daughters

Honoring a sacred tradition at McCoy

 

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As published in the Providence Journal, August 16, 2015.

The ritual takes place every August in a hulking cathedral known as McCoy Stadium: My daughter, Juliana, and I go to a Pawtucket Red Sox game to celebrate her birthday.

I don’t recall all the details from the first pilgrimage, in 1999 when Julie was turning 4; phones didn’t have cameras then. Still, there are plenty of vivid memories.

First and foremost, there is the one of Julie smiling and eating popcorn in her grandstand seat along the third base line, the tops of her ears tucked beneath an adult-size Red Sox cap. The near-sellout crowd starts doing the wave and, when the human tide swells over us for the second time, Julie throws her hands in the air and laughs. The popcorn rain that follows is well worth it.

Later, out on the concourse, she presents a pristine white baseball to Paws, the team’s 6-foot-6-inch polar bear mascot. In a display of hand-eye coordination that Nomar Garciaparra would appreciate, Paws produces a stylish autograph with a black Sharpie marker, before handing the ball back to one excited 4-year-old.

At the start of the sixth inning, Julie succumbs to an epic yawn — it’s well past her bedtime. Twenty minutes later, driving away from McCoy, I look in the rear view mirror: light from a passing car glides over my daughter’s cherubic, and sleeping, face.

Originally, I took Julie to McCoy because I love going to games and thought she might, too. Eventually, I did it because sitting with her in Section 13 or on the left-field berm brought out an ease in me that I rarely felt elsewhere. The games suspended thoughts of work and bills and everything on the to-do list. The games gave us each other.

Carving out such time for the youngest of our three children was my wife’s idea. “It doesn’t matter what you do,” Deb said, “as long as it’s just the two of you.” So every August, it’s just Julie and me — and seven or eight thousand other fans — soaking in the singularly Rhode Island experience that is a PawSox game.

At McCoy, Julie has endured my long-winded explanations of baseball arcana: the reasoning behind the infield fly rule, the timing on a suicide squeeze. When she was 6 or 7, after one of my dissertations had wafted away in the summer air, she redirected the conversation: “Can I get Dippin’ Dots?” I heard a chuckle from an old-timer sitting behind us, clad in a faded Yaz t-shirt. And then Julie and I were off to the concession stand — a cup of tiny frozen ice cream beads for her, a cold beer for me.

Sometimes, action on the field provided the highlights. The crowd buzzed as a rehabbing Dustin Pedroia stepped into the on-deck circle. Or a long, arcing throw from a PawSox outfielder miraculously found the catcher’s poised mitt — SMACK! — just as the charging runner slid into home — YER OUT! Did you see that, Julie? Woo-hoo!

As my daughter approached her teen years, I wondered if she would outgrow the charms of McCoy. One birthday, we went to Fenway to see the big-league Sox. When I proposed a return to Boston the following summer, Julie said she preferred Pawtucket. And when I asked if she wanted to bring a friend to help her celebrate, she echoed my wife’s words from years ago: “I like going just the two of us.”

That was my all-time PawSox highlight, and we weren’t even at the ballpark.

With the sale of the team, and the potential move to a new stadium in Providence (or elsewhere), it looks like Julie and I may make our final trip to McCoy next summer, when she turns 21. We have already laughed about how she will forgo Dippin’ Dots in favor of a cold beer.

We’ll raise our plastic cups — to her, to McCoy, and to our beloved tradition. And if we are lucky, the sky out west beyond the entrance tower will glow pink and lavender one last time.

From McCoy Stadium to the Carrier Dome: A Father-Daughter Journey

 

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As published in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com, March 31, 2014.

We’re at McCoy Stadium, in 1999, with the Pawtucket Red Sox playing the Toledo Mud Hens. It’s the first time my daughter, Juliana, and I are at a game together. We’re celebrating her fourth birthday.

Julie eats popcorn and ice cream. She has her picture taken with Paws, the mascot for the minor-league Red Sox team. When the crowd starts doing the wave, she laughs and throws her hands in the air. By the sixth inning, she is yawning. And before we make it out of the parking lot, she’s fast asleep.

What was born in Julie that day, and reaffirmed in me, was a love of games. Every August, for fourteen years now, we have returned to McCoy Stadium to celebrate her birthday. We have gone to many other athletic contests, as well – from CYO basketball and high school football to college hoops and Major League Baseball.

At first, I took Julie to games because that’s what my father did with me. Eventually, I did it because being with Julie in the stands brought out an ease in me that I rarely felt elsewhere. The games suspended thoughts of work and money and house projects and everything else on the to-do list. The games gave us each other.

When Julie was looking at colleges, good teams and great school spirit were among her must-haves. I was thrilled when she was accepted at Syracuse University. Yes, it was exciting that she got into the Newhouse School of Public Communications. But my mind went right to the Carrier Dome – now we could go see Syracuse basketball!

I bought two tickets to the North Carolina State game, slated for February 15th. As I drove up the Massachusetts Turnpike on the morning of the game, Julie called to let me know that the start time had been moved from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. – North Carolina State had travel issues because of a snowstorm.

At the Syracuse Sheraton check-in counter, I mentioned the game time change to the receptionist and she pounced. “I hope it messes those kids up,” she said, referring to members of the North Carolina State team. “They didn’t get here until a few minutes ago. I’ll take any advantage we can get.” Her face softened as she handed me my room key: “Enjoy your stay!”

The receptionist’s gamesmanship didn’t surprise me. This was Syracuse, after all. While Julie and I were having lunch, I saw a guy in a shirt that read REAL MEN WEAR ORANGE. It could have also included REAL WOMEN, REAL BOYS, REAL GIRLS, and REAL PETS, for that matter. EVERYONE was rocking Syracuse orange that day, of course – everyone except me. I was wearing a Berklee College of Music pullover. Technical foul.

I mentioned my faux pas to Julie and we concluded that it was a minor transgression. Berklee was not threatening to crack the AP Top 25 Poll anytime soon.

At 6:15, Julie and I made our way to the Carrier Dome. The seats I had bought weren’t great. As we climbed up and up and up to Section 318, Row V, Seats 3 and 4, I thought of Felix Baumgartner’s dive from space. Once seated, we were looking down on what would qualify as nosebleed seats in a smaller venue. And as I watched others make the ascent, some stopping to catch their breath, I wondered if there was a Crouse Hospital medical station nearby.

But when the game began, I was struck by how intimate the Dome felt. Perhaps that’s what happens when 35,000+ disciples react as one – to bad calls (against the Orange), to good calls (for the Orange), to the guy who sank a shot from a recliner during a TV time-out.

It was an ugly game – and close from start to finish. As the clock wound down in the second half, it looked like Syracuse might, after 24 straight wins, lose its first game all season. That cursed Berklee sweatshirt – I was the jinx!

The basketball gods – and two key turnovers by North Carolina State – saved me from such ignominy. Syracuse won 56-55 on a C.J. Fair layup with six seconds left. (Alas, the streak would end four days later with a loss to Boston College.)

After the game, over dinner, Julie told me how much she loved Syracuse – the new friends she had made, the courses she was taking, the sorority she hoped to get into. “I feel like I’m becoming the person I want to be,” she said. That was clear to me – and I marveled at her nascent transformation.

Our first PawSox game seemed far away.

As we left the restaurant, I told Julie I’d walk her back to her dorm. “You don’t have to,” she said, but I insisted – always the dad.

The air was dry and cold outside. My ears stung – I had left my hat in the hotel room. When we reached the corner below the majestic Crouse College building, Julie said she could go the rest of the way on her own. We hugged and I watched, motionless, as she walked into the cold night. When she looked back and saw me standing there, she called out, “Dad, do you know where you are?”

“All set!” I yelled back, lost in thought.

The street signs said I was at the corner of University Place and South Crouse Avenue. But I knew better.

On that night, in that moment, I knew I was somewhere between Holding On and Letting Go.

Photo by Rob Walsh • http://www.robwalshphotoshop.com

As appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com on March 31, 2014.

On Fences And Letting Go

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Good fences make good neighbors. Those words from Mending Wall by Robert Frost came to me seventeen years ago when we had a fence put up around the perimeter of our backyard at 112 Peirce Street. But the fence was less about neighbors and more about children. We had two young boys, and a third child was on the way. We needed to make sure the kids didn’t wander down to Main Street when they went out back. Good fences make good barricades.

Putting up the fence wasn’t easy. Our lot sits on a hill and our backyard slopes precipitously. The two side runs of the fence had to be stepped down before connecting with the long run of sections across the back. But when it was done, the fence was a thing of beauty. It gathered the boys in a cedar embrace.

The fence marked time with its color, going from toddler blond to adolescent brown. Within its walls, the kids ran through sprinklers and built snow forts, played with our dog and tossed Wiffle balls. At the same time, squirrels gnawed at the posts and moss crept up the flat boards. Wisteria strangled the arbor, lifting its posts from the ground. In random places, the fence lurched from frost heaves below.

As the kids grew older, the backyard gave way to the front door. Out they bounded to music lessons, basketball games, play rehearsals, or to just hang with friends. The fence’s containment services were no longer needed.

The first break came in August 2011. As Hurricane Irene whipped through Rhode Island, two sections of the back run listed awkwardly, wooden sails in the storm. I rushed down to secure them by wrapping a rope around the post they shared and tethering it to a nearby tree trunk. No luck. Afraid they would hurtle onto the cars parked nearby, I laid the breakaway sections on the ground, weighing them down with cobblestones.

After the storm, the back run – minus the two fallen sections – wobbled from end to end. I called the guys who had done the original installation. When they told me the price to replace the run, I hired them for a fraction of the cost to simply take it away.

The two side runs remained… until last October and Hurricane Sandy. More sections fell, and those that didn’t were now more vulnerable – even storms without names posed a threat.

It’s early Saturday morning. Sipping coffee, I look out my kitchen window and notice a new gap in the fence – another section breaking ranks. I grab my drill and head outside. I pull the straying section back in line with its post-mate; a fifty-cent brace from Benny’s will reunite them. But when I lean into my churning drill, I push the screw right through the rotted wood. Grabbing nothing, it falls to the ground and the fence resumes its tilting.

As I search for the screw in the snow-covered leaves, I think of my children. Peter is in Los Angeles, chasing big music dreams. Evan is on a train to New York, trying to kick-start a business career. Juliana sleeps upstairs, perhaps having REM visions of a college far away from the backyard of her childhood. Soon she will leave, the last one.

Frost speaks to me once more, seventeen years after the fence first went up. It’s the same poem that I remember, but now a different line resonates: Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.

I abandon my mending and go back inside.

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