CHICAGO -- My grandfather swears to this day that he only met my grandmother because he passed up tickets to a Giants game to go on a blind date. In a way, I guess it’s ironic that the only reason I exist is because a man missed a baseball game.
Fifty-two years later, he’s sitting with 38,000 other people at Wrigley Field, two of them his son and his grandson, watching two last-place baseball teams.
That last part sums it up best. Last place. Franklin Morales and Paul Maholm were the two starting pitchers. The Red Sox lineup featured such standouts as Scott Podsednik, Darnell McDonald and Kelly Shoppach. The Cubs came in at 21 games under .500, on pace to set a franchise record for losses. There were plenty of reasons not to be excited about Sunday night’s game. For some reason, I was.
I’ve watched enough baseball with both my dad and my grandpa that going to a game with both of them is a pretty standard routine. When you spend enough time with someone, there comes a time when you can accurately predict what they’re going to do next. Somehow I knew my grandpa would have plenty of complaints about the new video board at Wrigley, I knew my dad was going to compile what seemed like a metric ton of empty peanut shells under his seat by the end of the game, and I knew, probably more than anything else, that my grandpa would shake his head and mutter "typical" when the Sox blew the lead. That’s just how it works. Yet, on Sunday night it all felt a little different.
In fact, the whole game felt differently than I had expected. The crowd was surprisingly lively. Each pitch brought a buzz, one I hadn’t noticed before. Sure, it wasn’t a playoff atmosphere, but for the middle of June, I was impressed.
The easy answer is, of course, that it was Father’s Day. That certainly had something to do with it. And if you asked any dad who was at Wrigley with his son or his daughter, they would certainly say that it was special. But I think it was something more.
I’ll never forget the look on my dad’s face after Aaron Boone hit the 11th-inning home run that sent the Yankees to the 2003 World Series over the Red Sox. From the moment the ball left the bat, my eyes were filled with tears. I’m not quite sure what I expected my dad’s reaction to be, but the last thing I ever would have guessed would be a smile. Yet, he looked at me, nodding almost inevitably, and flashed a thin, heartbreaking smile. I could tell that he was trying harder than anything in the world not to break down with me. But it was that expression, the smile that said, "Now you understand," that will stay with me forever.
Father’s Day, like most holidays, is a day that gives us an excuse to wrap gifts and to say things to the people we love that we should say every day but don’t. We live in a weird world, where it would seem strange to tell your father how much he means to you on a daily basis. Instead, we have a holiday.
I think it all started to make sense around the time that the ball left the bat of David DeJesus in the bottom of the ninth inning. The bases were loaded. The Cubs were down by four. The ball looked gone. From the second he made contact, everyone in the park was standing. My grandpa’s groan seemed louder than anything else. The ball carried towards the ivy in center. Somehow it ended up in Ryan Kalish's glove, as he crept closer and closer to the wall. My dad breathed a sigh of relief as he turned to me, and that’s when I saw it. The smile. The same one that had greeted me after Boone's home run, the same one that started it all.
Some things in life are universal. The love for a game is certainly one of those things, but the love for another person is perhaps the strongest of them all. When both of them can exist simultaneously, it’s a special moment.
And that’s what I felt on Sunday night. It wasn’t October. It wasn’t a battle for first place. But it mattered. In some strange way it mattered more than anything else in the world. Maybe it was because it was Father’s Day, but I think it was something a little more than that.
There’s that old saying that every new day is a gift. It’s easy to forget that sometimes, especially during baseball season, when the games seem to roll on endlessly. Sometimes it takes a holiday to remind us of who matters most in our lives. Sometimes all it takes is a long fly ball to center field.
Sometime during the middle innings of Sunday night’s game, I looked at my dad and grandpa, and thought of the improbable odds that 52 years ago we’d all end up at Wrigley Field some day together. Life has a funny way of working out. As my grandpa will tell you, sometimes the most important game of your life is the one you miss.