A New Lease on Sporting Life

SHE doesn't know it yet, but my daughter has saved me from giving up on sports.

I spent most of my adult life writing about athletes and the games they played. In 12 years as a sportswriter at the Chicago Sun-Times, I saw more than 1,200 professional hockey games. Add to that some baseball, basketball, college and pro football games, and the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, where I witnessed the Jamaican bobsledders go ``cool running'' down half the course on their helmets.

But in 1989, I went cold turkey on sports. I stayed home with our newborn daughter while my wife, Joan, went back to her business career. Nearly a year passed before I returned to raucous Chicago Stadium for a hockey game.

The game was tedious. The air was stale. I couldn't wait to leave.

But going to a basketball game was a surprising treat, like finding a cookie in your oatmeal. There was the incomparable afternoon last spring when Michael Jordan bedeviled the New York Knicks with 54 points. I bought a scaled-down basketball for my 3-1/2-year-old daughter, and one day in front of our house she bounced the ball and said: ``Daddy, here's my Michael Jordan shot!''

Then Jordan made his early exit. The next game I saw, the post-Michael Bulls couldn't seem to summon the energy to lug their multimillion-dollar salaries up and down the floor. Maybe it was an isolated stinker, but at $45 a ticket? No thanks.

Welcome to real life.

Verdant Wrigley Field was still a perfect place for a summer afternoon, but I couldn't sit through an entire baseball game on TV until the playoffs and the World Series. And this from someone whose childhood memories reach back to New York City's golden days of Mickie, Willie, and the Duke. Could you imagine any of those guys being ``too busy'' to pick up a Most Valuable Player award?

Now that I'm out of sports, I no longer live the fiction that they're all-important. It's a bittersweet change. My family is more important than any sport could ever be, yet it's difficult to reject a lifetime of involvement as boy and man, reporter and fan.

But I'm learning about different kinds of involvement. One sultry afternoon last July, Joan and I took our little Jenny to her first baseball game at Wrigley Field. We planned to arrive late and leave early; nine innings were too much for our 3-1/2-year-old.

Jenny became involved with the ice cream, popcorn, and peanuts. When she did keep her eye on the ball, she was swept up in the spirit: ``HE HIT THE BALL!'' she screeched, leaping up and clapping like everyone else around her. Then came the seventh-inning stretch, with the everlasting Harry Caray leaning out of the broadcast booth to conduct ``Take Me Out to the Ballgame.''

With the first words, Jenny was transfixed: We had sung this song so many times, in her musical playgroup and in her room. And here were more people than she had ever seen before, singing this same song that she knew! Her face glowed. She sang along. Everyone was singing except me; I felt as though I had a baseball stuck in my throat. My daughter made a connection with the game I still loved, the sport of my own childhood.

We spent time ``talking baseball'' during the winter as Jenny reached her fourth birthday. I showed her my 30-year-old baseball glove, a Brooks Robinson-Ken Boyer model (the two third basemen who won the MVP awards in 1964). When most of the snow was gone from our backyard, we spent a chilly half-hour playing catch with a plastic ball. And we had this dialogue driving home from preschool:

``Daddy, will we play baseball this year?''

``Absolutely, sweetheart, as soon as the weather gets warmer.''

``We need special clothes to play, don't we?''

``Right. They're called uniforms.''

``Can I get a number?''

``Sure, what number do you want?''

``Ahhh ... ahhh ... two! I want number two!''

``OK, you've got it!''

We already have a plastic ball and bat. I can envision sunshiny days at the park playing pitch and catch. We'll spend timeless summer afternoons learning the game at Wrigley Field, and we'll learn about character and courage by observing who performs consistently and who performs well under pressure.

I can't imagine a better time to share with my daughter. But what happens when she wants to play?

When I was growing up on Brooklyn's rocky sandlots, playing with girls was unthinkable. Now girls are the norm in Little League. A young woman, Ila Borders, is pitching (and winning) for the men's team at Southern California College. Baseball has been a rich connection for fathers and sons; now, our daughters can feel welcome.

In fact, having a daughter can teach a father some new baseball ideas. At Jenny's urging, I'm ending a 20-year retirement this spring. I've signed on with a coed softball league through our health club. Women teammates - what a paradigm shift for an old sportswriter! But I want my daughter to see women and men sharing equally in the competition and the excitement.

So on Sundays, I'll experience the thrill of having my wife and daughter watch me play and hearing Jenny screeching: ``DADDY HIT THE BALL!''

I hope.

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