I talk a lot about my Dad in my act, but Father’s Day really gives you the opportunity to dig deep about the times your father really chalked up some all-Star feats of parenting. I didn’t have to dig far; when I was in middle school, my father was my softball coach.
I often think about what my Dad must have been envisioning when he offered to coach a team of 15 pre-teen girls. To hear him tell it, he wanted to teach us kids the joy and satisfaction that comes with winning a fair game; he probably thought it might have the earnest, all-American feel of a Norman Rockwell painting. What he got was much different; an obvious conclusion for anyone who has ever met a crowd of girls on the brink of full on emotional revolt against anything resembling authority.
Most of the girls on my team had grown up at my house. My parents learned early on that if I was going to be their only child that they were going to have to bribe children over to the house if I was ever going to stop interviewing my teddy bears and making faces in mirrors to entertain myself. My Dad generally stayed out of our way but allowed my friends and me to dress him up like a fairy princess while he was barbequeing and interrupt his couch-napping to bring him reports about things Mom wouldn’t let us do/eat/say. They were used to seeing my Dad as an easy-going, patiently involved and ever-amused placater of pre-teen non-sense. His role as an authority in their lives as a coach would always be tainted by his well-tested patience and easy amusement.
“Practices” and “games” were social activities for us; my Dad failed to realize that girls classified most extracurricular activities this way. We would leisurely toss the ball back and forth from an easy distance and indulge in gossip, hyperbole, disgusting joke telling and nonsensical laughter. He could only control two of us at a time as he reminded us to do things like “keep your eye on the ball” and “keep your glove up before you end up with a black eye for God’s sake!” His advice would be quickly ignored in favor of more insipid giggling; surprisingly there were only two black eyes our first season. This would be one of his greatest accomplishments that season. On paper, anyway.
Dad’s favorite question to ask when we really started checking out was “What’s going on ladies, are we just out here modeling the uniforms?!” The obvious answer was “Yes.” We would wear our jerseys to school every day; we had numbers on our backs, a team to belong to, “positions” to claim… In our minds we were fucking legit. That’s where our sense of pride in the game ended. As long as all the other girls (but mostly the boys) knew that we were capable of playing a team sport after school, nothing else mattered.
But Dad, bless his heart, wanted to win.
If we ever won a game, I don’t remember; which is probably almost as heartbreaking to my Dad as never having won at all, I’m sure. Little League Softball rules stated that once one team was up by 10 runs, the game was over. We got “ten-runned” a lot. It was the quickest way to get to the juice boxes and Quaker Oat granola bars, which was the other thing we came for. Unbeknownst to him, Dad was hosting a weekly cocktail party where the guests were attending only to see and be seen, wear their favorite outfit and stick around long enough for refreshments.
The day it started to dawn on him that he was fighting a losing battle, he decided to show us how to “run the bases like you mean it and stop sitting around looking like a horse’s ass.” We all gathered around in the dugout to watch him angrily run from one base to the next, lecturing all the while. Suddenly, his legs lost pace and he started to topple forward. Like all epic falls, it seemed to happen in slow motion. He fell, ass-over-teakettle, just past third base in a cloud of dust and flailing limbs. We were silent until one creeping, inevitable, excruciatingly stifled laugh/snort consumed the entire dugout. Dad did what you have to do when you fall in front of a bunch of girls – he stayed down. Luckily, before long, he was laughing along with the rest of us. He knew from then on that his last opportunity to get us to appreciate hard work and sportsmanship had been used up.
But after a while, it didn’t matter. If we did well: great. If not, SUNNY DELIGHT AND GOLDFISH CRACKERS! Dad gave us a venue to get some sort of physical activity and gain some unearned but inarguable self esteem. As a man who read “Reviving Ophelia” the second I started to get even a little hormonal, he knew that the self esteem part of the endeavor was really the only thing that mattered.
Surprisingly, we all came back for multiple seasons; most of us played until we were too old for the league and were expected to join our high school teams. Dad coached yet another round of girls after we “retired”. I’d help him coach sometimes and I finally started to understand the source of his red-faced ranting and sideline anger-jumping. But, just like him, I found it amusing enough to keep coming back to help… if not just for the snacks.
I tried out for softball my sophomore year of high school but when the coach wasn’t my Dad, the sport lost its luster. Half the fun of softball was being able to screw around in the outfield and not give a shit; the other half was knowing that the coach was having fun too. Dad may have gotten frustrated with us and wanted to force the love of sport on us at all costs, but at the end of the day he always enjoyed watching us run the bases the few times one of us would connect a bat with a ball. Our small victories were huge to him and he made sure we all knew when someone was doing something great. When we failed at something, it was par for the course but when we were able to pull of something exceptional, he was always the one cheering the loudest.
“Exceptional”, of course, wasn’t hard in our case but Dad still sold it every time. So, a happy Father’s Day to all you dads out there whose patience has ever been tested and an especially happy one to mine.