My father predicted David Ortiz’s success long before he was the homer-hitting Big Papi known to Red Sox Nation today. “I like this kid,” he’d say every time Ortiz was up at bat. “He’s got some swing.”
Now with Ortiz’s retirement, I can’t help but feel an extra pang of sorrow: Ortiz was the last of the great players my father followed before he died in 2003, just short of the memorable Red Sox World Series win, and it’s just another indication that the game is moving on without him, just like my life has moved on without him.
My father was Mr. Baseball if ever there was one. He read Ted Williams’ book The Science of Hitting like it was the Bible. I remember how he’d take his swings down in the basement at night after dinner, muttering his mantra to himself, “Think wrists” (this was also written on the concrete wall in chalk). Rumor has it that back in his heyday, the Cubs minor league team was interested in Dad. But his career as a baseball player would never pan out; he eventually retired his field of dreams and opted for a more practical career in engineering and a family. Later, he downgraded to softball, still needing his fix, and his marriage to my mother suffered for it.
Once he came home in his uniform after telling my mother he had to work late, and she locked him out of the house. After a long day with two toddlers, she had had enough. “Sleep with that,” she yelled and threw a baseball bat onto the front lawn. Years later when my mother went into labor with my sister, he was late and in uniform again. One of my earliest memories is of my parents zooming away to the hospital in my father’s Buick, my mother holding her big belly, my father in his pinstriped uniform.
Needless to say, Dad enrolled the three of us kids in baseball and softball and coached us all in the science of hitting until we were bored to the point of tears. There was that look in his eye, that focus; it was almost creepy. My brother had it the worst; as fathers are known to do, Dad began to live vicariously through his son and started grooming him for the majors when he was in grade school. He moved my brother all over the country in search of the right college team that could properly appreciate his son’s talents. To my father’s credit, however, when my brother finally told him he wanted to play professional beach volleyball instead, Dad eventually got used to the idea. His son came first. And although it nearly killed him, he started attending my brother’s volleyball matches and cheered him on despite having to let go of the dream once again.
My father’s passion for baseball wasn’t always a point of contention. I remember being comforted by the fact that while I was in bed, he was up watching baseball; the muted sounds of the crowd cheering, the crack of the bat, were soothing to me. He was a sentinel in the night, so to speak, and I felt safe.
When he stopped playing softball, he started to live vicariously again, this time through the players who had potential, like Ortiz. Now, I see that my father’s obsession for baseball added a flare to his life, a something that always kept him curious and engaged, and there’s something to be said for that when all the delusions of grandeur wane away.
What did my father’s passion for baseball teach me? Follow your bliss, but be practical. Live and play. Play and work. Hone your skills. Be a team player. Work harder. Play harder. I’ll remember this as Ortiz takes his final tour around the country and have to mourn my father all over again.