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Baseball: fathers playing with sons

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The Cubs' home opener is hours away as this is written, a time of hope and memories of the National Pastime and of fathers and sons.

Opening Day means everything's fresh and new (if cold and dormant); everyone has an equal chance (depending on off-season acquisitions and injuries); and endless possibilities (at least through 162 games).

It also conjures pleasant recollections of cigar-smoked, beer-fueled, ice-packed treks to Wrigley with a few friends. Starting in 1987, it was an annual trip of long-underwear-and-parka patience, and with time and age it shifted to a cigar-smoked, beer-fueled afternoon in a much-warmer TV room. This year, we few survivors will share hope and libations at a local sports bar and re-live 1994's amazing 12-8 loss to the Mets when Cubs outfielder Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes hit three home runs off Doc Gooden and prompted an editor pal to repeatedly murmur, "Who the f*** is Tuffy Rhodes?"

Before that Opening Day, Rhodes had 5 homers in 280 at-bats; afterward he had 5 homers in 306 more at-bats and went on to a successful career playing pro ball in Japan.

That Opening Day also featured Harry Caray hoopla, Olympian Bonnie Blair and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton (whose presence sparked a creative misogynist who held up a sign blasting "Tonya Rodham Bobbitt" (managing to also reference skater-thug Tonya Harding and scissors-wielding wife Lorena Bobbitt in one poster).

My son accompanied us a couple of times, cementing a father-son connection we shared through many days at Wrigley, a couple of playoff appearances, and even one summer's trip to eight Major League Baseball games in seven cities over a week and a half escape to Baseball Nirvana. (He's a lawyer now in St. Louis, where he delights in dressing in Cubs regalia at the very nice Busch Stadium, but he's also home featured in a framed photo above my desk, catching a fly ball in Wrigley's right field in 1995 on one of those days the club lets fans run around the ballpark.)

In a couple of weeks my own dad, a lifelong Redbirds fan, turns 85 (or "eighty-damn-five," as he says), and concedes he's going to watch the Cubs this season because he can no longer stand Cardinals announcers. We'll certainly share some hopes and shocks recounting adventures with Anthony Rizzo and Carlos Marmol, and we still recall playing catch 50 years ago, when he taught me a decent knuckleball when my fastball just couldn't compete with two fireballers on my team.

Each Opening Day – and occasionally while playing senior softball and watching the Cubs or Chiefs all summer – baseball reassures and comforts and warms me.

I swear: I hear crowds that never really existed at high school or Pony League games; I smell sweat decades dry and glove oil long evaporated; I see impossibly green grass between rows of bridal wreath bushes and Dad smiling, squatting at the garage backstop beneath a big shade tree and showing me a target and waiting for the pitch.

Several writers have described baseball as fathers playing catch with sons (as opposed to football: brothers beating up each other). That's true, I believe.

Whether it's Opening Day or another Fall Classic without the Cubs, I can feel the ball return to the pocket in my glove and I swear I hear my son – or maybe me – saying, "Just one more throw, Pop. C'mon, Dad, one more."

About the Author
Bill Knight recently retired after a couple decades teaching journalism at Western Illinois University. Now, you might find him strolling through the streets of Elmwood with his wife and fellow writer, Terry Bibo, along with their son, Opie, and his beloved collie, Lassie.* *Actually this last bit isn’t true. Not to mention the fact that our writer got “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Lassie & Timmy” mixed up.