Commentary: Fathers and sons

Parents are our first and most influential coaches. Their most important coaching has nothing to do with sports, but some parents—in addition to more essential instruction—are involved in getting their children started in an athletic pursuit. My father was a coach by vocation, and over his career he coached football, basketball, tennis and golf at the high school or college level. He was never paid to coach baseball, but he did so for one season, taking the helm of my Como Youth baseball team when I was 10.

Besides coaching that team, my father occasionally played catch with me, and sometimes he took my brothers and me over to Como Park and hit fly balls to us. Although I don’t think he fancied himself an expert on baseball, he did have some settled convictions, one of which was that I should throw overhand. I don’t know whether he imparted similar advice to my two younger brothers, so I’m not sure whether his admonitions reflected a general philosophy or were tailored to what he saw as my likely future in the game.

My father did not practice what he preached. He was a confirmed sidewinder. I never challenged that inconsistency; instead, I strove manfully to bring my throws over the top. But I couldn’t seem to master that delivery. In his presence, I would go through the motions of throwing overhand, with usually unimpressive results. Playing catch with my friends, though, I reverted to what seemed a much more natural sidearm and with which I was considerably more accurate. In our backyard whiffleball games, I even developed a wicked submarine pitch that my brother Paul sought to ban, claiming it was unhittable.

When I started playing organized baseball through Como Youth, I was put at third base. My beleaguered coach didn’t have the luxury of worrying about the throwing motion of individual players. If you could catch more than half the ground balls he hit, you qualified as an infielder, and as long as your pegs to first were generally on target, that was good enough. Later, I would try my hand at pitching, where there were plenty of sidearm role models. Eventually, as I grew taller and my pitching failed to distinguish itself, I gravitated to first base.

As a pitcher and infielder, I got along OK with a sidearm. When I occasionally ventured to the outfield, however, the limitations of that motion were abundantly apparent. I couldn’t throw very far, and everything tailed away from my target. So before long, I’d be sent back to first. Perhaps my father had undergone a similar experience. Maybe he wished a different fate for his son.

My father didn’t play organized baseball in school. His experience with the game was confined to sandlot ball in River Falls, Wis., where he grew up. In his high school, most boys played two or three sports, but his spring sport was track and field. I don’t know what all factored into that decision. It could have been as simple as liking the track coach better than the baseball coach. In any event, his adult relationship with baseball was almost exclusively as a spectator of his sons and of the professional teams in our area—first the St. Paul Saints and Minneapolis Millers, and later the Minnesota Twins.

As my Little League career progressed, my father gave up on converting my sidearm to an overhand, and the year he coached my team—when I mostly held down the initial sack, with an occasional relief stint on the mound—he directed his individual instruction elsewhere. Later, as a fan at my games, he was content to cheer me on, sharing my joy in victory, commiserating in defeat.

Once, though, he was forced out of the spectator’s seat. I was playing for the Como Orioles, and the umpire didn’t show up. This was not an unprecedented development. Most of the umpires in our league were high school kids, who weren’t always very reliable. The game must go on, though, and in such instances someone from the crowd was drafted to fill in. (“Crowd” is a misnomer; we seldom had more than a couple of dozen spectators, mostly parents.) On this occasion, my dad got the nod. He took his position behind the pitcher, which is where the lone ump always stood in our games.

The game proceeded uneventfully. There were a couple of close calls on the bases, but my father’s authoritative voice and presence (he was 6 feet 8 inches and more than 250 pounds) forestalled any challenges from players, coaches or fans. I was playing first, where I handled the only grounder hit to me and made a nice pickup on a low throw from Tom Wandemacher at short. At the plate, I walked my first two times up.

Our team fell behind, and we came to our last at-bats trailing by one. I was well down in the order and didn’t figure I’d be up again, but we sandwiched a couple of singles and a walk between two pop-ups, and I came to the plate with the bases loaded. I was hoping for my third walk, to force in a run and tie things up. I looked at a strike, took two pitches outside, then waved ineffectually at a fastball. Another ball filled the count. The stage was set for some kind of drama. A hit would probably score two and win the game. A walk would bring in one and keep us alive. An out would end the game. I looked over the pitcher at my dad, but his face told me nothing. The pitcher, working from a windup, reared and delivered a fastball. I watched it go by.

There is an auditory phenomenon that would seem to defy the laws of physics. One might think that an absence of sound is just that, and that silence admits of no degrees. But in fact, it is not linguistically incorrect to ascribe depth to silence. That day, a silence descended on the field at Como 3 that was voluminous, capacious, enveloping. It was the silence of collective anticipation. It was like the hush that falls over a theater audience when the lights have dimmed, just before the curtain parts. Into that silence my father hurled his voice, and the two words he spoke rang with as much authority and doom as the most seasoned umpire could have summoned: “Strike three!”

I have learned many things from my father. Some have been the outcome of overt instruction or explanation. But the most important lessons we learn from others do not result from what we are told but rather from what we are shown.

Fifty years ago my father taught me that a strike is a strike, no matter who’s in the batter’s box or who’s calling the game. I have learned other important things over the years, one of which is the reality of grace. Grace is unmerited favor, and it is perhaps the greatest gift we can receive. But grace must always be unexpected and undeserved. There is a time to be soft and a time to be hard. To call your first-born son out on strikes in the last of the last is hard.

My father is a gracious man, but he is also wise. And on a baseball field many years ago, my father let his wisdom rule his heart.

Good call, ump.

“Fathers and Sons” is an excerpt from Dave Healy’s book Baseball Dreams. You can find more about Healy and his book at Healy was the editor of the Park Bugle from 2000 to 2010.

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