A little pitch and catch can be cathartic, no matter how old you are.
Grad school was a crazy, hectic time in my life. I was working three jobs while I was going for my master’s degree at the University of South Florida. During the day I worked as a graphic designer for a small display advertising company. At night I would bartend at one of those chain burrito restaurants/night clubs. In between, I had classes and was a graduate teaching assistant in the mass comm department under Dr. Rick Wilber, who taught the undergraduate intro and writing courses.
Like myself, Dr. Rick was a huge baseball fan. Over a dozen years later, I don’t remember which one of us came up with the initial suggestion to start bringing our gloves to the office for a quick round of long toss but it became almost a ritual that we would head over to empty field on campus and practice our less-than-respectable respective sliders and knuckleballs before class. Dr. Rick had a tattered Cubs hat and a well-worn first baseman’s glove he kept in his trunk. I’d bring the “pearls” I stockpiled from watching pregame batting practice at spring training games.
We’d talk baseball and music and whatever was going on in politics. We would talk about accomplishments on the baseball field, which, in all honesty were never that great for either of us. Despite the Cubs hat, he had an affinity for the St. Louis Cubs. I was a loyal Kansas City Royals fan so the name “Don Denkinger” was dropped on numerous occasions. We’d throw just long enough to stretch our arms and get the blood pumping.
I was always grateful for the opportunity to turn my mind off from whatever stresses I happened to be dealing with that day, if only for 20 minutes or so. It was for him too.
Dr. Rick’s father was long-time big league catcher Del Wilber, who had passed away a few months earlier. It was around that time that he was putting together a memoir of his father’s time as a ballplayer and the struggles he faced as his father’s caregiver during those final years.
Over a pint of Guinness, Dr. Rick admitted that memories of growing up and playing catch with his own dad and some of his ballplayer friends like Stan Musial and Luis Aparicio and Joe Garagiola helped get him through those tough times later on.
A simple game of catch can be a reminder of simpler times, no matter how old you get.
Even though it has been over 10 years since I graduated, I’ve kept in touch with Dr. Rick thanks to social media. I owe him quite a bit. When I dropped out of grad school about halfway through, he was one of those that encouraged to come back and finish it off. I even helped him write and copyedit a textbook (which also gave us an excuse to resume our games of catch).
When I started this blog, I thought about all the cool and interesting dads like Dr. Rick that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting over the years that have a unique perspective on fatherhood.
Here is his official bio:
Rick Wilber is a writer and professor who grew up in a baseball family as the son of a big-leaguer, but came to realize as a college pitcher that his writing was a lot better than his fastball, and so he has been writing and teaching ever since. He’s recently turned his attention fulltime to his writing career, and his new novel, Alien Morning (Tor Books) came out this week to considerable critical acclaim. It’s the first book of a trilogy and he’s working hard on that second novel now that the baseball season is over and he isn’t spending all his time at Tropicana Field with his Down syndrome son watching the Tampa Bay Rays. He is married to a finance professor at St. Petersburg College, and they have a scientist daughter who’s on a research project in South Africa, studying caracals, a kind of South African wild cat.
Since his latest sic-fi novel, Alien Morning, came out this week, I figured he would be a great candidate to talk to to get his take for what I hope will be a semi-regular feature on this site.
Semi-Pro Dad: You had a unique childhood with your dad being a pro baseball player. what was it like growing up around the game and what were some of your favorite moments growing up in that environment?
Rick Wilber: I had a great childhood, no two ways about it. During my childhood, my father played for the Havana Reds in winter ball, then for Phillies and then the Red Sox. He was a backup catcher and never a star, though he had his moments, most notably one memorable August day in 1951 in Philadelphia where he hit three homeruns in one game, accounting for all the runs scored. And in his final year in the big leagues he was a very good pinch-hitter for the Red Sox, with more RBI than hits. Only ten players with 100 or more at-bats have done that in the history of the game so that’s kind of cool.
He brought my older brother and I right into the clubhouse and on the field, in Philly and in Boston and then when he coached with the White Sox. It was a very special kind of childhood, for sure, and because we spent the summers in the cities where he was playing we got to spend a lot of time with him, which was great.
Until I reached high school, I spent every spring training in Florida or Arizona with Dad. The family would pick up head to Sarasota or Indian Rocks Beach or Scottsdale or wherever and we’d spend six weeks there, with Mom teaching us out of workbooks when we weren’t at the ballpark or on the beach. The nuns at our elementary school couldn’t have been too happy about that, but we seemed to be all caught up when we got back to Mary, Queen of Peace, so that worked out fine. When we reached high-school age that had to stop. I was playing baseball in the spring at the high school, and had to stay behind the debatable St. Louis spring weather to play the game myself.
SPD: What specifically did the game of baseball teach you about fatherhood?
RW: My father was not a great talker, at least with me. He never opened up about his life. I suspect that’s how fathers behave in that era. He worked hard at what he did, and it was Mom that we had important life conversations with.
But we certainly talked about baseball, and the sport became kind of a language for us, a way of communicating. I don’t recall him ever saying he loved me, but he made it clear through all the hours of coaching he did with me that he loved me and enjoyed spending time with me. He was a great, and patient, coach. I can still remember working on my fielding with him at a local elementary school’s diamond. He must have hit me a hundred ground balls that day, starting off with easy ones and then hitting it harder, and farther away, as the session went on. He was amazing with a fungo bat.
SPD: Having kids in a ML clubhouse became a hot button issue this past season. What are the pros and cons with bringing kids to work in that environment?
RW: It was very common in the 1950s and 1960s, at least for those teams where my dad was playing or coaching. I suppose we were underfoot, but we didn’t realize it. There was a lot of pats on the head and lots of conversations with the players. When Dad coached for the White Sox I remember talking with Luis Aparicio and Billy Pierce a lot. Both of them gave me their old gloves when they broke in new ones. I understand that times have changed and the level of media attention has grown as greatly as the player salaries, but I think having the kids in the clubhouse, at least occasionally, is good for the players, their families, and the image of the game.
SPD: You’ve written about your relationship with your dad later in life and having to be a caregiver to him as his faculties began to slip away. At the same time, you had a special needs son who also required extra attention. How did these affect your concept of what a father (and son) should be?
RW: Yes, I wrote a memoir about that, My Father’s Game: Life, Death, Baseball, which one reviewer (Broadstreet Review, in Philadelphia) said of it that it’s “written with fine observation and wry understatement, and may well become a classic in the literature.” So I was proud of telling a difficult story pretty well. Dad had been a major-leaguer and then a baseball lifer after that. He was used to being catered to and admired and asked for autographs, and so being elderly and in poor health was very difficult for him. The sad fact that our mother, his wife who’d done so much to keep the family running while he was so often away, was slipping into Alzheimer’s and needed him to care for her. For a while, he just couldn’t do it, but then he came around and did more and more for her, even as he struggled with his own problems. I was the child-in-charge for some of that time, since I lived just a couple of miles away from them. For a very tough fifteen months I was on daily call for various problems, from doctor visits to quiet discussions about how they had to help one another. Dad was very unhappy and Mom was slipping away mentally, so that was an enormous challenge. I did my best.
Ironically, the one person in the family who could always cheer Dad up was my Down syndrome son, who lived near Mom and Dad’s assisted-living facility and would just walk over to chat with them on his own from time to time. He’s a wonderful guy, my son, and even his grumpy grandfather just had to smile and hug and be happy when he was around.
My son, now in his forties, is pretty independent, but we live a mile away from him and I call or visit with him, or both, just about every day, and other social workers keep an eye on him, too. He needs that kind of support and he gets it. In return, he’s a warm, loving, happy, productive guy who’s a great baseball fan. So for me, the father and son relationship has been a loving and warm one between my son and I, and something very different from that between my father and I. Dad gave us a great childhood, but in the tenor of the times, I suppose, he was never very expressive of his love for us. Late in life, as he struggled so and I did my best for him, I reminded myself often of that wonderful childhood I’d had. I’d incurred a debt and I knew it. I tried my best to pay him back in that last, tough hear. Most of my siblings, I think, felt the same way.
SPD: Having a son with special needs meant you didn’t necessarily have a lot of those father-son bonding moments that are typically associated with growing up. Baseball does, however, play a big role for you both now that he is grown. Explain how sharing the game as fans has enabled you to bond.
RW: Well, I did have those bonding moments, really. My son loved Special Olympics, especially basketball, and I cheered for him every but as much as I did years later for my soccer-playing daughter. I was incredibly proud of my son’s achievement. You adjust to the level of the life your children lead and you celebrate their successes no matter how small they may seem to outsiders. I cried in admiration and joy every time I saw him run a Special Olympics race, or play basketball with his pals. My son always displayed great sportsmanship, helping other runners, patting his teammates and the other players on the back on the basketball court. He was marvelous to watch. He still exercises and plays sports with his special-need friends and I -still- cheer him on.
My son and I have a partial season-ticket package to cheer on the Tampa Bay Rays and we sit together there on Sundays and have a great time. He understands the game really well, and the people around us always welcome him with a smile and a brief discussion of how the Rays are doing when we sit down. It’s charming and wonderful and heart-warming to see how great everyone is with him. He earns it, though, by being a great guy.
SPD: What advice would you give to fathers of special needs children?
RW: There is such a wide range of disabilities that I’d be foolish to give any advice other than to get the best possible help you can and then be proud of your child’s successes whatever they might be, from tying a shoelace or giving you a smile, to high-functioning things like finding success in school or playing an instrument or being athletic. Every step in the right direction, no matter how small that step may be, is celebrated. It requires some recalibration on the part of dads, but we all go through that recalibration in life, don’t we? Be generous with your love.
SPD: As an author, how do themes of fatherhood manifest themselves in your writing?
RW: The relationship between a father and his son or sons is a special one, for sure, and I’ve written about that a lot over the years. I’ve based characters on my son and other Down syndrome people I’ve known, and I usually see them in ways you’d expect: blessed with a kind of friendliness and charm that serves them well but can also lead them into trouble since they can be vulnerable. And I’ve written about my father often, as well. With dad, I even vetted a story or two with him when he was alive, reminding him that it was fiction and that I’d made it up, but I’d included a character a bit like him. One time I had a catcher who had a passed ball in a World Series game and dad wanted me to include an author’s note that he’d never actually done that. I included the note. That was really charming, really.
You know, I’ve published of lot of baseball stories, including one novel (Rum Point, McFarland Books) and about fifteen baseball-themed short stories in various magazines and all but a handful of those pay some attention to the father/son relationship in one way or another.
SPD: What is your proudest moment you’ve had as a father?
RW: Oh, there are too many to count. I have a wonderful son and an equally wonderful and brilliant daughter. Watching them both grow up has accorded me hundreds of times for each of them where I was incredibly proud. They are both great athletes, each in their own way, and watching them play sports was a great joy for me. Our daughter is brilliant, has a master’s in biology and is just finishing up a research project in South Africa. How great is that? And my son is in the 25th year of working at the same McDonald’s. How great is that? I’m married to a wonderful and brilliant woman (a finance professor, no less) who’s -also- a great athlete and runs half-marathons when she’s not busy crunching numbers. How great is that? I’m a very lucky fellow and I know it.
SPD: What is the single best piece of dad advice you have for other dads?
RW: That’s an easy one: Do your best. That kid is counting on you.
SPD:What are you up to now and how can people learn more about it?
RW: My new novel is a work of science fiction from Tor Books, the largest publisher in the field. It’s a First Contact novel, where the aliens arrive and Earth has to adjust to that. They seem friendly, but no one trusts that impression. The story follows an ex-pro basketball player who becomes a new-media star and then winds up the public-relations person for the aliens. It seems great at first, but then he comes to think perhaps this isn’t such a perfect job after all. It’s been getting great reviews from places like Publishers Weekly, so it seems to be doing well. I think it’s a pretty good novel and your readers can find out more about it here.
Click below to purchase Rick Wilber’s latest books:
Conversations on Fatherhood is a semi-regular feature from the Semi-Pro Dad in which he talks about being a dad with those who have a unique or interesting perspective on the subject. If you would like to be featured on a future segment, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org