A Complete Game
Reading Time: 3 minutes
"A Complete Game" originally appeared in Issue 17 of Tahoma Literary Review.
So often we don't appreciate what we have until it's no longer there. With life as we know it changed forever, it's so important to appreciate what we do have in front of us right now. The act of missing someone (a loved one) or something (sports) is OK. It's a part of the honor we pay to call ourselves human. In this essay, Mara Fein uses the language of baseball to honor her father and to explore her relationship with him and his death.
The First Pitch
1961. The nation is changing. We send up the first manned space flight. We swear in the first Catholic President. And my father takes me to my first Yankee game. Baseball is a game of heroes, he explains. I see my hero, Mickey Mantle. My dad eats peanuts, leisurely drops the shells to the ground, and teaches me how to keep score. Different fans score differently, he says. The important thing is the ability to look back and understand what happened.
Your father was a real hero, my husband tells me. He perfected the hand-held mine detector in World War II. How do you know this, I reply. He told me when we were watching the baseball game. He never told me, I say. Did you ask, he replies. No, I say, I was too busy keeping score.
How does a man become a hero, I ask myself. How does a daughter never know? My father does not serve in the military, unlike his Yankee heroes. I convince myself he was simply too old at thirty-five. I am wrong. From 1942 to 1946, he works for the War Department. He works on cryptographic equipment, modifying what becomes the M-209 portable cipher machine. Over 140,000 of these code-breakers are produced. Later in the war, he perfects the hand-held mine detector. He saves lives instead of taking them.
Knowing the Count
I struggle with a word problem for math class. Ask your father, my mother says. He’s an engineer; he’s good in math. My father quickly explains the problem that troubles me: if a baseball team has fifteen members, and four of the players are pitchers, and the remaining eleven can play any position, how many different teams of nine players can be formed.
Does anyone have the answer, my teacher asks the next day. My hand shoots up. I proudly share my answer. No, the teacher says. That is incorrect. Don’t ask your father, I think.
Vietnam War protests awaken me politically. I don’t ask my father about Vietnam. I simply condemn the U.S. for sending boys there.
My father is a civil servant. He works for the U.S. Army Communications Systems Agency. The highest classification of information he accesses is “secret,” just one level below the highest, “top secret.” While I condemn the war, he attends two courses at Fort Monmouth, learning how to make war. One is a survey of modern military operations. The other is a study of techniques of modern warfare, an introduction to chemical, biological, and nuclear warfare. He receives a certificate of appreciation for patriotic civilian service. He says nothing about my outbursts. We stop watching Yankee games together.
I ask my father to write about his family. Instead of writing, he records on tape. He speaks of a father who was never there and a mother who drags him to late-night poker games as a child. He asks if I have any questions. A score left unsettled, I think. No, I say. No. Over the next year I lose the tape. I never stop searching.
The Late Innings
Just weeks before my father suffers what would be a life-ending stroke, we stand looking at each other in the parking lot of the retirement village. Still a big man, he reaches out to give me a bear hug. He whispers in my ear, I love you very much. I love you too, I say, and hug back. Five months later he is gone. I never tell him I finally learned how to keep score, and he is my hero.
My father dies 9 July 1994. The Yankees lose 10-5 to the California Angels, my husband’s team. They lose the next day too, when my father is buried.
The Yankees come in first in their division that year. Their skipper, Buck Showalter, is Manager of the Year. But the World Series is cancelled due to a player’s strike. This is the first time in the history of the New York Yankees the Series is cancelled.
Coincidence? Maybe. But who’s keeping score?
Reprinted with permission of the author
Fein had this to say about "A Complete Game":
I sought to explore the nature of loss with this piece. What do we lose when someone dies? Well, one of the things we lose is the chance to ask questions, about them certainly, but also about us. Because my father was an avid NY Yankees fan who nurtured my lifelong love of the game, the language of baseball seemed appropriate for exploring his death and asking those questions.
Mara Fein is a writer with a PhD in English from the University of Southern California. Originally from New York City, she now lives in Los Angeles, but still roots for the Yankees.
Photo credit: James Fawcett