This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on June 14, 2003.
Fathers help pave the way for some greats in sports
By Ed Odeven
I devoted the space in last year’s Father’s Day column to giving y’all some of the memories from my childhood and of my dad. I decided to do things differently this year and compile a collection of memories from others in the sports world.
So over the past two weeks I sent out about 50 e-mails and asked coaches, ex-pro athletes, columnists and front-office personnel to reflect on their dads, their sports memories growing up and how their dads shaped their careers in sports.
The comments I received were excellent, I’ve gotta say. I wish I had the space to publish them all in their entirety, but due to space constraints I’ve selected the best of the best. Here’s hoping you enjoy reading the following remarks as much as I did.
Yogi Berra was kind enough to pass along some of his memories from his younger years through Dave Kaplan, the director of the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in New Jersey.
Here’s what America’s favorite quotesmith had to say about his poppa, Pietro Berra, an Italian immigrant:
“The best anecdote about father and baseball is that my older brothers were terrific amateur players, but (dad) refused to let them pursue careers in baseball, forcing them to get regular jobs,” Yogi recalled. “When I asked for a chance to play American Legion ball (at age 15 or so), my brothers lobbied my dad to give me the chance they never had and pursue my dream of becoming a professional. (My dad) reluctantly finally gave in.
“Years later, when I became an established star with the Yankees, I told my father, ‘Pop, if you’d let Tony, Mike and John (my three brothers) play, you’d be a millionaire.’ And he said, ‘Blame your mother.’ ”
George Vecsey, an esteemed columnist for The New York Times, told me he particularly recalls one landmark day from his childhood.
“I remember him calling home from the office in 1946 and telling me and my mom that the Dodgers had signed their first black player, Jackie Robinson,” Vecsey wrote. “That was a big event in our family. We were proud of our team and happy to see blacks getting a chance. I remember that more than any game or play we discussed. I think that says it all about my father’s values.”
Jeff Malone, a former NBA All-Star shooting guard, says his favorite memory of sports involving his dad came when he already was an established pro.
“When I was selected to my first NBA All-Star Game in 1986 (Dallas) I flew my father and my mother in for the game,” revealed Malone, who now coaches the Columbus Riverdragons of the National Basketball Development League. “That was a great feeling to share that moment with my Dad since he had put so much time into helping me become the player and person I had become. It was also fitting my parents were there because I felt like a little kid in that dressing room with (Larry) Bird, (Robert) Parrish, Dominique (Wilkins) and Moses (Malone). That was the day I knew I had accomplished something as a player and it was great to share that day with my Dad.”
Tim Sullivan, a columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune, passed along an entirely different perspective.
“When I was 14 years old, growing up in Washington D.C., (my dad) managed to acquire two tickets to the 1969 Baseball All-Star Game,” Sullivan told me. “The game was originally scheduled as a night game, but the rain was torrential. We waited at RFK Stadium for hours before the game was finally called, and I remember him being neither anxious nor annoyed at the delay. I’ve never been that patient, but I’ve found since I became a father that quality time with my children is valuable no matter what the venue. My dad took me to games for my enjoyment. What did he get out of it? Time with his son.”
Mel Kowalchuk, general manager of the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes, cherished his father’s companionship as a youngster.
“One of my favorite times as a real young boy was sitting by the radio with dad listening to a football broadcast, a memory that will always be etched in time,” Kowalchuk wrote. “The whole relationship with my father, I think, was rather special. The reason he was only able to attend one or two of my games was that he had difficulty walking due to a stroke. In addition, my father was blind because of a welding accident. However, through all that, I know, he was my biggest fan while I was growing up.”
Miguel Flores, the Spanish play-by-play voice of the Class AA El Paso Diablos had this to say about his father’s influence:
“I saw my father crying only two times in my life. One was when my grandmother died, the other was watching TV with him — a winter-ball game in Venezuela. His favorite team (Los Magallanes) was trailing in the last game of the final, 5-3,” Flores recalled. “Dave Parker was hitting and got a three-run walkoff home run to win the game. He cried like a baby. … I think that really turned me on to sports, the excitement in my dad was telling me, this is great, this is something that I want to do, get involved in sports. Then he knew the owner of a radio station and he told him that I knew about sports more than anyone who works there. They gave me a chance and I have been involved in professional baseball since then, 19 years and still counting, broadcasting games on radio and on TV in Venezuela and in the U.S., thanks to my dad.”
My pal Dave Ord, an Arizona Daily Star sports copy editor in Tucson who’s probably the biggest Manchester United fan in North America, offered another sentimental recollection of his younger years.
“If you tried to count the number of great sports moments I shared with my father, the total would easily surpass Nolan Ryan’s amazing career strikeout sum of 5,714,” Ord wrote. “We enjoyed attending hundreds of sporting events, watched thousands of games on television and kept our ears glued to the radio for an innumerable amount of contests.
“But the memory I hold closest was our time playing Wiffle Ball in the backyard. We made up the rules just like any good sandlotters would — over the mission-tiled roof was a home run, off the red-brick wall was a double, past the orange tree in the alley was a foul ball. It didn’t affect him, or our game, that he was legally blind and used a walker. He was always up for a game. …Like any good father, and for that matter any good batting practice pitcher, he gave his son offerings greater than those received by royalty. He made me look, and feel, like Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth and Willie Mays all wrapped into one. Not a bad feeling for a kid whose swing would someday land him in journalism.”
Brian Schmitz, an Orlando Sentinel sports columnist, said his father’s love of sports helped him choose a career he loves.
“It’s no surprise I became a sportswriter,” Schmitz admitted. “It was in my DNA. Sports were all I knew, largely because it was all he knew as a schoolboy baseball star who the Yankees noticed, but who joined the Army and had kids and a full life instead. …
“My lifelong hero is 73 and has raised six kids and survived heart attacks and cancer and lightning and the death of my mother. You want that game of catch to never end, but you know it will.
“His throws are as straight and crisp as ever, but we don’t stand so far apart anymore. The distance between us has grown shorter and we’ve grown closer, in the yard and in life, as it should be.”
Happy Father’s Day. Hope this column help makes it a special day.