All-Star game’s meaning transcends baseball

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – On Tuesday night, the lights will come on at Kauffman Stadium, and America’s eyes will shift toward Kansas City for baseball’s 83rd All-Star Game. It will be a moment to pause and enjoy the easiness of the summer and a night that signals a milepost in many of our lives.

The Midsummer Classic, the only sports all-star game that matters, is important not because of television ratings or marketing. It’s significant because it reminds us what baseball represents to families and friends.

On Tuesday, some will remember the first time they felt baseball’s pull. Old men played pickup games during wars or in workplace get-togethers; their children inherited it, tapping the side of a television set to pick up the game of the week; and their grandchildren now follow the game with mouse clicks and finger swipes. For others it is a peacemaker; when fathers and sons disagree on all else, at least the love of the home team and hatred of the New York Yankees can unite them.

A dozen years ago, I saved money from freelance newspaper jobs to buy two tickets to the All-Star Game in Atlanta. I was 18, with almost nothing in common with my 49-year-old dad, Michael. He was a washed-up musician who made his living as a house painter, and I was a hot-headed kid who thought his father seemed older than he was. But regardless of our differences, when we talked baseball, we stood on common ground.

Years earlier, he had taken me to my first big-league game, in Atlanta, and I remember the field’s brightness, the sound of the crowd, and the feeling I got when my dad stood to high-five a stranger after Tom Glavine pitched his way out of a jam. And I remember that I wanted that game, Aug. 9, 1992, to last forever.

Later, my dad pitched tennis balls to me in the backyard, and if I could send them over the road, that was a home run. We stayed up late watching games on weekend nights, and when we had a bad argument in 1996, he broke a week or more of silence by leaving a message on my mother’s answering machine: “Did you see the Sunday night game on ESPN? Sure was a good one.”

As summer approached in 2000, I overpaid on eBay for standing-room-only tickets, and when they arrived I stuffed them into a Father’s Day card. He was in poor health then, and I knew standing for that long would be a chore. But who knew if we’d have this chance again?

We drove to Atlanta, two longtime Braves fans, and watched as Randy Johnson loosened his left arm in the bullpen below us. We saw Chipper Jones, a kid himself then and our favorite player, hit a home run off James Baldwin. My dad cheered like I had never seen.

He had to sit on a walkway for part of the game, watching through a banister like a child peeking through a knothole. He later mustered the energy to circle the Turner Field concourse with his only son, and seeing the pain show in his face from his swollen ankles and knees, I told him it was OK if we beat the traffic and headed home. He took a last look at the field, brightened for the big night, and we began the long walk to the parking lot.

I drove the three hours home, and we talked about the future. I would be starting college in about a month. Shortly before I dropped him at his apartment, my dad asked if I had any idea what I wanted to do with my life. Law school, maybe, but the pull of sports and journalism was strong. Wouldn’t it be cool, I told him, if one day I’d be able to cover one of these games in person? He smiled the way dads do when their sons say something ambitious – with support and, because it’s his son, with belief. Before closing the passenger-side door, he thanked me for a good day.

He was gone less than two years later, a decade ago this past April. His heart just stopped one Thursday morning as he sat on a bucket and painted a wall.

In the years since, I have thought often about that game. It was just a game then, too, but for a father and a son and thousands more, there is purity and meaning in those nine innings.

Sometime Tuesday afternoon, a sports columnist will enter The K, prepared as best he can to cover his first All-Star Game – just as he talked about with his father a dozen years ago. That lofty ambition, discussed at the end of a long drive and a long day, will become reality. Yes, I will think of my dad and that trip we spent together and that talk and, man, I’m glad I found a way to get tickets to that game back then.

Times have changed, and so have the lives that play out between these summer nights, but the familiarity of baseball will be soothing. That’s what keeps us coming back; keeps the love of the game alive, no matter what changes or how it sometimes treats us.

This much will be the same as it was decades ago: The field will be bathed in those lights, the outfield grass bright and lasting. And another generation of parents and their children, friends and colleagues will make their way through the turnstiles, the excitement building that what they’ll see and feel on that night might last forever.

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