Running on Empty: Baseball is more than just a game…

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Baseball has a special place in my life. My dad always loved it, and he made sure to pass that down to the rest of us to some degree. I played, as did my brother and sister, and I was reasonably good, but I never really did anything with it.

(In fact, years later, shortly before his death, my dad wondered wistfully how it was that he had two sons that were both good ballplayers and neither one of them did anything with it now. Our parents always believe in our ability more than we do, whether we know it or not, and regardless of how realistic that belief is.)

Still, the connection it gave me to my father – lazy Saturdays lounging together on the living room floor watching the game of the week on a wooden, cabinet-framed television – was irreplaceable.

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He taught us, he coached us, and he played with us in the front yard whenever we needed to work on grounders or fly balls or just throwing on target to the first baseman (I was a bit wild on the infield). In the backyard, he set up a “mound” comprised of a single wooden block buried in the ground approximately 60 toe-to-toe steps from the dog pen where he hung a spare tire.

I spent many hours throwing at that tire, retrieving a pile of worn balls, and throwing again.

When I was older and had a family of my own, we traveled to Florida to visit my father. He moved there several years earlier, after the divorce, to simultaneously get away from my mother and be closer to his new wife’s family. The impact left us disconnected and distant.

But when we arrived at his new home, I discovered he was within ten minutes of an MLB spring training complex, and it happened to be smack dab in the middle of the spring training schedule. I couldn’t resist the opportunity.

We bought tickets and surprised my dad with a trip to a ball game, something I found out he hadn’t done in decades. It was fantastic. Hot dogs, soda, balls and strikes, and the smell of the ballpark with a smiling father pleasantly and genuinely surprised that his son wanted to do something like that with him again.

He even told me so a few years later, bringing it up in random conversation.

“Boy, I sure did like going to that game with you and your family,” he said over the phone. “I hadn’t done that in years.”

A year later, he was gone, taken suddenly during a routine knee surgery at 73.

I’m so thankful we took him to that game.

Baseball has been a wild ride for me over the last several years. I’ve covered the St. Louis Cardinals as a credentialed writer since January of 2012, spoken with greats like Tony La Russa and Whitey Herzog, shaken hands with Lou Brock and Bob Gibson and a host of modern-day players and managers, and even grinned face-to-face when Chris Carpenter snapped back in a media scrum at one of my irritating questions.

I was in attendance for Game 1 of the 2011 World Series and drove to Kansas City to watch the All-Star game when La Russa’s NL All-Stars, in his final game as an MLB manager, whupped those DH-lovin’ American Leaguers.

And I was on the conference call when then General Manager John Mozeliak called the St. Louis sports media from the Dominican Republic to discuss the sudden tragic news of Oscar Taveras’ death.

In short, I’ve lived a baseball life most fans only dream of over the last nine or ten years. But to this day, there remains nothing baseball can give me greater than the way back to my father.

You’ve heard that baseball transcends time, race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, religion, age, and all other obstacles. But in my experience, its greatest miracle is its ability to transcend the chasms that develop between those who love it.

My father and I hadn’t had a real, meaningful experience together since the divorce. It was just hard. There was too much anger, resentment, hurt, and overall awkwardness in the way. But when we needed it, baseball stepped up and gave us both a way back.

Thank God for that game with my father. I think about it every year, when the dawn of a new baseball season is just around the corner, as it is now, and I can’t wait to see what this new season has in store for me. I can’t wait to see if it can grow into something just as special between me and my own children.

Hopefully, when things are strained between us, baseball can provide the means to meet on common ground, as it did for me and my father.

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