The Day I Knew I Wanted to be a Dad
Dino Papadopoulos, the ace pitcher for the Huerter Post #46 Little League team, stood stoop-shouldered on the mound, in need of solace. The twelve-year-old had just surrendered a game-tying home run after having started the inning with a five-run lead.
I trudged from the dugout to the pitching hill. I was twenty-nine at the time, in my fourth year managing in the suburban, Wilmette, Ill., Little League. I’d made mound visits like this countless times, but at the Little League level yanking a pitcher is never routine.
I took the ball from Dino’s hand. The boy was too dazed to say much, so I did the talking, filling the air with words meant to be as numbing to him as Novocain. When his snuffling stopped, I patted him on the shoulder and led him off the field. “Thanks for making me feel better,” he said, as we neared the dugout. He forced a smile. “You should have kids. You’d be a great dad.”
I wasn’t so sure. Whether I’d make a good parent — that’s why I’d become a Little League manager in the first place.
When I met Dino and his teammates, I was of that odd age, between college and adulthood, where I didn’t know any children other than a few friends’ toddlers. I wasn’t married then, didn’t even have a steady girlfriend. But I assumed that I’d someday wed and have kids, and I needed to know if I liked being around children. I wasn’t certain that I did.
It was my own childhood that gave me pause. My mother, who had married late for her time, had yearned for children. My father had felt otherwise, but he wanted my mother to be happy. My upbringing reflected that.
Mom tossed baseballs with my brothers and me; my father toyed with his ham radio set in the basement and remained aloof from us all. My great fear was that I would one day feel as distant from my own children as did he. So I had volunteered to be a Little League manager to see if I enjoyed the company of kids.
I paced playfield dugouts into my forties, and in those years I thought about fatherhood endlessly. For ten hours a week, each April to July, I taught the boys of Wilmette all I knew about the game — from how to execute a popup slide to why rooting for the Chicago Cubs should be, for them, akin to a religious calling. I built my days around our games and practices, the way that other men my age focused their energies on dating.
Sometimes I’d phone a player about an upcoming practice and stay on the line with him for twenty minutes or more, just shooting the breeze. We’d talk about the next team we’d be playing, or gush about a new action movie that was a must-see. We developed an easy camaraderie, the boys and me. I knew the souped-up cars that David Chapman, an eleven-year-old outfielder, dreamed of tinkering with. He, in turn, knew of the high-performance Trek bicycle I craved. He and his teammates answered to nicknames like Grandma and Mr. Silk that made sense only on the ballfield.
I loved being privy to their world, loved playing the fly on the wall as they bantered away. Jimmy Rudolfi, a twelve-year-old outfielder who was fast with the ladies, boasted in the dugout one evening that he had gotten to second base with his girlfriend. “Too bad you can’t do that in the game,” cracked a teammate.
That was a sweet moment. But the connection we shared had its limits. At the end of each practice, the boys would shoulder their bats and gloves and exit my world. They’d hug their moms or tug like puppies on the arms of their dads, and climb into the back seat of their cars and zip away. When the last vehicle had gone, I’d head home to eat alone. I did that for eighteen years.
The night I realized that I wanted to be a dad, and that I’d make a good one, my players and I were away from the ballfield, gathered at a local restaurant. It was July 1986, the night of our team’s end-of-season group dinner. The boys, their parents and I had taken over the back room of a family-style burger joint. Cokes all around for the players, beers for the parents. The players offered toasts to one another and the coaches. I handed out awards and team photos as we awaited dessert.
From the kitchen came a waiter bearing an elaborately decorated birthday cake. He set it down in front of one of the mothers. I hadn’t arranged for the cake, nor had any of the other adults. Without a signal, the thirteen Huerter Post #46 players rose. Led by Josh Berman, the team’s twelve-year-old catcher, they sang happy birthday to Josh’s mom. I can’t think of a Little League moment I treasure more.
It was hard to hide my desire for kids after that. The Little League parents who knew me would ask for progress reports on the women I dated; they rooted for a successful relationship with the same hope as they did for a game-winning rally. Occasionally I’d bring a woman to a game, and a swoosh of chatter would rise through the stands. By then, a number of my friends had children.
I finally married at age forty-three, but it didn’t last. We never had kids. I retired from Little League after that. At least, I thought I had. Then two springs ago I watched some children playing catch in a neighborhood park, and I got the bug to manage again.
Maybe things have changed. Last February I started seeing a woman who in high school had been friends with a ballplayer who would one day reach the major leagues. That October, we made a pilgrimage with her ten-year-old daughter, K.T., to Cooperstown, N.Y., to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. While there, K.T. fell in love with Jackie Robinson. Coming home, she asked if I would teach her how to hit.
I wrote this for Glamour magazine in April 1998. I find myself returning to it each Father’s Day. Thirteen years into my second marriage, I’m back coaching. My younger stepson and I are teaching his fiancé to play softball.