Game of baseball, symbolic of life and death, brings men together

Baseball was once my way of sitting shiva. Like everyone else at Pacific Bell Park this month, I enjoy the exhilarating taste of pennant fever. But, reminiscent of that time of mourning 20 years ago, I am also paying homage to my dad and my grandfather.

Dad's yahrzeit invariably falls around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I am always moved when I say the Kaddish and remember these men whom I loved and who taught me so much about being a man.

Baseball and other sports were a huge part of our lives. My grandfather, Pop Pop Bunny, played on the first professional basketball team in Philadelphia, the SPHAs, short for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. Only 5-foot-2, he was dubbed "Bunny" because of his jackrabbit speed. He never tired of instructing me in the fine points of hitting a baseball or shooting a basketball.

Dad had his own law practice, yet he seemed to spend most of his time coaching my Little League teams and being my constant companion at other sports events. I didn't realize just how devoted and patient he was until I myself became a father. We'd routinely sit through five-hour double headers to see the truly awful Phillies teams of the 1960s.

My fond recollections of baseball are interwoven with my painful memories of Dad's death.

The phone rang Sept. 27, 1980. The gut-wrenching agony of my mother's words took my breath away. Dad had been diagnosed with lymphoma a year or two earlier, so I'd been trying to ready myself for him dying. But nothing had prepared me for this moment. Hearing that he'd been felled instantly by a heart attack and was unalterably gone, that I could never again talk with him or hug him, brought on despair and pain unparalleled in my life.

After returning home for the funeral, I stayed to help sort out Dad's affairs. Amazingly, the Phillies had made it to the World Series for the first time in 30 years, and I was offered two free tickets to game one against the Kansas City Royals.

Best of all, I'd get to go to the game with Pop Pop. While I had gone through religious school and celebrated a bar mitzvah, sports was my form of religious experience. And my grandfather's.

As far as I could tell, Pop Pop's shul was the Philadelphia Athletic Club. The locals knew it as the Broadwood. He would go there most weekday afternoons after mornings spent selling life insurance. Every time he took me there for a workout, he'd proudly introduce and reintroduce me to his cronies as "The All-American."

The Broadwood was Jewish through and through. If there were ever services held there, you'd never have to worry about being short for a minyan. It was always populated by hundreds of white-haired men wrapped in toga-like sheets, who would kibitz in the steam room, sunbathe with protective glasses in the tanning room and play gin rummy for hours overlooking the swimming pool.

Nearing 80, Pop Pop had withstood the ravages of four decades of diabetes, thanks to an irrepressible spirit and will to live. His smile was infectious, his malapropisms the equal of Yogi Berra's .

Going to the World Series game with him momentarily allowed me to escape my grief. When the outfielder Bake McBride smacked a three-run homer in the first inning, the crowd rose to its feet and let out a mighty roar.

But because the diabetes had stolen much of his eyesight, Pop Pop couldn't see the flight of the ball.

"What happened?" he asked.

"Home run, home run!" I shouted, amid the din of 60,000 rabid fans.

I felt secure the moment that homer was sailing out of the park. My larger-than-life heroes were succeeding at what society taught me was the most important task of life — proving their worth as men. In that triumphant moment, I was protected from a world in which I had yet to prove myself.

But that safety was short-lived, because I almost immediately felt a profound sense of emptiness that one of my greatest fans, my dad, wasn't there to share it with me. I realized the world was no longer sheltered as it was when Dad was in it.

When the Phillies clinched the Series a week or so later, I was alone in my sister's Philadelphia apartment watching the game on television. My heart leaped and I pumped my fist in the air when Tug McGraw, the team's ace relief pitcher, got the game's final out. Within seconds, I heard horns blaring and people shouting throughout the neighborhood.

There I was, tears streaming down my face, propelled by a combination of intense joy and profound despair. I joined in the city's collective ecstasy. I also felt utterly alone in my personal grief, like a knife wound had ripped me apart.

In his provocative book "Proving Manhood," Tim Beneke views baseball as providing men with a structured way of coping with the symbolic presence of death. In baseball, putting someone out is killing and being put out is dying. One gets to "confront and conquer the stress of fear in an ongoing way — one is afraid and safe and afraid and safe over and over again."

As a psychotherapist working with men and adolescent boys, I hear this drama played out in life over and over, not just in baseball. Fear of failing. Wanting to feel worthy but believing they haven't earned it. Wanting closeness but finding isolation. Wanting acceptance from Dad or Grandpa, yet finding distance, criticism or physical abuse instead.

How much harder to gain a secure sense of their worth when they felt rejected or let down by those men whose approval mattered the most to them. How much harder to be nurturing and loving to their children when they didn't have models of that for themselves.

I feel blessed to have had those models. My father and grandfather lavished me with love and cultivated in me a deep sense of the importance of family and friendships. And sports.

Yet, I am no more immune than the men I work with to feeling I don't measure up to what society tells me a man is supposed to be. As a Jewish man, I'm continually holding myself against some standard of what it means to be a mensch.

Pop Pop died in July 1998. His heart simply gave out after a full and vital life. Cheering for the Giants at Pacific Bell Park and sitting in temple over the High Holy Days are each ways of continuing to pay tribute to these men who meant so much to me. Through sports and through prayer I am in touch with the joy, and I also continue to open to the sadness that, while never gone, has eased little by little over the years.

Honoring my connection to Dad and Pop Pop reminds me of what is most important to me. While I still turn to the sports page each morning and my emotions rise and fall with my teams' fortunes, my sense of self is less attached to the thrill of victory. I know now more than ever before that close, loving relationships are what offer far more enduring and deeper meaning in my life.