“The great secret theme of baseball is Loss (with its teammate, Failure).” — Michael Chabon
A decade ago around Opening Day, I’d relocated to Lake Tahoe from the Bay Area. My father was easing into partial retirement there, with my mother — still working “down the hill” — joining him on weekends. Like most fathers and sons, he and I did not share a ton besides just enough similar DNA to be under one another’s skin at all times.
The things we did agree on were baseball and skiing. Two great passions I assumed were the result of a genetic hiccup rather than actual traits passed down.
As it turns out, Lake Tahoe was the perfect venue to find a fecund neutral ground with my father to imbibe in both of these loves. And so, in my 30th year, as I reeled from a young abandoned marriage and spotty employment in the even spottier newspaper industry, we found a common space 6,000 feet above sea level.
Or maybe, as he once told me, “there just isn’t enough spare air up here to argue. It seems to work with your mother.”
The 2004 San Francisco Giants were nominally a team in transition and realistically an ill-fated franchise of failure.
That season’s approach to the abyss started a little earlier than usual, five months before the bunting could billow in the bay breeze, to be exact. In November, 2003 GM Brian Sabean attempted to start plugging the leaky dam of the fractured franchise’s Bonds era by trading away young arms for journeymen position players.
Loutish backstop AJ Pierzynski was harvested from the heartland in exchange for Joe Nathan (future All-Star closer), Francisco Liriano (16-8 in 2013 with a 3.02 ERA as a starter for Pittsburgh) and Boof Bonser (a “player named Boof to be named later”) …and some cash.
Pierzynski spent a single season in San Francisco. He hit a career-worst .272. More importantly, he talked shit about the city. He talked shit about the fans. He talked shit about the ballpark. He talked shit about his teammates. And he was not open to San Francisco’s food, hills, cultural mores, nor its attitude or alchemy.
In other words, it was the baseball equivalent of asking Ted Nugent to grab a bullhorn at a PETA rally.
That year, the Giants ended up a dreary second, an interminable two games behind lifetime rival Los Doyers. Highlights were few with Barry Bonds becoming the oldest doper in MLB history to win the MVP.
AJ Pierzynski was released in October.
I was in a transitory moment as well. I found a job working for the local mountain paper and was living in a small condo two blocks from the lake. The average age of the newsroom was about 24 and the average time spent trying to figure out ways to cut corners and finish before deadline to go outside was, well — all of it.
I soon grew accustomed to this new way of life: Up early, crank out stories, design pages, send paper down to Carson City to get printed, post online and be out by three for a run.
After that, I was usually hungry. So, eventually, I made my way to my folks’ house where they had food and they had cable. Most nights I would find my father in the kitchen preparing a pair of hamburgers to throw on the grill. One for him and the other for his other “son” Ross, a 12-year-old Australian Cattle Dog who had mismatched eyes and looked like he came from central casting somewhere beyond Thunderdome.
Craig and Ross, as was their ritual, would turn the set on around quarter to seven, enjoy their meal, and watch the game. Around the 8th or 9th, Ross would get up from the couch to go signal for one last trip outside, then deposit himself upstairs at the foot of my father’s bed.
I watched carefully their routine. Ross the dog would spend his days defiantly peeing in the corner so he could go out on the deck. Then, once on the deck, he would bark at the neighbors passing by, at the birds in the sky, at invisible foes in cloud formations, at pretty much any dried pine needle the wind choose to churn. Ross, in other words, was pretty much an asshole.
Then one day I realized it didn’t take much to remain in my fathers’s good graces. Accept his offering of food. Watch the game in silence and don’t overstay your welcome. Pretty much I if I did these things right, I could still be a jerk (or, “myself”) the rest of the way and remain OK in his book.
Simple enough. And, as it turns out, a pretty good dictate for life in general. Stay true to you, and when it comes to pleasing others, make a few small concessions. Or, in my father’s words, “If you adjust your attitude and don’t get in your own way so much, it may not change anything, but it will make all the difference in the world.”
Words AJ Pierzynski could have heeded better, and words my father’s son AJ, did.
And so, by mid-summer, I started to take his advice, or at least mirror the actions of favorite son Ross. I was quiet during the game (no talking, no phone). I enjoyed his gift of food and tried not to make a mess (I always make a mess). When the game got to the 8th inning, I would go pee then excuse myself to leave.
Eventually, I moved away from Tahoe. My transition there complete. My father and mother remained full-time to make small compromises for one another and enjoy the little things they loved together.
As for the Giants, GM Brian Saben never forgot the sting of the Pierzynski trade and four years later, with the fifth overall pick in the draft, he took a 21-year-old catcher named Buster Posey. Posey was his man, not because the unassuming right-hander from Georgia could hit the ball a country mile or knock every clothespin off the line with his throws, but because, quite simply, he had the best attitude of any player available.
Since then, Posey has won two World Series rings. Pierzynski, zero.
As for my father, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer weeks prior to last year’s Opening Day. At the time, he didn’t feel like transitioning to aggressive chemo or living “down the hill” near his doctors. He didn’t want to make the big sacrifice of leaving his mountain home and the skiing and the golf and the lake. And he didn’t want to do the small things, forcing down the Ensure, gulping horse pills and being nagged all the time to finish his soup. All he wanted was his trusty friend Ross, who’d passed away that winter, a pair of burgers on the grill and the Giants pre-game on the set.
But he followed his own advice. He did the little things and he kept the right attitude. His life depended on it. “I will do whatever you ask,” he told my sister shortly after his diagnosis. “As long as you stay positive, I will too.”
As it turns out, doing the little things carried him beyond all medical expectation through the entire 2013 campaign. He knew, just as the Giants may have, he was fighting a losing battle. Through the biggest transition of his life, his attitude saved him. It enabled him to wake up again and watch one more game.
It didn’t change anything. But it made all the difference in the world.