Baseball season starts in 0 days. Today is Opening Day! I’m writing a book about my love for baseball (as a breather from writing the book on grief). This is the third in a series of posts/excerpts. The first two were Base Stealing and Baseball Magic.
My father taught me to love baseball. He was old school, born in 1929. He came to all my games he could but never once booed an umpire. He taught me that sportsmanship meant you didn’t boo anyone, and if you didn’t practice sportsmanship, you should not play or watch the game.
When I try to explain about my relationship with my father, the best category with which to begin is “It’s complicated.” I love my dad, fiercely. This is not a book about my father’s condition, but context matters. Alan Miles Rumley was a tremendous athlete and a wondrously, terrifyingly stubborn human being. He grew up in a house trailer with an alcoholic father and a semi-invalid mother. He had what was most likely undiagnosed polio as a child.
He described to me rehabilitating his weakened leg by first limping, then walking, then jogging, and finally running back and forth across his back yard. No physical therapy, no help of any kind, just hours and hours of demanding his leg return to full strength. Had he done that and merely walked without a limp for the rest of his life, you should be impressed. But Dad ran the open 800 yard dash on the Northern Illinois University track team and competed at the Drake Relays. I still have an article from a Chicago sports page that describes his running anchor in the two mile relay: he took the baton almost half a lap (200 yards) behind the leader and came back to win. He did that with a leg he rehabbed from Polio by himself, with no medical assistance. Typing this makes me tear up.
When I was small, Dad developed severe lung problems. For some reason, his doctors took years to diagnose this correctly. Starting when he was forty-three and I was about four, Dad struggled to breathe much of the time. I don’t remember the active, athletic, perpetual motion machine that people describe my father as having been before he got sick. I only heard stories.
But dad loved sports, so much, and he taught me to love them as well. Dad was right-handed but had been taught to hit left-handed because you started two steps closer to first. Dad taught me to switch-hit because he believed that gave you an advantage, and competing meant trying your hardest and doing the best you possibly could.
Dad and I started going to whatever diamond was guaranteed to be unoccupied, usually the rarely-mowed one behind the high school, so he could hit me grounders and pitch to me. As long as it had a backstop and some vague impression of an infield, it worked for us. Dad had something wrong with his shoulder that prevented him from throwing very fast, but at first it was good practice simply to swing at a pitch. When you can hit a pitch, you can clobber a ball off a tee. Besides, I was already looking ahead to when LIttle League would happen.
We shopped for baseball stuff: balls, a batting helmet, batting gloves, a donut weight to put on the bat when I practiced swinging. And many bats. Twenty-eight inch Louisville Slugger or Adirondack wooden bats, those first years, with Steve Garvey or Pete Rose replica signatures burned into them. I always looked for Yankees’ signatures on the bats, but I don’t remember ever finding one–and I’m pretty sure I would remember.
Dad dug his old army rucksack out of a trunk stashed in a corner of our basement and it became our equipment bag. He had a long, heavy brown bat he’d somehow kept since his own youth, which we dubbed “Big Bertha.” I dearly wish I had been able to keep track of it after he died. Back then, I could barely swing it, much less hit with it, but he taught me to practice with it to make my bats feel lighter.
Eventually, Mom suggested that we perhaps had enough bats in that bag and moved that we buy a new baseball, rather than a new bat, each visit to the sporting goods store. But wooden bats cracked. We’d tape them tight around the handle, but you could still distinguish the sound of a cracked bat–the disharmonious tone of the reverberation–when you held it by the barrel and hit the handle on home plate. You could definitely feel the difference when you hit the ball; a cracked bat stung much worse.
Dad spent hours and hours and hours hitting to me, giving me fielding practice–”blue darters,” “worm burners,” and “stinking [sinking] line drives.” One of my defining memories from childhood is standing at shortstop in the hot Illinois sun, glove on my hand, hands on my knees, waiting while Dad, bent over at the waist, hands on his knees, coughed and tried to get his breath back.
One might ask, “Would it have been kinder to have told him not to go out and hit to me, seeing what physical discomfort he was in?” The answer is, “Certainly not.” He resented being incapacitated, resented it with a righteous fury. It would have been less cruel to refuse to speak to my father altogether than to tell him “Let’s not play baseball because you’re too sick.” I screwed up enough as it was; I’m glad I understood this much.