It was Opening Day 1975 at old Comiskey Park in Chicago, and my father had played hooky from work and allowed me to play hooky from school so that we could go see what the White Sox would put on the field this year. The baseball bug had finally bitten me the year before, even though both of the Chicago ballclubs were mired in mediocrity. Many a long afternoon was spent in the grandstands at Wrigley Field during the lazy summer of 1974, watching the hapless Cubs let another game dribble out of their fingers, my father holding an Old Style in one hand while teaching me the finer points of filling in a scorecard with the other, me excitedly racing around after long balls. He would tell me stories about ballgames attended with his father and grandfather, regaling me with tales of Gabby Hartnett and Hack Wilson told to him by his grandfather, and I would pound my fist in my glove and wait eagerly for the next foul ball to come my way.
But my heart was with the South Siders, and those games at Comiskey in '74 and '75 are still some of my fondest from my childhood. I remember countless hot dogs consumed. I remember those miserably uncomfortable seats at Comiskey which usually caused us to stand for most of the game. I remember catching a sharp line drive in the stands and, as I looked at my glove in amazement, my father pointed over at first base where Dick Allen was looking at me with a smile and a couple claps of applause.
But it was that cold April day in 1975 that I finally latched onto my favorite player. Brian Downing had just become the team's starting catcher, after platooning the previous season with Ed Herrman, and he made two excellent saving grabs at wild pitches that day. After the game, a devastating 6-5 loss to the Texas Rangers, I went down near the White Sox dugout and peeked around the corner to see if any players were still around. I had a small box full of baseball cards and I hoped that at least a player or two would still be around so that I could get an autograph.
My father hoisted me up so that I could peek into the dugout and the only player I could see and quickly recognize was Brian Downing, he of the distinctive wide jaw and curly hair all over the place on the front of his 1975 Topps baseball card. I shouted at him, "Mr. Downing! Mr. Downing!" and he looked over at me and grinned. I dug in my box for his card and just as he emerged from the dugout, I found it. He smiled at me, a big goofy looking grin, and said, "You can call me Brian, son." I handed him my card and a marker without a word and he signed the back of the card with a big stroke, almost covering the whole piece of cardboard. He then noticed my glove, asked me what position I played, and then signed my glove as well.
When he went back in the dugout, my father and I began to walk away from the field. He put his arm around me and told me to hold onto that card because I'd never forget it. I still have that card.
I still remember reading the Chicago Tribune that morning. December 6, 1977. The White Sox had traded Brian Downing to the California Angels with Dave Frost and Chris Knapp in exchange for Bobby Bonds, Thad Bosley, and Richard Dotson.
My father had left the article out for me on the table that morning, and as I was reading about the murderous deed, he tried to put a good spin on it. "Bobby Bonds has been good for a long time and Bosley's a hell of a prospect," he said, as I munched my Frosted Flakes and tried to understand why, why, why Bill Veeck would trade away the greatest player the Sox had ever had. Downing wasn't, of course; he was a solid catcher who had been injured for large chunks of the previous two seasons and at that point it didn't seem that he would have a long career.
Dad and I had gone to Opening Day at Comiskey the last three years, but when he slid me a ticket to Opening Day 1978, I told him that I didn't want to go. Nothing was quite the same between us ever again.
Downing went off to California to play for Gene Autry, while I stayed behind, fought with my parents, and with great relief, went to college in Madison in 1982, vowing to never speak to either one of them again as I pulled away from their house in my rusty AMC Gremlin, loaded with most of my earthly possessions.
Things were changing for Downing as well. He thrived in the California sun, where his bat came to life and he was considered one of the top offensive threats in the American League in the late 1970s and early 1980s. By 1982, as I was flying towards Madison in a cloud of angry dust, he had moved exclusively to the outfield from his old catching position, and in the following years he would slowly transition into the role of designated hitter.
I didn't watch baseball much during my college years; I studied alcohol and history and pot and women. I found someone special my junior year, and by our graduation in 1986, Charlotte had a bulging stomach and a ring on her finger. I had not spoken to my parents in four years.
We were married in June 1986, an outdoor wedding at a farm in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin. My parents came, the first time I had seen them since I drove away in a fit of teenage anger. I hugged my mother and talked to her for a while, but when I shook my father's hand, we didn't share a word.
Joshua was born in early August, and Charlotte insisted that I make sure that he knew his grandparents. So, that October, we went to visit my parents for a week. When we arrived, my father was sitting in the living room watching Game 1 of the 1986 American League Championship Series between the Boston Red Sox and the California Angels. When I walked into the living room, of all possible events, Brian Downing was at the plate.
Just like my father, he had aged a bit. His hair was now short, not the unruly curls it had been eleven years ago at Comiskey. There were runners on second and third and the Angels were winning 2-0, and it took just that one moment to break the ice. I sat down and without even looking at my old man, I said, "You think Downing will drive 'em in?" and just as the words left my mouth, Downing singled to left, driving in Gary Pettis and Wally Joyner.
We watched all seven games of the 1986 ALCS together that year, and though I was for California and my father was for Boston, it was the start of fixing things between us. I often saw my mother and my wife watching us from the other room, but they left the boys alone to watch their game on television.
The morning after the Red Sox took Game 7, we packed up the car to head back to Wisconsin. I shook my father's hand again and for just a moment he looked very old to me, and I realized that I had thrown away four years with him for nothing. I gave him a hug, and by the time we had reached the interstate, tears were rolling down my cheek.
We moved to Arlington, Texas a few years later, not ten miles from where the Texas Rangers played, and in an odd coincidence, Brian Downing signed as a free agent with the Rangers less than a month after the move. I had followed baseball pretty closely over the last few years, but I didn't have a team to call my own. On my way home on that rainy day in April 1991, I stopped at a sporting goods store and bought two Rangers hats, one for me and one for Joshua.
We went as a family to several Rangers games that year, but it wasn't until the next year that Joshua began to play slow pitch baseball in a youth league and began to pay attention to what was happening on the field. I had three season tickets to Arlington Stadium that year, and for several years afterward; it was an extravagance we could barely afford, but during that summer of 1992, Joshua and I (and sometimes his mother) went to dozens of Rangers games. I would sit there, sipping a cold beer, and I'd fill out the scoresheet while Joshua helped, and by the end of the summer, he was filling it out on his own. He brought his glove to the ballpark and managed to catch at least one lazy foul ball that year, and the two of us ate pretzels and hot dogs and enjoyed the fresh air.
Whenever Brian Downing stepped to the plate, so many thoughts and memories of the last twenty years flooded my mind, and on more than one occasion, a tear slipped down my cheek. Joshua quickly began to understand that Downing was my favorite player, and he would watch Brian's at-bats with nearly the same intensity as me.
After the final home game of the season, a victory over the Seattle Mariners, I took Joshua down to the dugout to see if we could get a couple of autographs. Joshua was a big fan of Ivan Rodriguez and when I saw Pudge milling around in the dugout, I picked up Joshua so that he could get an autograph from his favorite player. Pudge obliged, but after he signed the autograph, Joshua asked him, "Could I get Brian Downing's autograph, too?" Pudge grinned and after several minutes, Downing emerged from the dugout.
He was walking with just a touch of a limp and his face had a few wrinkles on it now, but when I saw him, I instantly remembered that curly haired catcher I saw almost twenty years before at Comiskey Park. Joshua handed Downing a card and a marker and said, "You're my dad's favorite player. He has been watching you play since he was a little kid." Downing looked up at me for a moment and, just as he began to walk back in the dugout, I leaned over as far as I could, and stuck out my hand. Brian Downing took my hand and shook it, and I said, "Thanks, Brian, for more than you'll ever know." He looked at me, smiled, and walked back into the dugout.
After the 1992 season, Brian Downing retired from professional baseball.
It is so easy in our jaded modern lives to look at professional sports as a bastion of greed and dishonesty, in which players that are scarcely better than criminals play games for absurd amounts of money and greedy owners actively empty the pockets of the fans hoping to catch a glimpse of these overhyped paper heroes. But it is only in a ballpark that I can sit in the stands with my grandfather telling me about Babe Ruth calling his shot at Wrigley back in '32, my father filling out a scorecard with a cold cup of Old Style, and my son jumping with excitement at an Ivan Rodriguez base hit. I need only close my eyes, smell the hot dogs and beer, and feel the warm summer breeze on my face.