He stands next to the car, keys in hand ready to go as the sun comes up over the Camelback Mountains. As I come out of the trailer my M’s hat on backwards he smiles at me.
“Ready?” I say.
As I drive I’m overwhelmed with emotion. Here we are getting ready to go watch the Mariners practice during Spring Training, something we had dreamed about and talked about for years, and we can’t really share this moment together. Frontotemporal Dementia (FTD) has taken most of his speech and executive functioning now.
Unlike alzheimer’s where you lose your memories, FTD affects the front of the brain and the speech pathways. The memories are there, the experiences are there he just can’t express them in any way.
As I continue to drive to the sports complex I keep telling myself he knows what this means even if he can’t express it, show it, or internalize it. That we’re going to watch the Mariners practice during Spring Training together.
Once we get to the sports complex, Starbucks in hand, we walk to the lower practice fields and watch the pitchers take Pitcher Fielding Practice (PFP). As I watch I’m transported back in time to my college days where every day as pitchers we worked on PFPs. So boring, so “stupid”. Pretend to throw a pitch then have the coach roll you a pretend bunted ball down the first base line so you could practice picking it up and throwing to first. The hours I spent doing this are more than I would like to remember. Yet here is Felix, Walker, Paxton and Iwakuma pitchers at the top of their game going through the same motions as millions of kids around America will be doing this year as well. If I thought I spent a lot of time doing PFPs, I wonder how many hours these guys have done?
My dad is quiet, watching them next to me through the fence. I nudge him and point as Felix covers first base and then crouches down like a catcher to receive the throw from the next pitcher in line. Ah…the things you get away with when you are the King. As I watch my dad watch the players, the memories of all those times he crouched down behind a makeshift home plate so I could practice pitching, all the times he helped to set up an old tire in the back yard so I could practice. All the games he watched me play in……
We watch for a bit longer and then slowly make our way to the upper practice fields where the team is getting ready to take batting practice. We head to a row of bleachers between the main practice field and a smaller field used only for infield practice and stand on the top row; giving us a perfect view of the team taking batting practice in front of us and the infielders taking ground balls behind us. I can’t help but smile and feel like I’ve found a slice of perfection right here in Peoria. Surrounded by baseball with my dad.
We watch Seager field ground balls on the practice field, I turn and look at my dad and again the emotions overtake me. The hours that he hit me ground balls like that, the patience he had to help me work through bad habits and form good ones. The willingness to do whatever it took to make me the best at this game that I love.
I wrap my arm around his shoulder and give him a squeeze……he looks at me confused and says “What?”
“Nothing” I say as I give him another squeeze, “I’m just glad we get to do this.”
He half smiles not fully comprehending the moment I know but I also know the memories are still in there even if he can’t express them or reach them any longer.
We both turn around in time to see Nelson Cruz the newest Mariner hit a ball 400+ feet over the left field wall.
“WOW!” Dad says….like a little kid seeing his first homerun as another one flies over the fence. We watch as Cruz deposits 3 of the next 5 balls over the fence in left center field.
“He’s going to be fun to watch” I say.
Dad doesn’t respond…not knowing how to and not being able to find the words. I would like nothing more than in this moment to be able to talk about all the players with him, to talk about the way this player prepares to receive ground balls or the way that one has changed his stance over the years, but the conversation has escaped him now so we stand here in silence watching the Mariners take batting practice.
I remember the winter of my senior year of High School right after I was cut from the varsity basketball team and feeling down and out; my dad coming home one day with the wiffle ball pitching machine from the High School. Being a teacher at the school had its privileges. I remember my dad not mentioning, or mentioning very little about me being cut from the basketball team and instead decided that this was a great opportunity to help me prepare and practice for baseball season. My mom being Principal of an elementary school gave us access to a gym on the weekends. Almost every weekend the family would head to Broadway Elementary, set up the machine and take hacks in the gym. Mom and Dad would take turns feeding the machine as us boys rotated through hitting. Once that was done, dad would hit us ground ball after ground ball. The hours that this man has spent teaching me, helping me, showing me this game are countless.
As we watch batting practice, I start talking to him as if he didn’t have FTD. It’s a one way conversation as he doesn’t say anything except every once in awhile “There goes another one” as a ball flies over the fence. I talk to him about the players, about the minor leaguers trying to break into the majors and about my predictions for how I think each player will do this year for the Mariners. We stand there on the top row of the bleachers, my arm around him, while he drinks his Starbucks through a straw and we talk baseball.
He might not be able to express it, he probably can’t even comprehend what all of this is and why I’m so excited to be here with him right now. But he’s still my dad, he’s still the man who spent hours teaching me this game and provided every opportunity he could so that I would love and appreciate this game as much as he did.
As another baseball season gets underway today I’m reminded of all the hours my dad spent helping me to understand and appreciate this game….thanks Dad, for everything.