May 26, 2016
Of Mark Fidrych, the Joy of Baseball and the Need for a Father’s Approval
By KEITH GAVE
Forty years ago this summer, America fell head-over-heels in love with baseball again thanks to a gangly, 21-year-old kid who reminded us all that it’s only a game – and in its purest form it can be joyful to play, and to watch.
Goose bumps were still marching up and down my spine even after I’d turned off Monday Night Baseball after watching the Tigers beat the New York Yankees on national television on June 28, 1976. I was living in Kansas at the time, just returned from three years of service in West Berlin with a year to go on my Army enlistment. But I felt compelled to phone home and talk to someone else I was sure had watched that game, someone who certainly was inspired by the game Mark Fidrych had just pitched.
My father was a hard man to please. I learned that at an early age, pretty much every time I brought home a report card.
I wasn’t a bad student. Made the honor roll more often than not. But there was this one time when I really thought I’d get my dad to do a little more than nod his head with an, “mmm-hmmm.” All A’s and a B+ – and that B+ had been a lowly C at mid-semester. I’d worked my butt off in that math class and was feeling awfully good about myself when I handed him my report card.
He looked at it for so long I was starting to get nervous. Finally, he nodded. “Mmm-hmmm,” he said. But I was right. This time there was more.
“Looks like there’s still some room for improvement, eh?”
I started to laugh, but he wasn’t smiling. He was serious. “Yeah, I guess there is,” I said, fighting back tears.
I’d never come close to getting all A’s again. To be honest, I gave up trying. I did just well enough to make the honor roll, which I needed to do in order to keep playing baseball. That was all I ever cared about, ever since my dad came home one evening, put a raggedy old three-fingered mitt on my hand and pulled a shiny white rubber ball out of his dirty work pants.
We stood close to the wall of our apartment building and he tossed the ball up against it. By the time it had returned to us, he had my gloved hand positioned perfectly. The ball fell into the pocket, and he grabbed my other hand to make sure it stayed there.
That was my first lesson in baseball. Catch the ball with both hands; that’s why God gave you two of them. But don’t take my word for it. Ask Al Kaline.
He tossed the ball against the wall and caught it more times than not. I was already hooked before he handed to me to try by myself – and it flew several feet over my head. “Practice,” he said. And I would. Pretty soon, I was breaking so many windows he took the ball away until I promised to be more careful or, as he put it, “throw the goddamned ball straight.”
There began my love affair with baseball. I was 4 years old. Kaline was a rookie. Pretty soon, my dad and I were watching ballgames together, and he said if I wanted to learn how to play the game right to keep my eye on that No. 6 for the Tigers. The kid was fundamentally flawless.
But I couldn’t seem to do anything well enough on the baseball field to win my father’s approval. Made all-star teams in Little League and Babe Ruth League, played on some pretty good high school teams at Anchor Bay back in the day. My dad would frequently stop by and watch our games from his car, parked on the road behind the backstop. He never got out after a 10-hour day working as foreman in a grimy foundry.
I remember one game that had gone pretty well for us. We’d won easily, and I looked forward to getting home and talking with him about it over supper. After getting three hits in four at-bats, driving in a couple of runs, scoring a couple, turning a nice double play from my shortstop position, I was feeling pretty good about myself. About like I was with that one report card.
And all I heard about from my father was the time I flied out to left field. I didn’t get set in the batter’s box. I was waving my bat around, not keeping it still. I swung at a pitch that was too high and out of the strike zone.
I should have known better. Still some room for improvement.
After that, I avoided conversations about my baseball career, which ended miserably in college.
Flash forward to that night nearly 40 years ago, when Fidrych pitched a complete-game, 5-1 victory over the Yankees in front of a 47,855 delirious souls at Tiger Stadium and an admiring national TV audience. We’d watched as he strutted in circles around the mound, talked to himself, talked to the baseball, got down on his knees to tailor the dirt near the rubber just right.
He seemed nearly possessed in the ninth inning, with the crowd on its feet chanting “Go, Bird, go!” And when it ended on a ground ball to second, he leaped toward catcher Bruce Kimm as though he’d just tossed a no-hitter to win the World Series. Then he started shaking everyone’s hands, including umpires and ushers.
When he came out of the dugout for a curtain call the crowd demanded by screaming “We want the Bird!” I reached for the phone. My father answered.
“Hey Dad,” I said.
“Did you see that game?” he asked, his voice as full of the same kind of excitement I was feeling.
“How about that big Bird, eh? Talking to the damn ball, patting the pitcher’s mound with his hand and everything. Just the way he plays the game, you know? He reminds me of you, the way you used to play.”
It’s hard to speak when your heart is in your throat. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t make a sound, and after an uncomfortable pause he asked me if I was still there.
“I’m here,” I said, fighting back tears yet again. Only this time, it was about finally realizing that while I may not have been perfect I was good enough, after all, in the eyes of the only man whose approval I ever wanted or needed. “Thanks, Dad.”