A Father to Baseball


September 29, 2012

by Doug Glanville

It is the end of the regular season, and time for goodbyes. I remember walking off the field in 2002, after we played our last game. One of my Phillies teammates said it was “a sad time” because you will never play with this same group again. So we gave out big hugs, knowing this nuclear family would forever be dispersed.

Ten years ago exactly, and on that same day of goodbyes, I lost my father as he approached his 78th birthday. Since then, I have come to understand him more. I find myself reflecting on how the people that he touched would carry on his spirit, and how much of that spirit I have found in baseball.

He arrived in the United States from Trinidad and Tobago in the 1950s. An ocean away from his family, he had to make his mark in a country where race was still a huge barrier if he wanted to realize his goals beyond his immediate aim, which was to complete medical school at Howard University.

He was an underdog, but he understood the importance of brotherhood from an island culture that lived it. Once, talking to us about how he’d internalized the limitations of the racial dynamic in the United States, he said, “I came from a culture where the prime minister was black” — so any level of achievement, he knew, was possible. This made him freer in an America still navigating prejudice, and also helped him set the tone as the first of three brothers to pursue possibility in the United States. A sense of brotherhood — literal or otherwise — became one of the most important gifts he imparted to those who knew him. Brotherhood is also the lifeline that makes the game I played so special.

At his funeral, baseball was well represented, as so many of the relationships I forged as a player came back tenfold, with friends from in and around the game showing up in support. Several people from the Phillies organization attended the service, including the owner, David Montgomery; Rob Holiday, a team administrator; Gene Dias, from the community relations department; and teammates including Marlon Anderson, Wayne Gomes, Kevin Jordan, Robert Person and Jimmy Rollins. A true family.

Teammates who might never have had a real conversation with my father were there. Maybe they knew him, in a way, through my talking about him. Or maybe their own people knew him from the family room where ballplayers’ friends and relatives gather before and after games, or from sitting together in the stadium sections reserved for families. Everyone in this circle understands that they are all similarly situated, they automatically have something in common. My mother could talk to my shortstop’s brother-in-law about the pain of missing funerals or weddings. She could share the anxiety that comes with supporting someone whose career is in constant limbo, and the exhilaration of a season that ends well.

You come to understand that the 25 players on your team from April to September (in October the rosters expand, so it becomes an extended family) constitute an in-season family that you see more often than your real family. And whenever there is a challenge to any member of the collective, the brothers respond and protect.

That was understood when my Phillies teammate Eddie Oropesa defected from Cuba, urging patience from his pregnant wife so he could finally make it to the big leagues; he did not see his family again until his son was 3 years old. It was understood when the Chicago Cubs players rushed the clubhouse assistant out of the locker room one spring training day — even as he tried to collect one last dirty shirt — because his daughter had been hit by a car in the parking lot (she was all right). It was understood, in the minor leagues, when we took up a collection after our catcher lost his sister tragically back in the Dominican Republic. And it was understood whenever we faced the loss of teammates and opponents at ages so young they made those losses seem unbelievable and unbearable.

It is part of what makes a true team: the instinct to support your brother even if you do not like his politics, his swagger, or his batting average. You sit next to these brothers on planes, on buses to planes, in cars to buses to planes. One might have been your roommate in the minor leagues. Maybe you introduced another to his wife. And there’s the one you showed the ropes to, so he might one day replace you. It is not about liking one another, but about cohesiveness, about respecting that this unit works only when you care for one another. This might not always lead to wins on the field, but it does make for an unforgettable time of bonding, especially when you have had to forgo the bonding you may need to make at home.

So players learn to make “home” mobile and omnipresent. They dine together and break bread in all kinds of places, from the depths of the corridors of Fenway Park to, on a rare day off, an after-hours restaurant in Los Angeles. It is a brotherhood troupe traveling from coast to coast, trying to build a foundation in a world of changing hotels, managers and girlfriends.

Among sports, major league baseball in particular is set up for a surrogate brotherhood. It is day to day, framed by frequent team travel and is inherently humbling. It is not a chain of Sundays or a quarterly Grand Slam. It is not amateur — you can’t step out for a while, get to a class, go home for a holiday and come back. There’s much more for the brothers to protect against. The media engine is bigger, the pitfalls deeper, the risk of ignominious defeat is tangible. You have to be a brother all of the time and you are too removed from everything else to be present anywhere else.

To navigate such an environment, I found myself tapping my father’s wisdom, whether regarding leadership (I was a center fielder — captain of the outfield — and the team’s union representative) or understanding people (he was a psychiatrist and I learned from his insights) or celebrating relationships inside the locker room and out (my parents were married nearly four decades). My father gave me a lifetime of lessons so indelible that 10 years after he passed, he sits on my shoulder. His one-liners resonate, his tag team conversations with my mother are on the tip of my tongue as I talk to my wife, my son and my daughters.

And, in a related way, those Phillies players and personnel gave me a perpetual gift by being there for me and my family without condition or question. Each of them was like a shortstop turning the double play by throwing to the second baseman without actually looking to see if he is there. Because, unless something is seriously wrong, he is always there.

Republished from The New York Times


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