It’s been the same column, or a variation of the theme, for about a quarter-century now. There’s just something about baseball and Father’s Day that go together like America and apple pie.
This year, there’s a big ol’ scoop of ice cream on top because my dad’s beloved Mississippi State Bulldogs play their opener in the College World Series on Sunday night. The only gift they could give him that would be better than a win in the Father’s Day opener would be a win on the final night. Oh, what a Dawgpile that would be!
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. There’s a whole bunch of baseball to be played between now and then. MSU has been here before. Been oh so close so many times. This group of guys does seem special, destined even … but the baseball gods can be so very cruel. Nobody knows that better than Bulldog Nation.
This college baseball postseason has been good medicine for Dad while he’s recovering from major surgery and going through rehab. If they run through this bracket, he might be running before his 85th birthday in August.
Dad loved it when I was a full-time sports editor. I usually knew something about a few of the players around the state, and he enjoyed being in the know. These days, he knows way more about what’s going on in the sports world than I do. During the regular season or even the SEC Tournament, he’ll text me about a great finish or a spectacular play, looking for someone to share the excitement with … and I usually have to ask who and what he’s referring to. I can sense his disappointment.
These days, I’m immersed in the amazing and crazy goings-on in The Free State and raising an amazing and crazy 14-year-old girl, so there just isn’t that much time for sports.
But when it gets to this time of year — the Regionals and Super Regionals and College World Series — I try to start paying attention. It’s on the TV while I try to be productive on this ever-present laptop.
Up in Madison, Dad is working just as hard to keep up with all the games. It’s not unusual for him to have one going on the TV, one on his smartphone and one on the radio … and if there’s a golf match of interest going on, he’ll switch back and forth to that, too.
At this point in the season, we can both concentrate on one event, and hopefully, I can keep up and at least catch a couple of the games with him. Of course, the word “catch” with Dad runs a little shiver of fear up my nether regions.
While many guys have fond memories of tossing the ball in the yard with their father, mine aren’t all pleasant. No, my dad was a junior college and semi-pro pitcher who got offered a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates after tossing a gem in a close loss to then-Ole Miss star Joe Gibbon (who did sign with the Pirates and had a nice career).
When I squatted down to catch for him, he couldn’t help but throw a few of those knucklers, which were fluttering, bouncing little horsehide bombs that were more often stopped by my groin than my glove. It’s a wonder I was able to give him a grandchild.
(Quick side story: When I was around 10, my older brother was pitching to me, but he didn’t notice that I was looking away when he released the ball … and it hit me right square in the mouth. I couldn’t eat solid food for about a month. Dad’s peanut-butter milkshakes got me through that ordeal. Needless to say, I didn’t have a career as a catcher, but I respect them more than anyone on the diamond.)
These days, when I cover or watch games, I relate more to the coaches and parents. While watching West Jones roll through the postseason then celebrate with that golden glove after the last out at Trustmark Park, the players’ parents and coaches were the ones I was paying the closest attention to. Some of their kids had played in Dixie Youth World Series when they were 9, 10, 11 … and there were those same dedicated parents, still cheering them on, still giving the umpires hell, still celebrating as the stakes got higher and higher.
Same for these parents who are watching their sons in the Super Regionals and College World Series. What must it be like to be the parents of Jake Mangum or Elijah Macnamee when they produce those chill-bump-worthy big moments for legions of fans?
My guess is that a highlight reel — Wiffle ball games in the yard, tee-ball, coach-pitch, Little League, all-star roadtrips, high school, summer-league roadtrips — plays in their minds. And they probably say to themselves, “Every single second was worth this.”
Baseball has been a bonding agent for fathers and sons for many generations.
That’s one thing about the game that will never change. If work and time permits, I will be burning up the road between Laurel and Madison to watch as many games as possible with Dad.
Here’s hoping that this Mississippi State team makes memories that last a lifetime.
Happy Father’s Day.
Mark Thornton is editor-in-chief of the Leader-Call. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.