By Gregory Keer
For many fans of baseball, the game smells like mitt leather, infield dirt, and roasted peanuts. For me, it smells like my dad. A combination of deodorant soap, the faint whiff of a workday’s sweat, and the pumpkin seeds he loves to munch.
While I don’t make a habit out of recalling how my dad smells, that paternal scent comes through because we hug a lot at the game, whether it’s singing with our arms around each other’s shoulders during the seventh-inning stretch or embracing after a winning hit.
The baseball milieu is a kind of center for my father and me. Outside of the celebratory hugging, it’s a catalyst for our communication. We talk endlessly about the match at hand, the players, and the history of various teams. While others note that watching baseball is akin to waiting for dial-up service to deliver a YouTube video, the slowness of it allows us to warm up to more complex topics. In between pitches and line drives, my old man has taught me how to be a student, a worker, a son, a husband, and a father.
Dating back to 1970, I can trace most of my relationship with my dad with the pencil of the grand old game. I was a four year old, standing in the kitchen of our Northridge, California, home when I asked my father where I was born.
“In Cincinnati, Ohio,” he said. “They have a good baseball club there called the Reds.”
“That’s going to be my team,” I announced.
From then on, my dad and I had baseball in common, even though he rooted for his hometown White Sox and adopted city’s Dodgers while I cheered for the Big Red Machine.
Over the years, bats swung and balls flew through so many key moments. There was the night we watched Carlton Fisk break my heart with a towering home run to beat the Reds in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series. My dad taught me about keeping the faith, which made even more sense when my team won the final game of the series.
That lesson of hope deepened for me following my parents’ divorce in ‘77. My dad struggled to sort through both of our emotions back then, so he reached into baseball and wrote me a poem called “The Cincinnati Kid.” In it, he told me to never lose my sense of wonder and belief in the positive. The poem helped give me strength that my real team, my family, would be all right in the long run.
In the ‘80s, my dad’s baseball wisdom permeated my years of high school and college. I wrestled with fluctuating grades and a rollercoaster dating life, but my father was always there to take me to a ballgame or just watch one on TV. It didn’t matter that our teams stank in those years or that we sometimes fell out of sync with each other while I stressed over my direction in life. We had the ballpark and telecasts to reconnect us.
During the 1990s, I concentrated on building a marriage and the more acute concerns of making a living. I often felt more distanced from my father, who, like a steady hitter, never lunged at a pitch or offered unsolicited advice. He let me figure things out, preferring to show trust that my strikeouts would dwindle as I found my own approach to handling life’s curveballs.
These days, we’ve added fantasy baseball, a consuming preoccupation of statistics and strategy that keeps my dad and I talking more than ever. To others, especially our wives, it sounds frivolous, but to my dad and me, it’s a level playing field on which we compete as equals. Occasionally, my dad takes my advice on players to put in his fantasy lineup, a reversal from the years when he was the one imparting all the insight to me.
But we still go to the ballpark. It’s a place where, now, my own sons frequently join us. My dad and I continue our traditions and our talks, even as my kids tug at our elbows for more Cracker Jacks or explanations of why the Dodgers don’t hit more home runs. And the smells of the game remain, too. They’re as comforting as the first time I hugged my father.