[Note: This column first appeared in Boston Baseball and was also reprinted here in June of 2010]
I can still remember the last pitch.
My father was a fan, but not a big fan. No one in my family was, but baseball grabbed me when I was only three or four and never let go. If it was too dark to play ball when my father got home from work I would have a fit, so he installed floodlights in the backyard. Then, no matter how tired he was from working a twelve or fourteen hour day in construction, we could still play ball.
Most of my memories of my father are somehow wrapped around a baseball - playing catch, him taking me to games or watching me pitch. It was the one way we really connected. But in high school I tore my rotator cuff and had to stop playing. We didn’t have as much to talk about after that.
Almost twenty years later my shoulder healed and I joined an adult league, one in Boston and later, another in Worcester County, where I then lived. For three or four years I was in both leagues and played forty, fifty games each summer, usually pitching and playing first or third.
I’d call home every week and for the first time since I was a kid my conversations with my father were wrapped around baseball again. I sent him the ball after I won my first game since I was sixteen years old, and a t-shirt I got for making the league all-star team. I was as proud of each as of any book I’ve ever written, and so was he.
In April of 1996, the week my daughter was born, Pop was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He had ignored the symptoms for too long and his doctor told him he had a year to live, give or take a week , and to enjoy the time he had. That July he and my stepmother loaded up the RV and he came out for his final visit.
I had a ballgame, last of the year. I was new to my team and we were not very good and I had not been much help. We were playing a team that had already beaten us once and needed only to beat us again to make the playoffs.
Half our team didn’t even show up, but it was a beautiful summer Saturday morning and Soldier’s Field sparkled like a postcard, dew on the grass glinting in the sun. My dad and stepmother, my wife and baby daughter, my brother, and our neighbors and their kids all sat together in the bleachers, half the crowd.
Before the game our manager muttered “We’re gonna get killed today.” For the first few innings it appeared as if he were right. We played like we did not want to be there and were trailing 5 - 0 in the fourth when I led off with a line drive single. From the bleachers I could hear his voice again. “Alright!”
That’s the only thing my father ever said at a game - “Alright!” I was happy to get a hit and some sloppy baseball netted us a couple runs to make it respectable. But when our pitcher put a few guys on in the bottom of the inning it looked hopeless. My manager waved me over and even though I had pitched in Boston two days before and my arm was still sore and my legs were shot, I took the ball anyway, just like my father had gone into the backyard after working fourteen hours. I was his son. A pop-up, a strikeout and a groundball wrapped around a walk got us out of the inning.
Something happened. We started making impossible plays and improbable hits, rallying against one of the best pitchers in the league. I wiggled through the fifth and sixth, and in the bottom of the inning, down by one with runners on second and third, I bounced a single through the middle and now we led by a run and I needed only three outs for the win. “Alright!”
I had nothing but somehow got two outs and then, with runners on first and second, the batter hit a ground ball down the first base line. I sprinted over to field the ball and end the game.
It felt like someone hit the back of my leg with a ball peen hammer. I went down hard. The batter raced to first on an infield hit, loading the bases, as my hamstring started to hemorrhage.
I tried to stand and fell. I couldn’t throw another pitch.
I saw him sitting in the stands for the last time and I pulled myself up.
Limping to the rubber, using all arm and one leg, I somehow got the count to 3-2. With two outs, a one-run lead, the bases loaded and all the runners moving, I threw the last pitch my father would ever see me throw, a fastball down and away.
Another grounder to my left. I reacted, but I was too late. My first baseman ranged into the hole to make the play.
I lurched toward first, muscle fibers popping with each stride. He flipped the ball ahead of me. I could hear the baserunner coming down the line as the winning run tore around third toward home.
The throw was wide. I stretched out toward first base and reached out with my bare hand. My hamstring exploded and I snatched the throw from the air. My foot, then the runner’s, hit the base and I fell, holding the ball tight in my fist.
That afternoon I sat on my front porch with my father, drinking beer, a bag of ice under my thigh, talking about the game. He told me he was not surprised I had stayed in and that we had won, that I still played the game the way I always had, hard, just like he had taught me.
He meant it. After this one small miracle I wanted to think there would be another, but I knew better. The following spring, one week before my daughter’s first birthday, only a few days before opening day, Pop was gone.