This story doesn’t have a happy ending. But it has a helluva beginning.

It was a rainy day—cold and miserable. It was late-spring, 1972.

I was at my first practice with my first-ever Little League baseball team. I was in the outfield with about a dozen or so other 8 year-olds, shagging fly balls.

I would normally have preferred to be inside, watching TV or playing Electric Football, than being in the dampness, possibly catching some sort of a virus.

But on this particular nasty day, I didn’t want to be anywhere other than in that outfield on the baseball diamond near Grant Elementary School in Livonia (it’s still there—the school, that is; the ball field is gone), tracking down the baseballs being smacked by the fungo bat.

That’s because the one wielding the fungo bat was my dad.

He wasn’t an official coach for that first team of mine—which was called the Indians, as all LL teams in Livonia in those days used real big league team names for theirs.

No, dad wasn’t a coach, officially, but he might has well have been.

He showed up whenever he could, and it was a lot. Always after work, still in shirt and tie.

He hit fungos, he coached first base. He tossed batting practice. He worked with me at home on my swing—which needed working on.

As a hitter throughout my seven years playing ball from ages 8-14, I was kind of like an Andrew Romine type. But I had a decent glove on me.

But my dad did his best to make chicken salad out of chicken feathers with my stick.

He worked on my stance, told me where to hold the bat. His theories were good—it was the student who couldn’t execute them.

So that was in 1972, and it was my indoctrination into organized team sports.

I eventually would play youth basketball but baseball was my first true athletic love. It continued well into my 30s, playing slow-pitch softball—with girls!

I won’t forget that nasty day in 1972, when we all chased fly balls in the rain, served up by my father.

Like I said, dad wasn’t an official coach—and certainly he wasn’t the head coach—so I didn’t feel any of that awkwardness that some kids feel when their father is the one making out the lineup card and putting in substitutions.

He was just there, helping out.

That’s who he was. That’s what he did. He was a good dad.

He was a good son, for sure. He went to great lengths, along with my mother, to help his elderly mother, especially in her autumn years. Grandma lived to be 89 but she was 43 when she gave birth to my dad, the youngest of six kids.

But dad’s two brothers died well before he did, so he became the “man” of grandma’s brood.

He was up to the task.

But I digress.

So dad went to all my ballgames, sometimes coaching first base, sometimes helping to gather the batting helmets, sometimes to make sure all the bats were grouped by size. Whatever needed to be done.

That’s who he was. That’s what he did.

One time, in practice, the head coach thought it would be good to have an intra-squad game. But since it was practice, there were no umpires.

Guess who became Nestor Chylak for a day?

Dad called balls and strikes—from behind the pitcher. He made the calls at all the bases. We had a great—and well-officiated—game.

That’s who he was. That’s what he did.

One of the reasons why I never felt awkward on the field with my dad functioning as a virtual coach was because he never called me out in front of the other kids. If he had advice to give me, he did it privately, with dignity. Which is more than I can say about too many LL parents.

He only got angry with me once on the field, and I deserved it.

Our team had gotten into a little tiff with the other guys. I can’t even remember what it was about, but our reaction to it, as a team, was immature, even for youngsters.

My dad was livid at how our team had behaved. He got even more so when, walking back to the car, I said something that was in support of our behavior.

He didn’t say anything to me. He didn’t have to. He just gave me a glare that I can still see to this day. It was the only time I’d been dressed down as a child, in silence.

That one, brief glare told me everything I needed to know, more than any speech could have.

We were wrong. And I was even more wrong for supporting us in our wrongness.

My dad wasn’t a screamer, good or bad. If he was a football coach, he’d have been Tom Landry. If he was a hockey coach, he’d have been Scotty Bowman—men whose countenance never changed, in victory or defeat.

But that glare spoke volumes.

Then there was the time I was felled by a pitch in the batter’s box.

It was a hard-throwing lefty who plunked me, in the kidney area. Knocked the wind out of me. I went down like a house of cards.

My mom, sitting in a lawn chair behind home plate, leaped out of it and raced toward me. Dad came running down from the first base coaching box.

I lay on the dirt, writhing. I wasn’t really in pain, per se—though it stung. I just couldn’t breathe.

“Give him some air!” someone said. It wasn’t dad.

Dad was knelt beside me, surveying my situation. I finally caught my breath and looked up at him.

He was smirking.

He knew I wasn’t that hurt by the pitch, which hit me in the side. Let’s face it—the kid throwing it was 9 years old. The radar gun might have clocked it at 55 mph, tops.

So that was the beginning of me, baseball and dad—not necessarily in that order. I played ball through the 1978 season. I tried out in 1979 but didn’t make the squad. Dad couldn’t make chicken salad out of me forever.

Dad and me wedding day
Dad and me on my wedding day, 1992

Dad passed 20 years ago in February, dead from a massive heart attack.

So yeah, not a happy ending.

But memories can’t die. And that cold, nasty spring day in 1972 is as vivid now as it was then.

Dad hitting fungos in the rain.

That’s who he was. That’s what he did.

Happy Fathers Day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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