Happy birthday, old man. Today would have been my father’s 54th birthday, had he not passed Oct. 1.
That’s a day I will always vividly remember.
But there’s plenty more to remember about my dad besides his death.
From the time I was born, we were almost always attached at the hip. That was especially true once I entered the sixth grade at Bradley Central Middle School, where he served as teacher, assistant principal, principal, athletic director, baseball coach and boys basketball coach during my three years as a Knight.
The times we spent together the most were on a baseball field. Whether I was in diapers going to watch him coach high school ball at Momence or Bishop McNamara, or serving as the team’s bat boy during Bradley Central’s 1998 IESA state championship run (along with my brother, Dylan), I spent my first handful of years on this Earth watching my hero coach baseball.
As I followed the Irish’s baseball team along their postseason run, which resulted in their first sectional championship in 25 years, he was on my mind the entire time. After all, he was one of the coaches in the dugout during that last sectional run a quarter-century ago.
And then he became my coach. There was only one year of my childhood that he wasn’t in the dugout, my first year of Little League. By the time my second year rolled around, the itch to coach during the spring brought him back.
He was rebellious as a Little League coach. Before the season schedule was even released, he threatened boycotts if our team, Bank of Bourbonnais, was once again given gray T-shirt jerseys that were a hideously different shade of gray than the league-provided pants. He bought our entire team solid-colored socks, just so we would be different than our stirrup-wearing counterparts.
That was nothing compared to when the postseason crossover games rolled around. Our league, Bradley-Bourbonnais, held a garage sale one weekend, selling the old, musty jerseys from yesteryear. We hit the jackpot when we found about 10 Bank of Bourbonnais jerseys from the 1970s. Red mesh with black sleeves and black numbers — and the oldest old-man smell imaginable.
Dad bought them all with no hesitation. He had an idea. So, he went to what was Salkeld’s sports at the time and bought a dozen pairs of white pants with red pinstripes. We had 12 kids on the team and only 10 jerseys, so what did he do? He bought some red and black mesh material, busted out the sewing machine and stenciled in our logo to the front of his homemade jerseys.
For our postseason, everyone else wore their cotton tees, and Bank turned heads with some insanely nifty throwbacks.
A year later, almost the entire league rocked throwback duds.
Dad’s willingness to provide for his team was nothing new. During his roughly two-decade tenure at Bradley Central, I lost count of all the times he bought basketball shoes for the kid that couldn’t afford them, taught the kids with no home structure how to shave or picked up kids with no running water to shower in the locker room before school.
That’s just who he was. It’s what made him such a good educator.
In my opinion, the most important educating he did was teaching me how to love baseball. I mean, he taught me how to love all sports — that love is half of the reason I got into sportswriting (along with my passion for writing). But that love of baseball was always on a different level.
He always told me that the autographed Frank Thomas ball that sat in my bedroom was from my first baseball game. The Big Hurt crushed a home run, a ball that dad caught and then got signed after the game in the player’s parking lot.
I don’t really believe that story, but I always knew it was just one of those dad stories you tell to sound cool. Just like when we went to a White Sox game on a day where players signed autographs for kids before the game. Dylan was the biggest Magglio Ordonez fan known to man at the time, but Mags’ autograph line was longer than the Amazon River.
Dad took my brother’s glove as we waited in line for some random guy and got in the Ordonez line. Half an hour later, he returned, with a fresh Magglio Ordonez autograph neatly signed above the Rawlings logo.
Two summers ago, he finally admitted to me that he ran off to the concourse, signed it himself, and waited a believable amount of time before returning. I’m not sure that line ever moved while he was gone.
As a White Sox fan, Dad always made sure to take us to a handful of games at Comiskey Park each year (it was always Comiskey to him). Those were sprinkled in around our summer ballpark trips, where we took a week each summer, visited a different part of the country and took in games at as many professional and minor league parks as we could.
And there was always one game that we had to hit every year — whenever the Yankees came to town. As a 6-year-old who became enthralled with the game in 1998, the Bronx Bombers, led by a young and gritty shortstop by the named of Derek Jeter, the Yankees became my team.
The Cubs always rivaled the Yankees for my affection, but the Yankees always won out and we were always on hand at least once during their annual trip to Chicago’s south side.
On his first birthday since he passed away, guess who the White Sox have in town? You guessed it, the New York Yankees. And who will be there at 6:05 p.m. when that game starts? Me and my siblings.
Any time someone loses an important person in their life, they always seek signs that their loved one still is watching over them. I got two of those this spring — when I was on hand to watch the Irish complete their best baseball season since he coached there and again when I saw the Yankees pop up on the White Sox home schedule on his birthday.
Happy birthday, old man. We miss you.