Unafraid of the Ball

Wednesday evening, watching my hometown Kansas City Royals’ road game against Cincinnati, I saw something I had never seen before.

In the bottom of the 5th, with bases loaded, Cinci’s Jay Bruce popped up a hit that prompted the umpire to invoke the rarely-called Infield Fly Rule. Which was notable in and of itself.

But when Jason Bourgeois, the runner on third, made a somewhat tentative advance for home plate the catcher tagged him out for a double play. To be fair, Royals’ pitcher Luke Hochevar bungled the fly—which is the whole reason the Infield Fly Rule became a rule back in the days when ballplayers still wore handlebar mustaches and wool uniforms—and Bourgeois seemed unsure of the Rule’s minutia.

The network’s color commentators, with their fingertip access to the World Wide Web, waxed loquacious over Bourgeois’ seeming ignorance of the Rule. It sounded like shaming to me. But those guys get paid the big bucks to wear those Major League uniforms. They should be able to take it.

Even I—who was never really much of a sports fan before I moved to Kansas City—knew that there was an Infield Fly Rule. What I knew was the particulars of the Infield Fly Rule lay shrouded beneath the dust of Baseball Arcana. I think knowledge of its particulars was mentioned in some Tom Hanks movie. Not the one about baseball.

This is not an essay about the Infield Fly Rule. I hear a collective sigh of relief of relief. If you’re interested do a keyword search. It’s interesting. If you like baseball. And statistics. And trivia.

The tag ended the inning and took a lot of wind out of the Reds’ sails. The end of the inning was a good time to get up and wander into the kitchen to refresh my drink. I thought about calling my Dad.

The feats and foibles of one of the Kansas City sports franchises were always good excuse for calling. Toward the end sports was something we could talk about that transcended politics or ideology or our mutual disappointment in one another. I was sure he would have had a strong opinion on the Infield Fly Rule.

“Right off the top of his head,” my sister Gypsy agreed. Always a tomboy, high school track star, full-on sports aficionado, she had been the one who became Dad’s sports-bar buddy, the sibling who sat elbow-to-elbow with him from the first Saturday pre-game shows to the final whistle of the final Sunday game, smoking cigarettes, and drinking some horrid cheap pilsner. It was their Thing.

Bless his heart. Dad was forever trying to share his love of some sport or another with me.

I am his oldest son, and while we ultimately were three of each, my sisters laid down a 5-year wide swathe of Barbies and frillies and long-legged Suzy Homemakers before my first brother was born. I know it’s not supposed to matter and gender-rigidity is obsolescent in the 21st Century, but I grew up in the Sixties. We were barely past Beaver. My father was both a military officer and a Catholic only child of a single mother. I don’t know which fact weighed more-heavily on his judgment of what a father-son relationship should be.

The biggest reason I consider myself a Kansas City Royals fan is because of my father. Dad was a zealous fan. A fume-at-the-TV fan. I never really bonded with him over that, though not for any lack of his trying.

A beat-up, old black baseball glove was a perpetual fixture in the quarters where I grew up. Dad liked his baseball.

The glove was a memento from his single days. After returning from Navy service he participated in some sort of organized league play. He called it semi-pro. He didn’t go into much detail. I never figured out what to ask to learn more. Dad never went into great detail about any of his life before he met my mother. Most of what I know I pieced together from passing comments, scraps of memories, crammed in a dusty old-school file cabinet a half-century thick between my ears.

Dad grew up in the faint shadow of Kansas City, in a humble corner of Leavenworth, Kansas, and it was natural for a young sports fan to cheer on the Home Team. The 40 mile trip might as well have been a world away for a dirt-poor boy in the 1940s. But the miracle of Marconi melted the miles and most summer days the airwaves crackled with descriptions of the battle in some ballpark.

Kansas City always was a baseball town. The Kansas City Blues existed in some form as a farm team since 1898 through the mid-50s. The powerhouse Kansas City Monarchs dominated their opponents longer than any other team in the Negro Leagues. Dad was thrilled as a young man when KC got a MLB franchise. The Kansas City Athletics played from 1955 until 1967, when they moved to Oakland. Dad never could stand Oakland.

The Royals franchise was established in 1969.

That’s about the same time I first remember playing catch with my father. I could be wrong about that. It could be earlier.

I had a less-than-affirming experience playing Little League the year my father was stationed in Vietnam the first time. I must have had a glove when I played.

[For the purpose of this lacuna, my grandfather bought me the glove so I could play Little League and my father, when he returned, saw baseball as a new way to bond with his son. Though some early sources have Dad buying the glove to play catch before he left for Vietnam, and that purchase inspiring his father-in-law registering me for Little League.]

Evidently I have a highly-developed defense mechanism when it comes to projectiles hurtling toward me.

“Don’t be afraid of the ball, son!” was his constant refrain.

Growing up without a father I think my father got a sense of Acceptance, Bonding, and Comradery through varsity and intramural sports. My father was a small kid, like I was a small kid, and competing against larger boys perhaps toughened him. (Though perhaps it just inured him to merciless buffeting.)

I—on the other hand—perhaps the kindest way to describe the juvenile Me is I was “bookish” and not athletically inclined. The other boys rarely phrased it that way. Dad never bullied me about it. But if I had not looked like his clone he might have suspected I was a changeling.

It wasn’t his first time trying to sportsify me:

When we were stationed at Ft. Knox Dad bought me a set of golf clubs so I could tag along with him when he went to the links on Saturdays. He always claimed I was more interested in chasing the squirrels around the golf course than playing golf. Maybe I was. The clubs are cute in the way suits of armor made for boy kings are cute. They always garner wisecracks about miniature golf. Or little people.

I remember him trying to teach me the correct technique to hold and swing a golf club. There’s more involved than grabbing a stick and swinging it. Golf is a precision sport and it requires intense focus, concentration, and focus. Knowing that and knowing me one cannot help but marvel at my father’s patience. People go to school for years learning to deal with kids like me and Dad … Dad was the Viking kid thrown in the fjord.

As an adult cynic with experience trying to cram a week of parenting into an evening or weekend that might already include other commitments I could dip a poison pen into a well of discarded tears and scrawl a cathartic memoir. That seems to be the rage.

That is but one interpretation of many: Maybe he was giving my mother a much-needed break from the rambunctious six-year-old with a ton of energy who broke more bric-a-brac than a poltergeist. Maybe Mom demanded as much. Maybe he was really trying to share something that was important to him with someone who was important to him.

They say Memory is labile, and alters a bit every time we take it out and handle it. That being so, I like the idea of molding this memory in a way that makes me more empathetic with my father. Being the father of an adult child I see him and what he did in much different ways than I ever did while we were living it.

About Mark Matzeder

By education a filmmaker, by trade an electrician, by avocation a writer and sometime scholar. Occasionally I wring an essay out of some observation I have made or experience I've had and share them here. Sometimes I'll share short fiction. Sometimes a poem. But mostly it's just my spin on this strange trip.
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