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Baseball to the shin: a childhood, in parts

On fathers, growing up and growing apart, and the allure of the mid-to-late ’90s New York Yankees.

New York Yankees vs Toronto Blue Jays Set Number: X162762 TK1

It’s my dad’s 63rd birthday today. I’m going to write a bit about him, if that’s okay, and hopefully talk about baseball along the way. It might not seem like it from the jump, but there will be a Yankees hook, I promise.

My dad has lived a very different life than me. He grew up in the East End of Hamilton, a rough-and-tumble area of the city known for being particularly hard-nosed. He is wickedly intelligent, but was unable to continue his education beyond high school and instead went into the trades. Like everyone else of a certain age around that time, my dad worked in a steel mill for north of 30 years before being unceremoniously forced into retirement when the factory that once ruled our city went belly up.

For the sake of comparison, when I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to be in the neighborhood where my dad grew up without strict adult supervision; I have two degrees in English Literature and am completely useless when it comes to doing things with my hands; and I now work as a writer at the institution that slid in and took over the steel factory’s stranglehold on the city when it shut down.

We couldn’t be more different if we tried. But the one constant in both of our lives is baseball. He grew up playing baseball, and he made sure I did the same. When I was around three or four years old, he threw a tiny glove on my left hand, sat me down on the living room stairs, and started lobbing tennis balls at me, teaching me how to get my glove on them and how to stay in front of the ball. This was a regular occurrence for a while, though only when my mom, who was cut from the “No sports in the house!” cloth, was out.

Once I graduated from tennis ball lobs — or, probably more accurately, once my mom found out there were, in fact, sports in the house — we shifted to playing catch outside with a real baseball. I remember being terrified of the hardball at first, but my dad gave me some of the best advice I ever received: “Once you get hit once, you’ve been hit a million times.” Unfortunately, that advice came after I was crying on account of getting hit in the right shin with an errant throw. I’m still not entirely convinced that incident wasn’t on purpose.

On account of being employed by a steel factory, my dad had to work a demanding rotation of 12-hour shifts. As I grew up and started taking baseball a bit more seriously, I played a watered down, Canadian version of travel ball in the summers. Somehow, despite the shift work and the fact that we barely had one working car, I don’t remember my dad missing a single game. He'd drive me to and from each one, sitting in the bleachers during the game, cheering me on when I was on the mound (a monumental feat, on account of his crippling shyness), and barking at the umpires on my behalf. I suppose now is as good a time as ever to say, dad, some of those pitches that were “Right down the middle, Blue!” were, in fact, balls. Thanks for getting tossed on my behalf, though.

There is one bitter, horrible secret I’ve been keeping this entire time, however: My dad, as lovely and intelligent of a human being as he is, is a massive Toronto Blue Jays fan. Growing up, the baseball lessons didn’t stop at purposefully throwing a ball at my shins. My older brother and I were constantly decked out in Jays, well, everything. There’s an old newspaper clipping that exists somewhere in my parents’ basement of me, photographed for our city’s newspaper as a toddler, in head-to-toe Blue Jays gear. The photograph’s description identifies me as, “The world’s youngest Jays superfan.” I have no idea why I was in the newspaper, but my dad thought it was a good idea to dress me in all Jays paraphernalia for my media debut.

In retrospect, his insistence on raising us to be Jays fans kind of makes sense. When my older brother was born, the Jays were coming off their first AL East title, and I was born right in the middle of the Jays’ first World Series season. As is apt to happen from time-to-time, though, despite my father’s best efforts, both my brother and I eventually joined the dark side. My brother couldn’t resist the allure of the mid-to-late ‘90s Yankees, and I, an impressionable youngster six years his junior, happily followed suit. Our fandom is still a point of contention with my dad to this day, and we’re now 63, 36 and 30, respectively.

Growing up, my family didn’t exactly have an abundance of money. Turns out, steel work doesn’t pay a whole lot, and my mom broke her back (I mean that quite literally) working in the unforgiving fast food industry to ensure we had food on the table and a roof over our heads. I don’t know how they did it, but each summer, my parents made sure that my brother and I got to sit down the third base line to see the Yankees and Derek Jeter, our favorite player, up close at least once when they visited Toronto. Some of my favorite memories involve packing into our turquoise Mercury Sable with the mis-aligned wheel and turn signals that didn’t always work, hopping on the highway, and watching my dad curse out Toronto’s constant gridlock traffic. I think that was his way of dealing with his own existential dread that came along with raising two Yankees fans.

It was always going to be a losing cause for my dad. By the time my brother was old enough to really start paying attention to the game, and by the time I was old enough to know I just wanted to do whatever he was doing, the Jays were basement dwellers and the Yankees were a team on the rise, led by some random up-and-comer named Derek Jeter. Even up here in the north, in the face of my dad’s attempted influence over us, the star power of those Yankees teams were simply far too strong to ignore.

Nowadays, things have become much more stressful, as they’re ought to do as you get older. Work and family matters have overtaken our lives, and unfortunately we don’t get to spend as much time together as a family as we used to. My dad’s been a little sick over the last few years, so I’ve been thinking about these memories a lot lately, and how the things that seem insignificant at the time — the drives to and from a baseball game, the booing of umpires to protect me from being thrown out of a game, an errant throw to the shins — can become your most significant memories as you get older.

It’s my dad’s birthday today. He’s turning 63. He’s the best person I’ve ever known, even if he cheers for the wrong team. Today, I think I’m going to ask him to play catch for the first time since I was a teenager and he was in his 40s. Hopefully he doesn’t hit me in the shins this time.