Sons, Fathers, and Baseball (By John Klein)
by John Klein
June 19, 2021
Special to Start Spreading the News
Baseball. Fathers and sons, and baseball. These elements are like my life blood.
I am not sure what it was when I was 5 or 6 years old, but for some reason I liked to sit in front of the TV and watch baseball. Perhaps because in the early 1970s in Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey the New York affiliate Channel 11 (WPIX) had better reception than Channel 9 (WWOR), it was the Yankees that I would watch, not the Mets. No one could ever call me a bandwagon Yankee fan, because in the days of Horace Clarke, Celerino Sanchez, and Gene “The Stick” Michael, they were not exactly lighting the world on fire. Since those days, I have been to hundreds of games at Yankee Stadium and stadiums across the country. I had a partial season ticket plan at the Stadium during the Yankee 90s and 00s dynasty years and was witness to some of the most significant (well, certainly if you’re a Yankee fan) games and player milestones of our lifetime.
In a twist to the traditional story of a father passing down his love of the game to his son, I actually passed my love of the game up to my dad.
When my dad passed away last September, I actually explained this in my eulogy that, among other things that dad learned from his children, he learned baseball from me:
We all know that yours truly is a great baseball and Yankee fan. I never had any influence in this area. When I was 6 years old, I just started watching baseball on TV and fell in love with the Yankees. After a while Dad figured out that that one of the best ways to spend time with me would be to watch and play baseball. We started watching the Yankees together whenever they were on TV and soon Dad was a true Yankee fan. When I was a dopey teenager and didn’t have a lot to talk about with my parents, Dad and I could always talk baseball, at length, and we often did. When Maria and I moved to Brazil in 1996 we could not watch baseball. This was the first year the Yankees made it to the World Series since I was a kid. Dad taped every playoff and World Series game and FedEx’d the VHS tapes to me so I could watch every pitch of every game. Dad’s acquired love for baseball was real as he continued to follow the Yankees even after I moved away from home. He took my passion and made it one of his own.
One of my memories that has always stuck, was a particular night when I was in 7th grade. My parents were strict about bedtimes on school nights. It usually meant that with the 8:00 pm game times back then, I would be shuffling off to bed when the game was only a few innings old. Of course, I would “secretly”, listen to the game, while in bed, on my radio at a low volume. Later on in the night, when my dad was heading off to bed, himself, he would come in to my room and turn off my radio. If I was still awake and the game was still on, I would pretend I was sleeping and then turn the radio back on after my dad left the room. I would fall asleep listening to Phil Rizzuto, Bill White and Frank Messer and I would wake up the next morning to the “Rambling with Gambling” show in my ear on the old am station WMCA.
I was a good-natured kid, but I liked to have a lot more “fun” in the classroom then my catholic school teachers could tolerate. My fun would often get me into hot water. Like, for example, I would get to write phrases about I things I shouldn’t do, several hundred times. Or I would be afforded the best front row center seats in the classroom adjacent to the teacher’s desk. On this memorable night, my fun loving made it so we could have a special night time, after dinner, meeting in the school library with the Principal, my teachers and my dad and mom. I don’t remember what was said in that meeting but I absolutely remember thinking to myself that life, post that meeting, was not going to be good for me. I’m pretty sure my dad would have rather been doing anything else that night, like perhaps doing his taxes or getting a root canal. Same for my mom, who was a 6th grade teacher at that same school. I don’t think she wanted to be sitting with her boss, her colleagues, and me at night, at the school, unless I was being given some type of special good citizen award. When we got home that night, I knew that the Yankees were playing the Red Sox on TV. This was at the very height of the 1970s Munson-Fisk version of the greatest rivalry in all of sports. I had to be watching that game, but there was no way that was happening after that school meeting. I was sure that I would be listening to that game on the radio in bed after whatever talking to and fate was doled out by my parents. When we arrived at home my dad turned the game on and I tentatively eased over to watch with him. We watched all nine innings of that game on a school night. Was he telling me that maybe my fun at school did not warrant all of the hoopla that came as a result? Maybe. But I will never forget.
There is something special about baseball movies. They reinforce just how deeply woven the game is into the fabric of our lives as Americans. In fact, perhaps more telling to me is how many non-baseball movies contain at least one baseball reference. To me it seems like almost every movie, but maybe I am biased. The Pride of the Yankees. The Natural. Bull Durham. Eight Men Out. All great baseball movies that I have watched numerous times. But there’s another baseball movie that beats them all.
About ten years ago we were having our kitchen remodeled. My wife, Maria, and I would trade off working from home so we could monitor the work, typically with three or four workers in our house, and watch over our grade school aged son and daughter, who were on summer break. One day, I was set up with my laptop on the back deck and doing my work. I came into the house for something and saw my son Nick, who was about that same age as 7th grade me, described earlier. He was watching Field of Dreams on the TV. I had seen that movie probably five times by then, already firmly established as my favorite of all time. I forgot why I came into the house and stopped in my tracks to watch the TV, much the same as when one is idly flipping through the channels and you come across The Godfather, you have to stop and watch for at least a few minutes even though you’ve seen it so many times. I came in right at the final scene where Ray asks “Hey dad, you wanna have a catch?”. There I was entranced and transformed for the moment, forgetting that there was a construction project and construction guys about 15 feet to my left. I knew it was coming but it didn’t matter, there is no preparation for this. The tears streaming down my face. I knew that I had better collect myself quickly because everyone knows that there is no crying in baseball. This thing is inexplicable to me. Baseball. Fathers and sons, and baseball.
My parents grew up on farms in Iowa, literally just miles from the Field of Dreams movie site. I’ve been there about five times with my family. You know we now have that obligatory side by side shot of Nick emerging from the corn as a 2-year-old and then again as a 20-year-old. Of course, we do. There is something “heaven” – like about the place. We were all out there in the summer of 2019 for family reunions. On our way home to New Jersey, we stayed a few days in Chicago and caught a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, one of the original “Fields of Dreams”. It was just then that it was announced that Major League Baseball was hosting a game the following summer (2020) at the Field of Dreams site and it was going to be the Yankees vs. the White Sox. Wow, we were just there and now this is going to happen? How do we get tickets for what will be a much greater demand than supply situation? My Uncle Charlie, we found out later, is on the planning committee. I am not sure how much pull he has but we told him to put us on the list to clean toilets if that is what it takes. We will need to revisit this now that the game has been moved to this year due to the pandemic!
There is something about baseball and fathers and sons. I have always known this. I have many things to be thankful for, being part of a close and loving family and having an amazing family of my own. And I am lucky enough to have my own father–son baseball connection with my son Nick. I coached him little league and baseball was always around, but so much deeper than that is the way baseball is a conduit between him and me. No matter what’s going on or where we are. These days, texting is probably our most frequent method. Swapping articles and our takes on such things as analytics (I’m not sure about “UZR” because Clint Frazier sure doesn’t pass the “eye test” in left field), tonight’s lineup (why is Hicks batting in the three hole?), “why are we using an “opener” when we have 6 starters?”, and so on and on. Phone conversations, car rides, and watching games together. And of course, there were the many “catches” with him in the front yard.
For being only 22 years old, Nick is an impressive baseball traditionalist. Yesterday he told me that if he has a son, he hopes to tell him that he remembers when they tried out a rule where they would start extra innings with a man on second base (with the hope that rule will be long gone, by that time). Nick, in fact, unwittingly, inspired me to write this and send it to you.
My Mom tells me that sometimes during their many camping trips with your parents, my dad and your dad would wear their respective Yankee and Red Sox hats, and elicit comments from passersby. I can imagine it. Today, on my Dad’s first birthday since he passed, my Mom told us that, just yesterday, she gave my Dad’s Yankee hat to your dad. I told her that I am not sure if he will wear it, but I am glad he has it. From my father to your father, to you and me, and to our sons.
And to the great game of baseball.