FATHER’S DAY CAN be a little hollow when your dad has passed away, as mine did in 2002. So, on this day every year I tend to reflect on some of my best memories of Dad, and I always seem to go back to that summer day when I must have been about 14 years old.
That was the day Dad took me to see Willie Mays play.
We were living in Cheyenne, Wyo., at the time, which was a long way from anywhere, particularly in baseball miles. We watched the “Game of the Week” on TV every Saturday, but we otherwise had no real connection to professional baseball.
Reading box scores in the newspaper allowed me to keep up with the game, but the players were merely names on paper. I knew Tony Oliva of the Twins and Roberto Clemente of the Pirates were outstanding players, but only by their statistics not by how they swung a bat, ran the bases or played in the field.
Only on occasion did the players come to life for me.
A couple of years earlier, Dad had taken me to an exhibition game in Denver between the New York Yankees and the old Denver Bears minor-league team. I also had saved all my newspaper delivery and snow-shoveling earnings to finance a plane trip to Minneapolis to visit relatives and, more importantly, see the Minnesota Twins play.
Otherwise, I relied on Dad to keep me informed about the best players in the major leagues. He was a Chicago Cubs fan because of his Midwestern upbringing in Iowa, and followed the Yankees because that is who everyone followed throughout the 1950s and ’60s.
Despite his allegiances, I never once heard Dad proclaim that either Ernie Banks of the Cubs or Mickey Mantle of the Yankees was the greatest player of all time, and he certainly could have made a valid case for either.
He reserved that “greatest-ever” designation for Willie Mays, and Dad wanted to make sure his youngest son got the chance to see “The Great One” play in person. So, he woke me up early that Saturday morning, we jumped into the family station wagon and off we went on a 15-hour trek across the Kansas plains to St. Louis.
We lodged in a downtown St. Louis hotel where Dad taught me the intricacies of shaving. He also asked God forgiveness for not attending church that Sunday morning, no doubt because we were attending a different kind of sanctuary that afternoon.
We walked to Busch Stadium, which recently had opened as one of many multi-purpose, circular parks around the country. The parks seemed functional at the time by allowing baseball and football to be played on the same surface, but they were virtually extinct three decades later when fans figured out the sight lines were bad, regardless of the sport.
My view of the Busch Stadium field – and, specifically of Willie Mays – was spectacular from the third-base line, maybe 50 rows back. I was transfixed on Mays when he appeared from out of the Giants’ dugout in the top of the first inning and knelt in the on-deck circle wearing his customary No. 24 jersey.
I do not recall what Mays did that day as far as hits or runs scored, but I know that every move he made on the base paths or in the field was followed by a statement from Dad, something about “now that’s the way you play the game.”
Dad had a deep love for baseball, much more than any other sport. He knew the game inside and out, and he passed along that knowledge of the game as well as his passion for it.
It drove Dad crazy later in life, not that his beloved Cubs never won a World Series in his lifetime, but that they did not play the game properly. He watched nearly every Cubs game on TV late in his life and often grumbled about his team not hitting the cutoff man or failing to hit behind the runner with no outs.
Dad finally gave in to a long bout with failing health in 2002. Not long before he died, Dad watched from inside a retirement home as I played catch outside his window with my 7-year-old son, Luke, the youngest of Dad’s 16 grandchildren.
I saw a smile on Dad’s face that I will never forget. He was watching his son pass along the love for baseball to another generation. Along the way, I also have passed along the belief that Willie Mays was the greatest baseball player of all time. Thanks to Dad, I saw that first-hand.