With Father’s Day just a few days away I’ve been thinking a lot about my Dad, but especially after something that took place on Monday.
We lost our Dad about two years ago to cancer. It was one of those all too typical cold and snowy February days in New England that make me question why I still haven’t packed my belongings and moved to somewhere warm like San Diego or the Florida Keys.
My brother Kevin, a year and a couple of weeks my senior, phoned me around five in the morning to let me know the hospice nurse had called him to say things were not looking good. I headed up to Brentwood in my truck,driving through the storm, only stopping along the way twice to clean the ice and snow off of the windshield wipers, and once to pick up my brother.
We arrived at the Nursing Home at about ten o’clock in the morning. I will always be thankful that we got the chance to spend his final day with him, but in truth, with the heavy doses of morphine the hospice nurses were giving him to keep him comfortable, he really was not very responsive. We spent the day by his side, but it was not until we left to grab a quick dinner that he finally passed. I got the sense that somehow my Dad wanted to wait until we left his bedside before he finally checked out, like it would have been rude of him to leave before our visit was over. I get that; that’s just the way he rolled.
My Dad was one of those rare individuals that had the ability to live in the moment, and always make the most of any situation. At the risk of sounding cliche’, given lemons he would not necessarily make lemonade, but would more likely convince someone else to make it for him. And as anyone that knew him well could attest to, he would have preferred you made a very dry martini. Still,even greater than his passion for dry martinis was his passion for sports.
My dad loved Baseball. Truth be told, he was obsessed with all sports, and it didn’t matter if it was high school, college or the pros. Football, Basketball, Hockey,Tennis or Tiddlywinks; if there was a game on, he would be watching it. But baseball always held a special place.
Dad was a die-hard fan of all of Boston’s sports teams ,especially the Red Sox, and he hated the Yankees. He once said, only half-jokingly, that he disliked New York sports teams so much he refused to eat New York Sirloin. He took my brother and I to our first Red Sox game at Fenway Park back in the sixties. As best as I can recall it was against the Detroit Tigers. We watched the great Carl Yastrzemski in left field play a ball off the wall on one hop like it was nobody’s business ,then make the perfect throw to second base to gun out the batter trying to stretch his single into a double. We saw Tony C., Rico Petrocelli,Mike Andrews,Joe Foy and my favorite player George Scott. It was magic. He also took us to see the Celtic’s play at the old Boston Garden back when Bob Cousy knew all the dead spots on the parquet floor and Bill Russell led the Green; back in the days when Red Auerbach would actually light up his cigar inside the Garden when he knew they had a win in hand. One late summer day he took us to see the Patriot’s practicing at their summer camp, and we got autographs from Babe Parilli, Houston Antwine and Bob Dee. Whatever the season, it was always sports, sports, and more sports.
When Dad read a newspaper, the front page headline story always took a distant third place behind the sports section and the crossword puzzles. Aside from the fact that from time to time he was known to place a wager or two, he truly enjoyed the games for their subtle strategies and adjustments that are oblivious to the average fan. He was the antithesis of a “pink hat”. His knowledge of sports statistics, player personnel, and his uncanny ability to recall the batting average of some journeyman ballplayer or the details of a random mid-season game played back in 1976 earned him the nickname “the Computer’ in some circles. He had more than a few nicknames over the years, and usually a great story on how each name came to be. He was “The Wildman” to some, “Bull” to others, Then there was “Skip”, “Jack Sullivan”(don’t ask), “Sully”,”Pop”, and even my mother’s entire side of the family knew him as “Don”. One such story about one of his strangest nicknames comes to mind.
My Dad was by no means a “great” athlete, but he was pretty fast in his younger days, and a relatively decent ball player. I remember back when I was about seven years old he was asked to join a men’s softball team that was in need of a second baseman. His wife, my mother,the incomparable Anne J, voiced serious objections, thoroughly convinced that he would end up getting hurt. In short, her response was,”ABSOLUTELY NOT!!!”. After weighing his options , he decided there was only thing he could do; join the team using an alias (just in case the box scores made the local paper on a slow day in sports) and not mention it to Anne that he was playing. On game nights he was “working late”. . Everything was going along smoothly until one fateful night, while going back for a pop up, he collided with a center fielder that was roughly twice his size. After a trip to the Emergency Room where he was attended to by an on call doctor that appeared to have drank his dinner, the diagnosis was that his ribs were either bruised, broken, or cracked. Rather than bothering with an x-ray, the good doctor just taped up my father’s unshaven torso and sent him on his way. Unfortunately for my father he had no choice but to come clean with Anne J.. After a couple of weeks the ribs healed and it was time to remove the tape. My mother did the honors, painfully pulling the wrap off about an inch at a time. She made no attempt to conceal her glee as my Dad screamed in agony. Thus ended the brief but spectacular playing career of the speedy “Cheetah McHugh”, second baseman for the Stuart Shaines Men’s Softball Team.. I must mention here that in my Dad’s account of this tale, he would emphatically state that ; (a) “I did not drop the ball”.(b)”It really was a spectacular catch”.(c) “I didn’t scream that much when your mother ripped off the tape”. Now, I was not present to witness the catch or the ensuing collision, but, I can tell you that on the night my mother removed that tape, there was a lot of screaming. I guess my old man could be guilty on at least one count of revisionist history.
Back when we were young kids my father always managed to find time to be our designated quarterback, to play catch or pitch to us, or be the necessary third guy my brother and I needed to play a game of “ rundown”. He might not have made it to every single Little League game but he made it to many. He coached Babe Ruth Baseball even before my brother and I were old enough to play. When he wasn’t coaching he was working as an umpire. He also worked as a radio broadcaster for a stretch,doing High School Basketball and Football Play by Play, and he was really good at it. When he had to sneak out of work on Saturdays from his regular job to broadcast the High School football games he became the on air persona “Don McHugh”, just in case his boss happened to be traveling through the area and turned on the local radio station.
Marty Klickman, and old New York broadcaster that used to do the N.Y Knicks and Jets games used to always sign off his broadcasts saying,”and remember, next to religion ,sports contributes more to the American way of life”. To my Dad, sports was religion, so it comes as no surprise that my brother, after college, went to school to become an umpire, and soon after that, began his coaching career.
My brother started his coaching career in Salem New Hampshire. After a couple of years he was hired as the head baseball coach at Timberlane Regional High School. where along with coaching, he taught Calculus and AP Mathematics for fourteen years. Then around 1996 he was hired by Exeter High School where he has taught and coached for the last twenty-one years. In 2013 he coached Exeter to their first state Championship in Baseball since the early 1960’s. My Dad was there to watch it happen, and it was, without question, one of the proudest moments of his life. My Dad was Exeter’s #1 fan, and never missed a game if he could help it.
So on this past Monday afternoon, I went to Delta Dental Stadium in Manchester N.H, home of the NH Fisher Cats, to watch the Exeter Blue Hawks baseball team, coached by my brother, win the N.H State Championship by defeating Bedford High School. They finished their season with the incredible record of 21-0, making them the first and only high school baseball team in the history of New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletics to achieve such a record. Sitting in the stands that afternoon, I couldn’t help but think about how proud and pleased my father would have been to witness his beloved Bluehawks complete such an amazing season.After recording the final out of the game on a fly ball to right field that left two Bedford runners stranded on base, the Exeter players piled onto the diamond in a joyous celebration of their record setting Championship season.My only thought at that moment was a wish that our Dad could have been there to see it all happen. Then, after receiving their trophy, the players hoisted it in unison, high over their heads, almost as if they were giving the old man a better view...and that’s when I realized he had been watching the whole time.
Happy Father's Day