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Tomgram: Robert Lipsyte, Fathers Playing Tough with Sons

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This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.

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Let me not be shy when it comes to sports. In my youth, I was a great shortstop with fantastic range. And if I do say so myself, I played a pretty spectacular outfield as well (when I wasn't blasting homers out of the park). I'm talking, of course, about those night-time childhood moments when I would lie crosswise on my bed, with just the dim light from the hall filtering into my room, bouncing a balled-up piece of paper off the wall.

Believe me, I was something. I can still remember, in radio-announcer fashion, saying things like, "Furillo's racing back, back, back to the wall... He leaps! He's got it!" That was Carl Furillo, Brooklyn Dodgers right fielder. In my bedroom I could play every Dodgers game, nine innings, all positions, and come out a winner. Such a winner! That was my field of dreams.

The actual field was another matter entirely. My dad had been an athlete. Lacrosse in the early 1920s, no padding. A tough guy. Admittedly, he was long out of shape (and his shape showed it), but he still took me out to the park to "practice" and his patience wore thin quickly enough. Especially since he had a son who was too slow, shied off the ball -- fear that it would bounce up and whack him in the chin -- and couldn't hit a lick. (Not until I went to parent-child softball games with my own kids did I discover that, without all the pressure and anxiety of pleasing my dad, I was perfectly capable of learning how to put a little oomph into a bat.)

The gym teachers/coaches of my childhood seemed all of a kind, all like my dad. One of them we called "Major." He was a retired losing pitcher, maybe for the Reds, but the "major" wasn't for major league, it was for his old military rank, and assumedly his willingness to drill us. And he, too, had a few things to say about my sports skills, or lack of them.

The pressure was unrelenting. The pleasure -- outside my sports dreams, which were intense -- was nil. The frustration proved overwhelming. And so I simply stopped. For years. Better not to use my body at all than that. In the early 1970s, in the San Francisco Bay Area, on a whim I took up Tai Chi from an aged Chinese expert, who miraculously never compared me to anyone else and simply insisted that I was doing "better." Even though I never did find my "chi," it was a revelation and marked my return to sports. Today, I'm a fanatic (if not fabulous) swimmer. Daily. It's where titles of pieces come to me -- from the water gods. The crawl regularly rescues me from life.

Thinking about the difficulty fathers with sports on the brain can have with their kids and vice versa, I asked Robert Lipsyte, TomDispatch Jock Culture columnist, to take the subject out for a spin on Father's Day. (While you're at it, check out his latest young adult novel,Center Field.)

We Won, Dad, But I'm Lost
Lessons from Tiger, Lance, and Andre

By Robert Lipsyte

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Here's a story that gets me thinking every Father's Day.

Twenty years ago, on a public course in Los Angeles, I was approached by an old black golfer who had spotted my notebook. He told me to drop whatever I was covering -- a pretty good women's golf story, as it happened -- and track down this 15-year-old phenom who would soon overwhelm the game. I edged away, but he was insistent. The key to this kid's success, he assured me, was the furious ambition of his father, a former Army colonel. His defining moment had come when the boy was five or six, and Dad, in civvies, took him to a military golf course. Two white admirals spotted the prodigy and said, ''That's some little golfer you've got there, Sergeant."

Their assumption, based on his color, that Earl Woods was an enlisted man only further fired his determination to send his little Tiger out to dominate the world (so the old golfer told me). Earl, who died in 2006 at 74, once said of his son: "There is no limit because he has the guidance. I don't know yet exactly what form this will take. But he is the Chosen One. He'll have the power to impact nations. Not people. Nations. The world is just getting a taste of his power."

Unfortunately, I managed to shake that ancient mariner and so blew my shot at the Big Story, but he comes to mind every Father's Day when I start to think about the complex impact dads and their dreams, even obsessions, about sports success have on their sons (and ever more often now, on their daughters). Almost always, I suspect, Dad believes that what he does is in the best interests of his kid, which is what makes this such a poignant -- as well as poisonous -- subject, mixing as it does short-term sports success and (often) long-term unhappy lives.

My Dad, the Book Player

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As a kid, I only wished that my Dad was less bookish, more ballish. We never had a catch. When I was thirteen, I managed to drag him to one Yankee game where he made a valiant effort not to show his boredom. That was it when it came to sports. Of course, we went to libraries almost every week and we talked all the time -- just never about sports.

He never took me out and taught me how to throw a baseball. (A classmate saved me from throwing "like a girl.") Thanks to Dad, I missed out on all the early fundamental skills, particularly when it came to ball-handling and team play. When, in my teens, I finally got my athletic freak on, I skipped the obvious sports of my peers, going for tennis, handball, and martial arts. More recently it's been yoga, Pilates, and biking. Looking back, I can see that starting into sports later had its advantages. I was enthusiastic and fresh when so many of my peers had already had it. For them, and they were often far better jocks than I, it's been over for years. They're spectators now -- particularly the ones who played for their fathers.

As a father myself, I went to all the Little League baseball games, youth soccer games, and then high school field-hockey and track events I could make, but my years as a sports reporter -- and maybe my own Dad -- had left me without the slightest urge to be a sports dad. I even pulled my son Sam out of Little League because of his uber-macho coach -- and he seemed relieved. When, later, I refused to let him play high-school football, it was a different story. He's still annoyed -- and he may be right. But covering high school and college football, I'd just seen too many kids play hurt and stay hurt. Sam went on to become a shot-putter, muscles he puts to use now, over 40, in rough touch football games. Susannah was an all-state hockey forward. She's still a passionate athlete.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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