You’ve been gone for a little over 12 years. Your grandson was born three years after you died and your granddaughter two years later still. I think about you a lot, as I assume most sons and daughters do. More and more I wonder what you would have been like around your grandkids. You’d get a kick out them.
Mom comes out to visit every week. It’s great they have such a close relationship. She tells them stories so in a way they know you. I don’t go out to your grave often, but I took them a year ago. They started telling different stories about you while we were looking at your grave marker. They told the one where you went out the window when you were jumping on the bed and the one about you when you played hooky and your mom found you on the train. Your grandson loves the one about you playing football in Stade de Paris during the war and so he told that one.
Your granddaughter loves to sing and dance. She ice skates, does gymnastics and played softball for the first time last summer. I’m sure it comes as no surprise your grandson loves sports. He got a bike when he turned one (sorry, I know you got me a bat as soon as I could walk). Soccer is his first love, but he’s a ball player too. He’s a catcher like you were. He loves it and in some ways I think it kept him interested in baseball long enough to get through the doldrums of t-ball. And of course, they both race bikes. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Which is why I’m sure it also comes as no surprise I coach his baseball teams and her softball team. You always coached and I just assumed it’s what fathers do. How many balls did you throw me until I finally figured out how to catch one across my body? I started coaching him because I didn’t trust anyone else. And I keep doing it because I can’t imagine not doing it or not being there and mostly I just don’t want to miss anything they do. I bring you along with me in a way because you never missed anything. Mom finally agreed to give me the chain you left me so I wear it to their games. When I put it on, I usually mumble something like, “Come on. Let’s go watch him play.”
He says I’m hard as coach, hard on him in particular. I wonder where that comes from. I try my best not to be because I remember how much I hated it when I got a rocket from you when we took infield and the other kids didn’t. I always thought you were living your childhood through me. While there is some element of truth there, I realize now it also came from a place of wanting me to have the opportunities you didn’t have and to enjoy playing for as long as I possibly could. Mom says I’m just like you when it comes to the kids’ sports. I suppose she’s not wrong, and it has become a sorta joking, sorta not joking catchphrase in my house. Truthfully, I try my best to do a better job than you did. Not because you weren’t good. You did a great job teaching and coaching me even if there are a few things I wish you would have done differently. I wish you hadn’t turned me around at the plate. It turns out my dominant eye is my right eye so every now and then I like to imagine what I could have done if you had kept me as a left-handed hitter (your grandson hits lefty by the way.) I wish you could have explained things better. Nothing was more frustrating than being in slump and hearing you say, “You’re not getting in the hitting zone” which meant, and still means, nothing to me. In 1970 Ted Williams wrote a little book which tells you just about everything you could want to know about hitting, you could have researched a bit. But that’s not why I want to be better.
I want to be better because I’m scared. I’m scared I will short change them if I don’t do everything I possibly can to help them do whatever they want to do. I’m scared they won’t get to experience all the things I got to experience because you taught me how to hit and catch and throw. And I’m scared they will look back and regret not having taken it (whatever it is, baseball, soccer, singing, dancing, acting . . .) as far as their abilities will let them. Mostly, I am scared out of my mind I will be measured and found lacking as their father because I didn’t do everything I could to give them all the opportunities they deserved as you did for me. And so I figure if I can do better than you then I’ll be doing a fantastic job.
I know you were upset when I stopped playing but really I took baseball as far as my abilities could. And now the game you taught me has come full circle and the student is the teacher. Your grandson loves me fiercely though he will never utter those words (yet another thing he has in common with you) and I have no doubt the bond we’ve developed through sports is a key catalyst. By the way, he doesn’t have to say the words because he shows me all the time in his way, just as you showed me all the time in yours.
I gave the eulogy at your funeral. I’m sure you expected that. I wrote it on the plane ride back to Italy when I left you at the hospital the very last time I saw you. I started thinking how I would never see you again, never speak with you again. Somewhere over the Atlantic, I realized I was wrong. I’d always see you because you were always there for me. So I told them about the things that would always remind me of you. You’d be happy to know a lot of people turned out. I had them laughing and crying because that was the effect you had on people. I got through it pretty well. I only choked up when I told them about the smell of cut grass. The smell of cut grass is baseball and while our relationship was defined by so many things, baseball was always first in line.
Every Saturday morning from April through July I step on to the field to coach your grandson and I smell cut grass and I see you. Maybe it’s a reflection of you I see in myself. Either way, thanks for teaching me this great game of baseball and through it how to be a dad. I can only hope I’m half the coach and parent you were. If I am, your two grandkids are going to be just fine.