Sunday, August 30, 2015

Father's Day Reprise

A reprint of a column from 2008, in honor of fathers everywhere -- particularly those of the vanishing WWII generation.

Father's Day Reprise

Cole Hamels signs an autograph during spring training. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)
Cole Hamels signs an autograph during spring training. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

A reprint of a column from 2008, in honor of fathers everywhere -- particularly those of the vanishing WWII generation:

Back when I believed Santa was real and the Bulletin Composing room’s softball team was the equal of the New York Yankees, my father and I devised a game we played whenever we were alone in the car.

I'd read him all the information on the back of baseball cards except for the players' names. He'd try to guess their identities.

He never was very good. Unlike me, a boy whose intense devotion to sports caused him to label me "Statistical Stanislaus," my father was more interested in playing games than reading about them.

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But sometimes the height, weight and nickname were obvious enough to provide an answer. "6-foot-7, 255 pounds, Hondo" in 1958 had to mean Frank Howard. Sometimes a season with 48 home runs or 25 wins would be a giveaway. Mostly, though, I'd delight in stumping the man I was certain knew everything.

I thought about that game, or rather that shared experience, this week when my dad passed away peacefully at 81 in a Broomall nursing home.

For baby boom fathers and sons like us, sports was often a vital connective tissue.

So many of our dads had shut off the emotional tap after experiencing the horrors of World War II. Those men found it tough to talk to their sons about things that mattered. So baseball, football and basketball served as conversational surrogates.

My father, I knew, had helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp. It was a lot easier to discuss Tom Gola.

I wonder how many intimacies were communicated in backyard catches? During conversations at ball games? Walking down a fairway together? Or in the silly games we invented on car rides?

But even if the real message of those moments was concealed, it seeped through. I knew my father loved sports. I knew he loved me. Somehow that was enough.

Dad slowed down so much in his later years, lost so much passion for sports, that I'd almost forgotten how big a role they'd played in his life.

I was reminded of that when, on the day after his death, we sorted through his photos and belongings.

There was Dad bowling at La Salle High, clubbing a softball as that Bulletin softball team's cleanup hitter, playing basketball in shiny short-shorts, golfing at Cobbs Creek.

There was Dad as a teenager raking a baseball diamond on Summerdale Avenue. Later he was standing alongside Lawrence Park Little League's 1961 all-star team, or on the sideline covering a Roxborough-Germantown Thanksgiving Day game for the Germantown Courier, or behind a podium selling programs at the Spectrum.

And there were the things he'd written, mostly to entertain the people he worked with. A poem about Bobby Clarke's grit. A poem about Little League that was so good the Bulletin printed it. The lyrics to a song that one of his proof-room buddies had composed.

I also found a story he did about going to Connie Mack Stadium and confronting the ghosts of the Philadelphia A's, the team whose 1954 departure devastated him.

"Exit nostalgia!" that story began. "Progress sheds no tears."

Turned out he had written that one at the request of Bulletin sports editor Jackie Wilson.

My father yearned to be a sportswriter - an ambition he fulfilled for only a few years with the weekly Courier. Full-time, he was a Bulletin proofreader. But he knew Wilson and bugged him constantly about joining his staff.

Finally, Wilson told him to write something. That's when he came up with the "Exit nostalgia!" lede. It was heartfelt, but wincingly corny.

Exit his chances!

On Sunday, the day before he died, his brain wasn't getting enough oxygen, producing occasional hallucinations. When my sister noticed him staring out the window of his room, she asked why.

"Frank's out there playing golf," he said.

That night when I came to visit, he was slipping away. My sister recounted the story and I couldn't bear to tell him he'd been hallucinating. So I said I was playing golf out there. In fact, I told him, I'd shot an 84.

My father knew me and my game too well.

"I don't believe a word of it," he huffed through an oxygen mask, his final words to any of us.

 Frank Fitzpatrick never got a byline on a Philadelphia newspaper's sports page. Never got his statistics on the back of a baseball card.

But someday, when we're together again, maybe we'll play our old traveling game.

I'll say, "5-foot-9, 190 pounds, Fitz, born in Philadelphia, good stick, good glove, good father, good man."

And he'll know the answer.

Inquirer Sports Columnist
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About this blog
Reporter Frank Fitzpatrick, a 2001 Pulitzer Prize finalist, is covering his eighth Olympic Games and has yet to win a medal in anything except caffeine consumption. He has also been the beat writer for the Phillies, Eagles and Penn State football.

Frank Fitzpatrick Inquirer Sports Columnist
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