April '05: The Baseball Issue news: Ann Arbor Fundraiser Event!
I can’t say for certain how much of my father’s life was a lie. I know a few things are fact: he worked as newsman for a variety of television stations in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest. He once won a local Emmy for a documentary he did on stewardesses. He tried and failed to produce his own talk show in the 1960s called International Airport; an experience my mother says lead to a nervous breakdown and their eventual divorce in 1973, but that may not be true. I know that my father adopted his own stepdaughter’s son and never told him that his sister was his mother, and then abandoned the boy as he had his own children some twenty years previous. And I know that my father loved baseball. I know that for the five years I tried to get to know him, before finally deciding on my own that he wasn’t a good person, baseball was often the only thing we shared, a kind of filament to a life neither of us had lived.
“Did I ever tell you about the time I played catch with Joe DiMaggio?” he asked. We were sitting in his condo in Rancho Mirage, the last strings of another long fight balled up between us.
“No,” I said, “you never did.”
“He’d just gotten a job with the A’s,” he said, “so this was 1968 or 1969, so you’d already been born…”
“No,” I said, “I was born in 1971.”
“You were? I always thought you were born in ’69.”
“That’s Linda,” I said. Linda, at the time, was suing my father to recover hundreds of thousands of dollars in back child support.
“Your sister is an angry person,” he said. “You know, I suffered, too. You kids weren’t the only victims here.”
“I have to go,” I said. I’d heard it all before. I’d heard the lies and the truth and in the end I didn’t much care to dig out from the divots they both left inside me.
“Don’t you want to hear about DiMaggio?”
The fact is that you’re always a child to your parents; the truth as it relates to my own father is that he never knew me as a child. Between 1976 and 1995, I’d see my father a handful of times funerals, a chance meeting at my grandfather’s house, my brother’s wedding and in those times we’d talk about nothing in particular, a gulf of anger and sadness filled with ellipses of conversation. And when those silences became too much, when it became clear that genetics alone could not fill in for words, he’d turn to baseball.
“You still a fan of the A’s?” he asked me during a lull in his mother’s funeral. I was 13 and hadn’t seen him in nearly five years.
“Yes,” I said. We were sitting beside each other and I could smell his aftershave, a sweet perfumed cologne that seemed all together wrong for the day he’d bury his mother. His tie had been cut in half by the rabbi and I remember wondering if it was an expensive tie, if he’d spent child support money on it, if he was sad to lose the tie, if it was one of his favorites. His face was covered in small bumps of razor burn and I remembered the last time I saw him: he’d come to our house in Walnut Creek and my mother, who raged at the very mention of my father’s name in her presence, had kissed him on the cheek, had touched his face with her palm, had told him he needed to shave. It is the only memory I have of tenderness between my parents and I keep it inside me like a yellowed snapshot, until I’m not sure today if that’s how it happened at all.
“They’re not looking too good this year,” he said. “Did I ever tell you I met DiMaggio when he worked for the A’s? Played catch with him.”
I’m not a very athletic person. My legs are short and my torso is compact and thick, my arms skinny. The only sport I ever played competitively was soccer and for a time I was good at it, if only by virtue of the fact that I wanted to hurt people when I played. When I stepped onto the field, something in me switched and I became the kind of aggressive person I wasn’t in real life during father/son games, where I was frequently the only son without a father, the coaches had to pull me aside and tell me to dial it down a notch, that I couldn’t slide tackle Jeremy Joseph’s father. I played for over a dozen years and only scored a handful of goals, but that never mattered. I wanted to drop people. I wanted the players on the other team to be afraid of me; I wanted to be as intimidating as Goose Gossage was on the pitcher’s mound, a fat, burly mass of anger that simply did not care about the score, only the one he had to settle.
My father loved Gossage. Or, maybe he didn’t, because when you have so few memories of someone, you cast importance on the smallest things, like a visit to a television station in Portland, Oregon where people called your father “boss” and where you two watched a bank of TVs filled with Seattle Mariners highlights, Gossage rearing back and striking out one Mariner after another and your father saying, “Gossage does it the right way.” But it’s not your father. It’s hardly even mine. You hang onto things when you’re young. You control what you can. And maybe, when you play soccer, you imagine you’re a baseball player your father admired the last time you can remember seeing him.
“I’d like you to come to my wedding,” my father said. This was in the mid 1990s, my senior year in college, the beginning of a stretch where I would attempt to get to know my father from an adult perspective. My grandfather, my father’s own father, had implored me to do it, to decide on my own whether the man I’d vilified in my childhood mind for his abandonment and failure to take responsibility for…anything, simply, anything, was indeed the monster I imagined. Separate from the silences I and my siblings had endured. Separate from the court judgments. Separate from the stories of how he was going to really take care of his adopted son, only to excise him like so much garbage.
“It’s time we started acting like father and son,” he said. “Your brother is coming.”
“That’s because you were a father to him,” I said. I said it to hurt him, to get a reaction, to drop him. But what made my father incredible, what made the difference between his lies and his truth murky and disturbing, is that he didn’t react, never reacted.
“It’ll be fun,” he said. “We’ll even have a little bachelor party.” When I didn’t respond, because I was somewhere between crying and vomiting, the two poles I typically battled when speaking to my father, he changed the subject. “Your A’s aren’t doing so well, I see.”
“Why do you do that?” I said. “Why do you never address what I’m saying?”
“Because it’s the past,” he said. “Let’s move forward.”
The night before his wedding, in a hotel bar in Longview, Washington, while my father’s friends tell me what a great man my dad is, how they don’t understand why they’ve never met me or any of my siblings, I watch the reflection of a baseball game in a smoked glass mirror. It’s such a simple game. The rules concise. The human contact limited. The chance for redemption as near as the next pitch.
“A toast,” my father says, “to my sons,” but my brother has long since gone to our room, where, I’ll find, he’s just as sick as I am.
I can’t remember the last time I saw my father alive. It might have been the time I drove to his house and asked him not to sue my sister, not to force her into bankruptcy, after her attempt to retrieve the child support was thwarted by the courts. It might have been when I drove to his house and asked him not to sue my mother for the same reasons. It might have been another time all together. Scar tissue has formed over many of my memories about my father and when I peel it back, everything rushes together, and I’m nine years old, memorizing the statistics of every major league player, filling my head with numbers and names and all-time records and minutia, anything to stop me from concentrating on what is empty about the rest of my life. By age 12, I know more about Rickey Henderson than I will ever know about my father.
“Your father is a great man,” his most recent wife said to me during one of those last visits. “Why you and your brother and sisters can sit around and say such terrible things about him is wonder to me.”
“He never paid child support,” I said. “I didn’t see or hear from him for decades at a time. He was legally not allowed into California because he was such a deadbeat.”
“You could have picked up a phone,” she said.
“I was 10,” I said. I tell her he’s doing the same thing to his adopted son.
“Well,” she said, “he’s adopted. And half black. That was all a big mistake if you ask me.”
Later, when his wife had stepped away my dad would tell me how much her son reminded him of me. “You’re a lot alike,” he said. Her son was a petty criminal, the kind of guy who got drunk, ran from the cops and crashed a Camaro into a bank. At the time, my first novel was about to come out and I’d recently married. “But I can’t talk to him about baseball like I can talk to you. Did I ever tell you about the time I played catch with Joe DiMaggio?”
The day after my father dies, I call my mother and ask if she remembers the time Dad played catch with Joe DiMaggio. “What? No, that’s crazy,” she said. “He never did that.”
“He said it was about 1968 or 1969,” I said.
“I’d certainly remember that,” she said.
We talk for a while about my father, about what he was like long before I was born, about their life together. She tells me I would have liked him then. She tells me he was a good person but that something drove him crazy. She tells me she is sad for the man she married, but not for the man he became. That night, I leaf through old scrapbooks my mother keeps high on a shelf in her house. In these books my father is young and handsome and happy. There are pictures of him with my brother Lee, my sister Karen, my sister Linda, me as a newborn, my mother (who in these pictures is his wife, a notion I cannot imagine), his own long-dead parents, and in each of them I am struck by the sense that I’ve never known any of these people, at least not in the context of these photos. The more I stare, the more I feel like I’m invading someone else’s memories.
And yet, in one of the last pictures, I see a small baby sitting in a high chair wearing an Oakland A’s baby-shirt, while a man, who looks so much like me that it snatches my breath, stands in the background, smiling.