The spring when I was thirteen, I was moving up a level in baseball. I was going from the iconic Little League to the lesser-known Senior Little League. This was the next level for those players who want to continue the sport through the early teen years. Of course, that also meant fewer, more serious players. These were the players who loved the game beyond just pleasing their parents.
The outfield fences are farther back so outfielders need to run more just to catch up with the ball. The bases are ninety feet apart and the pitcher’s mound is sixty feet from home plate. No longer are you playing on a shrunken image of the diamond. The infield has now become adult size even though many like me had not begun their growth spurt.
I remember standing out in the cool spring day on the larger field during the new player evaluations with all the other players. That rite of passage at each level of sports where you’re put on display with all the other wannabes. The coaches and their entourages, stand at the side with their clipboards and pens, each with their own secret codes, making notes on the lists of players. Who to choose, who to reluctantly have to take and those who just won’t make the cut.
And the players trying to stand tall and not make mistakes lest those errors and slips delegate them to the lower “minor league”.
I waited my turn at shortstop, fifth or sixth or longer down the line. I looked at the player next to me. He seemed nervous and jittery. Like this was his moment to fail more than shine.
At that moment, I didn’t feel the same butterflies.
Of course, I had an advantage that many others didn’t. When your dad is a coach, technically you don’t have to “try out”. Unless your parent coach really doesn’t want you on their team, which I am sure happened to some and caused all sorts of interesting family dynamics, you would automatically be put on your parent’s team.
I wasn’t the only ball player in the league in that situation of course. Let’s face it, the majority of coaches had kids on the teams. That was one of the reasons they wanted to coach – to participate actively in their kids’ lives. But I was the only player on the field that day who was both new and had a coach parent. The others in my situation at best stood on the sidelines with their parent coaches or at worse, didn’t even bother to come out.
Not me. My dad told me regardless of my status, I was expected to join the other newbies and perform like a test subject to the sideline crowds. In fact, I also knew that if push came to shove, if my turn came up and it was my dad hitting the groundballs, he would give a little extra juice on the hit.
Not because he was mean or unfair to me. Just the opposite. He knew I could handle it AND he wanted everyone in the league to know I had earned my spot and not just handed it to me because of familial prejudice.
“What team do you hope to get on?” I asked the player next to me.
“I don’t care, just so I make a team.” He responded like most hopefuls would have. Then he added a caveat.
“As long as I am not chosen by him. He looks mean.” He subtly pointed at my dad standing on the sides watching the outfielders chase down the ball.
I couldn’t understand the boy’s response. He was just my dad.
In that moment, I realized something about my father I had known and yet not considered in my grand total of thirteen years. My dad wore a perpetual scowl. His brow, more often than not, was creased and furrowed. He had piercing eyes that could bore through you. He didn’t smile much. Of course, that could have been due to a smile that was crooked and gapped. I never knew and, even to the end, never asked him.
My dad was also loud and boisterous. In family gatherings and parties, it was easy enough to find him. Just follow the voice, or the argument in the crowd and there he was. Was there a debate occurring? My dad was in the middle of it. He was opinionated and not afraid to voice that thought. Even if he was in the minority in the group.
He was also one of the toughest men I ever met.
He once almost cut off his leg in a workplace accident needing hundreds of stitches inside and out to save the leg and yet was back on the job after only a week or so off. He once had four wisdom teeth pulled in the morning and was back at the shop working by noon.
He once broke his ankle playing ball and never missed a play, going to the doctor only after the game was over.
Like a Timex watch, he could take a hit and keep on ticking.
He worked in construction and automotive most of his life. He could hold his liquor and eat like a horse. His hands were big and would smother mine along with most people’s. They were calloused and rough. That is, until the end of his life when they never shrunk but took on a softness that mirrored his heart.
You see, as much as that young teenager saw my dad as mean and tough, and that was a true reflection of the man on the outside, the persona he lived up to if you crossed him or someone he cared about, my dad often showed me something else.
When everyone told me I was crazy to let my dad teach me how to drive, “surely he will yell and scream and lose his temper” they would say, he turned out to be unbelievably patient as I ground the gears on his beloved green and white Chevy truck.
When I told him I did damage to a neighbor’s vehicle in an accident, he was serene and calm, showing great mercy even when we couldn’t afford the cost to repair the damage. All because I did the right thing by ‘fessing up.
When my sister would bring home a friend who had been in a rough situation, my dad would open the door and let them stay if needed until the situation at home was fixed, many times willing to go to the friend’s home to discuss the situation with her or his parents.
When he made a mistake of rash judgement, like the time he punished a ball player for being late not knowing the reason was the player’s mom had died or bawled out a subordinate at work before he found out the worker had just been diagnosed with kidney failure, he apologized openly and showed love and gentleness to them. On a side note, his response to his own mistake created a loyalty from both young men that remained until his death.
He taught me how to accept others in need by hiring any who deserved a chance, like the “hippies” looking for work on a construction site, the Vietnamese “boat person” looking for a fresh start, the Indigenous young man looking to get on with his life, or the retired WWII vet trying to pay the bills and not be forgotten.
When my daughter was born under difficult circumstances, he held her little body ever so gently so as not to do any harm to her tiny, wired-up to life saving devices body from his huge mitts.
My dad taught me a toughness that I will never be able to duplicate. But more importantly, he was able to teach me that you could be both tough and compassionate in the same time and moment. He taught me that toughness wasn’t about being mean. It was about doing the right thing despite your feelings. It was about being gentle despite your anger. It was about absorbing the hurt for others and not always lashing out.