If the good Lord were to give me one perfect day, it would be to have my father back, and the two of us would head to Busch Stadium for Opening Day. Alzheimers took him from us six years ago. The disease may destroy memories, but it won't erase a single second of the time the two of us spent at the ballpark together.
We saw it all together: Gibby's 17 strikeouts in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series; the Curt Flood slip in Game 7 of that series; Lou Brock’s retirement day; and Game 7 in 1982 with Bruce Sutter striking out Gorman Thomas.
We visited ballparks all over the country. We went to Wrigley and hung out with Harry Caray. We went to Comiskey and stared at those hideous White Sox uniforms. We went to Tigers Stadium and met Ernie Harwell.
We sat there and talked. Baseball is conversation-friendly. You can tell a story in-between pitches, and those chats between curve balls and sliders taught me the history of the game. I found out about Grover Cleveland Alexander's drinking, Shoeless Joe Jackson's gambling, the hitting of Ted Williams, and the grace of Joe DiMaggio.
I was a busboy at Kemoll’s; and often on Saturday nights, my dad and I would go to Stan Musial & Biggie’s (restaurant) after work. We would get in the car and it would be late, and my dad would say, I wonder if he will be there tonight? If he was, we’d get that 8-by-11, black-and-white photo of Stan in the on-deck circle autographed, of course. We would have a lemonade, and on the way home, he would tell me a Stan story. Sometimes it was the same story, but I didn't care because it was my dad and me and baseball. I didn't have a worry in the world.
Brad Pitt's Billy Beane character in Moneyball asked this question, How can you not be romantic about baseball? And how can you not be emotional when you hear Kevin Coster ask his dad if he wants to play catch in Field of Dreams? How do you not, at this precise moment, think of your dad and the times you played catch? There are not basketball or hockey movies that conjure up father-son moments like that.
When you walk into the arena or the Dome with your father for an athletic event, your senses don't come alive like they do when you walk into Busch Stadium. My dad used to ask, "Can you smell it?" Baseball is that delightful potpourri of hot dogs, freshly cut grass and Cracker Jacks. The sounds were all those cracks of the bat, that ball smashing into a little leather glove, or the thunderous roar by the crowd. The sights were Lou running, Curt catching and Orlando hitting.
Baseball before a game blows away the other sports. In the NFL, do you want to see guys stretch? In the NBA, the layup line is not all that thrilling. But baseball has batting practice, where the players often interact with the kids. I remember once when I was 10, my dad and I got there early for a game between the Cardinals and Padres. I brought my glove, in hopes I’d catch a ball during B.P. No such luck. But as the players were finishing up, Padres rightfielder Ollie Brown threw me a ball. It went off my glove and another kid scrambled to get it before me. I quickly looked at my dad to see if he saw what had happened. He pretended like he didn't. I got back to the seat. He said he would be back in a minute. He came back with a brand new ball.
I go to many games a year—I’m usually working them. But the ones I enjoy the most are when I am with my kids. I don't try to force a story on them; but when they ask, I am ready to give them a composition on each player they are interested in. My youngest, Dom, is in love with the game. He would rather watch a game than a movie. He would rather work on his fantasy league draft than a term paper. He would rather play catch than a video game.
My dad got sick before Dom was old enough to appreciate the game or appreciate him. I think my perfect day wouldn't just be my dad and me at a game, but three generations. And if Dom pointed to the No. 6 hanging from the rafter, I would say to my dad, Tell him about Stan Musial, give him a story.