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Striking Out With My Son

I’m crazy about the ol’ ball game. But can I turn my only child into a fan?

In the complex morass that is America 2005, one thing anchors my sanity: the Philadelphia Phillies. From early spring to early autumn, I begin each day the same way—studying the box score, drinking in the vital information. The Phils win? I am a happy man. They lose? I'm adrift. Annoyed. Occasionally morose.

This is, I grant you, a bit ill. And as with any character flaw, I blame my mother. Mom was born in Ireland and saw her first game in 1938, at age 30, not long after she and my dad moved to Philly. After a few games at old Shibe Park, she became a Phils fanatic, sermonizing on the need for a left-handed setup man and a real second-in-the-batting-order guy who could hit and run.

I shared Mom's passion. By the time I was 12, I could dissect the team as if it were an enormous biology project. I knew Clay Dalrymple's batting average (career-best .276 in 1962). I knew Robin Roberts's earned run average (3.41 over 19 seasons). So when I became a dad, moving to Georgia and raising a son, I assumed my boy would continue the family tradition. I expected him to cram his brain with runs-batted-in totals and the all-important "RISP" (batting average with runners in scoring position). But even though Frank played organized ball as a kid—and he was pretty good, I might add—he never followed the game. No shoeboxes jammed with baseball cards, no posters on his walls. He's 17 now, and couldn't name a Phillie if the keys to a Harley were at stake.

I've tried to get him excited. "Goin' over the Phillies' roster," I said back in the spring, sitting on the couch. "This is going to be a big year."

"Ahh," he said, unsuccessfully feigning interest. He started playing a video game in which he wanders through an empty building shooting people. Surely this is not as interesting as the Phils. One day he was busy killing people when I got an idea. We'd catch a game together! Dad and Junior at the ol' ballpark. We'd eat hot dogs. We'd talk ball. What could be more American?

Frank was skeptical. He had school things to do. He'd actually rather do homework than go to a game. But in the name of Mike Schmidt (548 career home runs) and all that's sacred, I had to educate him in the necessities of life. So I pretend his skepticism is enthusiasm and buy two seats for a game in Atlanta.

It's Field of Dreams time: father, son, baseball. Including the drive, this is the longest time—about five hours—we've spent alone together in years. I imagine our father-son disconnect is not unusual in modern America, where meals are ordered and eaten faster than it used to take to figure out what to eat. This is a rare opportunity, I think. I will savor it.

"So why aren't you into baseball?" I ask. He looks out the side window. "It's all about money," he says. "Why should I care what happens to a bunch of millionaires playing a kids' game?"

I have no answer to this. I nod and turn up the pregame show. Fortunately we soon arrive at Turner Field, where the Braves will play the San Diego Padres. The park is relatively new but looks relatively old, thanks to the retro design with its exposed girders holding up the bleachers. It feels like 1955, except a hot dog and a beer cost $10.

The game itself is dull. Like watching a congressman drone on C-SPAN. This spectacle of tedium was not going to turn my son into a fan. If it went to extra innings, it might turnmeinto a nonfan. We had hot dogs. I said the hot dogs always taste best at a ball game. I really built up this hot dog, but the bun was soggy, the dog cold.

After seven innings of almost painfully boring baseball, something finally happened. Two Padres were on base, no outs. The batter hit a ground ball to the Braves' third baseman. He stepped on the bag, then threw to the Braves' second baseman, who tagged second and threw to first. Triple play! In compliance with the day's bleak theme, I didn't actually see it because a very loud beer salesman had obscured my vision. But then I realized: my son was applauding. He was smiling. We'd just shared a baseball moment. Yes, yes—my son will never be a sports fan. He'll never memorize Steve Carlton's strikeout total (4,136). But with that one ground ball, Frank caught a tiny glimpse of why I love the game, despite the many flaws of its many millionaires. The Phils were once a chain between my mom and me. My son and I never had that chain, but maybe, maybe, we started forming one. Suddenly the hot dog tasted a little bit better.

Frank Gannon has also written for the magazine about a married Catholic priest in Georgia and about George Foreman.

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