BY TOM PHILLIPS
With spring training just around the corner, you can almost hear the crack of the bats and smell the freshly cut outfield grass from here in Seattle. For many, the coming of a new baseball season heralds the end of dark, dreary winter days and the promise and potential that spring holds.
For me, it’s a special time where I take a trip down memory lane and recall a moment that will live with me forever. It is a moment that involves a Mariners game in the Kingdome, the kindness of a major-league ballplayer, a Seattle sports icon and my then-2-year-old son, Nicholas.
It was mid-April 1997 and somehow I was able to score great seats to an M’s game in which Randy Johnson would take the mound against the Kansas City Royals. It was to be Nicholas’ first baseball game (he now goes by the name “Nick” and is a sophomore at Syracuse University). To this day I live for father-son and father-daughter moments such as these.
Game day arrived and, after loading up on popcorn, licorice and cotton candy at the concession stands, I walked Nick down to our seats, which happened to be just two rows behind the Royals’ dugout. We got settled, dived into our treats and watched the Royals’ starting pitcher and catcher warm up directly in front of us. I do not recall the pitcher’s name, but I will forever remember the catcher’s – Mike Macfarlane, a solid veteran on what was at the time a pretty decent team.
Just before the start of the game, the lineups were announced; first the Royals, then the M’s. After the final Mariners player had been announced (The Big Unit, of course) a massive cannon blast rocked the dome, which was part of the pregame routine back then – something to pump adrenaline into the stands before the first pitch. Unfortunately, the blast did more than pump adrenaline into Nick. It terrified him, causing a complete meltdown — the kind that only a freaked-out 2-year-old can produce. Nothing I did could console him, nor did the actions of well-meaning fans around us, many of whom offered more candy and treats to help take his mind off of what had just happened.
Another person who saw what had happened was the Royals’ catcher, Macfarlane. Without missing a beat, Macfarlane came to the railing, reached over and handed Nick the same ball with which he had been warming the pitcher up. Nick grabbed the ball, paused for a second, then proceeded to be inconsolable all over again. The noise, excitement and, yes, probably the sugar high, were just too much for him. We ended up leaving the stadium — with the game ball — before Johnson even threw a pitch. We spent the rest of the afternoon in a quiet park near Lake Washington. Still a great father-son day, just not at the ballpark.
I was so touched by what Macfarlane had done that I wrote an unsolicited letter to our beloved (may he rest in peace) sports icon/baseball announcer for the gods, Dave Niehaus. I wrote that in a day and age of selfish behavior by spoiled athletes, I was moved by the kindness of a big-leaguer who did something really cool for my son.
A couple of days later as I was driving home from the office, I happened to have the Mariners game on the radio. Imagine my surprise when, in the middle of calling the play-by-play, Niehaus read my letter on the air. His effortless, resonant bass tones retelling the story of Nick and my first baseball game together. It was thrilling to hear the story retold by a legend such as Niehaus, but because I was in my car, I had no way of really capturing the moment other than to tell my wife and friends about it later that evening, and to tell Nick about it when he got older.
That is until a package arrived at our doorstep a few days later, addressed to Tom and Nicholas Phillips. I remember thinking that was kind of weird, a handwritten package addressed to the two of us.
I opened it up, and there inside was a cassette recording of the inning in which Niehaus read the letter on air, along with a note from the man himself saying he thought I might like to have a copy to share with Nick when he got older. Bear in mind I didn’t know Niehaus – it was just something he did, one dad to another — without being asked.
Today, the baseball that Macfarlane gave us, along with my letter to Niehaus and the cassette recording of the broadcast are safely tucked away in box at home. Testament to the fact that two complete strangers came together to bring me and my son a memory we will treasure for a lifetime. It’s a treasure that I think about and reminisce upon every year at about this time.
Tom Phillips works at Microsoft. He and his wife, Katie, live on Capitol Hill with their daughter Natalie, a Bishop Blanchet High School student. Son Nick is a sophomore at Syracuse University. When they’re not rooting for the Seahawks or M’s, the Phillips usually can be found enjoying some form of outdoor recreation in central Oregon.
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