Sunsets come and go in life, sometimes in the blink of an eye, until they blur into years. Now 45, I routinely find myself taking inventory of those years. I think – often strain – to remember the details of those bygone days, back when the mysteries of my future still offered enchantment.
Bills and taxes can take a toll on a man’s dreams.
Sometimes I’ll close my eyes to frame those old pictures. I’ll mentally peel away the layers of time, sifting past the piles of adult responsibility, in search of those special childhood memories. The sights, sounds, smells still remain with me, as if buried in a treasure box deep within my soul. There, they wait to be rediscovered.
Like a spring, my mind will push forth fresh remembrances to bottle and taste. The smell of Grandma Nina’s chicken soup … Aunt Florence and Uncle Herb paying for me to descend in a miniature sub on the Monterrey Wharf … Our dear family friend Paul yelling “Mother Chicken!” after I hit a go-ahead home run on my electronic baseball game. Or my cousin Lisa and I watching a hired Santa and his elf pull up in front of my house in a Toyota. Each moment is framed in love.
Family, I learned long ago, is one’s true wealth in life.
As a father, I try to build memories with my own children — Joseph, Ashley, Tristan and Missouri. I have no idea what they will remember, or what they will consider special. Only they know, thus making their treasure truly unique.
As I travel the back roads of my childhood I’m carried past many unforgettable places and people. I can still remember the elation of climbing aboard a horse for an hour-long, trail ride at the Ponderosa Ranch in Lake Tahoe. Or the freedom I felt as I leapt down a sandy mountainside behind my great-grandfather’s tiny home in Greer, Idaho. Or the grand lesson I learned from the firmness of my Great-Uncle Billy’s handshake.
Each memory is a piece of who I am today.
Tangerines remind me of Christmas dinners at Grandma Hazel’s, where I listened intently as my father and Uncle Jim recalled “the good ol’ days.” Disneyland reminds me of my mother. And, naturally, chicken soup reminds me of my late Grandma Nina. These days I make lots of chicken soup.
I suppose there are many memories I have never even spoken of, perhaps none more cherished than one night in the summer of 1977. At the time I was 10 years old. We lived in Livermore, Calif. My world consisted of primarily two things back then: baseball cards and baseball games. I marked my days by the daily schedule of the Oakland A’s – the only Major League Baseball team that mattered, of course – and my next haircut. The latter I tried to avoid as much as possible, especially if I were to emulate my long-haired heroes of the “Swinging A’s.”
My father understood my obsession. He should have. I think he was entranced by the same spell. He too loved baseball, and although his experience went no further than the sandlots of Oakland, he knew the game as well as anyone. He studied the game by reading the books of some of baseball’s greatest minds, such as Los Angeles Dodgers’ skipper Walter Auston or cutting-edge, hitting guru Charley Lau. Mostly, he watched games.
Watching baseball with my father was both enjoyable and educational. He’d analyze plays with me, pointing out subtle nuances that could often mean the difference between winning and losing. He even taught me how to keep score properly, something I imagine he taught himself. My father – a Teamster and warehouseman – was also a studious man. Years later, as a young sports writer cover the Oakland A’s, I would realize that the soundness of my father’s baseball philosophies rivaled even that of future Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa.
Thankfully, I was the beneficiary of this knowledge. My father took me to the local ball yards in Livermore and later Vacaville on countless occasions to hit me grounders or pitch me batting practice. He hit and pitched as long as I wanted, or until the setting sun called us home for dinner. Once, he drove me to another town just so I could field grounders on a grass infield. My mind drifted that day, and several grounders uncharacteristically slipped beneath my carefully shaped glove. Finally, my father barked, “Let’s go! You’re wasting my time!” Even then my father was teaching me a lesson. Baseball was as much mental as it was physical.
Those days were magical for me. I went from playing catch with my father in our two-car garage to playing catch at Granada Little League fields in Livermore, where my dreams often transported me to the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum and the home of my beloved A’s. I just knew I’d some day don the uniform of the green and gold, just as my childhood heroes did in winning three straight World Series championships between 1972 and 1974. I was raised on championship glory, having attended one World Series game in 1972 at age 5 and even a couple downtown victory parades in which my father hoisted me atop his shoulders. My father was all too willing to take me to A’s games to watch Reggie Jackson swing for the fences or Jim “Catfish” Hunter spin his mastery on the mound. By the summer of 1977, free agency had snatched most of my A’s heroes. Still, the magic remained in the game.
I remember my father coming home one day, and hinting at how he would like to take me to the A’s-Angels game that night. The mere thought of attending a game usually sent me scurrying for my worn A’s cap and baseball glove. Only this night was different. I sensed a hesitation. My father didn’t push the issue. Then my mother approached, speaking quietly in what I could only assume was grown-up talk. I bounced anxiously nearby, hoping to sway the outcome of the conversation.
“Are you sure?” Dad said.
“Yeah,” Mom replied. “Go. Have fun.”
Before my father could speak, I was rushing to get ready for the ballgame. As we drove to the game in our faithful, red Volkswagen, I remember my father telling me money was “tight.” There would be no souvenirs on this night, he declared, just the game. I nodded happily.
Prior to the game, I went through my customary pre-game ritual of pestering visiting players for their autographs as they emerged from the clubhouse runway behind home plate. I knew them all by face, thanks in large part to my collection of baseball cards – Rod Carew … Ralph Garr … Brooks Robinson … Dick Allen. I also schmoozed with the visiting bat boy, who had the power to dole out cracked bats as he desired. I had watched other boys successfully make their pitch for one of those coveted, game-used bats, although I was still learning the hustle which usually involved a fist full of cash. How could I compete? I was 10. The bat boy usually ended our conversation with a polite, “We’ll see.”
So I held out hope, however slim my chances may have been.
Money was certainly not part of the equation on this night. As I recall, my father had $20. Amazingly, that $20 bill bought us parking, two tickets behind the visiting dugout, a coffee, a Coke, and two hot dogs.
What else did a kid need?
Well, a cracked bat would have been nice. Or so I dreamed.
Later that night I watched the powerful Don Baylor step to the plate for the California Angels. At 6-foot-1, 200-pounds, Baylor was an imposing slugger who stirred the barrel of his bat menacingly in the air as he awaited each pitch. Suddenly, something happened. Baylor shattered his bat into two pieces, leaving only the heavily tarred handle in his clutches. I saw the bat boy retrieve the splintered barrel – perhaps my bat. Or so I dreamed.
“Dad,” I said with wide eyes. “I’m gonna try to get that bat after the game. The bat boy told me he might get me one.”
“Is that right?” Dad replied in a refined drawl, knowing my hope was a long-shot at best. Still, he never dashed my hopes. He even let me stick around for a few minutes after the game to satisfy my curiosity. Finally, the bat boy emerged on the top step of the dugout with Baylor’s cracked bat. My heart pounded.
By then, the sharks were swarming. An older boy – a local ballpark rat who knew the cracked-bat game intimately – was already laying in wait. Still, I desperately made my pitch, reminding the bat boy of our pre-game conversation and how much such a souvenir would mean. Sentiment seemingly meant little in these negotiations.
“How much you got?” asked the bat boy. My heart sank.
Before I could answer, the other boy flashed $14. “I got fourteen bucks,” he said with a cock-sure grin as he leaned over the top of the dugout. I knew the boy would likely take the bat, and re-sell it elsewhere for a profit.
Suddenly, my father dug into his front pocket and pull out the last of our money, “Look, all I have is four dollars.”
The other boy smirked, “Fourteen bucks, man.”
My father looked the bat boy in the eyes, adding, “It’s for my son.”
Moments seemed like minutes. Alas, the bat boy rolled the bat up to my father and snatched the $4 from his fingers. I gasped as my father handed me the bat, the most beautiful piece of wood I had ever seen. The barrel alone seemed as long and thick as one of my legs, and featured a rich, dark stain that highlighted every ring. Engraved in a dark chocolate was the carved signature of Don Baylor himself. And there was still a goodly portion of pine tar on the splintered handle.
I cradled the bat all the way home, thanking my father for sealing the deal. For years I proudly displayed the bat among my collection of Major League baseballs, team bobble heads and other ballpark trinkets.
The Baylor bat has remained in my possession for more than three decades now, surviving my moves away from Vacaville and Dixon, and eventually into my own family’s rural home in Rocky, Oklahoma. My boys – Joseph and Tristan – have glanced at the bat with minor curiosity over the years, having learned long ago how it came into my possession. Sometimes, I still hold the bat in my clutches and marvel at its beauty, although its meaning has changed dramatically with time. Today, Don Baylor’s name is but a footnote to my baseball-obsessed childhood. His bat holds a much greater place of prominence in my heart.
Baylor’s bat represents a father’s desire to give his son a ray of happiness. Even if it cost him his last dollar.