On an ordinary Sunday afternoon sometime in the fall of 1987, I crept down the hallway of my Manhattan apartment, pressed my tiny frame against the wall, and peered around the corner into the living room, where my father was situated on the couch watching the Giants play. I was not yet three, so I had very little idea as to precisely what was going on, or why helmeted men who rather strongly resembled monsters were violently assaulting one another on television. But regardless, as the precocious, attention-seeking youngster that I was, I saw my window of opportunity and I seized it. Bolting from my hiding place, I ran towards the screen and began yelling, “Football! Football! Yay! Football!” before sprinting from the room as quickly as I had entered while my father roared with laughter. When I quietly reemerged a short time later, he snatched me up and sat me down beside him, explaining the sport as best he could while we took in the game together—our first, but certainly not our last. I’m sure I tried desperately to understand what he was saying. Maybe I did, maybe I didn’t. Either way, with legs dangling over the sofa’s edge and my head resting against his chest, I knew of no place else I’d rather have been. And though it wasn’t clear to me then, he would undoubtedly have said the same.
We live in an era in which a parent’s merely showing up to his or her child’s baseball or soccer game is often regarded as an atypical or even a heroic act. Dad, for his part, never saw it that way. Though his job kept him plenty busy, he was a fixture on the little league sidelines, juggling depositions and trial preparation, batting orders and pitching rotations. Rather than choose between his children, he coached all three, spring and autumn, for the better part of a decade. Fueled only by the lousy hot dogs available on-site, he logged far more hours at the local ball field—which, as of this Saturday, will bear his name—in a given weekend than anyone actually competing, umpired when he was through managing, and returned home only after his fair Irish skin had been burned sufficiently red.
Some marveled at his level of dedication and commitment, but Dad was never among them, and I don’t think he ever saw what he was doing as a “sacrifice,” like so many others did. He just genuinely wanted to be with his children and let nothing stand in his way. He had missed out on the opportunity to share similar experiences with his own father. He wasn’t about to be shortchanged a second time around.
My siblings and I weren’t about to complain. On off-days we’d tap Dad on the shoulder and head to the empty playground behind our house for infield work and a game of catch, a request he couldn’t help but oblige. (Batting practice was sadly off-limits, due to the number of very fragile windows in the very near vicinity.) We must have worn his shoulder out, demanding ever higher pop-flies to field and harder ground balls to retrieve as the sunlight slowly disappeared, hours after we’d first left the house.
Somehow we made do indoors. Two nights before a game he’d pull out his yellow legal pad and we’d go to work drawing up our plan of attack. Giddy with anticipation, I’d invariably have drawn up my own lineup hours in advance during soccer season. Our league held four-quarter games, and every player had to participate in at least three. I had rather strong opinions on who should sit and when, which I never failed to share. He’d invariably nod and laugh before gently breaking the news that, no, we could not forget to invite the sub-par members of our team to that weekend’s contest, even if first place was on the line.
And whether we were in season or not, there was always room on the couch—I’ll never forget leaping into his arms when Scott Norwood pushed his game-winning field goal wide—or, better still, at the stadium. Yankees tickets were relatively easy to come by, and we’d often head into the Bronx, gloves in tow, before it was decided by my younger brother and sister that I was the reason the Pinstripes lost every time we saw them play live. Fortunately for me, Dad had been a Giants season ticket holder for years—the waiting list is thousands of names long—so there was hope for me yet. My brother and I coveted Dad’s second seat and literally waged war with one another over the right to attend the home games against division rivals.
But really, as I think he would concede, we were just fighting over one more opportunity to have Dad all to ourselves, even if it meant sitting in the second-to-last row of the stadium and enduring the cursing and incessant farting of unhygienic, old men. We’d bundle up early in the morning, leave home by 11 a.m. to beat the traffic—Dad insisted on this, though it almost always ensured we were at the Meadowlands with nothing to do by 11:45—retrieve the sandwiches and hot chocolate Mom had prepared and head out, just father and son (later daughter) for the whole day, picking his brain non-stop. It didn’t matter that we were headed to a football game: Mickey Mantle and Sandy Koufax were always on the agenda until we reached a certain exit. Then, and only then, would we transition into our weekly airing of grievances, which inevitably started and finished with the litany of no-name, pre-Manning, post-Simms Giants quarterbacks (Dave Brown was the worst).
Of course, college changed the dynamic of our relationship. The dinner table conversations we’d always shared disappeared, as did most chances to catch a game together. But calls home always began and ended with the Yankees or the Giants, and no matter how far apart we may have been, sports always managed to make the miles disappear. And while I’d rather have been there beside him, our speculation about pitching staffs and playoff potential brought back the same feeling I know we shared those nineteen years ago.
Before Dad lost his battle with cancer last July, we had one last chance to share the living room. The Yankees were jockeying with the Red Sox for first place at the time, and we were admittedly a bit nervous. But as the days passed, and as we sat together watching, the Bombers caught fire, winning nine of twelve to enter the all-star break. Everything was going to be fine, we told ourselves. And maybe it still will be. But there’s an awfully big space left on that couch, and it sure doesn’t feel like it’s going to be.
—Staff writer Timothy J. McGinn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.