back to the Black Table

 So I’m talking to my mother the other day. (Side note: A loyal, if a bit too observant, reader pointed out to me a few weeks back, with an accusatory snicker, that I refer to my mother considerably more than the average columnist, nudge, nudge. A quick check of the archives reveals my mother has appeared in nearly half of these dopey essays. Another reader points out that this information squares with my last girlfriend being a nurse, like my mother. Considering these are my only two readers, the implications are becoming increasingly difficult to ignore, though I will anyway, in the interest of psychological self-preservation.)

It’s an odd time for the Leitch family. The new house my father built, about 100 feet from the old house, is finished, and Mom and Dad are moved in. A young husband and wife bought the old place, and they’re living there now. I’m not sure they’re my parents’ type of people. According to Dad, the guy is a full-time firefighter (there are evidently enough fires in Mattoon, Illinois, to facilitate a need for full-time firefighters; who knew?), and he “isn’t much of a worker.” (The contempt in my father’s voice was clear and penetrating.) He basically just sits around a lot, doesn’t do much with the yard, isn’t down with upkeep. This is about as cardinal a sin as you’ll find with my father. My dad works on his new shed and sees his old house, with the grass about two weeks past its optimum mowing date, and he seethes.

I told them this was going to happen, but no one ever listens to me. Dad is starting to feel helpless. He hasn’t adjusted to the new house yet (living in one place for 20 years and then moving 100 feet away will do that), and with his huge project finally finished, he’s looking for the next step. Mom’s happy with church; Dad goes too, but I’ve always suspected his support of my Mom’s fervor outweighs his own devotion to the Catholicism. His kids are running wild - me in New York and Jill in Champaign. He doesn’t really have anybody to guide anymore, no one to yell at, and he pretty much just does odds and ends around the house and plays with the dog.

So he’s been grumpy lately, which my Mom described in intricate detail. “Honestly, you just can’t talk to him sometimes. He’s a complete grouch. He’s becoming just like his father.” Grandpa Leitch was a man who once lobbied the city in which he retired, nearby Toledo, Illinois, to change a sign that welcomed visitors. It said: “Welcome to Toledo, home of 2,000 happy souls.” He, serious as one of his four heart attacks, argued that he was not a happy soul and had little desire to be classified as such to any unsuspecting tourists. His attempts failed, but he did try to talk his grandson into spray-painting, “1,999 happy souls and one nasty grump” on the sign. Would have worked, too, had Mom not caught me.

I tried to cheer up my mom, telling her that Dad is just in a weird place right now, that he’s not sure what to do with himself. “Honestly, Mom, he just needs to get away for a while. I think the trip to New York (two weeks and counting) will be good for him.”

“Oh, let’s not get started on that. He’s talking about how he has too much to do, how he doesn’t have time to head all the way to New York City, about how you’re going to be working the whole time anyway. He’s just been unbearable lately.”

I had suspected something like this might happen. This is Dad’s first trip to New York, and it’s going to be hard on him. He doesn’t like to walk, he doesn’t like trash on the streets and he doesn’t like a lot of people around. Like most of America, my dad sees New Yorkers as rude, arrogant troglodytes (my word, not Dad’s) who wouldn’t know a day of honest work if it slapped them in the face and called them Betsy. But even more than that, to him, New York is the unknown, an enormous side of the world he has up to this point chosen to ignore. It’s bad enough that his only son lives there; now he has to visit? No thanks.

When planning the itinerary for their visit, I tried to keep this in mind. This was why for the first two days, we’re going to a familiar place: a baseball game, Shea Stadium, to see the Cardinals play the Mets. To paraphrase that cheesy and stupid but still resonant line in City Slickers, whenever conversation has broken down between my dad and me, we’ve always had baseball to talk about.

We all have that revelatory moment with our parents, that instant where we finally look at them and realize that, I’ll be darned, they’re people too, with the same fears and insecurities and blood and shit and piss that we have. They have just spent years masking them from you.

Mine with Dad was at a baseball game, of course. It was in 1998, when I had flown in from Los Angeles for a job interview with The Sporting News. (As was TSN’s pattern, I had to pay for my own flight.) It was the weekend that Mike Piazza had been traded to the Florida Marlins from the Dodgers, and the Cardinals were to play the Marlins that night. He picked me up from the airport, where he gawked at a confused-looking Mr. Piazza himself (“I play for the Marlins?”) and headed to the riverboat casino, where we would gamble and drink for a while before heading to Busch Stadium.

I remember the first time I drank with my father. It was when I came home to tell my parents I was going to get married. For some reason, I thought my father would handle the news better than my mom, and I headed with him to a Mattoon pub to chat. We had a few beers, and I broke the news to him. He belabored me for not having a job yet (he called it a “J.O.B., Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaab,” implying an accent he doesn’t have), and continuously called Jessica “that Jennifer girl.” I think he beamed with pride when I ordered a Natural Light. It was wonderful, and, swear to God, I almost teared up when he mentioned that Grandpa would “shit a brick” if Dad ever asked him to have a beer with him. “Never figured I’d have a beer with my son.” From then on, he looked almost offended if I had a Diet Coke rather than a shot of the Nat in his presence.

Anyway, back to St. Louis. The casino, yes. I lost a bunch of money on video poker - I’ve never understood why people play video games at casinos; what’s the fun in that? - but we had about seven beers and shambled over to the stadium, about an hour early to watch batting practice. It was the first time, thanks to the year in Los Angeles, that I’d actually seen Mark McGwire in a Cardinals jersey. It was breathtaking. I’d never seen anyone hit a baseball like that before, just moon shots, blasting into and through the ether. We ordered a couple more beers, bought a scorecard and settled in.

The beer kept flowing. We yakked about mostly baseball at first, whether or not McGwire had a chance at Roger Maris’ record (I said no way; he insisted it was possible, the way that guy hits the ball), about the weirdness of Tony LaRussa batting the pitcher eighth, about the possibility of trading for Randy Johnson come July.

I’ve never seen my father drunk, which is quite an accomplishment, because I’ve been with him when he’s downed about 12 Nat Lights in one setting. One time, when I was 16, he and Mom came back from a Christmas party and yelled at me for dating Myra - the 21-year-old - with a little more vigor than usual, but I’ve never classified that as drunkenness, just anger.

But this night, at the game, we just kept downing $5 beers, one after another. The conversation veered in odd directions. We talked about women he’d dated before Mom, about how weird one of my uncles was, about how he always thought that one girl, what was her name, Myra?, was pretty damned attractive, why didn’t you stay with her? Considering I never even knew my dad acknowledged any of my dates, this was doubly bizarre.

McGwire stepped to the plate. He was facing Livan Hernandez, one of the lone survivors of the Marlins’ binge-and-purge of their World Series champions from the season before. I think Dad and I were talking about how you have to double down when you’ve got 11 and the dealer’s showing 16 when McGwire hit a fly ball to center field.

We leapt up to see if the ball could sneak over the center-field fence. Dad started yelling, “Get! Get! Get!” which he tends to do - he stole it from Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon, who drunkenly wails that every pop-up - when a ball looks like it might make it over the fence but he isn’t sure. The ball landed in the grass area just beyond the wall, and we cheered. “Whew, that one just barely made it!” I exclaimed. “Yeah, that was close,” Dad replied.

We had just ordered another beer when a graphic flashed on the JumboTron. “MARK MCGWIRE’S HOME RUN WAS MEASURED AT 545 FEET, THE LONGEST OF HIS CAREER.” It was true. The ball hadn’t just slipped over the wall; it had bashed against the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sign that hung under the upper deck then fallen into the grass below. You might have heard of this home run; the Cardinals immortalized it by placing an enormous Band-Aid over the sign to make it clear just how far the ball had traveled. McGwire later said, “I don’t think I can hit one any better than that.”

My father and I had seen one of the longest home runs in the history of baseball; we were just too drunk to notice.

Because we’re idiots, after a 10-minute sobering-up period, we drove home. During the two-hour trip to Mattoon, we started getting personal. We talked about my troubles with women, and I openly wondered if it was my fault or if I just had bad luck. Dad then said something to me that haunts me to this day.

“Will, I gotta tell you ... I don’t know this for sure ... but if you’ve got a small pecker, it’s my fault. Sorry about that.”

I think I spit up beer for four days afterward.

No matter how grumpy my dad might be, no matter how little he might be looking forward to spending a week in New York City, no matter how much he might play everything close to the vest, stoically revealing little about his life or how he feels about anything ... I saw the man behind the mask that night. He looked scared and insecure and whacked. He looked a lot like me.

Yeah, I think we’ll just have Diet Cokes at the game this time.



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