Fastballs and Faith: The Cords That Tied Our Family Together

It could have been anything that wove our family together: hunting, fishing, hockey, the theater, fixing cars (thank God it wasn’t that!), or camping.  But for our family it was baseball.  Dad played when he was young, all the way through college.  Then he got married.  Then, after the war, something remarkable happened: baseball moved west.  Until that glorious final out Tuesday night, the last time the Giants won the World Series was in 1954, when they were the New York Giants, and there were no baseball teams west of the Mississippi.

That changed when the Giants relocated the San Francisco, and the Dodgers took up residence in Los Angeles, giving birth to a rivalry that would divide the state.  Dad fell in love with the Giants, and our family became saturated with baseball.  The radio play-by-play announcers became regular supper guests, or followed us outside for yardwork, or to the beach.

I learned just how serious this love was in the spring of ’63.  My parents were God-fearing Christians, and school teachers, so they had two inviolable rules:  you don’t skip school, and you don’t skip church–even on Wednesdays, which was when there was an after school singing thing for seven-year-olds like me. Then the unthinkable happened. The San Francisco Giants were coming to Fresno for an exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians, on a Wednesday afternoon.  I was too young to know how great baseball was, but my folks were going make sure I found out, so they broke all their unbreakable rules for that single day.  Dad said, “I’ll be by to pick you up at school during your lunch break.  We’re going to the Giants game!”

We got there early, and watched Willie Mays and his companions take batting practice.  We stayed late standing outside as the players filed past us onto a bus, joking and laughing.  Dad had his Giant hat on, and bought me one that day;  if dad was trying to create a love for the game, I was hooked.  Each summer after that we’d make a pilgrimage to San Francisco to watch a couple Giant games.  It became our thing, and the rolodex of my mind is filled with indelible memories–not just of home runs and fastballs, but of hot chocolate on foggy Bay Area nights, of warm hugs, of the togetherness was our context for love.

In a few years, I’d go on to play the game, well enough to be a starter and appreciate all the nuances of pitching, base stealing, and the esoteric strategies of this funky game.  My memories of rich times with my dad have to do with little league, with catching fly balls he’d hit, with broken windows I’d created, and learning about love because of them.  Baseball was the context of relationship.  Even after my dad died, my mom and I went to a few games, and listened to countless ones the radio, hanging on every pitch.  Somehow, those moments became parenthesis of pure joy in the midst of other harsh realities of life, as family members grew sick and died, as mom found a way forward without her husband, and then her parents, and then through the untimely death of her daughter.  Somehow baseball became a love language that bound us together, the way the mountains bind me with my kids.

And all through it, the Giants never found a way to win the big prize.  Most years they were good, some years very good.  On average, once a decade, they’d make it to the World Series: ’62, ’71, after a long drought ’89, and ’02.  Their hated rivals, the Dodgers, would find success numerous times, but the big prize would always elude the Giants – always, that is, until last night.

So now the Giants have won, and my 91-year-old mom is enjoying the fulfillment of a 56-year longing – that the Giants would win the World Series.  Sure, it sounds silly because, as I said at the outset, anything could have been fabric, the backdrop of our family.  But for us, it was baseball, and Giant baseball in particular.  It’s because of the love of the game that the first time I watched Field of Dreams deep wells of grief erupted when the departed dad says to the son, “Want to play a little catch?”  I wept because those were our words too, my dad’s and mine.

So last night, after seeing the last out and then scurrying to my class to teach, then enjoying tea with some friends, I went hope and fell into my bed, excited like a little kid because, though it’s only a game, it’s our game, our family’s time spent not thinking about life’s hardships.  I lay in bed, my mind flooded with memories of baseball games in San Francisco, of the motel where we stayed by ball park, of the radio guys announcing Willie Mays 600th home run (we were in the car, driving home).  I remember this stuff and celebrate a childhood longing, imparted to me by mom and dad, now fulfilled.

The Giants: World Series Champions – my bucket list just got shorter.

PS – I’ve written a review of The Brothers K, David James Duncan’s masterful book about a family woven together by faith, baseball, and Vietnam.  It’s in the forthcoming book  Besides the Bible, a book about 100 books you should read besides the Bible, which is available now for pre-order and will be out soon.

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  • Becca

    My family is Northern Californian and we too are Giants fans. Growing up softball, more than baseball, was the fabric of our family, as my sister and I both played competitively and our parents were our coach and statistician. Still, my first Giants game at Candlestick is one of my earliest memories. The game bonded our family and provided an equal playing field for dinner conversations, even when the angst of adolescence disrupted relationship in other ways. Now that my sister and I have grown out of playing, and both my dad and I have taken a hiatus from coaching, Giants baseball has filled the gap. My mother listens to every game on the radio and keeps us all up to date via text message if we are unable to follow along ourselves. The end of baseball season is always bittersweet. At least this year the sweetness of a world championship will carry us through to March. It’s great to hear and resonate with your story. Go Giants!

  • It is so refreshing to see someone other than the Yankees or Phillies play for the World Series. I was rooting for the Giants in part because of your passion for them – it’s addicting.

    Congratulations on scratching that one off your bucket list!

  • anonymous

    so what do you do if there is no tangible fabric in your family?

  • casey

    At least it wasn’t the Yankees….

  • Donna

    I’d never listened to a game on the radio until marrying into this baseball family but no matter where I am now, the sound of the announcer makes me feel warm (mostly because of those Calif. summer games) and fills my heart w/ love for my dear mom-in-law whose memory may falter in some ways but never about her Giants, our extended family. I’ve only been at this for 31 of these years but certainly enjoyed the thrill of last night’s victory via long distance calls to Mom, Uncle Ernest & my rabid-fan husband. Sorry Texas. I might have cheered for you against any other team but we’ve been the underdog for longer than you. And, as we’ve always had to say in the past, “Maybe next year.”

  • raincitypastor

    this is tough… Though I paint a warm picture through these baseball memories, there are other things, too personal to share in a blog, that are gaping holes in my childhood. We need to grieve those losses, those elements that we should have experienced but didn’t – and find Christ to be one who fills the void. Then, we need to work hard at filling that void for our own kids, so that we’re a blessing to the next generation in greater measure than our parents were to us.

  • Jim

    Nice post Richard. My dad always allowed as how athletic talent “generation skipped” in our family. He pitched for the Seattle PI in the 1930’s so when our 2 children (his grandchildren) showed such baseball ability he never missed a game. My brother played basketball and I played football in high school and Rugby in college. For dad to have 2 baseball players in the family playing high school ball was heaven on earth. He followed our daughter through 4 years of fastpitch at Claremont McKenna and our son through 4 years at Georgetown. He died 2 weeks after Tyler’s graduation from Georgetown. I think he loved every minute; from playing catch when they were 2 to following their careers in college.

    There were also countless Mariner games. Allison’s diapers were changed in the Kingdome; lots of empty space in those days. Allison and I were there the night Randy Johnson threw a no hitter aginst the Detroit Tigers (mom and Tyler were home listening on the radio). Tyler’s favorite player was Robin Ventura of the White Sox and I remember waiting after a game for an autograph and how incredibly nice he was to Tyler. We followed their select teams to Montana, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Florida, Idaho, and yes even Iowa. We must have seen 150 games a year between the two of them. Tyler played on the Field of Dreams and was in the town parade.

    The movie was important to our family as well; not sure I could get through it today despite seeing it multiple times. Field of Dreams was such an impact that I gave Tyler a watch with the very phrase you reference inscribed on the back. Some day he may even wear it.

    Today at age 27, soon to be 28, Tyler still plays very competitive baseball in a “senior” league. He has become fast friends with his teammates as they travel the state and Canada playing from April to October. The players are mostly college players with the occasional ex-minor leaguer and major leaguer thrown in. These are lifetime relationships; he returned to the east coast this past summer for the wedding of a Georgetown teammate.

    So here’s the deal Richard. Next spring, when Giant memories have faded, and you really need a baseball fix, let me know, and we will take you to one of the games. You can sit in the stands, enjoy a beautiful NW afternoon/evening, eat peanuts, enjoy good baseball, and repeatedly ask me where my kids got their baseball talent. That’s what my dad did for years. I miss that.

  • Steve Trudelle

    I thought about this today – how baseball can be so much about the people you enjoyed games with, and how those experiences change over the years. I thought about how I share similarities with some fans, but yet we’ll all have different memories of how we’ve experienced Giants baseball. It depends on where we were, who we were with, the relationship we have with those people, etc…

    It’s easiest for me to associate my school years / ages / grade levels with their corresponding Giants seasons. In 1987 my Dad pulled me out of school so that I could attend my first game with him on a field trip with the school he teaches at. For years my brother and I would race to get the paper in the mornings to check the box scores. The three of us stuck out cold nights at the stick, compromising with Dad on what inning to leave so that we could “beat traffic.” My brother and I were more concerned with “beating LA,” but he probably promised my Mom to have us home by a certain time. During the post-game fireworks shows my brother would keep asking my dad “is this the grand finale?” Once we had to drink a whole bunch of Sprite in front of the stadium because they didn’t allow us to bring cans into the game. My Dad always faked like he forgot the tickets right as we approached the gate – and we always fell for it. The feeling was always the same – .5 seconds of panic and anger before we’d all laugh because we remembered he always did that. I decided long ago that I’m going to do the same thing when I have kids and take them to baseball games. In 1989 he got us a video of the season for Christmas and Pete and I watched it over and over again. We still quote it.

    My 12th birthday party was me and 5 buddies goofing around in the family pavilion section. I was at a new school district to start 6th grade during the “last great pennant race” of 1993, and Giants baseball gave me something to talk about with the classmates that I was so concerned with becoming friends with. As soon as I got my drivers license i bought a mini-pack of tickets for that summer. My friend Zac’s huge yellow truck broke down on 101 on the way to a game so we listened to it on the radio while we waited for AAA. When our cars got us to the games, we’d upgrade our seats for free if there weren’t many people there. Nobody really cared. In college, Giants games were the background as I waited tables in the summers. I’d pause by the bar for a second to see a key pitch at the nice new park. When I talk to my brother on the phone the conversations start with Giants baseball. Though my wife Rachel is a Mariners fan, she got to share in my joy as we watched the Giants win it all just 4 months into our marriage. 2010 has been a good year!

    I guess for any baseball fan, whatever our experiences or team we follow, we’re all hoping that this season/next season/any season(?!), will end with the team winning a world series championship. When it finally happened, I realized just how thankful I am to have had such meaningful Giants memories.

  • Thank goodness you have read David James Duncan!! I look forward to reading your review on his Brothers K