Monday, September 6, 2010

Dinner with Dad

Patsy was in Chicago last week tending three grandchildren to give a brief respite to Steve and Tina so they could sneak away together with the baby.  When she left, she gave explicit instructions that I should take my father to dinner sometime during her absence.  I called him on Wednesday night to arrange our dinner date.

In various post-surgery periods in recent years, Dad and I have had a lot of dinner dates.  To bolster his heart condition, one of his prescribed remedies was a weekly steak dinner.  We both took full advantage of that "treatment," and shared many samplings of various cuts from many purveyors.

The other night we renewed our dinner date tradition.  When I called him and asked which he would prefer, going out somewhere or having me pick something up and bring it to the house, he thought for a moment and said, "Something with cheese on it," then quickly added, "It's been about four and a half years since I've had a Crown Burger, why don't you pick one up and bring it here?"

For the uninitiated, a Crown Burger is a delectable and inspired combination of pastrami and a quarter pound hamburger patty with sauce, lettuce and cheese.  I'm good for about one a year.  Any more than that and I'd be aggravating and encouraging a gout attack.

So I did as instructed and picked up the Crown Burgers with fries and chocolate shakes, and brought them to his home.  The back door was wide open when I arrived on a warm summer evening and I could hear a baseball broadcast blaring throughout the house.  When I went into the family room, I discovered the obvious reason for his choice of the dinner venue.  The Yankees were playing the A's in Yankee Stadium.  Between innings when the commercials came on he did what he always does, what all men do -- he flipped the channel to the U.S. Open Tennis Tournament.  Dad subscribes to the Yankee channel on cable these days.  He doesn't miss many games either.  I know the Yankees are doing well this year, but he knows a lot more details than I do. 

John Isner was playing his match in the Open.  At Wimbledon in June, he won a 70-68 fifth set over Nicolas Mahut in a match that went a total of 183 games and 11 hours, 5 minutes spread over three days. It was the longest match in professional tennis history.  To put that feat it into perspective, in three full matches in New York at the U.S. Open — two victories and a loss — Isner played a total of 116 games, and a combined 8 hours, 12 minutes.  Isner lost that night, but boy is he fun to watch.  He's 6'8" with a booming service game.

So it was obvious to me that Dad was in his sports zone that night.  No wonder we were eating at home!

You have to know something about Dad and me.  Dad taught me how to play baseball and tennis.  He came to every Little League game I ever played and kept all the stats for all the teams in our league in his scorebook.  Sports was our life in those days, coming by it naturally, imbued and imbedded in our souls as a gift from Les Goates, the legendary sports columnist for the Deseret News, who was my Dad's father and my grandfather.  It was back in the day when Utah State and Utah played a football game on Thanksgiving Day!!  I don't remember ever missing one when we were growing up.  Thanksgiving Day dinner always happened after the big game.  It was back in the day when you could by stock in the Salt Lake Bees, and we all owned a small share of the team.  It was the golden era of Billy "the Hill" McGill at the Einar Nielsen Fieldhouse at the UofU.  At 6'9", he was the tallest man I had ever met until I shook hands with Mark Eaton years later.  

But I digress.  Don Larsen was a journeyman pitcher, whose career was at best pedestrian until that unforgettable day, October 8, 1956.  It was game five of the World Series.  I went home for lunch, running most of the way from Wasatch Elementary School a few blocks from our home, to take full advantage of the hour I could watch the game.  When I arrived, I was surprised to find Dad there for his lunch too.  Together we sat glued to the black and white screen emitting the sights and sounds over our DuMont television set.

That day, Don Larsen was doing something extraordinary that had never been done before.  He was working on a perfect game.  We sat together and watched in an awed trance.  All thoughts of returning to school and work were banished.  It wasn't even a close call, despite a mild protest from Mom.  No one in Yankee Stadium or in our family room dared to speak of what was happening for fear of jinxing it, but the scoreboard told the story, inning after inning -- no runs, no walks, no hits, no runners ever reached first base.  In the end, 27 Dodger batters had come to the plate, and 27 had been retired in perfect order. 

It was the only "perfect game" ever pitched in the long and storied history of the World Series.  And he did it against the Brooklyn Dodgers.  His perfect game remains the only no-hitter of any type ever pitched in postseason play. 

Together, my Dad and I had witnessed baseball perfection.  That moment in time will always be ours to claim and to share forever.  Perfection.  We all strive for it, but few attain it in this life.

I'm not certain exactly when it happened, but I was always a Yankee fan.  My boyhood idol was Mickey Mantle.  I learned to switch hit because of Mick.  The way I knelt in the on deck circle was a total homage to the Mick.  My goal was to hit as many homers as he did someday.  Well, why not?  Shoot high. 

When I played Little League ball, I rode my bike through the Salt Lake City Cemetery either alone or with my brother Hal night after night to practice and games.  We had no headlights, but we knew the path well.  There was never any fear -- either that we would fall into an open grave or that the boogey man would grab us.  When it's about baseball, there is no fear of anything.  We were invincible, kings of our domain.

Each day when we weren't playing organized baseball or tennis, we were at Reservoir Park, two blocks south of our home on "U" Street.  Mom finally hit upon the idea of an obnoxious cow bell to call her boys home for dinner.  It could be heard two blocks away when we were playing, and it always signalled the end, or at least the temporary interruption, of our games.

There were seldom enough neighborhood players to make up nine-on-nine games, but that was never a problem -- we loved playing "over the line," and we played it for years as though we owned that park.  We invented scoring systems and argued over whether or not the ball was hit hard enough to get over the basepaths on the fly.  It was great fun, days we relished.  When summer came, there was never a thought about doing anything else, except maybe playing tennis on the Reservoir courts.  Those were the golden days of childhood. 

The only time we slowed down was for the Mother-mandated "quiet time" in the heat of the day (to prevent the dreaded disease polio, we were told) when we could read whatever books we chose.  I remember one summer being enthralled with Lloyd C. Douglas and The Magnificient Obsession and The Robe.  When I finished those, I found The Big Fisherman.

Apart from that, we were completely unfettered and free.  There was never a concern about being molested, abused or kidnapped.  Such concerns were never factored into the equation.  The worst we may have ever witnessed was a drunk man passed out under the shade of a tree.  It was a simpler time.  And the best part for me was being a Yankee fan.

When I turned fifty, on the very day, I happened to be at a convention in Boston with Patsy at my side.  Someone handed me two tickets to the ballpark that night.  Not just any ballpark.  THE Fenway Park.  The Green Monster.  Ted Williams.  Carl Yastremski.  The Yankees were in town.  My first and only encounter with Ted Williams happened on that trip.  He was staying at the same hotel we were.  He was in a wheelchair by then, and I got to see him on the mezzanine level, the legendary slugger who finished one season with a .402 batting average.  That feat had never been done before or repeated ever since. 

Hitting a round ball with a round piece of wood one out of three times on average is enough to land professional baseball player in the Hall of Fame.  There's a lesson in persistence and picking yourself up off the ground when you fail in that statistic.  "I am not judged for the number of times I fail, but for the number of times I fail and keep trying."  Tom Hopkins said it first, but it could be the mantra for everyone who's ever played baseball.

I was determined to take full advantage of those tickets on my birthday in Boston.  We left early on the train for the ballpark to watch batting practice.  I found a brave vendor offering Yankee "on field" caps for sale.  That's the genuine version, the one the players wear "on field."  It was more than I could stand.  I bought one that night (which I still own and wear), and we sat along the first base side under the covered pavilion of the upper deck, our view partially blocked by the iron pillars.  But I was in heaven.  For a little boy from Utah, it was almost a religious experience.  We sat among the Yankee faithful.  "Let's go Yankees," rang out again and again.  "Let's go Red Sox," was returned with even more vigor in response.  We went back to the hotel happy that night.  I had my new cap and the Bronx Bombers had won.

The other night with Dad, I was a boy all over again.  All the memories came flooding back.  I've been savoring them all week.  Dad's 88 years old now, still diligently working on his longevity "consecutive games played" streak with all the daily courage required.  I put enough protein into him that night to carry him a few more days, and he even saved half of it to be reheated and enjoyed a second time. 

I'm not certain how many more dinners like that we'll have, but I do know this -- we'll always have that cherished memory together of witnessing perfection once in our lives when the Yankees beat the Dodgers in the 1956 World Series because of Don Larsen's perfect game.

And for a little boy, it just doesn't get any better than that.

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