With school out and homework mercifully behind, my daughters and I have taken up a new activity: Card Talk. Each night, I take out my album with 40 years of St. Louis Cardinal baseball cards, and provide a lesson — no more than five minutes, mind you — on my family’s team of choice. Sofia (11) and Elena (7) have taken to the mini-lecture like the good students they are. A question here or there, some curiosity about styles — Bake McBride wore his hair a little differently than Ray Lankford — and what seems to be a burgeoning interest in a subject they know consumes their father on more summer nights than it should.
Last week, we had a lesson on Ted Simmons, the great Cardinal catcher of the Seventies who was given the shaft by Hall of Fame voters when he became eligible in 1994. (Here’s hoping the Veterans Committee is paying attention when Simmons’ name resurfaces.) We also discussed the 2003 Cardinals, a team that somehow interrupted what would have been seven straight playoff seasons despite fielding four Gold Glove winners. The player or team we discuss is random, inspired as much by my mood as by the current team’s performance. It’s not exactly bedtime reading, but it’s time well spent. Five minutes can go a long way.
When my dad died five years ago, I lost the one person on the planet who could talk Cardinal baseball with me in a manner as casual as weather-related small talk, or as serious as a financial investment. Having grown up at his father’s side, listening to the exploits of his hero Stan Musial over the airwaves, Dad knew the subject mattered a little more in our family. My grandfather — Frank Murtaugh Sr. — died when I was only two years old. He was introduced to me in discussions about the Cardinals. Dad could identify recent Redbirds who would have gained my grandfather’s favor: Tommy Herr, John Tudor, and Lankford were three. Conversely, Dad had difficulty accepting those who didn’t know “the Cardinal way” of playing the game: Garry Templeton, Todd Zeile, and Tino Martinez come to mind.
With the Redbirds in town and Cardinal games on cable television, chatting about St. Louis baseball in Memphis is hardly uncommon. Add Facebook and Twitter to the mix, and there’s a virtual Cardinal Nation with more opinions, memories, and anecdotes than three generations of any one family could claim. But there’s the distinction: it’s not family.
Sofia still asks about Yadier Molina’s health, three years after she saw the Cardinal catcher taken off the field on a stretcher after a home-plate collision at Busch Stadium. Playing her first season of softball, Elena relishes the chances she gets to play shortstop for her team, in part because Dad’s hero, Ozzie Smith, played there, but primarily because her big sister does, too. There are Cardinal links, but within the tighter, more permanent bonds we know as a family.
Every Father’s Day, I write to my Dad in a small journal, reminding him that his family is healthy and happy, that his wife of 38 years is stronger today than she was in 2005, just lonelier. In emphasizing how much I miss him, I also update him on the Cardinals. He may have a better view of Busch Stadium than any television camera can provide, but I know my perspective on the team’s chances at a pennant would be of some value. (If Matt Holliday doesn’t hit 20 home runs, the 2010 Cardinals will belong in a conversation with that 2003 bunch.)
So the Card Talk will continue with my daughters, until they’re either more expert than I, or the cruel necessities of life (homework, chores, boys) interrupt the dialogue. I urge my fellow dads to find five minutes a day to discuss a “non-essential” with their children, something that is important only because it helps connect generations, past and present. The lessons learned can be as priceless as your first baseball card.