The lights are winking out at Kaufmann Field in Kansas City as I shift in the seat of our rented convertible. I’m trying to find the way out of the parking lot, but my mind isn’t firing on all cylinders. Ten hours of driving already from Texas to get my son and me up here on a hot July Saturday night. Then nine innings of even more sitting. Now I have to find the hotel. Sweat collects on the inside of my ball cap as I realize I have no clue where I’m going.
It is not my first time in this parking lot, just my first time here when I wasn’t high. Fourteen summers after my night of that Willie Nelson show in KC—one that ended wrestling my sleepless mania as I clutched a kitchen knife, paranoid from too much pot—my 11-year-old son Nicky sits with me in the convertible. This trip is supposed to prove I am not running from my fatherly duty after a divorce and court-managed custody. My summer visitation vacation will be just the two of us, and I have thirteen more nights to take care of him on my own. I am committed to being a better father than my dad was for me. Fatherhood without anger can’t be so hard. Not so hard that a man would have to kill himself because he failed at it—like Dad did in the same year I sat in this parking lot for the first time.
The sound of the crowd milling in the lot turns rowdy while the dashboard clock ticks toward midnight. It is 1994, so there is no phone in our car to check for hotel directions. I flip my AAA Triptik pages forward, then back. I squint in the dashboard light at the map’s red and black lines. Then I pull out our Rand McNally Baseball Atlas and skim with alarm at the Kansas City Royals entry. These maps are my guardrails for traveling across eleven different states to see nine games in only eleven days. I lower our Pontiac Sunbird’s top to study the maps.
“Do you know the way?” Nicky asks.
I assure him, unconvincingly, that I do. I set out to find our hotel in the dark. Conscious of my untreated anxiety issues, I need to locate safety before the pounding in my chest takes over. Nicky believes in me more than I believe in myself. I am driven to be the man he thinks I am.
The July wind helps me take a breath. The lights in the lot lead us to a sign that promises a freeway. The ramp hides in the dark, though, with the glare of the light shining off my glasses and blocking my vision to the left and right. I eke across two streets, stop at a light, then turn left toward the sound of the Interstate.
Just get to I-70, I say to myself, and then we’ll be all right.
I drive underneath the Interstate, though, and scan the streets to the left and right. Where is the ramp? I sit up straighter and slow the car. Nicky slides down in the seat as we enter the gritty streets of what I’d have called the ghetto when I was his age. Hooded heads swivel at the two white guys entering the neighborhood in a convertible, cutting through the soundtrack of a Saturday night.
We stop at a light and Nicky knows the biggest mistake first.
“Uh, Dad.” He’s fading on me.
“We’re in the hood, and wearing bandanas.” I’d bought them to keep the sweat out of our eyes during the game. “We might be wearing colors, Dad.”
I force a laugh. A real parent wouldn’t drive into the worst part of town wearing something that dangerous. A real parent wouldn’t bring his son to a street full of drunks and lined with razor wire. My anxious self careens straight into the clutch of dread. My stupidity is going to get us jumped, carjacked, killed. I keep the car moving, not stopping to roll up the top or the windows. I don’t even stop at the red light.
As I roll through that light, I see two cops in a patrol car just shake their heads, watching me try to steal the way home for the night with my son.
On a Little League field in April of that same year, I took my first steps toward that summer’s journey. I bounced along at a slow trot with Nicky, matching his pace on opening day. In 1994, it was easier to focus while at the ball field, with no cellphones or smart devices to distract us. We warmed up his arm with outfield tosses before his game. I watched him play, and the time during those games was when I loved him and my fatherhood best. The games were my sweet spot with my only child. I was trying to find a path to fatherhood, using only the weekends that the divorce permitted me.
On that day I was ruled by anxiety, a condition that didn’t even rank as a disorder in that era. My father had ruled our family through rage, and it was my own choice to repeat his lessons about anger. He was my father when he raged and Dad when he did not. I would give my son a different example to follow. A two-week baseball vacation from the bottom to the top of the country and back was the best way to prove that I was not the same as my father. It was to be an unmedicated trip, a challenge I never examined. Like my own days as a boy, Nicky was just one rage away from being unsafe with his father.
Terms of my custody arrangement restricted me to alternate weekends, a practice that was customary for the time. Less frequent contact would keep me cool, too. Verbal assault had knocked out my first marriage, separating me from Nicky. I left my marriage stricken with shame. Mine became a broken home, using my mom’s language, although she took my side in her blindness of solidarity. She had a hard line about the un-broken home we grew up in and what would’ve happened if she left Dad in a divorce.
“I think if I’d have left your father, we wouldn’t be alive today,” she told me just before the road trip started. “He would’ve found a way to burn down the house with us inside.” She reported this as casually as a thunderstorm forecast or a warning of a sub-zero winter night.
By 1994 I was four years into a new marriage to a loving woman named Dottie, and I vowed that no moment of anger would stain our marriage or any time with my son. The best way I could feel safe in fatherhood was to play games with Nicky. Sometimes it was basketball, but the solid thump of his ball in my glove at that field on that morning reminded me how easy the games made it for me to show love for him. I had become his part-time, playmate parent. On that opening day for his Little League team, Nicky threw a clean and clear strike to the glove of my heart.
I spied his smile under his blue cap and said, “Ain’t it great to be playing in the daytime?” Heaps of rust-red infield dirt sat beyond the outfield. A netted alley for batting practice ran out away from the diamond.
“Yeah, I like day-timers better than the others. They remind me of Wrigley.”
“What do you mean?”
“Day games. You know, at Wrigley. I got to go with Randy last year.”
Randy. His stepdad. My counterpart and imaginary rival, though that gentle man had no contest with me. Wrigley. Bleacher seats, Nicky said. The Bums. Classic.
By 1994 the Cubs had played 82 seasons at Wrigley and only the last six had been under the lights. Day-timers there, lots of them. The field in Chicago, so classic that it’s nicknamed The Friendly Confines, features outfield walls covered with thick ivy by summertime. Nicky saw it first with Randy, a fine man who nevertheless got his own two exclusive summer weeks with Nicky. I compared, as I always do.
I don’t know if Nicky saw a look clouding my face, but what he said next hit home. “I should take you there sometime, Dad. Wrigley’s great.” I trotted closer to see if he meant it. “Really, we could go together.”
“Just us guys,” I must have said. I don’t remember my steps up to the bleacher plank and my waiting scorebook. I was already planning dreams for our summer on the road. Like a pitcher in a season of pinpoint accuracy, I could control my wild throws of anger. I just got two weeks to prove it to everyone, including me.
Wrigley was a place of daytime baseball legend. After my divorce, I learned about playing in night games. Each week included a Wednesday visit to play with Nicky. Before his mother and I split, Nicky used to play me in checkers, Chutes and Ladders, Trouble, and even Pong on our console TV. But in the beginning of my divorced fatherhood, I didn’t have any games on hand for us to play. That’s how swiftly I left his house in exile.
I would erase all of that with an epic journey toward two perfect days at Wrigley. Those majestic afternoons—not just one, but Saturday plus Sunday—would sweep away my doubts about how special my bond with my boy looked. The rest of my world was judging me. I had an answer for that. Only a great dad would turn over two weeks of his life to his son so they’d see a thick sheaf of baseball games together, riding in a rented convertible all the way. I could do enough parenting to keep everybody safe, marginally clean, and out of jail.
Nothing about travel is guaranteed, though. The inky night hours I spent in manic planning in April and May, before we drove our first mile, sometimes made my heart pound with worry. I always worried because the unexpected was always out there. There was joy out there, too. I knew it. I was sure I could map a route to find it.
I knew nothing of what would enflame my reactions to unforeseen troubles, any delays, or some other shortfall of my manic certainty. A vacation of two weeks with a tween is no test to take without ample study, but I didn’t let that hamper me. I wouldn’t have let myself drive with Nicky solo across Texas—let alone from the bottom to the top of the country—if I’d been an honest judge of my anxieties.
Anxiety and depression were the roots of my fatherhood failures. I had no interest in any such label of mental disorder as I drove into our vacation. I rode into parenthood with vague intentions to be a dad better than my own. I ran from any possibility I could fail like he flamed out. Dad was churlish, compulsive, and domineering. His black rubber comb swept his hair thick with Vitalis straight back from a widow’s peak, a family feature I’d passed along to Nicky. Dad was a chieftain whose gifts were cerebral, his hazel eyes often lit up with the intellect and scrutiny needed to create things. He did not often create words of soft love on those lips under his brusque mustache. It was the Sixties and some men couldn’t speak such words easily. I needed his words but did not know how much.
In my generation after those silent Sixties dads, I spoke such words once I became a father. I knew how to act out my part in public, but in that convertible beside my boy I’d be performing in private, just Nicky and me. I had faith I’d speak those loving words even when things might be imperfect. I had to believe in that love and push away the memories of my failures in places like the trailer home where Nicky first grew up.
By the time I planned our summer trip I’d marched into self-employment to erase the rules of my last bad job. Despite my haste in the way I fled the job, I wasn’t damaged goods—of that I was certain. Nobody was going to get damaged during our weeks on the road. I peeled away the calendar pages that spring, waiting for my opening day on a fresh season of fatherhood.
For most of Nicky’s childhood, I was Custody Dad—that father you’ll see ordering in the fast food places on Fridays with his kids or pushing them in supermarket carts on the first, third, and fifth weekends. Custody Dads make the best of what’s given. We also get a couple of unbroken weeks with our kids each summer, and I learned to reach for a showy vacation, the kind of melodramatic road trip to make up for everything else I was lacking as a father. Custody weekends started at Friday suppers and lasted until sundown Sundays, short enough to sidestep any conflicts that might get out of hand. I didn’t discipline Nicky in my unbroken 48 hours of fatherhood every other week. It was my golden time. On the road, though, somebody would have to keep us on schedule and safe from the unexpected. That would be me over much more than a weekend’s worth of parenting. I would have to stretch my patience and control my anxieties for half of July to see nine games and cross nine state lines.
While pumping up the trip, I told myself I’d be savoring my summer’s time with Nicky by seeing more ballgames than anyone else could. My secret motivation was to drive enough miles to show Nicky’s mom that I could care for him on my own. Dottie would not be with us, unable to buffer any splashes of my anger or my panic in anxious moments. Dottie had two decades of motherhood that I relied on when Nicky visited. I would be parenting without her love as a backstop. I could do this, I reckoned, remembering my best plate appearance on the day Nicky was born.
On that final day of 1982 I tossed a perfect pitch of a story. After spending my first few hours as a new dad in birthing suite, I arrived sleep-deprived and joyous at my sportswriter’s keyboard, replaying a moment from my hospital morning. The doctor turned my infant’s head during delivery, revealing a miniature of my own face. The echoes of Dad’s face were there too, the signature widow’s peak of many Seybold men. Sitting at those newspaper keys my hair was still wet and shaving cream lurked behind my ears. Now that Nicky had arrived, my Hill Country News column was overdue.
I glowed while my fingers danced on the keys of the paper’s typesetting station. I usually composed on an IBM Selectric, but I was so close to deadline that the typewriter would delay the newspaper even more. I love the manic spotlight. I might have written something different back in my office on the Selectric. Perched under the florescent lights of the composing room, with people waiting and watching, was like performing onstage. After all my words about other boys in my game stories, I finally had my own son to adore like the parents I saw at games. I didn’t think that morning. I just wrote, like a pitcher watching the ball all the way up to the catcher’s mitt. A pitcher’s mastery only arrives when he can stay fully in the moment. Those precious games are usually crafted from a smaller number of pitches. My “Sports Shots” column was under 500 words.
His tiny fingers grip my pinky, and I think of a curveball pitcher. His little legs kick off the blanket, and I picture a football star. His sad cries will fill my house with loud woe, and I hear an avid fan rooting from the bleachers.
He is Nicholas Maximillian Seybold. He is just four hours old today. And he is my son.
Nicky is a little sport who is destined for big things. He burst from the starting blocks with a sprinter’s speed and a miler’s heart, breaking life’s tape at 10:02 AM, already an all-star in my heart.
I stood like a track coach beside the hospital bed as my wife pushed him to life. With a stopwatch for timing contractions dangling from my neck, I remembered what my high school coach used to holler from across the infield as I drove to the finish of the quarter-mile. “Kick, honey, kick!” I heard myself saying, as she bore down and brought him to be.
And now hours later, the wonder of that performance hasn’t dulled. I dream of him stealing bases, intercepting passes, racing on the fast break. Today his eyes began to track. Watching those blue-green orbs follow my fingers while I am changing him, I know a tennis title is only time away.
Already he’s taught me the meaning of sacrifice. My wife and I will tend to his helpless little body with the care of expert trainers, marveling at a human in miniature. His pain is ours. We soothe his aching cries with the balm of love.
And the compliments will come. “Oh, what big hands,” I hear. A backcourt dribbling whiz comes before my eyes. “What big feet,” says another admirer in the room. “He’ll be a big boy.” A leaping free safety jumps in my dreams, stealing a touchdown pass in the end zone.
Today I know the source of the passion of parents in the stands. My pride in my son will outlast any overtime. I’ll cheer him on, win or lose, remembering days when I was god-like in his world, amazed at how he’s grown from them.
If he doesn’t play, he may cheer. I look with longing to afternoons when we’ll share third-base seats and hot dogs at a summertime doubleheader. For I want my son to know—to live is to play, to compete is to improve, to try out is to grow.
But most importantly, Nicky will learn he was born onto a team of people as big as his heart, and love will make him a winner every time. Today I’m a proud co-captain. My blue-chip off the old block has scored big in my heart. Today MVP stands for My Valuable Person, a little guy who’ll bring me championship seasons the rest of my days.
It was the first thing I wrote that drew acclamation. In the weeks that followed, people would call to report a score, or hear me on the phone asking questions and tell me how wonderful that writing sounded. How happy they were for my plainspoken joy about fatherhood. The column was overloaded with sentiment, but the words were a stew that those parents wanted to swallow in gulps.
Best of all, I’d written something brief enough to meet the sportswriter’s goal, a tiny gem. In the opening week of my second full year married to Nicky’s mom, I believed I’d fixed my anger of Year One. That sports poem to my boy was supposed to be proof. I wasn’t a mad man like Dad. I’d been reborn as a father of kindness. That was the role I believed I was born to play. The ballpark road trip was supposed to be a revival of that show of kindness.