How to be a Great Father
“I used to be a football fan,” he tells me.
“That surprises me,” I reply. “I mean, it doesn’t surprise me that you aren’t a football fan, but it surprises me that you used to be.”
He smirks and snickers knowingly. “Football is how I bonded with my dad. In many ways, it’s the only thing we had in common.”
The thought gives me pause.
Phil looks every part the hipster. His short, skinny frame is punctuated by pea-coats and obscure hats. The tattoos on his arm feature beautifully scripted Shakespearean quotes and his skill with a guitar puts my musicality to shame. His upbringing in San Francisco left elements of Bohemian style ingrained in his personality. And sports seems about as fitting as Bollywood-style dancing would at your average frat party.
I feel incredibly lucky to have enjoyed a wonderful relationship with my father. We’ve always had so many common interests and such similar senses of humor. Our awkwardly identical thought processes makes it so that he knows exactly what I need to hear nine times out of ten (even when I don’t want to hear it), and when I trail off mid-sentence, he can already see the conclusion I was trying to reach.
For me, however, it all comes back to baseball. Baseball was my first passion. I liked computers and Legos and action figures, but I somehow loved baseball. I begged to play when I was little, to no avail. When we moved to Boston shortly after my eighth birthday, I remember my parents finally caving and letting me play Brookline Instructional League. The parents pitched (tossing underhand) while the kids hit and fielded. It was barely baseball, but it meant everything to me.
My dad would take me to Sox games and root for me at little league, but I don’t remember ever playing catch with him. “I have terrible hand-eye coordination,” he would later tell me. There were plenty of times I tested this by tossing keys or other simple things at him. Watching him fumble at the empty air was at once hilarious and humiliating, so I didn’t do it often. My mom was more athletically inclined. We would play catch if I asked, but more often I would play with my neighbor Zach (who eventually became the quarterback of my high school football team a year or two after I had graduated).
My dad, however, was fascinated by baseball. We would sit in the bleachers, reading the program magazine, and talking about the players. As I got older, our conversations began to break down the nuances of statistics and our understanding of players grew deeper. My dad would tell me how much he enjoyed when I would explain things to him, but I felt this was more to make me feel important than to actually teach him something.
It was midway through high school when my knowledge of baseball truly surpassed his. My childhood of studying stats, playing baseball video games, and talking baseball with anyone and everyone meant that I had finally come into my own. Suddenly, explaining things to my dad often felt tedious. After all, this was the man who could beat me with his eyes closed at Scrabble and Scategories, who would school me at physics and designed a hexagonal tree house, who had two masters degrees (from MIT and Harvard no less). I couldn’t figure out how I could be more knowledgeable than he was, even if it were only in one subject. Every time baseball came up, though, he would ask with avid interest what I had learned recently.
When I went off to college, my dad bought me a membership to Red Sox Nation. The membership came with an account for MLB’s streamed audio games. I spent many a homework session listening to any and every game I could. When we would talk on the phone, it would invariably touch on off-season moves, the latest rumors, and the odds the Sox might go to the series. In 2004, when they finally won, my dad would call me or I him after nearly every playoff game, and sometimes in the midst, when something amazing seemed to happen.
In 2008, I spent six months traveling. Baseball fell off my radar. I gave up fantasy just in case I couldn’t be there to set lineups or make the right claims, not to mention the time change. Still, as I traveled, my dad would send me interesting articles about the Sox and update me on how they were doing. As defending champs, having won two of the previous four championships, I was in a grace period (one Bill Simmons’s rules for being a fan).
Despite this, the Red Sox clearly meant something to my father.
In college, my parents moved one town over, and in the process, began renovating the house. As was tradition, my mom’s office was a priority. My dad painted the room green, theming it around Fenway’s Green Monster. He began collecting Wally the Green Monster dolls, boxing and framing them. As a gift, my father surprised my mom with a framed blueprint of Fenway which hangs above her desk. Matching framed championship pictures (1918 and 2004) hang in my mom’s office and my bedroom. A panorama of Fenway as well. To my dad, the Red Sox have become an integral part of life and our relationship.
But it struck me as odd, talking to Phil, that this is so. In the two years prior to my birth, my dad went to one annual Red Sox-A’s baseball game in California. My mom says they never set foot in Fenway in the two years before they were married in Boston. And even as a small child, I remember baseball games being a company event and not a familial thing.
Which begs the question, “How did baseball become important to my dad?”
My only answer is that it was me.
Sure, baseball was a good time that my dad could share with others, but if I hadn’t been interested, it might never have grown important. After all, my dad’s interests as a kid were science and engineering and ham radio. His sports experience was restricted to being the tall boy who stands under the basket and catches passes above people’s heads before needing multiple tried to get it in the hoop from three feet away. He doesn’t know how to ride a bike, and his most successful bouts exercising when I was growing up was using a StairMaster at the gym.
But baseball isn’t the only interest my father has cultivated in response to me. He’s always been a tequila collector, a liquid for which I developed a staunch (and illogical) distaste in college. I never saw him drink beer, yet as I developed a taste for it living in Colorado, he began visiting breweries with me, sending bottles of New England microbrews my way and sharing books on beer. When I became a lacrosse player in high school, my dad started collecting articles on lacrosse for me, cataloging the growth of the sport. When I decided I wanted to be a writer in middle school, my father bought books on writing, including a wonderful collection of Playboy fiction, more for proof that great authors start small.
Sitting on the porch with Phil, one thing became eminently apparent for the first time: my father never simply supported my interests; he always went the extra mile.
And that is the simplest way to be a great father.