I was raised in a household where it was not acceptable for boys to cry. My Mom may have said that true men cried, but my Dad told me at five years old that men don't. Period. So I didn't.
I wrecked my bike so bad at eight years old that my Mom had to use a toothbrush to get the gravel out, and I held back my tears. My Grandpa died and I cried once, by myself, so that no one saw me. That's just what I was taught.
Then came the 1990 NLCS.
I was new to baseball. I had played my first season of Little League that year, mostly left field. I was a Pirates fan based simply on the fact that I had an old late '70s Pirates cap given to me by my Grandma.
I watched that series intensely, soaking up every second of it I could. My Dad let me stay up to watch each game. When it all ended, sealed by Glenn Bragg's amazing catch in the ninth, I cried. Not sobs, but simple tears rolling down my nine-year-old cheeks. I knew my dad was watching, and I didn't care.
After a while I looked up at him, expecting my gaze to be met by a disappointed frown. Instead I saw a tenderness and understanding in his eyes that I had never seen before.
That's when I learned what sports is to a man, what they can mean.
Men like him did not cry over death, divorce, illness, or much of anything. They held their feelings in until they ate them alive, often literally in the form of cancer or drinking.
His kind of man cried over Joe Montana and the 49ers whipping his beloved Dolphins in Super Bowl XIX. They teared up over the retirement of the legends who ruled their childhoods, names like Aaron, Robinson, and Koufax. If he ever shed a tear to death, I know it was over Clemente and Munson, not anyone sharing his last name.
I asked him once, after my Pirates had lost their last playoff appearance to a bloop single by Francisco Cabrera, what was different. Why these tears were acceptable. He told me he didn't know, that sports were different, that it just was that way.
I didn't ask any more questions. I didn't need to. I may not have understood completely, but I knew enough.
As an adult, I now know the truth. A good man can cry when he sees fit. There are no rules in regards to tears and men, only that they be a matter of true feeling.
I also know that when my Dad shed a tear about sports, it had very little to do with box scores and retirements. He was crying about the lost job and the death of an Aunt. He was letting out all the pain and frustration that a life of unfulfilled dreams and blue-collar work can fill a man up with. It was the only way he could.
Unfortunately, even with the wisdom that comes with getting a little older, even with knowing the truth about my Dad's words and tears, I still have a hard time crying even when I know I should. I still "suck it up" even when a situation and common sense both say tears are acceptable.
I did, however, cry when Cal Ripken Jr. retired. Same with Kirby Puckett. The late great Ted Williams at Fenway for the 1999 All-Star game? Like a baby. Hell, there's even one commercial on the MLB Network that gives me shivers to watch and a little bit of moisture to the eye.
But it's okay. I know the power that sports has on a man, especially those of us still finding the strength to cry over the things that really matter.