September 30th is a special day every year. It is the final day of the real “regular season” before the beginning of crazy October baseball. It is in my mind the true beginning of cooler weather being here to stay, which never makes me happy. It is my Dad’s birthday.
My Dad, more than anyone else, instilled the love of baseball in me. Growing up outside of Atlanta there was always a rhythm to life. During the baseball season we watched the Braves games on television almost every night, if we were driving somewhere we would turn on the radio and listen to the game, if the Braves were out west we would check the newspaper for the score the next morning. Skip Caray, Pete van Wieren, Joe Simpson, and Don Sutton were the voices of this rhythm and our bond. While others lionized the Braves announcers for their openly cheering for the Braves and for some of the offbeat and strange things they would say, it was just part of it for us. We laughed at and with them, scratched our heads, and cheered like mad regardless.
The conversation was and always is how are the Braves doing? My Dad suffered through the terrible years of the Braves once they moved to Atlanta in 1966. It is only in the past few years that I have had to grow to understand what it is like to cheer for a team that does not have a chance to make the playoffs. We rode the highest highs together of the Braves dominance through the 1990’s together. There are few better feelings in my life than watching a full Braves game with my Dad and once they win, him turning off the television and saying “…and time for me to go to bed.” There is nothing magical about those words, but at the same time, there is. It is as if the day is complete and all is right in the world.
My Dad grew up in Stone Mountain, Georgia and played on his high school team, the Stone Mountain High School Pirates. I do not know much about my Dad’s high school baseball career, beyond that he was on the team. I think I remember him telling once that the doctor always told him to be careful because of a heart condition he was born with. I should have asked him years ago, but I never have. Time to change that.
A few years ago, my brother, Jesse, was looking through the attic and found an old team picture of my Dad when he was on the Stone Mountain Pirates. He framed it and gave it to my Dad as a gift. The picture now proudly hangs on the wall in the living room at my parents’ house. We cropped my Dad from that picture and have him in full uniform as the profile picture for The Winning Run’s twitter page. It is a little grainy, but it does not matter, it is perfect. My Dad, the baseball player.
Growing up I wanted to play baseball non-stop, still do. If anyone would pitch to me great, if not I would figure out a way to play even if it was just me. Swinging a bat, throwing a ball. I could and still do spend hours doing these most fundamental baseball activities. Both my parents would pitch to me in the backyard, usually tennis balls so we did not break a window, or at the local school with its field, always baseballs to really launch the balls, and I would hit and hit and hit until their arms gave out, it got dark, or it was time to eat. Rarely if ever was it my decision to stop. I have always been more of a line drive or slap hitter than a slugger. I have more speed than muscle so you adapt your skills to the field and make the most of them. These backyard baseball games were amazing. My Dad, for whatever reason, always seemed to be a ball magnet when he pitched to me. Yes, he would catch some comebackers, but more often than not, they would hit him and bounce off. Again, there was a reason we used tennis balls. Even now, as I sit seven hours away from him I can hear the noise he would make when the ball would hit him. Every time I would ask if he was ok and he usually was, and I would get back in the batter’s box and we would do it all over again.
I did not learn how to play baseball from a local coach, I learned from playing with my parents and brother. I learned from watching the Braves games with my Dad. I had already graduated with my Master’s degree before I ever hit a baseball off a tee. I have no memory of learning to hit, or throw, or field a ground ball, or catch a fly ball. These are basic life skills that I was seemingly born knowing how to do, although most likely taught but I have no memory of learning. I did not begin to play organized baseball until late elementary school. Even then, playing was just for fun. Baseball was and is a game, take what you do seriously but if you make a mistake no worries it is a game. My Dad worked hard in those years, supporting the family, working six days a week. He always came to my games when he could. My baseball games that he was not able to come to always ended with a phone call to him once we got home. Every call was about how was the game, how did I play, did we win, did I have fun. I know he wanted to be at my games, but I also understand that he was doing what he had to do. I have grown to appreciate this more and more as I have grown older.
Wearing my emotions on my sleeve is something I inherited from my Dad. If we see something that we think is dumb or if someone tells us to do something we do not agree with, odds are we will let them know it. This has definitely led to some interesting stories over the years, and plenty of laughs. During the Braves run of dominance, and especially at the end of it, I can always remember my Dad mumbling under his breath about how bad they were playing, the worse the game, the more the mumbling. It always annoyed me. I had never had to live and cheer through the rough times for the Braves. I lived and died with each game, but now that the Braves are no longer the dominant team they once were, I am beginning to understand those mumbles. I still watch the Braves play almost nightly, but when the game gets late and they are just unable to play fundamentally sound baseball I find myself wandering to other games. I change the channel to another more interesting game; my Dad did not have another game to change to when I was growing up. It was the Braves game or nothing, and with a baseball crazy son like myself he had no choice but to sit through the misery of a terrible game while also spending time with me. My faith in the Braves could be torturous.
My Dad has always been one of my biggest cheerleaders in life. Rarely has he told me what to do. He has always told me to do what makes me happy and to do my best at it. When I was in school, my parents expected the best from me, but if a B was the best I could do, then they were fine with that so long as I had done my best. When I got the crazy idea to start traveling to Sub-Saharan Africa nearly every summer, my Dad always asked what he could do to help make it happen. It was never a vacation for me, I went to intern and work in places that were often only in the news because of the terrible things that happened there. I do not know if my Dad or my Mom will ever grasp what has called me to that part of the world, but they never stopped me, rather they always encouraged me to do what made me happy and to do my best.
There is nothing better than watching a baseball game on television or in person with my Dad, aside from playing baseball with him. Watching a game with him means examining almost every pitch. Complaining about certain umpires and borderline strike calls. Lamenting having to watch the game with national announcers when the local broadcast is blacked out. Marveling at the amazing plays, lately usually it is Andrelton Simmons but when I was growing up it was Andruw Jones. Above all, it means simply being with my Dad.
A month or so ago when I was last home, my girlfriend and I had gone for a walk at the local park and were going to hit a few baseballs on the field to help break in her new glove. My Dad met us after he got off work. August in Georgia is never friendly to anyone who is not accustomed to the heat and humidity turning the air into something bordering on soup. After a while, my girlfriend retreated to the shade and it was just my Dad and me on a small little league field pitching tennis balls to one another. In what seemed like a few seconds and several hours all at the same time, we just played baseball. He pitched, I hit. I pitched, he hit. I felt like a kid again, especially proud when I launched an old tennis ball well beyond the outfield fence into the woods, never to be seen again despite trying to go find it. I tried to hit a home run batting left-handed, but even more so than from the right side I am a pure line drive and slap hitter. My Dad pulled nearly everything I threw to him and clumped them all together ever so nicely. Then my Dad decided to try to hit from the left side, something he had never tried before. Suddenly, he turned into Chipper Jones or Mickey Mantle. He started to spray the ball more and will a little more power. We were both baffled and with every hit we got a little more giggly.
Happy Birthday Dad. I love you.