The movie City Slickers came out when I was fourteen. Other than the frequent jokes about butts (swollen, gored, sore, the list really does go on), the movie was written for an older audience, one that could identify with the mid-life crises of the three protagonists that drove the action like so much cattle. It was disposable and predictable, largely a vehicle for Billy Crystal to be Billy Crystal for two hours, but what made the film memorable for me was Daniel Stern's earnest, trailside pronouncement, “When I was about 18 and my dad and I couldn't communicate about anything at all, we could still talk about baseball.”
That quote resonated with me even then, and I thought back to it often when I struggled to find common ground with my own father. At fourteen, I was in what he now generously calls a “contrary phase.” Part of it was regular teenage boy angst; part of it was a reaction to his tendency to exaggerate or invent unnecessarily. When the subject turned to baseball, however, my need for truth and certainty from him eased, and we spoke like we did at a game, a bag of peanuts between us, our conversation listing gently atop the din of the crowd.
Looking back, I think it was helpful that he and I were more or less on equal footing when it came to baseball. He was older and knew more, but he came to the game late in life and didn't have the hours and hours to dedicate to its minutia. And with baseball, the exaggeration and invention didn't bother me at all. They're practically required when your home team is so historically bad. To hear us tell it, Nolan Ryan's fastball was the most fearsome of all time, Ruben Sierra was destined to be a first ballot Hall of Famer, and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez was the second coming of Johnny Bench. We needed these legends in our lifetime, invented or otherwise, to cast shadows over the past and obscure the faults of our beloved, befuddled Texas Rangers.
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One day, my father came home from work with the news that one of his coworkers was the niece of Bobby Bragan. I'm quite sure that he had no idea who Bobby was before that day, but I authoritatively filled him in on everything I knew. Which as it turned out, was not nearly as much as I thought it was.
Bobby was involved in just about every aspect of the game over the course of his life, but little of it was visible to the average fan. As a player, he rode the bench on the 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers team that first penciled Jackie Robinson's name into a lineup card. As a manager, he wrote in Hank Aaron's name for three and a half seasons. Later, he served as the President of the Texas League and then of all of minor league baseball. At the time that we met him, he was working with the Rangers in some sort of ambassador/advisor capacity.
My dad arranged for us to have lunch with Bobby in a hotel in downtown Fort Worth. When we got there, Bobby was already seated. He stood up from the table and grabbed my hand in his. It was thick, a catcher's mitt you could have stuffed my own inside. Reaching into the pocket of his sport coat, he pulled out a pair of autographed baseball cards from his managing days, one he had written out specifically to me.
That afternoon, Bobby and I talked baseball over towering deli sandwiches while my dad looked on proudly. I carefully worked in slang I'd just learned from a book and recited most of the statistics I'd committed to memory. Bobby deadpanned in a voice worn to a rasp from shouting at umpires and lollygaggers on the backfields that though he was “the first manager of the Atlanta Braves,” he was “the first to be fired too.” Later, while explaining Bobby Valentine's bullpen management, he scooted his chair back from the table, raised a balled-up napkin over his head and showed me just why it's harder for a right handed batter to pick up the ball coming out of a right handed pitcher's hand.
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Bobby died last year. I called my dad to see if he had heard the news, and of course, he had. We reminisced about that luncheon, and then he reminded me of an epilogue to the story that I only dimly recalled.
Bobby was apparently impressed enough with me that day that he offered to sponsor me to be one of the batboys for the Texas Rangers' upcoming season. Assuming that would be my dream of dreams but not wanting to get my hopes up prematurely, my father set to arranging an interview for me. When he finally had it all lined up, he told me about it, but to his surprise, I refused to go. Apparently, I asserted that my first job would be earned on my own merits, not secured through his connections.
I don't really remember this part of the story, but I instinctively believe him, maybe because it's related to baseball, maybe because I feel more proud today of my convictions than disappointed in any missed opportunity. That night on the phone, my dad laughed, “I was so angry with you.” It was an anger I never felt from him at the time because he never intended me to.
I have a son now, and last year, at just four months old, I took him to his first baseball game. As we entered Seattle's Safeco Field for a late season match with the Rangers, the ticket taker directed us to guest services for a certificate commemorating his first game. I practically ran up the escalator to collect the souvenir. When the usher on the concourse cooed at him and pressed baseball cards between fingers still too young to clutch, I looked into his eyes for some sign of recognition, of excitement. He was asleep by the fifth inning.
I recognize that I desperately want to pass down to him my passion for the game. When I think of being his father, I think of throwing the ball back and forth in the backyard. I think of traveling across the country to visit all of the major league ballparks. I think of accompanying him to baseball card shows and watching him thumb through a pack of Topps. If he's anything like me, I'm pretty much guaranteeing that he'll feel the same way about baseball that I do about swimming, scouts, politics or any one of the countless passions of my father's that I rejected out of hand.
If that happens, I suppose I'll have to accept it. What my father taught me by dedicating himself to learning baseball's rules and players and stories, by patiently enduring drubbing after drubbing on Tony La Russa's Ultimate Baseball II, by spending countless summer nights at the ballpark was that my job as a father is to listen to my son and find out what interests him in his life. When I do, it will be up to me to learn about it, whatever it is, alongside him so that when he's fourteen going on eighteen, there will be something that he knows we can communicate about no matter what.