EIGHINGER: Spring training revives memories of complicated father-son bond

Posted: Mar. 2, 2013 4:38 pm Updated: Mar. 30, 2013 5:15 pm


For the most part, the relationship I had with my dad was a strained one. My parents divorced when I was young, and I always held that against him. For years, I felt cheated out of the type of family relationships most of my friends seemed to have.

And yet, every time I think of him -- even to this day, almost 30 years after his death -- some specific memories always stand front and center. For all of my dad's faults, and for all of mine, we were always able to enjoy a common bond. Our love of baseball, especially the Cleveland Indians, could unite us as father and son.

That's why every year at this time I think about him, almost every hour of every day. Spring training is under way, and the baseball season is just around the corner. The warm memories I have of him are almost all linked, in some respect, to baseball.

I have never been sure whether I love the game because I truly enjoy it more than any other sport, or because it has always allowed me -- in spirit, if nothing else -- to connect with a man I never really got to know that well. My parents' divorce, coupled with my father's relatively early passing, never allowed me to spend the time with him that most young boys enjoyed with their dads.

Oh, but how I will always remember those few times we played catch. When I was probably 8 or 9 years old, I would wait in the backyard for him to get home from work and beg him to throw the ball with me. He would go to the garage and get his 1930s Bill Dickey catcher's mitt, and we would play catch. I would pretend I was Gary Bell and he was Johnny Romano.

We would watch Indians games on our small black-and-white television, and in those days they would almost always lose. But that didn't matter, not at all. The Tribe was "our" team, and every one of their few wins was a time to rejoice. I never once felt bad that I wasn't born a Yankees fan, a Dodgers fan or a Cardinals fan, because if you are an Indians fan by birthright you quickly learn to cope with defeat and enjoy those rare victories to the fullest.

I remember how my dad would take a week of vacation every October so he could stay home and watch the World Series. Back then, all the games were played during the day. I used to run into the house after school on those days and be able to watch the last few innings of the games with him.

About 10 years after my dad died, the Indians became this incredible powerhouse, dominating the American League. In 1995, the Tribe won its first pennant in 41 years, the first in my lifetime. I remember the clinching playoff game like it was yesterday. When the game got near the end and it was obvious the Indians were going to do something I never thought was possible -- make it to the World Series -- I told my wife I wanted to watch the last few innings by myself and I would explain later.

I went to my 1990s version of the mancave to enjoy the end of the game -- and think. As I sat in the dark -- the only hint of light in the room coming from the television screen -- those younger days of playing catch with a dad who, in many respects, I barely knew brought a huge smile to my face.

I think the final out of the game, the one that clinched that marvelous pennant, was a ground ball to shortstop Omar Vizquel, who threw to first baseman Paul Sorrento. As the Indians were celebrating, throwing their gloves in the air, hugging one another and raising their fists in storybook triumph, I felt tears begin to roll down both of my cheeks.

Part of me has always felt that those tears were simply tears of joy for the beloved Tribe, who finally had a chance to dance.

Another part of me, a bigger part, has always felt that those tears were the result of a longing for my dad to have been able to be there so we could have enjoyed that special moment for "our" team.

I have never come to a definitive conclusion about my feelings on that fall night in 1995, but I do know I always feel better about the relationship with my dad, or at least the memories tied to it, each year when baseball season arrives.




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