When I was around eight, and my parents had already split or would soon, I had a dream that terrified me. My father drove me down a dark, leafy road to a strange house enveloped by shadows. He took me to the door and presented a woman. “This is your new mother,” he said.
Several years later, the dream came true somewhat. Dad lived in a series of apartments after moving out and saw my brother and sister and me only on Sundays. When I was thirteen, Dad married the ex-wife of a wealthy surgeon in a ceremony in the marital house. My stepmother received the house, and Dad moved into it. It was the house of my dream, a ranch house situated up a long, leafy road in an alien and exclusive part of town, shadowed by overhanging trees. My stepmother was always cordial to me, but she was, inalterably, not my mom. Her son, a few years older than me and the son of the house, spurned me implicitly. The house was attractive in that magazine way: expensively furnished and correctly appointed, with all the charm of a hotel lobby.
One day at fourteen, feeling as awkward as I always did when I visited that house, I found sanctuary in the dark-paneled den—the word “den” evoking for me the solidity and stability of Father Knows Best, elements utterly alien to my middle-class and family background. A good game was on TV: the rising Dodgers of Garvey and Buckner against The Big Red Machine of Bench, Rose, and Perez.
Throughout childhood, baseball was my refuge. Sorting baseball cards for hours was an antidote, I believe now, to the chaos of a home life plagued by slamming doors, shouts, and tears. And playing baseball gave me pure joy. And when I got good, it gave me a reason to be proud of myself.
Not that my father encouraged my passion. My mother, an instinctive propagandist in their endless war, related a story. “Your father asked me,” she said, “`How can I get closer to Johnny?’ And I told him, `He loves baseball. Play catch with him.’” Here she paused for dramatic effect, and stared at me as she drove the point home: “And he never did, Johnny. Not once.” As if I didn’t know.
Taking refuge that day in my stepmother’s den, watching Bench and Morgan tangle with the Dodgers, I wasn’t happy, but at least I felt safe.
Then Dad came in. Glancing at the TV, he declared with authority: “Dullest damn game in the world.” And barged out in disgust.
It wasn’t just that he had issued the slander that irritates baseball fans the most. Our game can be boring—for the uninitiated. And at the peak of the Rock Era, with baseball undergoing one of its periodic identity crises and grasping pathetically for coolness with double-knit uniforms, AstroTurf, and Bowie Kuhn’s sideburns, baseball on TV, on that bright weekend day when I was a teen, did seem dull to me. Nor was I equipped at fourteen to intellectually grasp the infinite subtleties that make the game infinitely engaging, nor eloquent enough to express its sublime beauty, even to myself—let alone to my father, if he’d stayed in the room.
What matters is that a boy nursed on the mythology of fathers playing catch with sons reached the inevitable conclusion: my dad hates what I love, therefore he hates me.
Ten years later, my father died. The years in between had not brought us closer. I was in law school in California when Dad died, and I chose not to travel to Nevada for his funeral—a decision I will neither defend nor attack. A mountain of inertia kept me away.
It wasn’t only baseball, of course.
But it was baseball, too.