by Ken Szymanski
My dad was built for long hauls. He spent half his working life milking cows twice a day and the other half on a tire factory assembly line. His favorite sport, baseball, is a day-in, day-out, long-haul sport. And his favorite team, the Milwaukee Brewers, often takes its fans on an especially long, losing journey.
Despite Dad’s daily devotion to the Brewer broadcasts, he didn’t get to games much. Milwaukee was four hours away from our home in Eau Claire. While Dad had attended games at the old County Stadium, he’d never been inside Miller Park. He was getting a little old for that sort of thing. But for his 75th birthday, I gave him a card with an offer. I would take him and my mom on a trip to Miller Park for a game. I’d set it all up and do the driving. We’d get a hotel if necessary. For my dad—the kind of guy whose ideal birthday gift was a watermelon—this was a radical proposition. But with his advancing age and deteriorating health, I felt the need to go big with the Brewer trip before things spiraled down any further.
He read the card, thanked me, and then turned me down. Too old. Too stressful. “It’s just too much,” he said. Mom agreed. They let me know how much they appreciated the gesture and apologized. I could tell they felt bad for declining, making me feel bad for pushing it.
* * *
Three years later, I became a father. Dad’s mind was fading with dementia, and I took my newborn son across town to their house as frequently as possible. The Brewers were always on. I knew I’d never get him to Miller Park for a father/son/grandson ball game. I thought, though, that maybe we could have a similar experience with our local Northwoods League team, The Eau Claire Express, at Carson Park—even for a few innings. I wanted to be able to one day tell my son that, even though he doesn’t remember it, he went to a baseball game with Grandpa Szymanski. Maybe have a picture as a souvenir.
Near my own summer birthday, Dad was having a string of great days. He spoke with clarity, he was relaxed and fully aware, and he even joked around. There were times when it seemed like the clock had turned back 10 years. On my birthday, I pushed my luck and invited my parents to the Express game, even if it was for just a few innings. My mom said we should just have sandwiches at their house, but I thought we could pull it off. I figured we could have some sandwiches on a picnic table outside the stadium and walk in for a few easy innings.
We met at the stadium, but Dad’s streak of good days had come to an end. Out of his routine and comfort zone, his upbeat demeanor of the past three days disappeared, replaced with confusion and bewilderment. With a struggle in the parking lot, we got Dad back in the car, and Mom took him home. That’s where he belonged, not on my selfish photo quest.
* * *
Later that summer, I drove my infant son to my parents’ house and found Dad in his usual living room chair watching the Brewer game, nodding off. This is right where we watched the Brewers nearly win the 1982 World Series, only to break our hearts in game seven. But on this late summer afternoon, the Brewers were behind, just like they were in the previous night’s game. Slowly, as the game progressed, I noticed things were unfolding exactly like the night before. It hit me: this was a rebroadcast of the previous night’s game, which my dad didn’t realize.
I had listened to the game the night before and saw the highlights on the news. It was a great come-from-behind victory off a Prince Fielder homerun. So I didn’t tell Dad it was a rebroadcast, letting him enjoy what was coming up. When he’d drift off, I’d bring him back in for the pivotal parts. “Hey Dad...Dad!”
“It’s not looking so good here is it?” I said, trying to lower the mood in order to heighten the upcoming drama.
Then, a couple innings later, when Prince Fielder stepped up: “Do you think Fielder is going to come through here? They’re still two runs down with bases loaded. Do you think he can come through here?”
“Oh,” Dad said. “We’ll see.” They say time stops for no man. But for an afternoon it not only stopped, it backed up.
Crack! “This one could be on its way!” the announcer yelled. Right on cue, I thought. “A three-run game-winning home run for Prince Fielder!”
“How about that, Dad! Did you see that? Watch the replay!” Dad’s face lit up as he briefly raised up his fist in triumph. The Brewers won. Again.
That season was Dad’s last, but that game was a gift: a dad who couldn’t remember the past getting help from his son who could see the future. And between us on the floor, his infant grandson was babbling like the fountain of youth. We were three generations watching a second-hand broadcast, pulling off a first-class, late-season, come-from-behind victory. There’s something to be said for the living room home field advantage.