(This is the Tantrum, in which Dadwagon’s writers debate one issue over the course of a week. Normally, we try to answer a question, but this week, to mark the publication of “Are We Winning? Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball,” by Will Leitch, we’ve done something different. Today, we welcome a brief memoir from the author himself, exclusive to Dadwagon. Take it away, Will Leitch.)
One motif I’ve noticed from all the terrific pieces this week is that, in a lot of ways, the participation in sports and the observance of them are linked in people’s minds, and perhaps they shouldn’t be. I was a defiantly mediocre baseball player growing up in rural Illinois, a serviceable backup catcher for the high school team, used mostly for warming up guys in the bullpen and calculating the star players’ batting averages. If I were the same kind of fan as I was a player, you’d want me in your fantasy baseball league, because I’d trade you Alex Rodriguez for anybody I thought had a funny name. (Jarrod Saltalamacchia!)
My father was better than I was as a high-school athlete, but not by much. I suspect, raising me, he hoped I’d be a slight uptick in talent rather than a slight downtick. This makes him like most fathers, I’m sure. I’m not a father, but I’m getting married in a month, and the plan is for kids not too much longer after that. That’s part of the reason I wanted to write about baseball and fatherhood now. No offense to the current fathers of the world, but I do think that the experience is such a breathtaking, life-changing one that I’m not sure I always trust the narrator. A good friend of mine, a writer, when his wife was pregnant for the first time, boasted how he was “not gonna be one of those writers” who talked about their kids all the time. The first four pieces of his I read after his daughter’s birth were about her, and the experience. I do not begrudge this, and I have no doubt I will do the same thing.
Obviously, the connection between fatherhood and baseball has been written about before, but, from what I can tell, rarely from the son’s perspective, unless the father was an alcoholic, an abusive lout, a former pro baseball player, or all three. (My dad, I’m happy and lucky to say, is a pretty nice guy.) Often, then, you get something like Mike Lupica’s book about fatherhood, which is essentially a whitewashing of the messiness of family, and baseball, so that his young perfect beautiful boy doesn’t have to grow up too soon. There is a place for that, but I didn’t want to write it, and if I know myself I probably will, should I have a son. Maybe I’ll look back at this book when I’m a father and be embarrassed about what I didn’t know. In fact, I kind of hope so.
Anyway: playing sports versus watching them. I remember the first time my father looked old to me. I mean, he always looked “old”; he was my father, I was a kid, and as far as I knew he had been on Earth forever. I was 11 years old, and we were walking from our hotel in St. Louis to the old Busch Stadium before a Cardinals game.
I was just growing old enough to start realizing my limitations. I was telling my father that I wanted to be a baseball broadcaster, like my hero Jack Buck.
My dad: “Most kids want to be professional baseball players. You want to talk about people playing baseball?”
Now, if I were to eventually make it to the big leagues, I’d certainly need to be the best player in Mattoon, Illinois, even at the age of 11, and I was a far cry from that. This seemed obvious to me, and I was surprised it didn’t seem obvious to my dad.
“Dad, let’s face it,” I said, trying to sound knowing and world-wise, like the adults talked when they were in the other room drinking margaritas while we kids were playing Nintendo and pretending we couldn’t hear them. “I’m never going to be a major leaguer. It’s just realistic.”
My father, then just 37 years old, a little older than I am now, looked a lot like Grandpa right then: Tired, slower, a little vacant of all of a sudden. We didn’t say anything else until we reached the stadium and, now that I think about it, it seems like we played a lot less catch after that, a lot less than we used to.
But that didn’t stop us from watching baseball. I still call my dad after almost every Cardinals game. Well, that’s not true anymore. Now I text him. It’s easier and quicker and strange. My father’s embrace of texting is convenient, but it still makes me uncomfortable. It’s supposed to be difficult to communicate with your father; it’s not supposed to be convenient. Though he has yet to LOL, which is a relief.