I recall my Dad favorably discussing a lot of different ballplayers. The list includes Steve Bilko, Joe DiMaggio, Dom DiMaggio, Dean Change, Bob Feller, Jim Fregosi, Brian Downing and many others. He wasn’t exactly given to waxing poetic of their baseball exploits, but he’d occasionally share some insight into some of these guys. EXAMPLE: I recall him telling me how Dizzy Dean would (intentionally?) walk the bases loaded, with no apparent purpose but to goad his manager into inventing new swear words. Then he’d “magically” remember the direction of home plate and proceed to strike out the side. The story would be followed by Dad’s unique cackle.
I never checked to find out if this story about Dean was true. It really didn’t matter. To me, it helped explain what he meant when he described a person as a “character” (as in a nut-job, the term my Dad reserved for Dizzy Dean, Jim Piersall, and others). It also was a brief glimpse into the mind of Dad, to what he found amusing. There weren’t so many moments like these, since he was frequently at work in support of a stay-at-home mom and my 4 older siblings.
As I wrote here last year, the player that had the greatest appeal (or as least the one of which I was most aware…Dad was 40 years old when I was born) was Nolan Ryan. While he was his most favorite, he could also be his least favorite. Ryan must have taken 10 years off of Dad’s life. It was truly love/hate, providing Dad his chance to invent new swear words. Unlike Dizzy Dean, Ryan didn’t intentionally walk batters. He would simply lose his mechanics (thanks Gubi!) for a random number of innings, and proceed to issue anywhere from 2-8 walks. It was at those moments he’d react like I do when Fernando Rodney is poised to walk yet another lead-off batter (and in the spirit of “like father, like son”, inspire my own foul language creativity).
What did this love (and revulsion) say about my Dad? That’s difficult to answer, in the sense that Ryan is the dictionary definition of enigma. He was a once in a generation (century?) pitcher. Take for example his 7 no-hitters. Can you think of a record in any major sport where the next closest player/athlete (Sandy Koufax with 4) has like 43% less of that quantity? And we are talking about a sport with over 100 years of records. When people speak of unbreakable records this is the first to come to my mind. With the way the game has changed, this is a record I doubt anyone will come close to matching, let alone exceed.
Dad was as captivated by Ryan’s unique baseball gifts as most others that followed his career. I believe it occurred to my Dad that Ryan might be that once-a-century enigma after the 2rd no-hitter (and 2nd of ’73). After that, he followed Ryan with greater intensity. It really doesn’t say much more than he enjoyed the spectacle of vastly superior athlete at the top of his game.
Last add…he has been gone now for 21 years. It’s strange to say, but he seems more “alive” now than he walked this good earth. As time passes, I have become more aware of the giant upon whose shoulders I stand. Dad, thanks for holding me steady.