Play Ball!

Dad in little league

My dad, back in his little league days.

 

My dad loved baseball. Not in any sort of obnoxious way, but his appreciation for the game always been a factor in my life. He watched the other sports, followed football, played tennis as an adult, and he got pretty excited when my sister was playing basketball in high school, but baseball was the one he loved, and I love it too.

When I was a little girl we would sometimes play catch, or “pepper” as he called one-sided batting practice. He would pitch me the ball and I would try to connect a bat to it, striking out as often as I made contact. He showed me how hitting a baseball involved so much more than your arms. “Feet, hips, swing” he’d say. You step into it first, turn your hips, and the arms and bat are the last to complete the arc.

He’d played little league as a boy, been a pretty good left-handed pitcher, even throwing one no-hitter. I sometimes wonder if I would have played softball had we been living in the states. It’s possible, but I doubt it. I was a terrible athlete. Still I grew up loving baseball. When we lived in Kobe, my dad would take my sister and I to watch the Orix Blue Wave, and their star player: Ichiro Suzuki. Baseball in Japan is a lot more ritualized than it is in the States. The cheering is orchestrated, adorable bento boxes take the place of hot dogs and garlic fries, but there is the same electricity to watching the game played live.

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Me, my dad, and my sister at an Orix Blue Wave game.

When I moved back to Seattle in fall of 2000 Ichiro moved with me, or so I like to think. He was acquired by the Mariners that year and played in their history making 116 win season in 2001. Socks pulled up, constantly stretching out in right field and almost always beating the throw to first base, he stuck with the team a lot longer than he probably should have, once that epic winning season turned into over a decade of playoff hopes evaporating in July. I was sad when he transferred to the Yankees, but not too sad. I felt I understood his motives. Ichiro was a great ballplayer. He was nearing the end of his career and wanted to end it with a team that had a chance of making the postseason. The irony of the fact that the Yankees have not made the playoffs since he joined them is not lost on me.

When we were driving anywhere together Dad would have the game on in the little white Ford truck, just to check in. We rarely watched games on television, we never had cable, and there are too many games in season to let them affect your schedule, but we always checked in when we were driving. When we got the house or the church or the store, he’d park the truck but keep the radio on. “Let’s just listen until the end of the inning” he’d say “see where this goes.”

Several years before he got sick, my sister and I started taking our dad to the Father’s Day Mariners Game. The M’s almost always played at home that Sunday, and we would find the best tickets we could and experiment with different modes of transportation to Safeco Field. The first year we drove, the next took the bus, and the next the train from Edmonds. One year we invited our stepmother along with us and she bought everyone fish and chips during the third inning.

Games were too taxing and time-consuming after the cancer so the last two Father’s Days we had brunch, and went to see movies or got Chinese foot massages. It was always a good time, but I missed going to the game. I missed having that live collective experience, the three of us suddenly on our feet after a big hit, or my dad remarking on the speed of a pitch, on whether a batter was ahead or behind in the count. “This is a batter’s pitch” he’d explain on a 3 and 1 count, or “look at the pitch count on this guy, sometimes a batter will try to foul off pitches just to wear out the pitcher and get his pitch count up.” I think Ichiro was good at that.

We could always talk about baseball. With the advent of smartphones I could follow the M’s season on the MLB app. Dad still relied on the newspaper to check the box scores in the morning. “I just like to see if Smoak got a hit, if he doesn’t start hitting the ball it’s going to be his last season, that’s what I think.” The last time he was in the hospital he was pleased he got to watch the games. One time I went to visit him by myself and brought sushi from the restaurant where I work, his favorite. He was on the rehab floor, and one of the nurses came by to check on him. He had his hat on, the one with the two red socks on it, so she commented on the poor showing Boston had put in this year. “That’s all right” he said, “The Mariners are still in it.” “As long as they can take this next series against Toronto” I chimed in. “This is my kid, Caitlin, my first-born.” He told the nurse proudly, “She knows all about baseball.”

It feels wrong that I can’t just call him up anymore. Leave him messages like I did after the Red Sox won the World Series last year. Let him know it looks like he was on the money about Justin Smoak. Commiserate about the M’s recent meltdown, and marvel that the last games of the season still matter. But all I can do is wear his hat, the one with the two red socks on it, and sit in the car after I’ve arrived home to listen through the end of the inning.

 

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