Saturday, June 14, 2008

Baseball's Lessons on Eternity and a Father's Love

Game 1 Sunday June 21, 1964. Phillies 6, Mets 0.

The first place Philadelphia Phillies are in New York for a doubleheader against the basement dwelling Mets. The Phils have been perennial also rans since the 1950 Whiz Kids season, but now appear to be the real deal and are winning over the Philly Phaithful. Johnny Callison and rookie Richie Allen are pacing the offense. The pitching staff is led by an off-season trade acquisition from the Tigers, hard-throwing veteran Jim Bunning.As Bunning took the mound that summer Sunday afternoon, a television in the living room of a cape cod in Norwood, PA was tuned in. My dad sat down to watch the game with my grandfather. I don't think that either of them were really big sports or baseball fans. Granddad was an engineer with GE in their old Southwest Philly plant. Dad had just turned 13 and finished up 7th grade. Dad's older brother by 8 yrs, my Uncle Bill, had gotten married the month before, and so it was just Nana, Granddad and Dad. With all that excitement, plus Granddad's own 50th birthday having just passed, perhaps a low-key Father's Day was in order. Just a kid with his Pop. One on one. And so the game began.

The Phils put up a run in the top of the first and another in the second. When the Phils went up 6-o in the sixth on a Callison homer and Bunning helping his own cause with a two-run double, the game was well in hand. But something else was happening. Jim Bunning was pitching brilliantly. Every Met who stepped to the plate was retired. Not a hit, not a walk, not a hit by pitch or an error. No one had reached first base. As the bottom of the ninth came around, dad and granddad joined thousands of other fathers and sons throughout the area in sitting too close to the television and watching and waiting nervously. Charley Smith pops out ... George Altman down on strikes .... and John Stephenson .... down swinging!!!! He Did It!!! 27 up, 27 down. Jim Bunning Pitched a Perfect Game! First since Don Larsen in '56, and the first in the National League in 84 years. And most importantly, time had been spent and memories had been made. In the unexplainable magic that baseball can bring, Dads and Sons spoke without words:
"I love you."
"I'm glad you're here."
"This is gonna be some summer!"

The next morning, Granddad died of a heart attack. Some summer indeed!

Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed
utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You
remain forever young.
-- Roger Angell

That's the poetry and mystery of baseball. But we know time isn't ever defeated. Sometimes it goes way too fast. Like from a thrilling Sunday afternoon to a terrible Monday morning. In a memory though, or just a story for me, Dad is still forever young and the Granddad I've never met is still here. And in Another Place, Granddad waits. And there, time really is beaten. There is only now, the hits keep coming, and the rally is kept alive.

William N. Lester 1914-1964. Lux perpetua luceat ei.

Game 2: October 8, 1977 Dodgers 4, Phillies 1

Fast forward. October 8, 1977. The Phillies are in the playoffs against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Despite a ridiculous loss the night before to fall behind 2-1 in the best of five series, hope springs eternal. Not in the hearts of all the Philly cynics, but certainly in my mom. Mom has scored a pair of tickets to the game. The seats are way up in section 725 at the Vet. The forecast is for a cold rainy, night. And by the way, mom is nine months pregnant with yours truly. Mom is stoked. Dad is worried. As the evening came and they were getting ready to go to the game, I apparently began mildly suggesting they change their plans. The rain began to fall, giving my parents more time to debate whether the hospital or the stadium would be the destination.I became more adamant, and dad convinced mom that the hospital was the place to go. In the delivery room, mom screamed often. Sometimes at me; sometimes at the radio with the game on it. (This apparently caused some consternation among the nurses). I came into the world four minutes after midnight. Shortly after, the Phillies went down to an ignominious defeat and their season was over. In South Philly, misery. At Lankenau hospital, joy.

Mom and Dad's unused tickets from that night are framed and hang on my wall. On Christmas 1986, Dad gave me a book; I don't remember the title, only that it was a sort of baseball historical timeline. But I remember clearly what he wrote inside:

Page 243 tells of a sad, sad night for the Phillies. It was the
happiest night of my life.

Love, Dad

I don't know quite how all that registered in my 9 year old head, but I do know that was the moment I became a baseball fanatic. What might have been just a boyhood phase became a lifelong passion, because in playing, watching and reading baseball I was connected to Dad, and knew he loved me.

Game 3: July 11, 2006 American League 3, National League 2

There have been times watching baseball where I've leapt for joy, yelled in anger, or just plain cried (Joe Carter anyone?). But mostly I know it's just a game. And nowadays, a game played primarily by obscenely rich and arrogant players for even more obscenely rich and arrogant owners. I really love the game because it reminds me how blessed I am, and how precious life is, and how the next day or minute, or next at-bat or pitch, just might change everything. It reminds me of Granddad and Dad watching one last incredible game together. It reminds me of Dad telling me the story of that game as we visited Cooperstown on my 11th birthday. It reminds me of watching the 2006 all-star game as a new dad, with 3 week old Kenny asleep in my arms, looking at him and thinking that just a month before, I could never have imagined the depth and breadth of love a father has for a son, and longing to do anything I could to teach him, protect him and to ... succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and have defeated time. So we could remain forever young.

Alas, I can't do that. But our Heavenly Father can. And in Him, Granddad, Dad, my sons and I are all brothers. And we are young. And there are games to play.

I love you Dad. Happy Father's Day.

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