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Fair-Weather Fans

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On fathers, sons, and the language of sports

In December, the month he died, my dad called me almost every day. This was a violation of our previous arrangement: speaking briefly every few months, mostly about the weather. I’d watch the phone light up with his name, buzzing with neediness that made me embarrassed for him. My father was always a private man. Private in the way that fathers strive to be when protecting who they are from their children. As far as I understood my father was perfect, impenetrable, difficult to please.

I’d often let it ring in the silent apartment and try to imagine why he was calling if he had nothing to say. For most of my life we could talk about the Mariners. Like many relationships ours was built upon, and revolved around, sports.

I was four when I first understood that sports would be the core of our relationship. He pulled me next to him on the couch, and pointed at the Mariners game on the Toshiba. I could smell wet tobacco on his breath and I realized I’d never sat so close to him before. He listed the names of our heroes: Wilson, Griffey, Buhner, Johnson, Edgar. Players to be proud of, a team to love, the importance of not being a “fair-weather fan.” I nodded along. I memorized the names, the batting stances. I mimicked his reactions and memorized foreign phrases: “gotta play small ball here” and “Lou should let him have it.”

While my sister talked to him about life, politics, religion, I would sit quietly by his side trying to think of something intelligent or amusing to say about the game. In the mornings, I would wake up before him and grab the paper, rip out the News Tribune sports section and speed-read so that I could have anecdotes to share with him he hadn’t read yet.

I never felt closer to him than when we both had the same reaction to a Mariner loss or trade, hanging our heads and laughing together like we were the only two who understood.

His health declined. Once trim and muscular, his muscles eroded from Lupus, a lifetime of medication, beer. As he went fighting and spitting into a wheelchair, the Mariners turned into an organization that made pride difficult. I spent less time at the house and each time I returned I noticed my father had changed things. The ‘95 banner came down from the living room wall. The well-used 2001 My Oh My tape disappeared into storage. The Mariners cap I bought him I found still crisp, the tag still attached, sitting on a high shelf in his closet.

“You been watching the M’s?” he asked one summer when my mom had left the room on an errand.

“Yeah, yeah I have.” I sat up. I had been watching the team struggle and fail with great interest. I was 20 then, recently married and unused to the distance from my family. I’d stored Felix anecdotes, Ackley observations, I’d garnered material and phrases to discuss with him just as had since I was old enough to read. “You?”

He shook his head. “They’re too bad. I can’t.”

I spun my finger around the rim of my beer. “Yeah, they’re pretty bad.”

He wheeled his chair back to the fridge and left his hand on the door. “I can’t watch them anymore. I get too upset. It’s just…” The chair clicked and whirred. He tilted his head back. “It’s too depressing trying to watch them by myself.”

I didn’t know how to respond. He’d just admitted he’d given up. We’d always said they were bad, always laughed about it or ranted, but we’d never stopped watching. There was nothing to say. We waited until my mom came back in the room to speak again.

This December, when I did answer the phone, I would take a breath just before pressing Accept. I knew it would be tough to find topics that could sustain us. After a few frustrating minutes, he would tell me a headline he’d read in the paper, trying as I once did to surprise me. Only I’d already read them all.

“James Paxton? We traded him?”

“Oh, yes.” I stopped pacing and smiled. “Yes, it was a huge—”

“Who’s James Paxton again?”

I’d hold the phone away from my ear so he wouldn’t hear me sigh. He’d taught me a language and then forgotten how to speak it.

For Father’s Day, four years ago now, I took my dad to his last Mariners game; surely the last one he ever watched. He’d tried to give up drinking, and so we watched the game sober for the first time. I saw it for what he must have seen it: a group of strange men he didn’t know playing a game a few hundred feet away. I watched him struggle to find things to say about it. He watched me struggle to find things to say to him.

Finally, at the end of what felt like a long and boring and embarrassing night, we took a photo and went our separate ways.

It was only later that my mom called to tell me how important that night had been for him.

“Really? I don’t think he even knows who won.”

“Oh he doesn’t care about that. He’s just happy you thought to take him and that you were both there.”

I racked my brain trying to remember some meaningful conversation that crossed between us, but could remember only small talk and silence punctuated by the report of cracking wood.

To this day I do not remember who won that game. I don’t know the score or who was pitching. What I remember from that day is sitting next to my dad and thinking how great it was to be there, watching a game.

I don’t remember what me and my dad talked about those days he’d keep calling, either. I didn’t know he was dying, and maybe I would have tried harder if I did. His death is still too close and present in my daily life for me to truly step away and understand our relationship, of what we were to each other. What I do know is that for a long time I thought that the only thing my dad cared about was sports. When he stopped caring I thought he’d truly stopped caring, about everything.

Today, I sit here realizing I will never buy another Father’s Day card, I will never call my dad to tell him happy Father’s Day, won’t hear him call me “bud” or laugh at one of his dumb jokes from a sense of humor I regretfully inherited. The importance of baseball between me and my father was not that we got to celebrate the few victories we had or laugh at the new ways we failed, but simply that when they happened we experienced them together. My dad stopped watching because the thing that was important to him about it had moved out.

I remember sitting in the garage, summer sun filtering through a dusty window. Sawdust clung to the air and my dad and I were silent listening to Niehaus calling the game. The memory is so vivid I can taste the salt of my sweat and remember the way my father would pause, his saw halfway through a piece of pine, listening to an at-bat, turning to me and raising his eyebrows or rolling his eyes. I will remember those days for the rest of my life. I will tell my children, if I have them, about those memories when they ask about the grandparent they will never meet. I will tell them it’s not about the game, not about baseball or the Mariners. It’s about the people who sit next to you at the game, the people who will smile with you, roll their eyes with you. The people who will pick up the phone, if only to hear about the weather on the other end of the line.

I don’t really know what else to say. But dad, if you are reading this right now (do they have internet where you are?) I want to tell you that I think about you every day. I wish you were still here. The Mariners still suck. I love you. Happy’s Father’s Day.