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Pop Fly in the Son
By Gary Cozine
For my father who continues to teach me


Too much money is spent on professional sports. And college sports. And high school sports. Too much money, too much time, too much attention. All over the country there are arts programs and science departments desperately in need of funding. But the often-unappreciated importance of sports in general and—in my case—baseball specifically is that it bridges the generation gap between fathers and sons.

What used to provide a common experience in the pre-industrial era (as Robert Bly pointed out in his book Iron John) when parent and child worked side by side in the fields is lost to us now. The teaching of farming methods—the proper way to plow a field, the best time to plant, or the most effective method of fertilization—has been replaced by the correct way to square around to bunt, how to tag up on a sacrifice fly or hit the inside of second base when running first to third. Baseball is the most agrarian of sports: it is played (with blessedly few exceptions) outdoors on dirt and grass; the season sown in spring and harvested in the fall; and after manning the field, the players return to home plate to face the pitcher.

Baseball statistics act as a connective tissue between generations. Ted Williams's .406 batting average and Joe DiMaggio's fifty-six-game hitting streak are not simply answers to sports trivia questions. They tie us more firmly to what has gone before. So often we think our movies are better than our fathers' movies or our music is superior to our fathers' music. What stats provide is a basis for understanding how great earlier players were. And when a long-standing record is approached or broken, we begin to recognize our place in the thrust of time. We realize that space curves and sometimes meets itself. We gain a glimpse into our father's world.

One of the indelible images of the 1998 season occurred when Mark McGwire lifted his son at home plate following his sixty-second home run and kissed him. The pathetic state of education in this country makes it clear that kids should spend as much time as possible in the classroom. However, in that case, McGwire did the right thing in taking his son out of school and giving him a chance to witness history in the making. Missing a few days of verb conjugation and multiplication tables is a small price to pay for the psychological blessing of sharing a transcendent experience with your father. It is rare that this happens. More frequently, parents and children circle each other with a mixture of confusion and resentment. When the game of baseball can provide a moment of unmitigated respect and love, suddenly players' salaries don't look quite so excessive. McGwire's son may never grow up to be a great baseball player—for all we know, he may have trouble chewing with his mouth closed—but what the man provided for the boy in that moment was an opportunity to see the father as the conquering hero.

In 2001, Barry Bonds did the same for his son. When this sort of thing happened in ancient Greece, Homer wrote a poem about it. Today we write the number seventy-three. They both have the heft of myth.

McGwire created a second defining moment in his record-breaking game when he went into the stands to embrace Roger Maris's children, who were there at McGwire's invitation. As most people know, the Yankee outfielder had a difficult time in his pursuit of Babe Ruth's record and McGwire made sure that this moment honored Maris as well. Here again was a manifestation of the link between generations that baseball and its records bestow. In these two moments—at home plate and in the stands—McGwire became both father and son to us all.

Baseball is the most fetishistic of professional sports. Occasionally you will see a Super Bowl football encased in glass or a net being cut down after the Final Four, but nowhere is the totemic power of equipment more evident than it is in baseball with its bats, balls, gloves, caps, jerseys, and bases incessantly being collected and displayed. In 2001, while Bonds was making his assault on McGwire's record, a thirty-year-old fan paid over $500,000 for "Shoeless" Joe Jackson's bat. Half a million dollars for a stick of wood once used by a man who hasn't played the game in more than eighty years. We beat strange paths to our fathers.

If baseball serves no other purpose than to allow fathers and sons to sit down and watch a game together, to play catch until the ball glows in the twilight, or to discuss the merits of the DH—there are none—on a long, otherwise-silent car ride, then it is a vastly underrated sport. If the relationship that used to be nourished through farming is now sustained with box scores and trade talks, no wonder baseball is the vehicle for so much symbolism. If you want to know your father, study his boyhood heroes.



Although GARY COZINE now resides near Elysian Park and Dodger Stadium, he remains a Giants fan. His writing has been published in the online magazine Conversely. An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on the Sports Central Web site (www.sports-central.org) biweekly newsletter of 12 August 2001.

© 2003 Gary Cozine


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