One of my most vivid memories was our first trip to Fenway Park.
It’s such a contrast for a wide-eyed young kid to smell the stench of a big city with the concrete, glass, and claustrophobia of it all, to walk into the infinite beauty of a modern day sports cathedral.
I can close my eyes and still remember the second we came out of the tunnel. It was surreal. Dreary grays turned to vibrant greens and the darkness of the graffiti filled perimeter disappeared into a blinding light of sensory overload.
Bats were cracking batting practice balls at lightning speed, fungos were flying in all directions, vendors hawked delicious Fenway Franks, and I was standing there with my dad. It felt like the two of us were standing at the gates of heaven. The Boston Red Sox were playing the California Angels, and I stuffed myself with cracker jacks, cotton candy, and memories. I remember buying a small wooden bat with the Red Sox logo printed on the barrel of it, and I still see that bat every single day 30 years later – I keep it under my driver’s side seat. It was probably just another trip to Fenway – where he had been a thousand times as a kid himself, but I’ll never forget it.
I was almost eight years old when Bill Buckner missed that ground ball. I went to bed without saying a word and didn’t bother watching Game 7. His yelling and disappointment told me everything I needed to know through my bedroom walls. I was in Massachusetts at my Grandparents house for the Super Bowl when the Fridge and the Headband shuffled all over the helpless Patriots. Luckily we had the Celtics because all we had locally were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their brutal orange uniforms. When the Lightning eventually came to Tampa in 1992, and the Devil Rays later in the decade, he arranged for tickets for us, even though he later told me he hated the crowds. Today it would take an Act of Congress to get him out to a ballpark, but he went – over and over again.
He’s not perfect. Not even close. He has a temper that would make a sailor blush when he unleashes a tirade of expletives. I remember our first trip to Disney World as a family; all of the excitement, magic, and energy of the park. We rode Peter Pan’s Flight and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, played with Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck, and watched the fireworks light up the night sky. It was perfect. Then we drove through downtown Orlando – completely lost – and tried to find our hotel in a torrential downpour. I remember my dad cussing like John McEnroe at a bad call as we battled traffic with no map, GPS, or Siri to help us out.
He never showed his temper publicly. He treated his co-workers and eventually his employees like gold. He started as a waiter in the restaurant industry, worked his way up to the food and beverage trainer, and eventually manager at the Hyatt Restaurant in downtown Sarasota. Anything they threw at him, he worked like his hair was on fire, learned it, mastered it, and then took on a new challenge. They wanted him to climb the corporate ladder and move to Chicago. The hours were too many, which meant his time with his new family were too few. So, he took his biology degree and started a daycare. He had no knowledge or background about daycares, but he had a dream and a goal. He wanted to be his own boss, but more importantly he wanted to be with his family. Nothing else mattered. Family first, and the rest would work itself out.
I grew up with three other siblings, but in reality it was probably closer to three thousand. My dad expanded the Learning Tree Preschool from one to two to three, and he cared for every single kid like they were his own. He’d take us to school in a prehistoric oversized passenger van, pick us up, and then we’d play on the playgrounds until dark. Summers were even more fun. We’d go on daily field trips from the bowling alley to Adventure Island. Eventually, the van turned into several school busses, and we were able to move from a house that was attached to the daycare to a house with a few acres, pool, and a pond. I spent every minute, not at the ball fields fishing in that pond. Many a shiner, bream, and bass were caught at 2614 43rd St. West. Looking back I thought we were the luckiest kids on the planet.
As Coach Chapman spent countless hours with me at G.T. Bray Park, we soon realized I had a knack for striking batters out and a pretty good bat. So, what did he do? He built a batting cage and pitching mound in our backyard. Keep in mind we didn’t have a lot of money. In fact, he told me recently how much money they made – or didn’t make, during those years. Factor in a family of six, and there were never silver spoons in our house. Somehow he scraped together pennies and installed lights and eventually bought a Jugs machine to give his aching arm a break. I’d take batting practice all hours of the day and night, invite friends over, and soon our entire team would camp out at our house. He practically turned our house into a Dave & Buster’s because we eventually added an air hockey table, ping-pong table, and fuss ball table. As a homeowner now, I can only imagine what kind of a nightmare we must have been for the neighborhood.
Our social time was outdoors. If we weren’t playing sports, we were fishing. We didn’t have cable television, never went out to eat, and my parents didn’t have much of a social life. My dad never drank. Why? It wasn’t for religious reasons. My mom reads the Bible daily; my dad reads the Bible never. I vividly remember the first time I saw a beer in his hand on my senior cruise, and even my buddies commented how strange it was. It was like seeing Roger Clemens put on a New York Yankees uniform. It just didn’t look right.
My dad took pride in trying to embarrass me as much as possible. It started when I was young but hit overdrive when I entered High School. When I was a Freshman (before I could drive), he drove me to school in our Learning Tree Schoolbus. But, this wasn’t a normal bus. This was a goofy, super short bus, and he would pull right in front of the main entrance, and honk the horn for the entire school to hear. Sometimes, as a bonus, he’d even put out that obnoxious blinking stops sign. He’d laugh and smile so big that classmates called him “Smiley.” He said it was to toughen me up, and that it didn’t matter what people thought. I know my skins now thicker than Donald Trump’s wallet because of this “training.”
To be fair, that school he dropped me off in front of was a private College Preparatory High School (Saint Stephens Episcopal School) that was well beyond our income – especially when you factor in 4 of us. As always, he found a way. He coached several different teams to offset tuition, he worked on the fields, he cut palm trees, anything that made it possible for us to receive the finest possible education, he had no pride. He took a newspaper route for extra income, and on Saturdays or Sunday’s if we wanted to fish, we had to help deliver papers first. If we didn’t help on the paper route, we didn’t fish. Period.
When it came time to start searching for Colleges, he was my biggest cheerleader, throughout my schizophrenic search. I was a 6’5″ left-handed All-State pitcher with test scores and grades that were reflective of my hard work at our academic gauntlet. My first college letter was from Duke University, my first phone call from Dartmouth, and my first official visit was to Harvard. He drove me to the airport, and I flew – first class for the first time – to the Harvard/Yale Football game and a weekend in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The head coach at the time let me know they needed a lefty, and that they also needed about $35,000 a year – with no athletic scholarships because they were an Ivy League Institution.
When I returned, we hit the road and openly discussed what options I had. We drove throughout the East Coast; UF, UGA, UNC, Duke, Davidson, Wofford, Georgetown, Wake Forrest, and many more. We had a 5 CD changer loaded with Jimmy Buffet, Alabama, 311, Nirvana, and Toni Braxton (not sure exactly how she fit into that mix), and Rand McNally guided us up and down the coast. I crashed at several campus’s with host players, while he’d find the closest hotel, and we’d get up again and repeat the next day. Mix in a few plane flights, my limit on official visits, and I still had no clue what I wanted to do – or what we could even afford to do. That summer during an American Legion baseball tournament with Post 24 everything flipped upside down.