Thursday, July 24, 2008

Nolan Ryan and my family--and an adoption

My father sold some of his baseball cards when I was in college in order to help pay for college expenses. We used to pull those pieces of cardboard out and look at them from time to time. In the first few years of card observation, Dad did most of the talking. He told the stories of Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Sandy Koufax, Bobby Bonds, Vida Blue, Joe Morgan, Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson--too many to name. Baseball games flashed on the TV from time to time. On a really special occasion the game would be on while we ate dinner--like the All Star Game or World Series. I heard about the days of the Seattle Rainiers and the Seattle Pilots (those few days) and old SIcks Stadium.

The Seattle Mariners came to be in the Pacific Northwest in 1977, about the time I got my first baseball glove. It was a brick colored glove with a copy of Jim "Catfish" Hunter's signature. I think the glove had an "Ed-U-Cated" Heel (whatever that means). Dad took me to a hardware store (I believe) to buy it after I took special interest in his a softball game at the Albertson's company picnic. We had our first catch--I couldn't use one of my dad's gloves, I'm the family lefty. I enjoyed baseball before that time, but between the Mariners and my first glove, I became hooked on the game for life. I attended my first game in the spring of 1977 at the Kingdome, a Saturday afternoon called Picture Day. I stood in line with an admission card waiting for my own polaroid with one of the famous Seattle Mariner retreads. Diego Segui was indeed a retread, past his prime, but a recognizable name nonetheless. He was the opening day pitcher in 1977, getting hammered by the California Angels behind the gas of Nolan Ryan, 7-0. I listened to the game on my grandparents' giant console stereo ("A radio or television should always be a piece of furniture," my Granddad said). Segui was slouched in that box seat. I had my ball glove, Mariner hat, wearing jeans and a horizontal blue and white striped t-shirt. I lost the picture in one of my many moves. It was a great day. My dad bought me a paper cup full of Pepsi with the name "Alpine-Burtco" on the cup. We brought a huge bag of Hoody salted in the shell peanuts and a package of Red Vines. We parked 28 miles from the Kingdome and funneled our way on foot to the King Street Station which put us in the electric atmosphere of the ball park--sounds and smells. It was no Wrigley Field, but it was our home ball park. The players were retreads, but they were our retreads.

Baseball is a medium for relationships. I have known this for years--my family would travel miles just to watch me sit on the bench--I had just as many days of stardom as bench days. These days, baseball is about the only complex conversation topic I can have with my grandmother anymore. We've spent hours upon hours attending to, listening to, or talking about the game of baseball. From her days of going to her hometown team in Portland, Oregon, to the intricacies of our own Seattle Mariners. The players are our friends, though we have never talked. They are our brothers. The voice of the Seattle Mariners, Dave Niehaus, will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in a few days--he was like a cousin or uncle whose voice filled our homes and cars with stories, disappointments and elation.

I once thought in high school and college that I would collect cards like my father. I thought that I could save my cards and sell them to help pay for my daughters' college education. But my life is different. I can't keep up with the cards to make them a worthwhile investment. The chances of my girls loving baseball like I do seems slim right now. Maybe later. Our family has been working hard to reduce, pay off debt and pay for medical care.

As I looked in the many stacked boxes in our storage area--I decided it was time for the baseball cards to go.

My heart ached over the missed opportunity--to be a collector, make an investment, help out my children, keep an apostolic connection between parents and children througout generations. But I think I learned something. A man about my age with a wife and two kids came to my house to make me an offer on the cards after I posted ads on bulletin boards at the Hy Vee and Sunshine Foods. He knew baseball cards were not a great investment, but he kept collecting. I knew they wouldn't bring much. In some ways, the cards were priceless to me. I almost retracted the sale, but something happened. The stories we shared filled the room. We talked about our limited playing careers--and a slight but lingering dream to play amateur baseball in South Dakota. His son was named after Nolan Ryan. We talked about the big games we watched in person and on television. I told him about my day at Yankee Stadium. Stories of regret and joy. I sold all of those cards--hundreds of cards--for a little money. If I wasn't going to continue collecting and they weren't going to be a part of my relationships on a regular basis, I sent my cards to the best home. Little Nolan would someday learn about the man, the athlete behind his name. I probably had 10 or more Nolan Ryan cards in that collection. I contributed a little to someone else's relationships. I put my medium for relationships up for adoption.

I don't have to copy my father using the medium for relationships. I just have to find a medium where my family and I can meet--my daughters and I can meet. My summer has been about finding a medium where my daughters and I can meet. My dad and I will always have baseball.

This summer my daughter and I have tried tee ball, swimming, and soccer. Flashes of joy, but little connection. I'll keep trying. It seems to be that time. She's 5 and 1/2 years old now. I think I got my first glove when I was 6. I don't know what my dad was thinking in sharing baseball with me--maybe he wasn't full of analysis, it's just something he did because he wanted to share. In the grand scheme of things, baseball was only a means to an end. Baseball was another opportunity to know and love my dad. My daughters and I don't have to share baseball. I'm praying that God gives us something special to share.