As the Boston Red Sox were heading into Major League Baseball’s American League Playoffs (I still call them that) against the formidable Detroit Tigers last week, I was thinking about how I wish my dad, Jack Perry, were here to see this. I’ve missed him, of course, every month of every year, regardless of whether the Sox made it into the playoffs or not, for the past nine years since he passed away on July 15, 2004. The funny thing is, the Red Sox fortunes, and my association of them with him, have been even more inextricably linked since he’s been gone. Here, despite my best efforts to be brief, is why.
After a series of seemingly inexplicable medical setbacks had hit and weakened him in the spring of 2002, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June of that year. My wife Roxanne and I, who were in the midst of a first-time vacation to Spain, flew home early after we got the terrible telephone call in our hotel room in Southern Spain. Within days of driving the gorgeous, sun-splashed countryside, drinking sangria in cozy cafes, and feeling lighter and freer than we had in ages, we found ourselves sitting under the coldly antiseptic and and sobering fluorescent lights of a major Boston research hospital with my immediate family, all of us frozen with worry and stiffly bracing ourselves for news that just kept getting worse.
When we were told by the medical specialists how aggressive pancreatic cancer usually was (and is), we didn’t know whether my dad would even make it to next summer. The doctors gave him 10-12 months, but inside I felt that was being hopeful, even charitable — the designation of a year tacked on to soften the blow. The blow, it felt like, had been redirected at everyone else in the room. All the air and life seemed to be sucked from it instantly.
But my dad as usual put on a brave face, remained outwardly upbeat and cheerful. He even chuckled at his own query. His question for the heart specialist and surgeon wasn’t exactly medical. No, it was more pressing than that: Could he go home and have a martini (or two) because, upon hearing this news, he really could use one. “Absolutely,” came the immediate reply. That’s when I got the awful sense of how bad his predicament really was. My dad was 80 at the time. I know that looks old in print, but seriously, I kid you not when I say not many people at 80 were so youthfully vigorous, full of spark and energy, still flying through the years at cruising altitude.
Here was a guy who liked to split and chop and stack wood — cords not armfuls — and who, for hours at a stretch with Louisville Slugger in hand, gamely swatted fly balls out to my brother and me as he approached the age of 60, a time when many parents are attending their kids’ weddings, doting on their grandchildren, or planning for retirement. He did have a Pacemaker put in at 70 — the same year he won a playwriting competition at Mt. Holyoke College with a very funny comedy, “Without Consent,” prevailing over talented contestants less than half his age. The play, incidentally, went on to premiere in New York City a decade later for a two-week run of sold-out performances under a revamped title, “Change of Seasons.”
When the opening night audience rose to give the author of this winning new work a standing ovation, and my 81-year-old father rose from his seat with his cane to smile and sheepishly acknowledge the crowd, many of the young Greenwich Village would-be actors, artists, and aspiring playwrights in attendance looked astounded.
But I digress, if only to illustrate the relentlessly optimistic, forward-looking zest for life dad had. Basically, we all thought he was invincible; the one guy who might just be capable of pulling off the neat, somewhat rare trick of living forever. But this, we now knew sitting in that sterile, Kubrick-ian white medical conference room, was not to be.
In anticipation of his 81st birthday the following March, which we were grateful and relieved he lived to celebrate, my brother and I bought my dad and us tickets to a Red Sox game for Saturday, May 24 — hoping he’d still be healthy enough to travel two months later. We were, after all, counting and savoring the days — maybe the next week — now, and not taking months for granted. They seemed very far off, and anything (read: anything terrible) could happen.
But the weeks went by and as the snow finally melted from the mountaintop of our Western Massachusetts town of Shutesbury, my dad’s health — thankfully — remained unchanged, outwardly at least. My mom said that ticket, and the promise of being in the old familiar confines of Fenway, had strengthened and energized him; gave him something positive in the future to look forward to, but also something to remember.
Memory is but one gift that baseball gives those of us who love it, grow up with it, are comforted and nurtured by it, and who embrace its history as our own in a colorful tapestry of associations, heroes, myths, triumphs, and inevitably, losses. And for me, all of those elements extended far beyond merely watching the game on television, playing it in sandlots or community fields (which both my brother and I did, to varying degrees of success), or breathlessly rooting on the Red Sox from an actual big league park.
When we were kids growing up in the 1970s — the nickname era of Yaz, Pudge, Dewey, Rooster, El Tiante, Spaceman, the Gold Dust Twins of Lynn and Rice, Boomer — my dad, my brother Chris and I devised an elaborate and time-consuming board game called “Dice Baseball,” the origins of which we found in one of Charles Einstein’s old hardcover treasuries of baseball literature, lore, poetry, profiles, and pictures. We modified the rules and built our own coffee-table sized baseball parks from constructed combinations of cardboard, magazine clipping cut-outs (to attain the true-to-life advertisement signage around our stadium perimeters), named our fields (mine was Green Grass Park), and teams (thinking it was traditional and had an old-timey feel, I chose, regrettably, the Republicans).
The three of us drafted real Major League Baseball players to play in what may have been one of the first “fantasy” baseball leagues in existence not namedStrat-O-Matic in 1978. We played a 60-game season and held World Series championships faithfully every year for the next four years. The games were exciting and the tension around the table was real. Never mind that we were teenagers: my brother Chris and I often chose playing a game by lamplight around the kitchen table with our dad over doing what, presumably, most other sixteen-and-fourteen-year-old boys were doing. In fact, a few close friends of my brother’s and mine sometimes even came over to watch these contests. One of them even asked to join our three-team Dice Baseball League.
During this same year, my mania for all things baseball still unquenched, I wrote, illustrated, and produced a baseball magazine on folded yellow legal pad-sized paper. I named it “Off The Wall,” and I quietly but determinedly left a new issue (the only issue, in fact) on the downstairs hutch for my dad and brother to read every Saturday morning. For four years. My mother often joked (okay, half-joked) that she was being driven crazy by our all-consuming baseball obsession.
Meanwhile, my dad did the best he could to encourage our passion. He had always saved up and treated us to one game every year or two. With great fanfare and fluttering hearts, we would make the momentous four-hour round trip from Western Massachusetts, drive down Route 9 or find our way from the Mass Pike to Storrow Drive, where we would finally see the magical blinking orange of the monolithic Citgo sign on the horizon. Those flashing triangles announced that we were approaching Shangri-La. As we got closer, our appetite whetted, we’d soon glimpse the banked towers of lights and the towering Green Monster — all 37 imposing, giddy feet of it — that hinted at the transportive magic held within those walls.
So, to flash forward to 2003, much like that still-blinking Citgo sign: Here we were after all those years ago, all grown up, with wives and jobs and distractions, making the pilgrimage to Fenway with my dad for the first time in probably two decades. It was an overcast, unseasonably cold day that May afternoon (the weather that day was logged at 48 degrees but seemed a few degrees colder with the wind and drizzle). My dad, it soon became apparent when suddenly juxtaposed against the fast-moving, much younger throng of revelers, was far more fragile than I had anticipated, and became fatigued easily, leaning heavily on his cane as we navigated the inner sanctum of Fenway and briefly got lost in the bowels of its circuitous runways and ancient corridors.
But he nevertheless seemed to enjoy the fact that he was there, walking the grounds, seeing the red, white, and blue bunting and regiment of flags hanging in devotion to past pennants, past players, past campaigns that stretched back to a bygone time ten years before he was even born. Yes, we walked out into a grey, disappointing drizzle, but I felt somehow surrounded by a sun, the three of us reunited in the place we loved most and best. My father, dressed in a herringbone hat for warmth and his tan overcoat that always smelled faintly of pipe tobacco, cologne, and leather, got as close as he could to the field.
He hunched forward and leaned on his cane and against the railing along the first base side, and gazed quietly but intently as workers removed the tarp protecting the grass against the rain. In the distance, the pitchers and catchers in the bullpen stretched and limbered up in their crisp white uniforms, seemingly without a care in the world except a win. At that very moment, those men must have looked younger and more robust than ever to my dad. His blue eyes seemed to drink in the scene, as though he were relishing a well-made martini. I bought beers, and my brother took pictures.
From uncomfortably ancient wrought-iron seats originally constructed, apparently, for birdlike bank clerks wearing bowlers at the turn of the last century, the three of us watched the Red Sox soundly thrash the Indians that rainy afternoon, 12-3, with shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, designated hitter David Ortiz, and leftfielder Manny Ramirez all blasting homeruns. I only remember Manny’s for some reason. Maybe because it was the last of the three, a two-run shot (with Nomar on base) crushed to left-centerfield in the bottom of the seventh inning.
I looked over at my dad as the crack of Manny’s bat was quickly followed by the whistle of white ball soaring toward the stands. He followed the flight of the ball and wore a warm smile of delight and gratitude. I saw the tears well in his eyes. My father had always been a very sentimental guy, which was a huge part of his soft-hearted appeal. But this time I knew — I think we all did, despite making buoyant promises to the contrary after the game — that this would be the last time he ever visited Fenway Park. And that this would be our last time with him there.
Amazingly, dad, always sturdy of spirit and strong of heart (figuratively if not exactly literally), fought and beat some long odds that autumn, surviving many grueling hours of major and risky surgery to save his life that I had reconciled myself to being over. Instead, I watched the 2003 playoffs with dad from his hospital room, and helped steady him as he walked to a hospital hallway window so he could peer out at Boston’s skyline signature, the Prudential Center building, as it offered moral support in a special message written in thousand-watt red neon: GO SOX!
Starry delight returned to subdued reality, however, when he asked that his hospital-room TV be turned off before game’s end so he could sleep. Thank goodness for small favors. Dad missed a tragic and all-too-typical heartbreak ending against dreaded arch-rivals the New York Yankees that commenced (and which we shall not speak of here).
It was a hard winter of recuperation at home (at last he achieved his goal of coming home after six weeks in the hospital, and he did count it as a victory wrought from the hellish battle of a losing war). And it was a tougher spring of walkers and wheelchairs and oxygen machines whose steam-like “pppfffffttttt” sound now piped through tubes and the once-happy bedroom of my childhood. I tried to ignore it as I read news stories about the Red Sox games to him from The Boston Globe, or talked with him about what music story or review I was working on for that same newspaper.
Dad passed away that next summer of 2004, one uncharacteristically grey July morning after a long night of fitful sleep, and all of us keeping vigil. He seemed surprised at the attention when we asked him if we could get him anything, like a drink of water. My mother, brother, and me were there by his bedside as the final quiet came over the room. I will be forever grateful for that, that I was there for him, just as he was always there for me. And oddly, I felt numb relief (I hadn’t anticipated relief) that his long battle and hard ordeal was finally over; that he ultimately slipped away quietly and peacefully, and with the gentle grace by which he carried himself for most of his life.
He spent those last weeks and months listening to the Red Sox on the radio, and hearing the familiar sounds of announcers and distant crowds float through the room. Sadly, he didn’t live to see the Sox win their first World Series in 86 years that year — he missed it by only 12 or 13 weeks — but I’ve always felt that maybe the Idiots and Dirt Dogs, as the Red Sox were affectionately known, had a little extra help from above. (Certainly, the incredible and otherworldly circumstances of their come-from-behind victories over the Yankees and their easy sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, provided circumstantial evidence of such). After he met and married my mother in 1962, my father acquired a strong and unshakeable religious faith, and that faith carried him with dignity, resolve, and finally, acceptance through some dark days.
Some weeks or months later (my usually vivid memory for detail admittedly became something of a fuzzy blur during this period of anxious days and sleepless nights), while sorting through his things — a simultaneously comforting and sad task of finality — I looked into his well-worn leather wallet.
Still safely tucked inside, I discovered, was that Red Sox ticket from our journey to Fenway together only slightly more than a year before. It was his memento of a fond memory that, though technically recent in date, was suddenly a strangely ancient relic, a reminder of days that would never return. I like to think that my dad had glanced at that ticket every now and then when he wasn’t feeling well, and wanted to feel better.
I also like to think (fantasize is more like it) that perhaps, if what my dad deeply believed was true, he had the Big Man’s ear and had told him about the hapless Red Sox and all those near-misses, cold Octobers, and long winters. Hell, knowing him, my dad would have been charming and persuasive enough to make a convincing case.
Maybe he bought us all a break, a bit of cosmic or karmic sympathy that helped change nearly nine decades of bad luck, bad history (some of it deserved, some not), and the cruel hand of fate. Or maybe he just wanted to watch it all unfold from the best box seat in the house.
As I write this, the Boston Red Sox have just defeated the Detroit Tigers in a hard-fought American League Championship Series; contests marked by remarkably thrilling and wholly improbable comeback victories that have earned them the American League Pennant. Even more improbably, I have had the great good fortune to go to the games with great good friends who have become like extended family to me.
More than once during the past two weeks, I have sat in my seat at Fenway and, amid my screams and cheers and exhortations for victory (or even a timely hit), I’ve gazed upward, toward the ballpark’s halogen-lit heavens and searched the sky in a stretching moment of silence; looked long and lingered there, trying to see beyond the stars.
I’ve imagined my dad beside me, blue eyes flickering to the field and him, as ever under that slightly tilted herringbone hat, smiling easily yet gratefully for the experience. It was a look that wrapped around me like that tan overcoat of tobacco and leather and cologne, keeping me warm against the chill, and enveloping me the way a crowd surrounds the jewel of a baseball diamond and makes its presence, its existence, meaningful.
It was a familiar gaze that made me feel again like the fourteen-year-old boy who had always drawn comfort and reassurance from my father. And it was a gaze that instantly made the nearly forty-year-old me feel, with awful precision and a profoundly heavy heart, how the soft reassurance of childhood had given way to the hard, intractable truth of why we were at Fenway Park for the final time. And the dread of the darkening unknown that lay beyond that field.
Then, after what may as well have been 30 years as 30 seconds, from my seat high up in the chilly grandstand, I returned from that faraway place of bittersweet memory to the earthly action, and that glow emanating from the luminescence below. A lambent light both beamed down and rose up from the emerald green and the red clay, heating the cold air of night and lifting its warmth into the sky. And I wondered whether, from his perch and a plane far higher than mine, dad was watching, and reveling in that light, too.