Author's note and a fair warning:
I've been an avid reader of Lookout Landing for more than two years now, and finally made an account not long ago. Initially, I had planned to pen this FanPost during Spring Training. Or, maybe the eight-game losing streak. Nope. And then it was Opening Day. OK, I would get it done on Father's Day. Alas, life happens, and here it is. I typed most of this on my iPhone, so my apologies if the formatting is a bit off. It is very long, and devoid of any statistical analysis. It might not be your type of thing to read, but for those of you who want to take in something that is perhaps a bit different than the norm, this might very well satisfy. Grab a beer and kick up your feet. It's my condensed (no, seriously) version of my coming to age story as a baseball and a Mariners fan, and the man that made that all possible.
On a warm May evening in the spring of 1989, I sat nervously on a bench, knowing that my time was coming. More than an hour had passed as I nervously chewed my nails, watching the action through the chain link fence. With just one more out to go, I knew that the gruff man with the oversized belly and the long red beard would find me. Silently, I hoped for a lot of runs and errors and prolonged action. In my mind, I knew that my time had to come because the damn rules of Little League baseball mandated that I wear a glove for two innings and stand in the batter's box at least once, but seeing the ball being kicked around on the field offered me temporary solace.
Finally, the third inning ended and the bearded man summoned me from my seat by telling me to haul my ass out to right field. I grabbed my glove and made the uncomfortable jog.
That plot of grass had become my place of torment. I spent my time asking God to keep the baseball away from me. At seven-years-old, I should have loved every minute of it. When my dad and older brother took me to the police station in Moses Lake to register me for Little League, I thought it might be fun. I knew they both loved baseball, and being an impressionable kid, I wanted to please them. My dad told me that night that the glove he bought for me wasn't the best quality, but if I took to the game, he would get me an A2000 like he did for my brother. I didn't care, because the thing felt awkward on my hand and I had no idea what to do with it. Later that night, I watched intently as my dad soaked it in oil and tied a rubber band around it. He shoved it under my bed and told me to leave it there for a few days.
My first experience with baseball was disastrous. I was excited as I walked to my first practice, and within an hour of practice starting, I wanted to run home. The first time I stepped in the batter's box, the man with the red beard was standing 45 feet away, and he looked menacing with the ball in his hand. The first few pitches were right over the plate and the bat never left my shoulder. My coach threw his hands up and asked me what I was waiting for. Apparently, I was supposed to swing the bat. The next pitch got away from my coach, and the ringing in my ears was immediate. My head began to throb in the oversized helmet I was wearing. I felt the tears coming and resolved to not let them fall. He hurriedly walked to me and asked me if I was OK. I lied and said I was. He smiled and congratulated me on my first bean ball. He didn't let me out of the box until I made contact. After about 15 more pitches, I finally swung and felt the sting in my hands. I dropped the bat as the ball dribbled weakly to second base.
"OK, that's enough for now," he said. "Word of advice -- it's not good to hit the ball on the skinny part of the bat."
I was Scotty Wells before The Sandlot introduced us to him a few years later. I couldn't hit, throw, or catch. I didn't have a Benny Rodriguez to bail me out, either. My dad tried working with me in the backyard, but he worked swing shift hours. My brother was too busy playing with his friends to teach his kid brother how to play ball.
I was out on an island, and I realized from an early age that baseball was hard. Thankfully, that island was right field, where the worst players were exiled. When you're seven, the ball doesn't find itself out there very much. When it did, I would feign an injury or pretend I wasn't paying attention. When I had to hit, I would try and swing, but making contact was out of the question.
I was a red blooded American boy, with a dad that loved baseball, and an older brother who was pretty good at it. But when I was on the field, all I wanted to do was dig myself a hole and crawl into it.
My dad knew that I was struggling during my first year of playing baseball. One night after a game, he told me that he was going to take my brother and me on a road trip. I asked him where we were going, but he said it was a surprise.
He woke me up bright and early on the morning of May 21. He told me to get in the shower, because we had to be on the road in 30 minutes.
"Your baseball uniform is washed," he said. "When you get out of the shower, put it on. And don't forget your glove."
We piled into our 1988 Ford Bronco II. It was around 6:30 in the morning when we pulled out of our driveway. We hit McDonalds on the way out of town for breakfast. My brother was in the front seat, talking to my dad about baseball as the miles of interstate piled up. Watching the countryside pass me by through the window, I finally succumbed to a nap that lasted for the final 100 miles or so.
I woke up at around 10, as we were sitting in heavy traffic in downtown Seattle. My dad was desperately looking for a parking place. I looked to my right, and in the distance was the biggest building I had ever seen. All of the buildings mesmerized me, but this one in particular was something entirely different. It was round and made of concrete. It had an American Flag flying proudly at the top, and it was enormous. I asked my dad what it was, but he was too busy with the traffic.
We finally found a parking lot somewhere, and I remember thinking that the building was a long ways away. I asked my dad again where we were headed.
"To that big dome over there," he said, smiling. He patted me on the back.
I was excited. Being from small town Moses Lake, the biggest building I had ever seen before today was a grocery store. I looked around and saw hundreds of kids in their baseball uniforms with their dads, and that's when I knew that we were going to a Seattle Mariners game. I knew what the Mariners were only because they were on our television screen during the nights when my dad was home. Some nights, I'd lay on his chest as he stretched out on the couch as he watched the game. I wasn't excited about watching baseball, but I was excited about getting myself inside that enormous round thing. It had to be cool.
As we got closer, I became more excited. When we finally arrived at the ticket gate, my dad handed our three tickets over and we went in. I followed closely next to him and my brother, and my first thought was that the Kingdome smelled delicious. My breakfast from McDonalds digested long ago. Reading my mind, my dad pulled us aside and asked if we were hungry. He told us to stay put and he disappeared for a few minutes. When he returned, he handed us each a hot dog and a soda. We loaded it up with all the fixings at the condiment counter and continued on. We took a left and entered a tunnel that was radiating light on the other side. When we came out, my heart skipped a beat. I saw the biggest baseball field I had ever seen, and it was beautiful.
My dad took in the scene as my brother and I stood there in awe. My dad studied our tickets and looked up, and then mentioned something about being thankful he had tissue paper on him because of the nosebleed seats we would be sitting in. After making the mountainous climb, we finally arrived at our seats.
I took all of it in -- the sounds, the sights, the smells, the vendors -- all of it. It was a Major League Baseball game, and I was enamored with it. I didn't even like baseball, but I had never seen baseball like this. Before that day, baseball was something I tried to do and I was terrible at it. It was a batter's box where you get plunked in the head with the ball, or you stand aimlessly on a piece of grass where nothing ever happens. Here, it was something entirely different. In my childhood state of existence, something clicked inside of my heart the moment I saw that field. I looked at my dad and watched him as he smiled while watching the field. He was with his two boys, and this day was special to him. Growing up, I knew that we didn't have a lot of money. I wanted for nothing, but that was only because my parents worked their ass off. This was a luxury, but he made sure it would happen. He saw his youngest child, his happy-go-lucky son, trying to play a game that he loved, except his boy didn't enjoy it, and maybe he saw an opportunity; an intervention, to help me see baseball for what it really is.
I watched the New York Yankees take batting practice an hour or so before the game, and maybe it was Don Mattingly, Rickey Henderson, or Steve Balboni -- but one of them was hitting baseballs into the domed, concrete sky, and these baseballs were in orbit. I thought they would never land. One after the other, they flew furiously in the air, and I was sure that they would crash through the back wall of the Kingdome and keep going forever. The players on the field looked like they were having fun. Maybe, just maybe, baseball was fun.
My dad, a man I deeply love and respect. He was my hero then, much like he is now. I watched him and listened to him as he talked about his childhood in Nebraska, and how when he was in his backyard, he was Mickey Mantle. He talked about "The Mick," and how the man was Superman on a baseball field. His forearms were as thick as tree trunks, he said. He could hit the ball a "country mile." In center field, he could track down everything. He not only hit 500 foot homers from the left side, but the right side as well. The best player he had ever seen, and the best player there ever would be, thank you very much. Baseball was more than a game, he said. It was America. I thought that one day those words might sound a little hyperbolic.
He disappeared a few times during the game to smoke a cigarette. He always returned to his seat with something new for us. He bought me a Mariners pennant to hang on my bedroom wall. Another time, he brought me back a Mariners hat with a yellow ‘S' on it. Finally, he returned and handed me a program with Jim Lefebvre on the cover. I opened it and read all about the players. There was so much information, and I couldn't get enough.
I didn't spend a single moment in boredom that day. I watched the action on the field intently, and began understanding some of the minor nuances of the game. My dad told me that the kid patrolling center field was going to be a good one. His dad had played for the Big Red Machine in the 1970s; a team that my dad opined was one of the best of all-time.
Little did I know that No. 24 would one day be my Mickey Mantle.
In the ninth inning, with the Mariners trailing the Yankees six to nothing, No. 24 stepped into the batter's box against Clay Parker. Junior swung at a pitch and lined it into right/center field. Roberto Kelly, the Yankees' center fielder, made a beeline for the ball. At the last second he dove, and the ball hit the turf right in front of his outstretched body. The ball ricocheted off of his face and caromed away. I was watching Junior as he blazed around the bases, and by the time the Yankees got it back into the infield, Junior had scored. It was loud and people were excited. Well, the people who chose to stick around for the ninth inning, anyway.
It was the sixth home run of the 19-year-old rookie's career. We all know the rest-he would hit 624 more over the next 22 seasons, good enough for sixth on the all-time list. On that day, he gave the more than 30,000 people in attendance something to cheer about, and he had his entire career ahead of him, and for me, my childhood was just getting started.
As I walked out of the Kingdome that day, baseball was an entirely new thing to me. I loved it, and promised myself that I would get better and learn as much about the game as I could. I spent the entire drive home talking about the game and engaging in conversations that were foreign to me some four hours earlier.
Over most of the next 12 summers, we made it a point to hit a series during the season. We would stay in a cheap hotel in Des Moines or SeaTac, and watch Mariners baseball for an entire weekend. It was the highlight of my summers. We saw the Mariners put up a ridiculous amount of runs against the Texas Rangers during a four game set in 1994. We brought my mom to an interleague game against the Dodgers in 1997. The last game we went to was in 2001, the first game back after 9/11. Freddy Garcia pitched a complete game shutout for his 17th win, and the Mariners, with 106 victories, were one win away from clinching the AL West with more than two weeks left in the season. It was a brisk two hour and twenty minute game, and Ichiro collected three hits. I don't know why we quit going after that.
My career as a Little League baseball player soared after my first date with baseball. I still sucked, but I worked at it and instead of hiding in the dugout, I sought my coach out to get me a start or two. On the last game of the season, I collected my first hit of the season -- a line drive over the second baseman. It was a double. I wish I were faster.
I started looking for kids in my neighborhood who liked the game, and when I couldn't find many, I began to beg my brother to let me play with him and his friends. It was tough and I didn't have much success, but it made me better. My dad threw the ball around with me every chance he got, and by the next season, I was decent. I struck out a lot, but when I did connect, it went a ways. My days playing right field were over, and I was now a first baseman and a pitcher.
The next year, at the ripe age of nine, my skills and hard work really began to pay off. I pitched and played first again, and at the plate, I rarely struck out. My arm strength developed, thanks to countless hours of pitching a tennis ball against our house, and other parents would get pissed when I was on the mound because I threw too hard. One game, we were playing a team that had a girl on their roster, and oddly enough, it was a girl that I was crushing on. She stood in the back corner of the batter's box, and her long brown hair came out of her helmet. She looked scared to death. I remember seeing her and thinking I was in trouble. Take some off, I thought. My coach told me to pump fastballs in, and I knew my control was spotty at best. I did as I was told, and on the first pitch, I hit her in the left thigh. I heard the ball hitting flesh and watched in horror as she dropped like a sack of potatoes. I covered my face with my glove and wanted to disappear. She was bawling as she walked to first, and I felt like the biggest heel in the world.
She didn't talk to me again.
I got drafted to the majors that year. I was the only nine-year-old in the league to get called up that year, and I got picked by the best team-the Yankees of our Little League. They put me in right field, but I didn't care.
Over the next three years, my team won a couple of championships. I hit a home run with my dad in the stands. It was a high fastball that I crushed. As I sprinted around first, I heard my dad yell my name excitedly. I looked off into the distance and saw the ball rolling around in the parking lot 30 feet beyond the center field fence. Later that season, I threw a no-hitter.
During the last game of the season and my final Little League game, we fell behind six to nothing to our heated rivals, the Mariners, in the championship game. My dad had started his own business a few years prior, and sponsored us that year. Pouting in the dugout, I looked over at him and he smiled. It was his way of telling me to keep my head in the game. To make a long story short, we rallied for four runs in the fifth inning. In the top of the sixth, we loaded the bases and I came up to bat. On the first pitch I saw, another high fastball, I hit the top of the fence in center, and everybody scored. We went up 7-6, and our guy shut the Mariners down in the bottom of the sixth and we won the championship. The plaque still hangs in my dad's office.
I remember the first time my heart was broken. I was 13, and it had nothing to do with a girl. My dad picked me up from hanging out with my friends, and when I climbed in the truck, his face was sullen. I asked him if the Mariners won, and he told me they did. Then, he said words that I will never forget.
"Junior broke his wrist and is going to be out for a long time," he said.
Spiderman catch. May 26, 1995.
My eyes welled up with pissed off tears.
I'm not sure how I made it through the next three months, but I did. Most of us remember that season and that team. During the one-game playoff game against the Angels, I mysteriously got sick with something in the middle of the school day. Calling my dad to pick me up, I tried my best to sound ill. His voice on the other end was one of amusement.
"You're not sick," he said. "I understand. I'll be there in five minutes."
I watched Randy Johnson raise his arms to the heavens in my bedroom, while all of my friends were in math class.
I remember being down two games to none to the Yankees in the 1995 ALDS. The series headed to the Kingdome, but I felt that it was over. My dad wasn't so sure. We all know the rest-three straight wins. The Double happened. I celebrated with my dad and brother in the living room and I thought my heart was going to explode when I saw the dog pile at home plate with Junior, my idol, buried at the bottom, with the cheesiest smile I've ever seen anyone smile.
Bring it on, Cleveland. Bob Wolcott had your number in Game One. The rest didn't go so well, but what a season that was.
I'm 33 now, with three sons of my own. I long for the days when I can load them up in my truck and make the four hour drive to Safeco Field. Those days are a ways away, as they are only four, one, and six-months-old, but they are coming. I want the years to pass slowly, but getting my boys inside The Safe is a scene I play out in my mind all the time. It will be a past legacy and tradition worth reigniting, and maybe one day they will understand why it's so important to me. My dad knew how much I loved those summer trips to Seattle, and I'm thankful for that.
I've spent 26 years -- roughly 80 percent of my life -- loving this team. Some days, I don't know why. I get angry when I see year after year of futility; losing season after losing season. I play my role in the whole because Mariners narrative as well as anyone at times. I've had friends ask me why I put myself through this if it makes me so miserable. And the answer has and always will be simple.
An innocuous and American childhood, shaped by my hero. And there just so happened to be a lot of baseball and Mariners games involved. I cling to the things that connected him to me the most.
The Mariners were more than something he and I shared. It was a bridge between a dad and his boy. Even when my brother quit loving the game amidst the steroids scandal and year after year of Front Office ineptness, my dad and I always shared in our mutual love for this team. His interest faded as well, but maybe that just came with age. He still followed them, mostly because of me.
The golden voice of Dave Niehaus provided the soundtrack for my childhood. The scene was always the same -- riding alongside my dad in his 1986 Ford Ranger during a hot summer day; Dave always in the background, painting the landscape of a game and the team that we loved. Dave going nuts on the air after a big play, and my dad excitedly patting me on the back or honking his horn -- a scene that played itself over and over throughout my late childhood and early teenage years.
I get goosebumps thinking about it. I can't listen to Macklemore's My Oh My without losing it. It's much too close to home, and don't get me started on Dave's call when The Double went down.
On March 25, 2013, my dad died unexpectedly. It has been the hardest thing I have ever been through. I have heard that it is a rite of passage of sorts for men, but it's a painful one, and I can't express with words how much he means to me. He is my best friend, and more than 15 months later, I still refuse to speak about him in the past tense because he's everywhere around me; his fingerprints forever on my heart -- kind of like this team. Those years I spent with him were magical, and I wouldn't trade them for the world. I'm spending the beginning of this week in Moses Lake again, having made the short trek from Pasco where I now live with my wife and three sons. My two oldest sons and I are visiting my mom. This house is not the same anymore, because the biggest presence that ever filled it is not physically present. I sat in the living room last night and watched Taijuan Walker deal and our lineup hit a whole bunch of homers. I looked over to where he sat more than once during the game, and remember back to those nights when we watched games together, way past my bedtime. I wished like hell he was still here to watch the game with me, because 64 years doesn't seem like enough life, and 31 is much too young for a man to say goodbye to his dad.
If my dad were still here, he would know the Mariners are seven games over .500. He would know that Felix Hernandez is having a great year and Robinson Cano is still a great hitter. He would like James Jones a lot, because he can run and he has a million dollar smile. He wouldn't complain about Lloyd McClendon's lineups, if I did, he would say he probably knows more than me about the team and lineup construction. I would bring up some new stat, and he would look at me with a blank stare, and then tell me to just enjoy the game.
Because buddy, the Mariners are six games over .500 and they might have a professional baseball team in Seattle again.
Baseball and this team is more about wins and losses. It draws fathers and sons together. I would never dream of telling someone how to be a fan. But I do encourage myself to cherish this game and my team. It's a perfect game played by imperfect players. It is maddening one minute and wildly exhilarating the next. And no matter what happens, there's always tomorrow. Or, in our case, next season. But maybe, just maybe, this one will be different.
It's baseball. And loving baseball is about as Father and Son(s) as it gets.
It's worth cherishing, in good times and in bad. Love the Mariners, and remember why you began loving them in the first place. If you're fortunate enough to still have your dad around, savor your time with him. That's my hope, anyway.
I'll close this with a picture of us watching a Mariners game on a lazy May night back in 2007. I'd give anything to watch just one more with him.