Last Games, First Games, and the Meaning of Baseball

img_7385The first game in his scorebook is the last game at the Kingdome.

I bought tickets as a Father’s Day present. Taking cash I had saved from high school babysitting gigs to the Bellevue Square Mariners Team Store the day tickets went on sale, I secured two 300-level seats behind the left field foul pole. I presented them in a homemade card, poking fun at wanting to say goodbye even though the Kingdome wasn’t a “real” baseball stadium. He grew up outside Boston, going to games at Fenway Park. I only had the Kingdome, which may not have been “real”, but I loved it for the childhood baseball memories it gave me.

I found that card in the top drawer of his dresser after he died. The scorebook was in his office, never finished. If you’re keeping score at home as he often did his last year, the final game he kept was Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, the game we thought would be his last. A game he was too sick to stay awake to finish. In between is the first season Opening Day at Safeco Field, continuing our tradition of skipping school and work for the first toothsome taste of baseball. There are my brother’s Little League games, which only identify the players by their first name. I scored a handful of Mariners games in my tiny high school writing, dating them using the European style because that was my thing then.

I finished Game 6 in his scorebook, my light, swirly writing contrasting with his assertive, bold script. He taught me to keep score, an inning here an inning there, so that I’d be able to keep up the game when he needed a bathroom break. Eventually, I started scoring games I went to with friends. He taught me his method of scoring, but I rebelled as every teenager does and developed my own techniques (my brother once took a glance at my scorebook and told me I was doing it wrong). A scorebook became as essential to me as a ticket for attending a baseball game.

The season after he died, I started taking his scorebook to games with me, abandoning my own. It documents a miserable Mariners era. The names in the lineups include Chone Figgins, Justin Smoak, and Miguel Olivo (oh, the humanity!). But there are also University of Washington games and Tacoma Rainiers games. Even that awful Mariners lineup yielded one great entry. I was in Dallas visiting family and witnessed Figgins and Co. score 22 runs at the Ballpark in Arlington with my non-baseball fan sister. It’s unlikely that our loved ones above really have an influence on sporting events, but helping his adopted team humiliate his youngest brother’s adopted team while I was in town to rub it in is definitely something my dad would do.

I had a dream about him shortly after we returned from Dallas. I filled him in on my life in the months since he died. The first thing I told him about was the game against the Rangers, being there with my sister, and giving his youngest brother a good ribbing over the score. I told him about recording it in his scorebook.

I toted that scorebook to games until I found myself with one page left.

The last game taunted me. It couldn’t be just a regular Mariners game. It had to be special. I thought about inviting my brother to a game for that final page. He was a big part of my baseball childhood and a fellow inheritor of our father’s fandom. I thought about bringing it to a game against his Red Sox. I thought about waiting until something really great happened, and copying it into the scorebook.

I almost brought it to a game last year when I was pregnant. King Felix versus the Yankees. I declared publicly (on Facebook, so it’s canon) that if Felix threw a no-hitter or beaned Alex Rodriguez in the face, my unborn child, boy or girl, would be named Felix. It started out well. Felix was throwing a very good game. Then, the rains came. The grounds crew danced between innings while the roof closed, and the pitcher’s mound was neglected. Sticky mud clung to Felix’s cleats as he lost his command and his very good game. A-Rod’s pretty face remains unmarred, and I won’t have to send my daughter to therapy for her name (there will be other reasons, I’m sure).

That last game.

Maybe I would leave it blank forever, a symbol that although he was gone my dad’s baseball fandom wasn’t over; it was still living through me.

His death was the most challenging thing I had faced. The stages of grief-the anger, the bargaining, the denial-all started the day I learned he’d had an abnormal colonoscopy. You don’t move smoothly through the stages; when you think you’ve reached acceptance, the anger rears up again.

It’s been almost five years. I have come to accept almost everything. The cancer. My mom losing the love of her life. Never watching another game with him. Not having him see me get my life together. It’s all okay. But the one thing I haven’t been able to accept is not knowing him as a grandfather to my children. I don’t know if I ever will.

He always knew the right words and as I battled to cope with a newborn that wouldn’t sleep, I needed those words. As I worked to find my footing with a baby, I needed him to tell me about his mistakes. When I was hit with the magnitude of what it meant to be a parent, I needed him to assure me it was going to be okay. Those waves of grief hit me all over again as I struggled with not having him there.

Before my daughter was born, I thought often about her first baseball game. I didn’t know if I wanted to take her as a baby, or when she was old enough to remember. It would be fun to have pictures of her at a game as a baby, to tell her she had been a fan her whole life. There’s also a compelling specialness to waiting until she was old enough to remember, for her to have both a special moment and a special memory.

Then, on the day of the game, we were offered great tickets to see the Mariners retire Ken Griffey Jr.’s number. We packed up the baby and brought her to her first game. We took pictures and we got the commemorative First Game certificate. I cut out and saved the game story from the newspaper the next morning.

She liked the airplanes flying overhead. She enjoyed entertaining the people sitting behind us. She took a short nap while the grownups relived childhood memories and watched through misty eyes as the number of the greatest player we may ever see was retired.

This baby has no idea she is going to hear endless stories about Ken Griffey Jr. and other Mariners as she grows up, the same way I heard about Carl Yastrzemski, Ted Williams, and Pumpsie Green, the first player my dad had me look up in the Baseball Encyclopedia he gave me for Christmas.

She has no idea she will be back to the ballpark many times. She will hear our stories and our memories, and she’ll make her own. The players of her childhood will be special in a way that only childhood players can be.

Maybe she’ll fall in obsessive love with baseball like I did, maybe she won’t. Maybe she’ll learn to score and keep her own scorebooks. Maybe she’ll think it’s boring and spend her future baseball games in the ‘Pen (please, dear God, no, but of course I’ll love her anyway). Maybe she’ll have a younger sister or brother who will be far more into baseball. Maybe they’ll all hate it.

So many things for kids are really for parents. Birthday parties, Christmas, and first baseball games among them.

Taking her to that game means far more to me than it could ever mean to her. It’s a small connection between my dad, me, and the granddaughter I know he would have loved incalculably.

That’s the essence of baseball right there. The past is alive in the present. Games end, seasons fade into the next, players retire, and fans grow up, have kids, and die. But it all remains and it all matters. My dad is there in my memories. He is present in the rituals of baseball and the emotion that surrounds it. The best thing I inherited from him may not be my baseball fandom after all; it may be the understanding that the past matters.

There are no endings. There are only beginnings.

The last game in his scorebook is his granddaughter’s first game.

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2 thoughts on “Last Games, First Games, and the Meaning of Baseball

  1. Pingback: Go Call Your Dad | SECTION 331

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