Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Connections, Part One

Today is my dad’s birthday. Since he passed away a few years ago, I can’t really call him. Instead, I’ll just pound out a few words that he would have liked.

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Some of my earliest memories revolve around baseball. As far as I can tell, I can remember as far back as 1980, when I was six years old. 1980 was memorable because George Brett was making a run at .400 and the Royals made it to the World Series for the first time. My grandma had a “George Brett for President” bumper sticker. And she took me and my brother out to get George Brett t-shirts but we had to settle for Hal McRae because all the Brett shirts were sold out. Of course, the Royals lost that first World Series to the Phillies. The next summer, we visited my great-grandma in Pennsylvania. My brother and I spent some time with the little girls who lived across the street and who were proud of their World Champion Phillies. Which prompted me to come up with derogatory slogans about their best players like, “There’s Pete Rose. Punch him in the nose!” and “There’s Tug McGraw. Punch him in the jaw!” I don’t think I was brave enough yet to rhyme “Mike Schmidt” with “piece of shit”. But I guess I was pretty competitive, even at that early age.

As a young kid, I would spend time at my grandparents’ house. They would sit on the front porch, listening to the Royals on the radio. Within earshot of the radio, I would throw Whiffle balls up to myself and pretend to be each batter, seeing if I could eclipse their exploits by hitting the ball across the street.

I remember receiving my first baseball cards. Some friend of my parents that I don’t remember was over at our house and needed to make a run to QuikTrip or the like. For some reason, I went along with him and he offered to by me a jumbo pack of ’82 Fleer cards. I remember getting back to my room and studying each of the cards, completely mesmerized. There was a card called “Black and Blue” with Bud Black and Vida Blue. There was another gimmicky card called “Carlton and Fisk” which featured Steve Carlton and Carlton Fisk. There was a card with Ed Farmer wearing a blue windbreaker which I found really confusing.

All of this is to say that baseball was my first love.

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My dad grew up in the 50’s. He played baseball when he was a kid and I imagined his childhood was something similar to Leave It To Beaver or Charlie Brown and the Peanuts. His favorite player was Mickey Mantle and he told stories about meeting Hank Bauer and some of the Yankees at his barber shop.

But as much as he seemed to enjoy baseball, in adulthood something new had seized his attention.

It wasn’t basketball where height was a distinct advantage, if not necessarily a necessity. It wasn’t football where strength and machismo reigned and injury lurked around every corner. It wasn’t hockey, even though the Miracle On Ice was still fresh in the minds of many Americans.

No, what piqued my dad’s interest was incredibly popular but still something of a novelty in the United States. And you could compete even if you were short and couldn’t bench press a VW Beetle. And it tapped into the boundless energy that most kids have.

Of course, it was soccer. He found it fascinating and entertaining and he encouraged/compelled me and my brother to play. We didn’t know any better so we played and had fun, which I’m sure just augmented Dad’s enjoyment of the sport. And it helped that we were both pretty good. In fact, I was scoring so many goals that I made an agreement with my fellow middle forward that we would trade off opportunities to score. Which worked well until I passed up an easy opportunity to score because it wasn’t my turn. I botched a pass to my teammate and our coach sniffed out and snuffed out our charitable-yet-ill-advised plan.

Unfortunately, my coach was an alcoholic and a world-class jerk. This led my parents to search for another team for me to play on. And, fortunately, that eventually led to my dad coaching my team.

At first, I was a little embarrassed. My dad didn’t know as much as my previous coaches. But I liked being the “Coach’s Son”, even though he treated me just as he would any of my teammates. And he worked really hard to learn more about drills and tactics. As an adult, I realize just what a huge commitment he made, not only learning the game but having to organize practices and corral a bunch of smart-ass kids. He put in a lot of work but I think he really enjoyed it.

He enjoyed the indoor game, too, and ended up buying season tickets for the Kansas City Comets. It was a blast going to the games. And after they were over, we would go down to some secret, season ticket holder bar where players would pass through and sign autographs after they showered and dressed.

Watching Comets goalies Enzo DiPede and Alan Mayer (complete with helmet!) stirred something different in me and I decided that I didn’t want to score goals anymore. Instead, I wanted to stop them. I was excited to try something new, but my mom was leery, worried that I might get hurt (never mind that I’d received and played with a broken hand while playing forward). And on my first day of practice at my new position, I split my lip after running face-first into the goalpost. But I loved the challenge and I loved the physicality of the position. And I loved that I could use my hands and didn’t have to run incessantly.

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None of this affected my love for baseball much. Since the soccer seasons ran during the Spring and Fall, I still dedicated my summers to listening to the Royals, watching The Baseball Bunch (starring Johnny Bench and the San Diego Chicken) and This Week In Baseball (which still makes my heart flutter when I hear the best TV show theme music in history) and playing our version of stickball (Whiffle bats and tennis balls) with the neighborhood kids. And in 1985, when the Royals won the World Series, I went to bed that night thinking my own life would never be the same.

To Be Continued...