The Power of the Game

The recent tragedy of Shannon Stone and his young son kept me awake most of the night.  And got me to thinking about fathers and sons and the power of the game of baseball.

I grew up in West Texas.  My Dad was in the Oil Field business and so we moved around a lot between San Angelo and Abilene.  He was on 24 hour call and was gone for weeks at a time.  This was the late 70s and Oil was booming.  When Dad was home he was usually tired as to be expected.  He was also in his mid-40s by the time I was old enough to throw the ball around and more prone to sit and watch a Western on TV than go outside.  Seems like an unlikely beginning to a Father/Son baseball relationship doesn't it? 

But a couple of things had a profound effect on my life and my relationship with my father.  When I was about 8, I found myself in K-Mart for the routine shopping trip with my mother.  But this time was different.  This time my Dad came along as well.  I always headed straight to the "Toy Department" as it was safe in those days to let your kids run free in stores (or all over town for that matter).  Right next to the toys was the sporting goods and I found it strange that my Dad was loitering in that area. 

I went up to him and in one of his huge hands was a baseball--partially hidden like a hen's egg he had just swiped.  In the other was a baseball glove that might have made it on three of his fingers.  "Would you like a ball and glove Son"?, he said.  "Sure I would," was my reply.  In those days baseball came on TV once a week--on NBC Saturday Afternoons.  I had spent every Saturday that summer watching Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola.  Dad must have noticed.  The Rangers did well that year.  They finished 87-75 and tied for second in the AL West--a mere 5 games behind the Royals.  While I would follow other teams at different times, I would never quite get over my initial affinity for the boys in Arlington.

I took that ball and glove and found an old tire and taught myself how to pitch--pretending I was "Doc" Medich or Jon Matlack.   I probably went through a hundred pickets on the wooden picket fence that separated our back yard from the neighbors.  But they were always replaced--and it wasn't always the neighbor who paid for the replacements.  My Dad continued to work long and odd hours providing for his growing family.  Yet in spite of his absence, my love for baseball kept growing. Sometimes the simplest and seemingly anonymous actions are the most profound.  That's the power of the game.

Then came a summer I spent with my Dad on location.  Oil rigs are fascinating places with all the machinery and ladders and dirt.  By early evening, I was usually worn out.  There are no motel rooms or soft beds on an oil rig.  Sleep was obtained, whenever possible, in the cab of the 2 ton Ford that got you there.  But on those warm summer nights, I would drift off to sleep listening to the melodious tones of Mark Holtz and Eric Nadel on WBAP-820.  It didn't matter how far off in the sticks we were the Rangers could always be heard on the 50,000 watt "Blowtorch of the Great Southwest."  I asked Dad why he listened to the ballgames every chance he got instead of music.  He told me of how he would listen to the St. Louis Cardinals with his Dad and of the exploits of the "Gashouse Gang" and Dizzy Dean and Stan "The Man" Musial.  A bond was forged and solidified through the time/space continuum.  That's the power of the game.

There is a wonderful organization called the West Texas Rehabilitation Center in Abilene.  It provides rehabilitation services to victims of illness or accident based on their ability to pay.  They held a telethon every year on the local TV station and one year they teamed up with the Texas Rangers to solicit donations through a scheme called "Rehab Rangers."  Kids were given Rangers paraphernalia and the chance to meet players in exchange for going door-to-door collecting money.  I became a "Rehab Ranger" and with my blue cap with the red bill and white T, I went door to door and raised as much money as I could.  My Dad would drive me to other neighborhoods to help with the process.  I learned later he had contracted polio as a child and received rehabilitation services through the WTRC at no cost to the family.  On the night of the telethon I was starstruck as I got to meet Danny Darwin and Billy Sample.  This was my first experience with the Texas Rangers organization as far as giving back--but it wouldn't be my last.  That's the power of the game.

I grew up, but never grew much more athletic than any average slow, short white guy.  I postponed college to get a job because my Dad had lost his.  After a brief move to Georgia, we found ourselves back in Texas and in the metroplex.  A 40-something year old marvel of human nature named Nolan Ryan was breaking records and accomplishing feats that those half his age couldn't manage to do.  This delighted my Dad to no end as he identified with the work ethic of this quintessential Texan.  Now it was my turn and I took my Dad to as many games as possible.  From that point on, one common bond we have always had is Texas Rangers baseball.

I eventually married and had sons of my own.  Fortunately I married a woman as fanatical about the Rangers as I.  She even wore her Ranger red cap earrings at our wedding.   This was a highlight of my life.  That's the power of the game.  I also saw my mother alive for the last time at my son's T-Ball game.  That is also the power of the game.  I became a teacher and coach at a small high school in the Hill Country.  I coach girls primarily, but I have also served as an assistant baseball coach.  Interestingly, Dad has seen exactly one volleyball game I have coached in all these years, but has driven 90 miles one way several times to see me coach baseball.  That's the power of the game. 

The power of the game is why I can't go along with those who want to ban tossing foul balls into the stands.  The quest for a foul ball is the quest for a piece of that game--A tangible piece of baseball immortality.  Fathers and Sons have gone to baseball games since the game was invented in an effort to place themselves in the seamless tapestry that is baseball.  This is what Shannon Stone was doing with his young son.  One look at Stone's facebook profile photo instantly gives you insight into that relationship.  How many times playing catch?  How many games watched on TV together?  We may never know.  But Shannon Stone took his young son to his first baseball game last night.  He secured seats in Left Field--an act we can presume was due to his and his son's affection for the burly All-Star.  And in his last moments, not thinking of himself,  he reached out to try to secure that piece of immortality to solidify the bond that is the gift of baseball to all fathers and sons.  That's the power of the game.

George Strait once spoke of the love of fathers toward their sons as "a love without end."  This is never more true than in this tragedy.   Even in his last moments, the only concern Shannon Stone had was for the well-being of his son.  I pray this young man grows up to understand how much his father loved him.  I also pray that this young man does not grow up to blame baseball for taking his father--though it would be understandable.  Because the elements that have sustained the game of baseball throughout generations and the special bond between fathers and sons are both based on the same thing--It is indeed a love without end, Amen.

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