The Times West Virginian

June 17, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN- Remembering my dad on a sports Sunday

By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — It was Sunday.

Not just any Sunday. A special Sunday.

Father’s Day — and yes, even when you are a grandfather with grandchildren old enough to have presented you with a great-grandchild but kind enough not to have done so, it remains a special Sunday.

Especially this Sunday.

True, you have spent half your adult life without your father, but none of your childhood, and you know the adult you are on this special Father’s Day Sunday grew out of those childhood days.

This day was special, for the TV before you was flashing reminders of everything that was your father. The Pirates were playing the Dodgers, and if this wasn’t the New York Giants versus the hated Brooklyn Dodgers rivalry that you had grown up on with your father, it was still baseball, and wasn’t it he who had introduced you to the game that had shaped your life?

Jerry Hertzel traveled for a living, hawking women’s blouses to America’s top department stores out of New York’s garment district. In the early days, when he had moved your family from the city into the northern New Jersey suburbs where there was grass and trees and fields in which a little boy could learn to play the game of baseball, he traveled in this overgrown Hudson.

He’d drive from New York to Philly, Philly to Cleveland, Cleveland to Chicago, Chicago to St. Louis, St. Louis to Kansas City ... and then home, all in that Hudson.

He was a long way away, but only a phone call away, and there was that night when you were only 10, your first year of Little League, first year of organized baseball, first year of catching, playing for an established Little League team.

This was serious stuff then, serious enough that you woke up one morning to learn you’d been part of a 10-player trade, going from one team to another with a player who eventually would become a major leaguer.

In those days The Bergen Record, the local paper, one that has grown into a major player in New York covering the Yankees, Mets, Giants, Jets, the NBA and NHL, covered Little League, and there was a story of the trade, a story that said the deal was made because that little kid’s team needed a catcher.

You were the catcher they felt they had to replace. That was one of those teary phone calls of the emergency type, the kind only a father could get a 10-year-old son through.

How many hours had this father spent throwing batting practice? How many hours had he hit pop foul flies until you could catch them behind your back, tricky as that was for a catcher? How long had you talked baseball ... learning why you didn’t try to take an extra base when two runs down, when to call for a fastball or a curve?

Surely this Gerrit Cole you were watching pitch for the Pirates, the one with the 98 mph fastball, didn’t learn any more from his dad, didn’t spend any more hours with him in the backyard playing catch.

Just as baseball was Cole’s life, so it became this father’s son’s life, leading him into a career as a baseball writer, a career he would not trade for anything else.

But there was more on television on this Father’s Day Sunday, the U.S. Open, and all eyes were on Phil Mickelson, a father and a golfer, and in the eyes of this son, as close a person to his own father as anyone could come.

Mickelson was a left-hander, just like Dad, and while he had a prettier golf swing, he owned no more U.S. Open titles.

Dad came to golf later in life, after he’d finished molding his son, first as a ball player, always as a human being. Once he discovered the game of golf, he fell in love with it. By then he traveled by plane and was covering the entire country, bringing his sample case and his golf clubs everywhere he went.

I’d hear tales of playing at Torrey Pines in San Diego or Pebble Beach in L.A. When he was home, he’d head to River Vale Golf Course.

The day before he learned he was suffering from colon/liver cancer that would take his life at just 60, he played 36 holes at River Vale. He never got back to the course and that bothered him far more than the inevitable fate he knew he was facing.

Yeah, Sunday was a special day. He would have loved to have seen young Gerrit Cole beat those Dodgers with homey Pedro Alvarez, who grew up in New York not far from where he grew up, hitting a home run.

And yes, I guarantee he smiled when Mickelson holed a wedge for an eagle to grab the Open lead, probably even heading out to one of those courses in heaven to work on his own wedge to get ready for the day Mickelson joined him for a round there.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.