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Notes from an Unathletic Dad : Lost in Sports : Can a Non-Fan Father Bond on His Son's Field of Dreams?

January 16, 1994|Schuyler Ingle

I began to realize I was in trouble when my son, Farrell, rattled off the roster of the Seattle Mariners. He was 5 years old at the time and though he spoke with great conviction and authority, he was making up the names as he went along. Omar Francisco played shortstop. Danny Jessie Anderson was the clean-cut third baseman. The pitcher was none other than Tommy Murphy, a southpaw I suspect. And then there were those two baseball greats with similar names. Ken Groofy and Ken Groofyjunior. It took me a while to sort that one out. "That's Ken Griffey, Farrell. And his son's name is Ken Griffey Jr." I thought I had the right timbre in my voice, the tone that signals a certain inside knowledge. "No, Dad," Farrell politely corrected. "It's Ken Groofy and Ken Groofyjunior. They are ball whackers."

Farrell is happy to permit me access to his active sports imagination, a world in which, during one phase, sumo wrestlers donned baseball togs for incredible power plays. And did you know that Michael Jordan, Ken Griffey Jr. and Shawn Kemp are all related? Not only that, they grew up together and they are all such splendid jumpers because they had a trampoline in the back yard when they were young. It was news to me.

These days, Farrell's sports-mindedness comes so blindingly fast, the names sounding so incredibly authentic, that I have no idea any longer if what he's telling me is sports gospel or an act of vivid imagination. "The real tall guy on the 76ers? He's the one they call on to get the ball down when it gets stuck between the hoop and the backboard," Farrell says. I tend to nod my head at such things and grunt noncommittally, "no kidding."

Divorce has divided Farrell's world into two homes. During that half of the week he stays with me, I struggle to maintain the appearance of an abiding interest in sports. I have started reading the sports page, of all things, all that purple prose and hyperbole about the most astonishingly meaningless issues. Farrell is generous enough to share with me his monthly copy of the kids' version of Sports Illustrated. My vocabulary slowly expands. Phrases such as "clean-up batter" and "fielder's choice" trip off my tongue as though I might even know what they mean.

The day he asked me to name my favorite basketball team reminded me of how his mother must have felt when he asked her if Santa Claus was for real. I thought I might lie and be done with it--say something such as the Seattle SuperSonics or the Phoenix Suns and skate on by. Instead, I told him the truth. "I really don't have a favorite team, Farrell. I've never really thought about it, you know?"

His look wasn't exactly pitying. He simply stared at me in brown-eyed wonder as though seeing me for the first time. Then, dismissing the preceding absurdity, he asked me who my favorite basketball player was. I answered Dana Barros, of the Philadelphia 76ers, which had a ring of truth to it. I said I admired a guy shorter than I am who can jump higher than I am tall and who can hit three-point shots better than anyone else in the sport. "It just shows you what a lot of work can do, Farrell. Ol' Dana runs circles around guys much taller than he is. He doesn't know a thing about limitations. I bet he must practice all the time." I had been reading up, but I didn't let on.

Farrell is now 8 years old, still young enough to think that his interests are universal. He is fascinated by sports, baseball and basketball most particularly. Therefore, I too must live and breathe in a world the center of which is occupied by athletes. My true nature, I fear, is just the opposite. I am neither a font of detailed sports information, nor a fusion reactor of sports enthusiasm. I just don't have the gene. Box scores could just as easily be boxcars for all I know. I'm not even sure what my lanky body feels like at a full run. I suppose I could turn that side of Farrell over to coaches and teachers. But I know that if I cut myself off from sports in my son's life, I cut myself off from him. I'd rather stop breathing.

Participatory sports were never part of my father's life. He didn't have an old mitt kicking around. On crisp fall days he never picked up a football to toss in the yard. Unlike me, however, my father has always been something of a fan, which helps when I find myself fielding Farrell's jackhammer questions about teams and players.

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