I’ve been avoiding this like the plague, trying to disavow that it was coming, but just as the sun rises, the day came.
Opening day has been, for as long as I’ve been alive, a great day. A day for family, a day for baseball. The two in our household growing up were held with equal regard, and Opening Day was the brilliant point where they met. They were special moments for our family, and especially for my dad and I. It’s a cliche yes but he and I had rarely saw eye-to-eye, except in baseball. That helped us, I think, maintain a steady relationship during the worst of times, like how alcoholism affects a family less if they have dinners together every night. It was serious enough that we could have discussions, but not serious enough that the end result was hostile. And it showed a side of him that I could respect and vice versa.
My dad died this past October after a 13-month long battle with pancreatic cancer. It was long, predictable and overwhelmingly unpleasant. He passed peacefully just shortly before game 2 of the 2009 NLDS. I was told the first everything after his death would be hard to deal with, but nothing has been as hard as Opening Day.
Opening Day was a day of beginnings for us. A nascent season, warming up with spring, fresh like a just-picked apple and there has never been anything as satisfying as that first bite (well, maybe that last bite when you win a World Series title). And today is a beginning of something I’ve never wanted: my first season without my dad.
You know, it’s kind of funny, but the first thing I thought of was, How do I do this? How do I maintain being a fan without him? I never realized just how important the social aspect of the game was. Who do I talk to now? Is the game really that important to me without him?
I don’t really know. What is something with the absence of part of it? Is it the same? Is it different? Does it still exist?
Baseball will always exist, probably for as long as I’m alive and probably much longer than that. I console myself by looking through history and seeing what my dad saw. The remarkably low HR/9 of Tommy John. The stolen bases of Maury Wills. The Garvey-Russell-Lopes-Cey years. Tom Niedenfuer.
He talked endlessly about Sandy Koufax. I mean, he was a Los Angeles Jew and a Dodger fan, who else was he gonna root for. He talked about Koufax with such high regard. That wind-up! Those strikeouts! I never saw what he saw until we went to a Dodger game and Eric Gagne, in his prime, came in. He told me, “this was what watching Koufax was like, except Koufax did it for nine innings.” How amazing. I don’t think I’ve even seen someone pitch like that in my lifetime–maybe Pedro Martinez, but he was always on the East Coast.
There was also talk about Don Drysdale, Tommy Davis, Willie Davis, Pedro Guerrero, Valenzuela. About the Dodgers-Giants rivalry in the ’60s. About the World Series championships he got to see–he’d often redescribe to me Kirk Gibson’s game 1 home run in the ’88 series. About the played in that era that didn’t play for the Dodgers–Reggie Jackson, Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Nolan Ryan, etc.
He wasn’t the sharpest baseball fan. He would often project emotion, he was mercurial in support of players and often had no faith in prospects (he even “gave up” on Andy Laroche after a 10-game sample in the majors). But he had a great respect for the game. A respect for its players, of its rich historical tapestry and of its deeper symbolic meaning for our family. And he loved everything that entailed.
That’s what I keep in all of this.