add to the father/son dynamic that exists in baseball. Either you get it or you don’t. Dad coached my coach pitch and Babe Ruth league teams, along with my brother’s team when he played. When I was three years old, he took me to my first ball game at the old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, before the Braves meant much beyond Peachtree Street. He took us to Fenway Park in 2001 to see the Red Sox play in what was a dream come true. It was Camden Yards the year after that, and Yankee Stadium in 2005. He taught me the lyrics to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” when I was six, right after he had shown me how to keep score. You know, there’s a pretty good way to judge your connection to your father and baseball by watching Field of Dreams. If Kevin Costner’s “Wanna have a catch?” line doesn’t turn the faucet on in your eyes, you might as well turn back now. One guess as to which way I’m going.
Cancer took its toll on my father’s body, but it didn’t make a dent on his mind, or on his heart. Those pains were reserved for the degradation of baseball. Steroids, $250 million dollar players and the playoff futility of the Boston Red Sox ate at him like nobody’s business. He was hurting so bad that he couldn’t get up to watch Keith Foulke toss a weak grounder over to Doug Mientkiewicz, but he was watching the final outs of the ALCS that year. We took great pride in flipping the bird to Jeter and A-Rod during the ninth inning. I sometimes wonder how much of that was out of elation over the moment, and how much of it was a genuine hatred for the representation of today’s version of baseball. I guess its one of those questions that will remain unanswered for a few years.
All of these “Red Sox Nation” innuendos and stories are fun to a degree, but even the formerly cursed Red Sox have not escaped the ravages of time. There are plenty of Red and White “Socks” that are making more money than 97% of their fans do. The face of a franchise one year is the designated hitter to a bigger spending ball club the next. A twenty-something catcher can hit .370 and still not start in the All-Star Game, while owners in Kansas City and Tampa Bay seem content on fielding a team solely for profit. Players get accolades and awards that they don’t deserve, simply based on star power, while others break the hearts of their most loyal fans by signing with the “Evil Empire”, all for a few more million dollars. Because you and I know, $44 Million isn’t enough to feed your family nowadays.
Baseball players, more than any other athletes today represent everything wrong with this country. People are dying in a desert quagmire thousands of miles from home while others make millions of dollars to shag pop flies. The intimacy of the game has been replaced by television advertising and shiny new ballparks that half-heartedly attempt to capture the bygone days of the baseball your fathers grew up on. Food prices are worse than the souvenir prices, and spectators have to worry as much about drunk drivers coming home now as they do foul balls at the game. Oh, how I wish to have lived in the days when the game was a game. It’s not fair to the athletes themselves to be put in this position, of course. The owners are almost as evil as the players are. For years, ballplayers had to do any and everything in their power just to stay afloat, because playing ball didn’t always pay the bills. Even then, the ballplayers used to be heroes, towering immortals amongst men. Today, they’re wearing freshly printed money, masquerading as uniforms. I pity the fan of yesteryear, lost in the ESPN era of inflated contracts and performance enhancing drugs. There aren’t enough good men left in the game of baseball.
There aren’t enough good men left in this world, for that matter. I’d like to think that this will change someday, when Cracker Jacks are King and the old ballgame returns in all its glory. Such are the dreams of foolish men like I, of which there are far too many in such a sad, foolish world.