Dad’s cameos in the reality show of my teenage years almost exclusively took place on a baseball-centric stage. Dad was a high school coach, an alchemist on the diamond, and I was his most precious experiment, which made the ensuing exchange all the more painful.
It was late March in Massachusetts, winter’s curtain call, and I had written a note in a birthday card for my mother. It was something mildly suicidal, like “…when I don’t feel like going on,” blah, blah, blah.
She called Dad. I shrunk to about the size of an atom.
He wanted to see me for dinner, or was forced to see me for dinner. You have to pay attention when your son wants to drive a Ford Escort off the Bragga Bridge. We went to the Assonet Inn where we ordered a pizza, he a beer, me a Sprite.
“So,” he said. “What’s going on?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Nothing, really.”
“I don’t know. Girls, I guess.”
When I was away from the batting cages and not playing catch or fielding ground balls, my thoughts and confidences dovetailed. Much of my validation came from the praise, if any, of others. I needed to see envy when I wore the varsity jersey. I needed to hear their cheers. I also wanted nothing more than to have a girlfriend to see movies with, kiss, hold hands. But a girl I liked had just Temple of Doomed me and pulled my heart out of my chest.
Dad nodded. “You’ve got a lot going for you. You get good grades. You’re good at ball.”
“Yeah,” I said and shrugged. That didn’t seem to matter. That girl I liked, who tried to get me to like her, what with her flirtations and suggestive appeal, retreated when I confessed my feelings for her.
We slow-danced, and there was a moment during the song when I felt the energy that this was the time to tell her I liked her. A friend of mine had taken a video camera and filmed us dancing. The song was Meatloaf’s “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.” Her head rested on my shoulder. I said, “I, I like you.” I had a smile on my face. I was so sure of myself, but as we turned in circles and she faced the camera, her face was blank, mouth limp, eyes vacant. “Really?” she said.
“You just have to roll with the punches,” Dad told me at the Assonet Inn.
I brooded, but I just wanted this conversation to be over. I think he did, too. I felt like we were both trying to labor our way through a foreign language neither of us cared to speak, in a country we’d never visit. He looked across the table and saw in his son everything he wasn’t: good at school and the possibility of playing college ball, maybe pro ball. He saw strengths where I only saw flaws. I couldn’t see what he saw. His telescope was fifty-two-years old, and mine was that of a seventeen-year-old. He could see himself in me and knew my life would be better than his. All I wanted was the girl.
Dad and I had spent much of the winter indoors at the Bristol-Plymouth gymnasium throwing the baseball and taking batting practice. Out there, the snow banks grew with every storm. In here, at least, it was climate controlled.
It was a slow simmer to prepare for the spring, incremental growth and refinement of the technique that grew rusty over the fall. But the winter was harsh, pin-prick cold, with snow cast over the fields and no sign of receding.
At last, February break 1997 arrived. And Dad had a plan. His cluttered ’93 Honda Accord wasn’t cluttered enough. It needed more stuff besides the scattered ball caps and the fallen hulls of Big Red chewing gum packs. It needed us; it needed a road trip. He needed to get out of the north and feel warm again, a sneak peek at what would come in just a few week’s time.
Pitchers and catchers were set to report in Florida, some 1,300 miles away, and if a Honda Accord is good at anything, it’s gas mileage. I packed my glove and bat and wore my cap that read Baseball is Life, The Rest is Just Details. Thirteen hundred miles, from Lakeville, Massachusetts, all the way to Saint Petersburg, Florida, where the St. Louis Cardinals practiced. But we had an aggressive two day’s worth of driving ahead, two days of just Dad, myself, and I-95.
Dad picked me up in Lakeville, and we grooved on that road, that ribbon of asphalt unspooling underneath four worn tires.
We left the chill of New England in the Honda’s exhaust. We left Massachusetts behind, its point on the Earth tipping away from the sun, the equinox still several weeks away. I left school, Mom, my friends, and most of my teenage anxieties in the far north. Dad, too, left behind his own scene, getting a reprieve from his sour-milk relationship with Sue, whom I called Fuzzhead (though never to her face), and her ever-present, overbearing grandson Christopher. I despised Christopher. He was ten years younger than me and hoarded attention. He was unbearable to be around, and I hated the way he called my father, whose name was Walter, “Wowter.” We left this. We left all this.
Dad and I drove mainly in silence. I had my learner’s permit, but unlike most teenage boys, I had little desire to drive, though I had an odd sort of affinity for the Dodge Ram, its grill a facemask ready to thrust you off a cliff, to growl at you and stare you down. I read ads in the newspaper about Dodge Rams selling for $14,000, thinking Dad might look over my shoulder and be convinced his son deserved one. “Dream on,” is all I got.
He took me to a car show one time, and there was the Dodge Ram, that splendid piece of American flex, and he told me to hop in the driver’s seat. I did. I closed the door, put my hands on the wheel and looked out its window. Dad snapped a picture of me smiling, my bad high school sideburns forever archived onto a slice of Kodak film. I tried telling Dad that there were more Dodge Rams out on the road than Honda Accords, and he just laughed at me.
For some people, cars symbolize the ability to escape. I found my escape on the baseball field or in the batting cages. For a time, I lost myself in the kinetic chain of the swing and the Swiss-watch synchronization of the body to punish the ball to the outer recesses of a ballpark. There was something so comforting about that timing, the adjustments on the fly, the victory of hitting a round ball with a round bat. That was my open road, my deliverance.
We drove on. We didn’t have much to speak of beyond baseball and my studies and, believe me, that’s a long drive for so few talking points. Any time a conversation strayed from that line, it sounded like an out-of-tune guitar.
So in the southbound Honda, I fell asleep in the shotgun chair, my head cradled against the shoulder strap of my seatbelt. I apologized, but Dad said it’s tough to stay awake when you’re bored.
Still, we drove on. We stopped for gas and surfaced from the car. We felt the air, gentle on our skin. We stretched our legs, pumped fifteen gallons of unleaded 87 octane into the Honda, soaked a squeegee to wash the bugs off the windshield, and got back on that road pulling us down toward the Equator. My old man wielded a squeegee the way William Wallace swung a broadsword. Dad carried one in his trunk and would, at times, pour his own water on the windshield for impromptu cleaning in the parking lot of Wendy’s.
Michael Paterniti wrote in Driving Mr. Albert, his odyssey with a pathologist who harvested Albert Einstein’s brain on the autopsy table, “It seems we’ve outrun the weather, as well as the season for with the ageless, nearly sexual magic of the first hot sun on spectral winter skin, we begin to shed our layers and get woozy on the warmth.”
The snow banks had long since vanished, and the mile markers blew by every forty-five seconds. We saw a sign for Manning, South Carolina, no particular significance, just a random stop along that road. Dad flicked on his directional, and we pulled off the highway. He needed to find a high school. A high school would have a ball field. A ball field will likely have a batting cage. Dad later said, “Manning has two exits off I-95, now that’s HUGE. We simply stumbled on it since the forecast in Florida was for rain.”
We found all of the above. As we rolled up to the school, I sheepishly looked around, like we were doing something illicit. What of the students and teachers in session looking out wondering who the hell this kid was skipping school? And, boy, his swing can’t even break wind, his hands are like feet, and so on. We did run into Lou the Groundskeeper. “Good old Lou the Groundskeeper couldn’t do enough for us,” Dad recalls. “Use of the batting cage, more baseballs if we wanted.”
Dad felt warmed up, and I dug into the batter’s box and assumed my wide stance. I took aim at those pitches and laced them into the screen. Whack. Whack. You suck. You’re terrible. You’re bad. You’re bad. You’re bad. Oh, yeah, by the way, nice job hitting batting practice. Too bad when it’s game time you’ll choke.
Where this inner monologue originated, I’ll never know. The better I got, the more I harnessed negative energy to shame myself to improve.
“Take some infield?” Dad asked
“Okay,” I said.
Gotta dig, gotta burrow, deep into that murky swamp. Decay, rotting, methane-burping, cesspool, my attitude, my worth, tied and wed to the ball’s trajectory, my ability to repel a bad hop off my chest; hide your chin, absorb, soft hands, you prick, better go 30-for-30 with these grounders. There. Missed one. You do suck.
About a year eariler when a coach asked me after a game how I fielded, I said, “I didn’t make any errors.” And he pounced on me, benevolently, “Don’t you mean, ‘You made all the plays?’”
Optimism: — noun, a disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.
Split reaction to negative. Why? Is it the house I live in? The growing mold spot on our living room ceiling? My chemistry? Light? Dark?
Pessimism: — noun, the tendency to see, anticipate, or emphasize only bad or undesirable outcomes, results, conditions, problems, etc.
“Good job,” Dad said.
Sweaty and lathered, we climbed back into the car. Accomplished. Good practice. I felt that I could become great because I loved the practice, loved the work.
Away from the ball field with the air conditioning on, making the engine labor ever so. Dad pulled onto I-95 and said, “After burners.” I punched the AC button off, and the engine gave us a little more. Once we settled into a gentle cruising speed somewhere around 78 miles per hour, I turned the AC back on and felt its chilled exhalations over my skin. Only two more states to go.
Georgia is a nice relief after marathoning through Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Though Florida is another beast. Florida is a long, flat tongue of land extending ever onward, around the curvature and near the earth’s belt. In a weird sense of road trip vertigo, we felt closer to our destination in North Carolina than we did now. We were so close but felt so distant, like the previous 1,100 miles had finally weighed us down, and the thought of 200 more miles and its three hours to cover were as unbearable as the thought of the return trip home in a few days, back up the same stretch of road that coached us here.
Just get in the car and go. Summon your inner Kerouac because somewhere other than here, somewhere over there, it must be better. We always seem to be running from something. Taking seat, taking pause, provides us enough reason to run, toward that abstract unknown and the possible bounty it offers. As romantic as road trips are, they’re immensely boring, mileage signs telling us Richmond is 100 miles away, and yet another goal city is another 270 miles away. And what of the other road trip villains? Traffic. Crazy drivers. Slow drivers. Careless drivers. Drivers who laze in the left lane. Drivers who fail to pass and plaque up the freeway. Complacent truck drivers. Swerving truck drivers. Malicious truck drivers. Speed traps. Rumble strips. Pot holes. Exxon. McDonalds. Wendy’s. Tolls. New Jersey.
But we made it, finally, with boredom fully realized, at last delivered to the middle of Florida’s west coast. We sat at a red light in St. Petersburg, at an intersection near where my Aunt Cathy and Uncle Hogan live, for what seemed like five minutes. Maybe it was five minutes because every light in Florida takes five minutes. Dad even slammed the car in park in annoyance. We arrived, parked on the road, and were greeted with handshakes and hugs.
Dad took a good look at the car, how filthy it had become over the past 1,300 miles, over the tar, over the bug splatter, over the grime of I-95. And so Dad had a job for me between bouts of spring training practice. Uncle Hogan grabbed a sponge, bucket, and soap and put it in the driveway for whenever I was ready.
Pitchers and catchers reported a few days ago, but position players looking to get in some reps arrived early. Dad and I drove over to the St. Louis Cardinals complex where fields spread out before us. Players all had numbers like 74, 89, 56, players who got an invite to spring training, but who would likely spend most of their year in the minor leagues on cramped buses, barely making $1,000 a month, drooling over the wisdom of their own Crash Davises on their buses grumbling from city to city. At least here, there was the hope they could turn the heads of pitching coach Dave Duncan or their iconic manager Tony LaRussa, who walked at a distance watching the players go through their drills.
Dad ate this stuff up, devoured, glutted, monstered. As a high school head coach, he sponged the drills these pros performed. “See, they have the pitchers run straight to first base,” Dad said, “not running to the baseline then turning up to the bag.” He said it in that flabbergasted way like, “How come I hadn’t thought of that?” It was so simple. These players at this level are so quick, and a wasted step could be the difference between an infield single and an out, the end of the inning or the start of a rally, a win or a loss, a ring or second best.
Dad would incorporate what he learned from Spring Training into his own practices. He loved how some of his better players — or the ones who simply cared the most — caught on and enjoyed the drills and learned what he was doing.
Pitchers faked a delivery to home plate. A coach fungoed a groundball to the first baseman, and we watched as Andy Benes and Dennis Eckersley went through the motions, loosening their long bodies for the 162-game season ahead of them.
And just like those Cardinal pitchers, we too had our own seasons ahead of us, down the simultaneously convergent and divergent paths of our own baseball seasons and the hope that this silly game might bring us the bounty we so craved.
With that, Dad turned the key and headed north.
I like to picture songs we may have heard in that car ride home. I like to picture songs that lend themselves to wide pan-shots, filmed by a trailing helicopter, a sweeping scene of us hanging our arms out the windows cruising into the north, this movie panorama reeling in my imagination. I picture the Dire Straits singing “Sultans of Swing,” the steady bass groove and that tinny sound wailing from Mark Knopfler’s guitar.
I liked to think that the title implied a baseball connotation, specifically Babe Ruth. It could’ve been our anthem. Later I learned it had nothing to do with baseball at all. But maybe it could still be our anthem, this rock song about a swing band saving up all their dough all week to make a clean break come Friday night. They cared only for the chance to be on stage without offering so much as a passing glance for the mainstream motions of their audience.
And a crowd of young boys they’re fooling around in the corner
Drunk and dressed in their best brown baggies and their platform soles
They don’t give a damn about any trumpet playing band
It ain’t what they call rock and roll
And the Sultans played Creole
We plowed ahead because nobody did what we did. Nobody made the pilgrimage in a Honda Accord littered with Big Red chewing gum wrappers on school break to see a bunch of grown men practice. Nobody did that. We owned it. It was our trip and our spring training. Nobody laid claim to it, and when we left, it was ready to be left because we were done with it, and they could only resume when we said so, and so we did.
And then the man he steps right up to the microphone
And says at last just as the time bell rings
‘Thank you goodnight now it’s time to go home’
And he makes it fast with one more thing
‘We are the Sultans of Swing’
After that long grind, I got out of the car, embraced Dad and gave him a kiss and felt the pinprick of his whiskers. I trudged up the stairs and into the house.
“Hey,” I said to Mom, who was watching television.
“How was your trip?” she asked.
“It was good.”
I put my things in my room and went to the back room to watch TV.
Dad, meanwhile, climbed back into the Honda and continued onward to the Cape.
He later told me, “Every year at the conclusion of the trip I broke down after dropping you off. That was tough.”
Of course it was: It’s not easy, that’s the price Sultans pay. Yes, that’s who we were. We were…we were the Sultans of Swing.
I suppose “breaking down” is a sign of weakness men of a certain age don’t care to illustrate. It was a long drive back to the Cape, away from me, baseball, and all we shared. It’s a long time to be alone when you just spent an entire week in constant overlap with your baseball protégé. What was Dad left with?
I like to think it’s something as simple as the time we ventured off the worn path and found a ball field, just the two of us, coach and player, father and son, bound by something more than sport.
BRENDAN O’MEARA, who lives in Upstate New York, is the author of Six Weeks in Saratoga: How Three-Year-Old Filly Rachel Alexandra Beat the Boys and Became Horse of the Year. Most of his work centers on sport: horse racing, golf, tennis, and body building, among others. He won a Keystone Press Award for “History’s Turn at Milliken’s Corner” for Mountain Home Magazine. Brendan’s work has also appeared in Bleacher Report, The Good Men Project, Horse Race Insider, and Trail Runner Magazine. This essay is part of a memoir-in-progress titled The Last Championship: A Memoir of My Father and Baseball. Disgusted by the state of doughnuts in the northeast, Brendan has visions of opening up a doughnut food truck called Donutarium: Crazy Good Donuts.