Today is my father’s 72nd birthday, and I thought it would be the perfect time to write about him. This post, which my brother L.J. wrote, came about as a result of a lengthy exchange the two of us had about baseball.
Those of you who haven’t met Dad might not know that his passion for baseball ranks third, just behind his first two loves: family and pasta. Dad has always had a gift for baseball (and hilarious sayings, like “Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you.”). He loved playing the game himself and then coaching and watching as my brother evolved into a talented right-hand pitcher who landed an athletic scholarship at Georgia Tech in 1993 and then got drafted by the Braves in 1998. L.J. made it to AAA before a combination of circumstances, injuries chief among them, compelled him to leave the game in 2003.
Over the years I had wondered whether my brother found it difficult to tell Dad that he was leaving baseball. I had occasion to ask L.J. about it recently via email. (Since he’s a father to newborn and a toddler, I don’t call him.)
I wish I’d have posed the question sooner, because my brother, who’s as thoughtful and insightful as he is athletically gifted, gave me an answer that deserves to be read by more eyes than mine. Here it is:
I can wholeheartedly say, ‘No’, I wouldn’t have worried about disappointing Dad had I walked from baseball on my own had injuries not factored into the decision. What I learned about Dad, and one of the things I didn’t understand until I looked from the end back to the beginning is that it was never about Dad. (Think in terms of The Sixth Sense, where you live it all but then have an epiphany that allows you to rewind and understand why things happened and, in this case, why Dad acted the way he did towards me.)
Dad never forced me to play but instead taught me how to play right from an early age. He tried to protect me from pitching too much, sheltering me until one fateful day in AA (little league) when our team was out of pitching. Our coach knew I could probably help the team and Dad reluctantly agreed. He never encouraged me to practice but rather went to work early and was home at 4:30pm if I wanted to hit after he changed out of his work clothes (which we did just about every day). He never mistook pain for soreness when it came to my arm. He never told me how much his arm hurt either. He brought out a toughness I didn’t know I could possess when I played after breaking my nose before one game –we didn’t know it was broken at the time—and in another hit left-handed to protect the stitches over my left eye when I was supposed to be letting the cut heal.
Even more importantly, Dad seemed to know what role to play depending upon where I was in my “career.” He encouraged me in my earliest days and when it appeared I had talent and drive, he became like that trainer in the gym you could hate during the workout but love when you stepped on a scale or looked in a mirror and started to see results. When I played in the Junior Olympics, he became an ultimate cheerleader. And when a baked potato covered in cheese preceded my hottest hitting game my senior year of high school he called me before each subsequent game and asked if I’d eaten one until my hitting streak subsided.
When I got to college he knew how much the competition improved and he encouraged me even more; he rarely critiqued me and most importantly, he was there… often standing by the first base line with a piece of luggage after getting a flight to Atlanta, taking the subway, and walking to the field. When I had Tommy John surgery to reconstruct my elbow, he encouraged me again and marveled at what could be rebuilt. When I got to pro ball, there were no critiques, just more encouragement and support in setting goals, goals he knew I could achieve and ones that could help fulfill my dream.
When the wheels fell off and it seemed just about everyone left my side, he didn’t. Neither of us knew what to say sometimes, but words didn’t matter, presence did. So, I believe what Dad wanted for me was what I wanted for me. Why he wanted it for me, I believe, is because he saw a way to potentially avoid a 9-5 life (although for him it was probably a 6:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. life to support me). I believe Dad trusted me and even though I was naïve at times he raised me to make my own decisions… and live with them. Therefore, I truly believe I could have left baseball at any time and not disappointed Dad, as I would have had a reason, and he would have believed and supported it.
My brother got it exactly right, and I couldn’t possibly say it better. Happy birthday to our dad, a man who has never been about himself. We love you.