Freezing with my father at Candlestick Park

So long Candlestick, and thanks for the memories photo: dave wilson / flickr

Some of my best recollections of my father revolve around the one thing that really connected us: sports. I have no doubt, being a tremendous athlete himself, that my dad was hoping for a boy.

He was one away from making the Boston Red Sox as a shortstop when there were only eight major league teams, and he was an All-American high school basketball player who led his Pawtucket, R.I., team to a state championship. After graduating from San Jose State with a degree in physical education, he went on to coach high school basketball and golf, but baseball was always his true love. From the time I could walk, he had a mitt on my hand. The bad news was that he didn’t have a boy; the good news was that he had a girl who could outplay a lot of the boys. Much to my father’s delight, I became an All-Star catcher, nicknamed “Gunner” because of my strong arm, and I had a homerun-socking bat to match, making me one of the most feared players in the league.

When my father married my mother and decided to move to California for teaching college, he made a promise to my very traditional Sicilian grandfather that he would bring her home to visit every summer. My grandparents first lived in Little Italy, New York, and later moved to Federal Hill, the Little Italy of Providence, R.I. (around 20 percent of Rhode Islanders are Italian American, the highest percentage of any state). My grandfather loved tending his garden, making Sunday sauce, smoking cigars, and drinking Chianti. He did not, however, love sports, so my father and I spent much of those summers just the two of us at Fenway Park.

One of my fondest memories is the time we sat behind the Green Monster, Fenway’s famous left field wall, and watched the Sox get clobbered by the Oakland A’s. After the game, he took me to lunch at the legendary Durgin Park, and a muggy July storm rolled over just as we arrived. He held my hand and covered my head with his Red Sox cap as we crossed the street.

Every year before we left for the East Coast, my dad took me to Candlestick Park to watch the San Francisco Giants as often as possible. My mom came a few times — like my grandfather, she didn’t love sports, so she usually knitted through the entire game — but mostly, just like Fenway, it was our special father-daughter time.

We both had San Francisco Giants caps filled with coveted Croix de Candlestick pins, handed out to the diehard fans who braved extra-innings games in the unforgiving harsh conditions after 10 p.m. I idolized Johnny Bench, still considered one of the greatest catchers to ever play the game, and when the Cincinnati Reds were in town, my dad would walk me down to the dugout during batting practice where Bench would recognize the little girl with long black hair and bright green eyes peaking out from under a well-worn Giants cap.

“Hi Suzie,” he would say, passing the legions of screaming fans holding out their items for autographs. My dad would always bring along a photo he took the last time the Reds were at Candlestick, and Bench would sign them with personal notes like “To Suzie: I’ll forgive you for the Giants hat. Thanks for being such a great fan! Love, Johnny Bench.” As he took my dad’s Sharpie, he would ask how my catching career was going. “I got hit by a pitch and had a huge shiner,” I told him one June evening as the wind whipped through the fog. “Badge of honor,” he said with a wink.

As I grew up and discovered boys and they discovered me, my father and I began drifting apart. I often went to Candlestick Park with Dave, my star high school running-back boyfriend who said he fell in love with me at Candlestick because I was able to explain the infield fly rule. When my family headed back East for the summer, I often chose to hang out with my cousins’ cute friends and flirt rather than go with my father to Fenway. I had hit that age where I pretended not to know my parents at the mall, and my dad knew the days of holding my hand as we crossed the street to Durgin Park were over.

Before my senior year of high school my grandfather died, and with him the annual East Coast pilgrimages. During my senior year of college I lost my mother to a stroke, and just six months later my longtime boyfriend passed away suddenly from a rare heart condition. I was working at Apple, as I had through every college summer, but I knew it was time for a big change, so I moved to San Francisco with some friends. Shortly after I moved, my father and I went through a period where we barely spoke. I had a new boyfriend (I reeled him in with my infield fly rule knowledge at Candlestick, too) and my dad, who had moved from my childhood home in Sunnyvale to live with his girlfriend, Kickie, in San Jose, often traveled to see the Giants on his own.

Then, one summer afternoon in 2000 while cleaning out some drawers, I found my old Giants cap covered with Croix de Candlestick pins, and all those great memories came flooding back. I picked up the phone and invited my dad to come up for Father’s Day. “I have a surprise for you,” I said. As he pulled up to my house in the Haight that morning I was standing outside wearing my old Giants cap, and I saw a huge grin come across his face. “I’m taking you to the Giants game at Pac Bell Park,” I said. It would be my father’s first trip to the new stadium, and a new beginning for our relationship.

When Kickie could no longer care for my dad because of his worsening dementia, I moved him to San Francisco to live with me. The disease ravaged his sharp mind and weakened his strong body. The last time we went to a Giants game was a week before he passed away, around Father’s Day 2008. After the game I took him to dinner at the legendary House of Prime Rib, and a chilly summer drizzle rolled over just as we arrived. I held his hand and covered his head with my Giants hat as we crossed the street.

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