Just stumbled across this picture, and decided to put it up. I didn’t have something for this post. The following is something I wrote just before this baseball season started. It’s mostly about me, but I can’t really talk about myself without talking about my father. I’m hoping that this turns into a longer work, but it has been slow going. I’m looking at this as a prologue for a bit of untitled non-fiction.
I was a distraction. I find it hard to believe now, because I look at myself as such a rule follower, but in fifth grade I spent my time doing whatever I wanted. My teacher, Mrs. Masters, eventually had enough and sat me down in a private moment to talk about why this wasn’t acceptable behavior. My antics were hardly newsworthy. I had a habit of getting up in the middle of a lesson to walk around the room. My boredom would force me to try to engage my classmates in conversation. I made a comical amount of trips to the water fountain in the back of the room—and that’s not even good water. Of course, from a sheer results standpoint, I was also one of the best students in the class. I spent part of my day in an accelerated math program. Maybe it was my standing as a good student, or maybe my teacher believed I was smart enough to understand her point, but whatever the motivation—instead of punishing me like an ordinary kid, she decided to try to reason with me. It was an interesting approach, and one she came at from an odd angle. To start her argument, to lay the foundation for what was to come she started with a story that had taken place a decade earlier. The protagonist of her anecdote was my father, and before I share the anecdote it is important to relay the background.
My father is Greg Gross, the one-time Phillies outfielder, who while I sat and tried to listen to reason instead of going to recess was in Arizona trying to catch on with the Padres after a year out of baseball. The 1990 season had brought the lockout, which had hindered my father’s chances of getting invited to Spring Training and forced him into involuntary retirement. It also meant that for the first time in life my father was around almost all the time. Even the most dedicated baseball dad must spend an inordinate amount of time at the ballpark and on the road, and so when suddenly the night games and road trips were no longer on the schedule, I think the dynamic of our household changed a good bit. His departure for Arizona, while hopeful news, changed things once again and changed them quite suddenly. Mrs. Masters thought it was this change that was contributing to my disruptive behavior. I guess luckily for me she was well aware of my situation, and had actually first met my father while I was trucking around in diapers.
I often look at newly minted Phillies fans and wonder if they realize this has happened before. The World Series victory in 2008 started a baseball renaissance in the city, one big enough to make you think the Phillies could challenge the Eagles for regional supremacy. I think these new fans look at the history of the Phillies as black hole dotted with one good season and a couple of Hall of Famers. The truth is the Phillies have captivated the city at least once before, and as it happened, my father arrived in the middle of one of these exciting times.
The winter before the 1979 season is known in Philadelphia for Pete Rose’s arrival. The popular belief is that Rose is the player who pushed the Phillies, division champions in ’76-’78, over the top. Revisionist history sometimes leaves out Rose’s first year, which was the failed ’79 campaign that ended with the Pirates not only winning the NL East, but the World Series as well. Of course, Rose wasn’t the only player that arrived in 1979. My father came in a trade from the Cubs, a smaller addition to be sure, but nonetheless it was the first event in a chain that would lead to me sitting in that fifth grade classroom at Sugartown Elementary.
The second event was the basis for the story Mrs. Masters had launched into. I’m not sure of the exact date, but I imagine it must have been around 1981 or 1982. Mrs. Masters, who had already started teaching at Sugartown at that time, wanted to organize something special for the school and so she made arrangements for the Phillie Phanatic to come for a visit. The Phillies had just won a World Series in 1980, they’d been in the playoffs in five of the previous six years and during one of the best runs in Philly sports history they near the top of the city’s pecking order. With players like Schmidt, Carlton and Rose not feasible my teacher thought the next best thing would be to bring in the Phanatic. I can’t argue with her reasoning. The big green fella sends them home happy.
When the Phillies called with news of a scheduling conflict, it looked like her plan might be in danger. The Phanatic was not available. At this point in the story I still don’t know exactly what Mrs. Masters was driving at, but then she says the Phillies public relations department offered to send Greg Gross in the Phanatic’s stead.
“I wasn’t a huge baseball fan,” she explained to me that day. I nodded, because even then I knew what she was talking about. I was old enough to know that my father had about as cool a profession as you could conjure up, but he certainly wasn’t a star. “I actually thought about rescheduling the whole thing, but in the end I told them it would be all right if they sent your Dad.”
I had heard part of this story before. I knew my father had met Mrs. Masters long before I ever attended Sugartown. I knew it was for an appearance and his visit coincided loosely with my family wanting to move into a bigger house to accommodate our growing size. The positive experience with Mrs. Masters and with the school in general had been part of the reason our family moved from Berwyn to Malvern with little worry about the change in schools. The details that my father left out are of the kind he’d never share without provocation. My father wears his modesty like a bespoke suit. If you twist his arm, he might tell you he did a couple of things in the Big Leagues. All my life, though, other people have never hesitated to speak of him, and this was one of those instances.
“I only told the students there was going to be a visitor,” Mrs. Masters told me. “The whole thing was a surprise. I spent the entire day worrying about the decision I made. I was afraid that the kids wouldn’t be impressed. When your father got here, it was total chaos. Kids were running out into the hall in the middle of their classes, everyone just went wild. By the time he left all I could think was how lucky I was that the Phanatic had cancelled.”
The story still brings a smile to my face, but I also remember how good it made me feel that day when I was eleven. My dad was well known by all my childhood friends, but it usually led to me fielding questions like, “Do you know Mike Schmidt?” Or, “Do you get to watch games from the dugout?” I know now those are exactly the questions I would have asked if the positions had been reversed, but at the time it made me feel a bit uncomfortable. Because once I revealed that I didn’t really know Mike Schmidt, though I’d once seen his house, and that I sat in the stands like everyone else, most people lost interest pretty quickly. The story Mrs. Masters told me was one about my dad, and about him being an important person—not just someone who knew the more famous Phillies. I think we are all wired to feel pride in those situations, and I was beaming that day, forgetting that I was supposed to be in some type of trouble.
After speaking a bit more about the coincidence of all these events, the ones that led to our conversation that day, Mrs. Masters transitioned into another story. It was one about a classmate of mine, one of my best friends. She told me that his father didn’t live at home with him. He didn’t go on road trips, he didn’t go to Florida and Arizona for spring training, he was just never around. There was no good reason, other than these are the kinds of things that happen to families every day. She expanded with what looking back sounds like a made for TV movie cliché. She told me that on my friend’s most recent birthday he’d waited for his father all day, bags packed, plans made, and his father never arrived. I don’t know if that part of the story is true or not, but it doesn’t really matter, because I know it wiped the grin right off my face. I looked straight down at my feet knowing exactly where Mrs. Masters was going with the story.
The point was that while I certainly was different in some ways because of who my father was, I also was lucky. I was lucky not because my father played baseball, but because he played football with my friends and me during my birthday parties. I was lucky that even if he was spending two months away in Arizona, I knew he’d eventually come back home. The fact that he was better known than the parents of my friends wasn’t an excuse to behave badly. Missing a parent was something kids faced all the time. It didn’t give me a license to act the way I had been during class.
The talk with Mrs. Masters had been a warning. If I continued to misbehave there would be no more conversations, no more stories with a nice moral at the end. If I kept it up, I was going to be punished before I brought the whole class down with me in my wave of distracting behavior. The compromise that we struck was that if I ever got bored in class, if I ever finished work early or had some spare time, Mrs. Masters was going to allow me to write my father letters while he was in Arizona and then if he made the team, San Diego. I agreed. I want to say that my behavior improved markedly, but I don’t remember for sure. I do know that I only wrote one letter to my father before the end of Spring Training when the news from the Padres was the dreaded: they were going another direction.
Looking back on that day in the classroom now I appreciate that Mrs. Masters thought enough of me to speak to me like I was adult. It is also memories like this one that make me realize that no matter how much my father dislikes talking about himself, and no matter how much of that habit I have inherited myself, his life and baseball are both an inescapable part of my own story. It’s there in a staggering amount of my memories, because even though my father’s playing career was over that spring when he was let go by the Padres the game would give him his second career. As he works on completing a fourth decade in the professional game I find myself still fielding the kind of slightly awkward questions that I got in my youth. It’s been twenty years since someone asked if I knew Mike Schmidt, but the questions still come. Now they are more along the lines of, “Can you get me tickets?”
My dad is starting what I guess is his third run with the Phillies. The Spring of 2011 is his first in his second stint as the Phillies’ hitting coach. I don’t know how many more years he is going to coach, and the tenuous nature of Major League jobs give every year the feel that it could be your last. I guess you could say it is a year of transition for him, once again pulled from the tedium of the bus leagues to get another chance at the ultimate prize, to help win as a coach what he helped win as a player. And, for me, transition is the operative word too. I’m probably too far removed from college to be meandering through life like I am, but if my father cannot shake his association with baseball, I cannot shake the feeling that I should be writing. Several false starts have left me questioning the mantra that one should write what they know, but if I am honest, what I know best might be my own story. That is a story perhaps best told with my father and the Phillies as starring cast members. In one way or another, I think 2011 is going to be a hell of an interesting season.
Everyone enjoy the weekend. Here’s to Rory shooting 78 tomorrow.