After my father died last summer, my mother encouraged me to take whatever I wanted of his possessions from their home. She mentioned his suits hanging in the closet, but I don’t wear suits. She suggested his golf clubs, but I have my own set. She pointed to his many, many Seton Hall sweatshirts, but I didn’t go to Seton Hall. I was fine simply retaining memories of my father, not his material things.
We didn’t have a whole lot in common. He liked Fox News, and I like The New York Times. He enjoyed novels involving espionage, and I dig Nick Hornby.
But we always had baseball in common, even when we didn’t see eye to eye. When there wasn’t much to talk about, there were the Mets, good and bad. Mostly bad, but last year was pretty good. My father followed their games on his iPad most days from my folks’ home, and it gave him something to do, something to root for, when his health was failing. I’d heard about the nurse, rushing to my dad’s hospital room after he’d howled, only to find the Mets had gone ahead on a clutch hit.
Going back a few decades, when my father would drive me to a Little League game, he told me to ask myself, when I was in the field, with every new batter, what I would do if the ball came to me. Where are the baserunners? Where should my throw go?
My 40-and-over softball team just started its season, playing at Broadway Field in Hawthorne. Most of the players would qualify for a 50-and-over team. We don’t win much, but every guy is grateful to be taking the field at their advanced age, and just as grateful for a cold beer and some laughs with the Healy’s Travelers boys afterwards.
Many, many years after my father gave me some advice before a Little League game, I still ask myself before most every batter what I should do if it comes to me. My father’s wisdom goes beyond the ballfield. What do I do if and when it comes to me works in the office, as a parent and as a husband. Going through the routine slows things down a bit, and takes a bit of the anxiety out of angsty situations.
A couple years ago, I had a game when my parents were visiting, so they came out–the first time they’d seen me play in about 35 years. After the game, the players retired to the stands behind the dugout, where my parents sat. I introduced my folks. A teammate teased my mother about stealing beers from his cooler. She still brings it up with a smile.
A couple hours before my games, I’ll throw a tennis ball in the backyard, bouncing it off a wooden board, to loosen the old arm up. I’ll swing a bat a few times to get those muscles loose. It’s actually more of a broomstick or a shovel shaft than a bat, with some tape on the handle to keep the blisters at bay. I didn’t own a baseball bat. New ones are too expensive, and I’ve checked out a few yard sales in hopes of finding an old, cheap wood one, to no avail. Bedraggled stuffed animals, yes. VHS tapes of ‘80s movies, yes. Wooden bats, no.
I was visiting my mother recently, helping her sort things out after my father’s death, and keeping her company. I was poking around in the garage, searching. Not for the beers my teammate said she pilfered, but for a light switch, since my mother had mentioned a light outside the garage that mysteriously turned on, and she didn’t know how to turn it off.
I couldn’t find the switch, but I did find something else–an old wooden bat. It’s a Louisville Slugger, signed by a man named John Morris. It took me a moment, but I remembered John Morris, or at least could identify who he was. Growing up on Long Island, me and the neighborhood kids would play stickball in my front yard most every day in the summer, swinging a makeshift bat not unlike the one I swing in the backyard before softball. By the end of summer, the grass was gone from where the pitcher pitched, and the batter batted. That probably bugged my father, but he never said so.
The fence dividing our yard from the neighbor’s was just about the perfect distance for a 12-year-old boy’s home run, and our neighbors, the Hahns, never seemed to mind us sneaking up their driveway to retrieve a ball we’d hit over.
So unperturbed were they about us trespassing that kindly Mr. Hahn once gave us a bag of old tennis balls, sitting unused in his garage, that we could use for stickball. Within hours, we’d scatter them like Easter eggs, over the fence and across his lawn.
Another time, he delivered a wooden Louisville Slugger bat, and said it was signed by his nephew, John Morris, a minor league star destined for greatness.
I don’t recall if Morris ever made it to the major leagues. I don’t remember ever seeing him on TV. As I look him up on the online compendium of every player in major league history, I do see a John Morris, who’s about the right age, and grew up on Long Island. He lasted for seven seasons but was a part-time player with meager statistics, including eight lifetime home runs and a career .236 average. Maybe I can get him to play for our softball squad.
I didn’t take my father’s suits, golf clubs or Seton Hall sweatshirts back to Mount Pleasant, but I still retain some of his life lessons. Those, and an old wooden baseball bat I swing before my 40-and-over softball games.