What follows is an act of self-indulgence. It is an old man writing about an even older man. But some things must be done. This is one of them. To explain why that’s so, let’s start with an agreement that the basic story in sports is about fathers and sons. Not just the extraordinary stories -- the Mantles, Ripkens, Mannings, Earnhardts, Earl and Tiger -- but the tens of millions of everyday stories of fathers and sons connected by games. My story starts with a question seldom asked in these high-tech days: Have you ever tried to hit a corncob?
Because they’re coarse and light, corncobs cannot be thrown on a straight line. They fly crooked. R.A. Dickey only dreams of a pitch that does a corncob’s dance. You might as well try to hit a bumblebee in a hurricane. In our backyard, where these experiments took place, my father pitched corncobs at me from 30 feet. Other times, I swung at Wiffle balls with a broomstick. To become Mantle-strong, I swung at air with a bat made heavy by 16-penny nails driven into its barrel. I splintered many Louisville Sluggers -- already broken, held together with black friction tape -- by tossing up white, craggy stones from a railroad bed and whacking them toward Route 66.
To work on my control, Dad stuck wood lathes into the ground about three feet apart. He stretched two strands of twine between them, one knee-high, one at the shoulders. He connected those pieces with vertical strands 18 inches apart. He had created a visible strike zone. I pitched, he caught. Only darkness stopped us.
We built our own ball field. Our home sat on one corner of an otherwise vacant city block. We mowed the weedy lot in the far corner, carried away boulders, chopped out stumps. The bases were concrete blocks embedded in the ground. Any ball hit into the goat pasture was a home run.
Despite these exercises, I never became the next Mantle. The whole truth is the first of many awakenings to the inadequacies of my body came the day Dad challenged me in a race to first base. He was a carpenter. I was a shortstop. He was 47 years old. I was 17. He wore work boots that he called clodhoppers. I wore Rawlings Fleetfoot spikes.
Yes. Of course. He beat me by a step.
Just past first base, I did what comes naturally to any fleet-footed shortstop who had just learned he was not as fleet of foot as he wanted to be.
"Next time," I said, "I won’t let you win."
I hadn’t thought of these stories in a long time. Then, a week ago, because God moves in mysterious ways, I received an email from a man I didn’t know. It began:
"Many years ago," Robert Meek, of Palos Heights, Ill., wrote, "I was a young boy living in a children’s home in Lincoln, Illinois. I played baseball with you, and your Dad was my coach."
I never thought of Dad as a coach. He was just Dad. He was always there. It was years later before I realized that some fathers aren’t always there for their sons.
Meek: "My dad died when I was 10."
That left his mother broken. So, in the language of the time, she sent her children away. They went to the Illinois Order of Odd Fellows Children’s Home.
"I was in pretty bad shape emotionally. But here was this nice man and his son that cared."
He meant that while living in the children’s home, he played kids’ baseball on a field behind the administration building. That’s where he met my father.
"No one at the home thought that I would ever amount to anything. Needless to say, someone caring made a difference to me."
He’d lost a father. His mother couldn’t keep him. Then he met a man who took the time to teach him what he’d taught his own son.
"My mom brought us home after four years."
In those years, 10 to 14, what might a boy miss without a father? Dancing corncobs, broken bats and long fly balls into the goat field. Learning to drive a Ford pickup truck. Sledding on Christmas Eve, pulled by that pickup. Hearing a parakeet do his Dad’s wolf-whistle when his mother walked through the room. Sitting alongside his father for “Friday Night Fights.” Asking to play catch and always playing catch. He’d miss hearing him say Willie Mays runs like he’s got sore feet and he’d miss his Dad’s boast about being the fastest kid in school.
Robert Meek wrote, "I participated in high school athletics, went to college, taught in high school, and coached wrestling – and I can tell you that your Dad made a difference. When I coached wrestling, I thought of him more than once."
I think of him most every day. John David Kindred died at age 51. Next week, on the 20th, he would be 100 years old.