Remembering My Father: A Sports Son's Tribute

Joe YanarellaCorrespondent IAugust 27, 2009

I lost my father this week.

More precisely, he passed away yesterday after a brief battle with cancer.

And despite the heartache and pain and void I feel after an emotionally draining and gut-wrenching few weeks, my mind keeps drifting back to sports.

Because that was the bond that tied my father and I together.

As the youngest of five children—and the only boy—I didn’t share long heartwarming talks with my Dad. He came from a generation where the father provided and the mother nurtured. My father and I didn’t talk about sex. We didn’t share secrets about money. A phone conversation with my Dad started with this familiar phrase: "I’ll get your mother."

What we had in common was sports.

From the time I was very young, I was hooked on baseball, a generational gene passed on from father to son. My Dad would spend his Sundays with my mom’s brother, hopping on the train to New York City after Mass and taking in a Giants game at the Polo Grounds.

He was a National League fan, so when the team moved to San Francisco it broke his heart. Like so many other jilted Giant fans, he happily jumped on board the Mets bandwagon when the lovable losers joined the National League. There was never even a consideration of rooting for the Yankees.

But that didn’t stop me from becoming a Yankee fan. To me, there was just something cooler about the pinstripes and the America League. So Dad made sure I got to visit Yankee Stadium, taking me and one of my sisters to Bat Day, where we headed home with Horace Clarke and Jerry Kenney wooden beauties. I’d use those bats for stickball, home run derby, any kind of game where I could get someone to throw me a pitch.

That connection with my Dad spilled over into my youth baseball career. I can remember as an 8-year-old whacking a line drive down the right field line in a minor league game and, as I approached first base, hearing my father—a man not prone to yelling—barking out, “Go for three, go for three!”

What a feeling it was to stand on third base, beaming like the king of the world with the burst of pride that overtakes you when you look across and see an equally proud papa.

Later in life, I began to play competitive softball and would travel every Labor Day to a different state for a national tournament. From Texas to Iowa to Alabama to New Jersey to Mississippi to Virginia, my Mom and Dad would pack up the car and make the multi-day, cross-country drive to whatever Godforsaken outpost we were headed to and meet the team—a team that flew to most tournaments and arrived in a fraction of the time my Dad committed.

And every year we’d engage in a familiar tradition; at the end of the first day of the tournament, the entire team would meet up in my father’s hotel room for a cocktail or two before we’d head off into the night. My Dad would open his traveling attaché case filled with scotch and other top-shelf blends and greet everyone who walked in the door with a “Have a beer, son” or “What can I get you?”

I’m not sure I’ve had happier moments as a son than those.

As I scroll through the Rolodex of my life with my father, those sports moments keep popping up. The doubleheader Knicks-Rangers games we’d take in at the Garden where we’d see a hockey game by day, attend Mass, eat some dinner, and head back for a basketball game at night.

I still remember watching in awe as Terry O’ Reilly of the Bruins pounded Brad Park into a pulp and soaked the ice with blood. And when the stadium crew skated out and simply shoveled up the frozen blood off the ice, I thought it was the coolest, most amazing thing.

There was the trip to the Garden to see Lew Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks take on the Knicks and Walt Frazier. And the amazing game where the Knicks trailed by 16 points in the fourth quarter, which prompted us to head to the exit to catch the train so we could be home by midnight.

Only problem was I had to stop and go the bathroom, and, by the time I got out, the crowd was cheering wildly. We watched the last five minutes of the game standing by the organist—yes, there was an organ at the Garden—and saw the Knicks register one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history, scoring the game’s final 17 points to win.

When I went to college in New York City, I had the fortune to participate in a halftime event of a Knicks game. My parents surprised me and showed up unannounced for the game—though scoring same-day tickets to the Hawthorne Wingo Knicks wasn’t exactly a chore in those days—a surprise that brought a smile to my face, even if I only got to chat with them for a few minutes.

Later in life, I reciprocated, buying tickets to take my future wife and Mom and Dad to a Knicks game. I scored tickets to see the Bird-McHale-Parish Celtics battle the Knicks only to force my Dad to sit in the last row of the entire Garden. The only thing behind me that day was a concession stand, but my Dad didn’t care.

I continued that tradition by taking my Dad to see the first few years of the Yankees-Mets Interleague rivalry, a game perfectly suited to our relationship where we could good-naturedly poke fun at the game’s loser. The tradition continued until, one year, my Dad said it was simply too hot at the stadium, and we left mid-game.

I knew in my heart we’d never go see a game again. We never did.

During the last few weeks of his life as I spent nights sleeping in a reclining chair in a hospital room, I’d pass the late-night hours by watching the Yankees play the Mariners and A’s on the West Coast.

In between requests for ice chips and sips of water, he’d ask how the Yankees were doing. They won again, I’d say. Man, they’re unconscious, he’d respond.

During the days when he’d drift in and out of consciousness, I’d tell him that David Wright had been beaned and carted out of the stadium in an ambulance. A day later, he’d awake from a brief nap and ask, “How’s David Wright?”

In his last hours, I whispered in his ear, “Johan may be out for the year with elbow surgery.” It was a cruel joke, the kind the baseball gods loved playing on the Mets, and I always relished in sharing the news with my Dad.

He had no reaction. Our days of sharing baseball had come to an end.

I have many regrets in my life, and one of them will be that I’ll never get to go to the new Citi Field with my Dad, we’ll never get to check out the new Yankee Stadium together.

I’d really like to see the new Yankee Stadium, to tour the museum, to walk this new palace that doubles as a baseball stadium. I think I’ll take my son with me. I know my Dad would appreciate that.

I love you, Dad. You don’t know how much I miss you.