Saturday, October 1, 2011

Baseball, Father's Day and simple lessons

While cleaning up around the apartment today, I came across this piece I wrote as editor of Business Direct Weekly — later Ann Arbor Business Review — around Father's Day eight-plus years ago. It may be particularly apropos with our Tigers in the playoffs for the first time since 2006.
I've tried to clean up some of the more atrocious writing, and I've added what I hope are less clunky transitions, but the column is otherwise how it ran on June 5, 2003.
It was a warm summer night and the Detroit Tigers were on national TV — back in the day when networks carried baseball during the prime-time hours.

The Toronto Blue Jays were knocking on the Tigers' door in early June, threatening to banish the Detroiters' record 1984 start to the league of could-have-beens.

My mom had gone to bed innings before utilityman Dave Bergman strode to the plate in the bottom of the 10th inning of a tie game. My dad and I, however, held out in the darkened living room, the tension building with each pitch.

Bergman fell behind, as I recall, but eventually took the count full. He then fouled off seven consecutive pitches.

When the last pitch finally flew off his bat, climbing toward the darkness of Tiger Stadium's right-field upper deck, my dad and I bolted from our chairs. It was a moment that defined the season and a memory of unadulterated joy with my typically conservative dad that I'll always cherish.

No, this column isn't really about business. But it is about mentally taking time away from work for more important things — something to keep in mind as we head toward Father's Day or as co-workers' summer vacations cause their workloads to fall onto our shoulders.

Bergman's homer, during the slim couple of weeks that I was home from college, has always seemed like a turning point in my relationship with my dad. Perhaps it was a simple transition from childhood to adulthood.

As my friends' parents saw their jobs melt away in the foundries, metal fabrication shops and auto parts factories, unemployment — defined as those who hadn't already lost hope and exited the workforce — climbed over the 40 percent mark. My dad did whatever it took to stay employed at the shop where he was an industrial motor repairman before the industrial economy collapse of the late 1970s; as the factories that his shop serviced closed their doors, he mowed the lawn of his employer and he made deliveries as the shop shifted from fixing motors to selling new ones.

Through it all, my parents sent four kids to college. My dad coached our sports teams. He drove a packed family station wagon — which included his mother-in-law in the back seat — on at least one weeklong vacation each summer. He and my mom kept vigil at marching band practices and concert band performances.

Every morning, Dad and I would have breakfast together, and every night the family gathered around the dining room table for dinner.

These were subtle lessons; others were more jarring.

I reminded him of one recently, after I called before he entered yet another surgery to find yet another blocked artery — the same problem that was acute enough a couple years ago to force a quadruple bypass.

I had just covered our incredibly ineffective City Commission as a 19-year-old reporter for the local community weekly newspaper, and I had returned home frustrated and ranting about the stupidity of elected officials. I threatened to use my pen as my sword. "Report the news," he chastised, "don't be the news."

There were other lessons about respect, kindness, loyalty, humility and dignity. When one-time Tigers relief ace John Hiller was bounced out of a game late in his career, I booed him from the right-field stands of old Comiskey Park in Chicago. My dad, in a few stern words, let me know that was wrong and, well, just plain stupid.

It's appropriate then that my early Father's Day gift to Dad was a trip to Milwaukee to visit my sister's family and to see the Brewers play Boston. Baseball, it seems, is the string around the family core of our relationship.

A father, my mother once told me, was the best thing she gave my siblings and me. That's an amazingly simple truism in this era when so many parents are prodded to be Super Dads or Super Moms.

Some of the best lessons we teach our children are the simplest — sometimes while sitting and watching the late innings together.