Dad was a great sports dad, in part because he paid attention. I was a decent athlete in a town of 20,000, which meant I got occasional mentions in the paper, especially when reporters searched for good things to say about our woeful soccer team. When I graduated from high school, I received from my parents two scrapbooks documenting my life so far; included in one of them was every article that mentioned my name.
Dad attended many of my games, analyzed coaching, other players, me. Afterwards, he always complimented all the things I did well before gently offering advice about things I could have done better. Eeyore that I am, I would grow impatient for him to finish the good stuff, bracing myself for the bad news to come. I felt as if the positives were not a thing in themselves, balanced against and often outweighing the negatives. Rather, they served as a fluffy cushion designed to lessen the impact of the real news — what was wrong.
This pessimism was a monster of my own creation, one of those quirks of character that makes parents shake their heads in wonder and dismay. Where did it come from? How did this happen? Dad never landed on me. Though he delighted in my victories — reciting highlights in his gravel-drama tone, the ex-sportswriter in him feeling his oats — and sympathized with my defeats, he was detached from the outcome of any game. No trace of the rabid fan, elated or crushed by his child’s performance, shone through. But if anyone had seen me begging my father not to show up at that afternoon’s baseball game, they might have thought him the worst sort of tyrant.
The begging was born of my own anxiety about messing up in front of him, even though I always forgot about him once the game began. If my confidence in my competence was anything less than total, I dreaded his presence. I know this was painful for him. Such is the perversity of teenagers.
Or perhaps there was another cause, rooted deeper in my psyche and further in my past. When I was in third grade, I was transferred from Parker to Barry elementary school. Parker was overcrowded, and Barry was opening a new third grade and also featured Individually Prescribed Instruction, a work-at-your-own-pace program that my teachers thought would be good for me. Soon after school began, I was sent home with a severe stomachache. When it happened again, Dad asked what was wrong. I told him I was upset because some of the other students were further along in the book than I was.
“Why does that upset you?”
“If I’m not the smartest kid in the class, I won’t have any friends.”
“Where did you get that idea?”
“Last year at Parker, I was first in my class, and I had lots of friends.”
I had drawn a causal connection between performance and affection, to the point where, in my initial attempts to make friends at Barry, I announced that I was the smartest kid in my class back at Parker, with predictably disastrous results. Perhaps the general lack of self-assurance that comes with adolescence allowed some vestige of this belief to come bubbling up.
Whatever the cause, I usually relented, and by the time I played my last high school soccer game, I was relaxed enough for Dad to come down from the hill where most soccer fans stood and take pictures. Torrential rains had reduced our field to a mud pit — water stood six inches deep in some places — and we were getting trounced by the eventual league champs. But we had a ball, and I love the photos from that day — grainy black-and-whites of the team shouting itself into a frenzy during the half-time huddle, of me slide-tackling some hapless forward, of me smiling back at the camera before a goal kick.
I have felt some of the pride of the sports dad, but not the beaming variety, not yet. Rather, it was pricked pride, the desire of the dad for his son to show his best stuff. We were at the tiny park next to the Kensington Library, and some kids had given tennis balls to Fin and another boy, Jack. Jack’s dad was older but more athletic-looking than me. In his sweatshirt, jeans, and sne throw the ball, Jack, good throw, Jack, chase it, Jack,” and so on. Jack responded beautifully, hurling the ball for all he was worth, if not always hurling it to his dad.
For some mysterious and heartbreaking reason, Fin took the occasion to practice dinky little half-throws, throws that traveled about a foot in the air, then rolled the rest of the way toward their target. “C’mon now, Fin, gun it!” I would plead, but to no avail. Fin, whose powerful arm amazed my family when we gathered for Christmas, enjoyed this new style.
It wasn’t until we were almost ready to go that he uncorked one, leading Jack’s dad to exclaim with surprise, “Wow, he’s got an arm on him!” “Yeah, every now and then,” I answered with all the mock modesty I could muster. Inside, I breathed a sigh of relief and scolded myself for getting so worked up. If I want to be a sports dad like mine was, I will have to learn never to be disappointed, to be happy to watch my son play ball.
I will also have to learn that detachment, to be able to repeat with a straight face and genuine conviction, “When the One Great Scorer comes to write against your name, he writes not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game.” Dad believed this to the point where the following took place (I have no memory of it — repression is a reality — but I have been reminded of the story by witnesses, more than once):
During one of the summers just before junior high, the boys in my little league discovered trash talking. “He can’t hit, he can’t hit, he can’t hit, blow it by him, he’s weak, couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn,” etc. The vision I want to bring to mind is of my dad, striding out onto the field from the bleachers, calling for time and holding his hands over his head in the familiar “T.” My dad — as my teammates, the other team, the coaches and the spectators stared in disbelief — talking to the umpire on the mound about sportsmanship, saying that such talk should not be permitted. I think the umpire agreed. The game went on; Dad returned to the stands.