I’ve never posted about Father’s Day on Facebook. Never written a column about it. Why? I’m a baseball guy after all, and it’s a sport passed from fathers to sons.
I haven’t because I have five dads — well, five father figures — and I never wanted to give any of them short shrift. For better or worse, all of them — my father, my step-father, my uncle and my two grandfathers — all made me who I am.
But, this being the 30th anniversary of Field of Dreams — the only movie that ever makes me cry, and I’m sure most of you other tough guys, too — I wanted to talk about one, in particular: Herman Barish. Pops. My mom’s dad. The reason I carry a Zippo lighter in my front pocket.
Everyone has a Pops in their life, certainly almost every ballplayer, or anyone who’s played for any length of time. It’s the person with whom you always wanted to have just one more game of catch.
I loved all my grandparents, as any kid does, but it was from Papa Herm — only I called him Pops —that I learned baseball. I don’t remember the last time I played catch with him.
I remember him setting up a Fisher Price tee in his backyard, and setting up the rubber bases for me to run around. I remember the stories he’d tell me about going to the Sioux City Stockyards with his father, an Austrian immigrant, and watching the Class-D Sioux City Cowboys, a low-level affiliate of the Chicago Cubs.
I remember him standing behind the backstop at all my Little League games, telling me to keep my back elbow up.
I remember him getting up from our seats at Dodger Stadium and heading to the smoking section (remember when painted lines on concrete could stop smoke?), packing up his pipe and watching an inning on a small CRT TV in a cage in the corner, next to the exit down the third base line, before he came back to our seats. I have a pipe just like his that, when I walk to my car from Oracle Park, I spark up, just to feel like he’s still with me.
I remember him telling me about driving from his home in Iowa to Cleveland to see Al Rosen play for the Indians.
I remember the 20 years of season tickets, how he always took a handful of paper napkins and two handfuls of pink sugar packets after he put relish on his Dodger Dog. I remember that he treated every concession worker like an old friend.
I remember chocolate malts on hot summer days in the reserved section, and mesh-backed giveaway ballcaps.
I remember trips to Target where he’d buy me boxes of baseball cards.
I remember his ironclad, black-and-white sense of right and wrong, his sense of justice and that there was only one way to treat people: The right way. I remember him drilling holes into a souvenir bat for the candle ceremony for my bar mitzvah.
I remember his baseball bat cane and watching highlights with him on the evening news of the game we had just seen, as he fell asleep on a scratchy couch decades older than me.
My family came to the United States in the late 19th century. We were a family of immigrants, and, like many Jewish families from Eastern Europe, we assimilated. We did it through baseball. It became our love language. I was a catcher. So was my uncle. So was my cousin, before his knees got too bad. Maybe it was Pops’ way of looking at the world — with an engineer’s eye, dissecting the physics behind everything — that led us to the tools of ignorance. Maybe it was our old world work ethic.
So, as basketball ends, as football takes a merciful break from OTAs and as baseball takes center stage, it’s tough not to think of the men in our lives who took us to our first ballgames. Especially the ones who can’t take us to any more. So, I’ll head down to L.A. this week to cover Dodgers-Giants, sitting in the same press box that enchanted me as a kid on those firework nights, when I’d look up at the one bar of light still on, and ask Pops what it was they were doing up there. As I walk to the car, I’ll light up my pipe — the same kind he smoked — and sit on the top deck, and wish I could call him.
All I know, all I truly know in this world, is that when my time comes, I’ll know I made it to the good place if my grandfather — Pops — is waiting for me. Baseball pants cinched up at his belly button, glove in hand, the Sioux City Cowboys jersey we buried him with on his shoulders. Pipe hanging out of the corner of his mouth, jaw set just off-center, finally a full head of hair again, and big, round glasses.
“Hey Pops,” I’ll say. “Want to have a catch?”