March 26, 2012


Saying Goodbye

By Sean Ryan Co-Founder @collbaseball

A few weeks ago, I said goodbye to my biggest fan.

It only seems appropriate that my last real conversation with my dad was about baseball. From about the time I could talk, it almost always was about baseball. Not that my dad and I didn't have other things in common. But the common denominator was baseball.

By day, my dad earned his Doctor of Philosophy in electrical engineering - in fact, he was among the cream of the crop in his profession, being awarded a Life Fellow by the engineering association IEEE (Eye-Triple E) in 1992 "for contributions to the geometric theory of diffraction and the analysis of electromagnetic scattering." Pretty heady stuff, to say the least.

By afternoon, evenings and weekends, he was coach to my four siblings and I. A neighbor when asked by an official doing a background check on Dad what he did for a living said he thought Dad was a Little League baseball coach.

From the time I could walk, I lived at Murphy Candler Little League in Atlanta, starting by eating dirt while my brothers and sisters played baseball and softball and finishing as a Little Leaguer with a dream to play in the major leagues.

Pretty early on, it was apparent that I had some talent. Dad, who enjoyed telling anyone who would listen, "Those that can't do, teach," was my teacher. A swimmer in college, he studied the fundamentals of baseball, particularly Ted Williams' book of hitting and Tom Seaver's book of pitching, like an engineering major crams for physics.

He was a student of the game and smarter than the game at the same time. But, like many dads coaching their sons and daughters, everything started with fundamentals.

Dad used a permanent marker and drew a thick line around the baseball to teach me and countless other Little Leaguers the proper way to throw a baseball and achieve the correct spin. He drilled holes in baseballs and strung twine through them, teaching us the "hit-down drill" - basically soft-toss, but because space and equipment like batting cages and sock nets were limited in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the twine enabled him to pitch and then reel in the batted ball without ever having to move. Or he'd use the same contraption and swing the twine over his head lasso-style, forcing his young hitters to work on their hand-eye coordination - hit the ball, and you were OK, hit the rope and it would wrap around your bat and make you look silly and feel something like Charlie Brown. And I can't imagine how many thousand ground balls Dad hit one-handed to me so that I could field ("Two hands for beginners!"), step and throw right back to him and his well-oiled Rawlings.

Not a day has gone by over the past few weeks that I haven't thought of those days.

I remember how excited he was when our team at Marist School won the state title in 1990, when I was a part-time defensive player who rarely hit - Dad loved to go back to Marist and watch games, always telling me they ruined the sightlines by putting in dugouts and reminiscing about how his car broke down on the way home from watching the War Eagles play for another state title in Augusta 20 years after our team won a ring.

When I didn't have many options to play in college, I remember how he supported my decision to try to walk on at South Carolina instead of starting school a few days after high school graduation and give it a shot at Georgia Tech, where he worked for 20-plus years. When I was cut after a two-hour tryout and started focusing on a sportswriting career at The Gamecock, he lived for getting the clips I sent in the mail. And when I missed playing baseball, he encouraged me to mail about 30 letters to coaches all over the country - most of the addresses I pulled from the Gamecocks' 1992 media guide - as a last-gasp at a chance to play Division I college baseball.

When I got back to 520 LaBorde in the now-demolished honeycomb dorms at USC one night after dinner, I never had heard my dad so proud. The coach from the University of Richmond called, he recorded on my answering machine. Expect him to give you a call. Way to go. Good luck. I love you.

A couple months later, Dad and I drove from Atlanta to Richmond for a visit. Coach Ron Atkins had offered me the chance to walk-on and promised to keep me for at least a year. Dad, without pushing me one way or the other, helped me wrestle with the decision: pass on becoming the sports editor at The Gamecock and saying goodbye to my close group of friends at South Carolina for the chance to play Division I baseball at Richmond. He stood by me when I called Coach Atkins from a Holiday Inn the next day to accept. And he beamed all the way to Savannah, where we were due for a tournament.

Dad and Mom, who passed away last summer, loved to watch the Spiders, even when I didn't play. Dad especially loved to study our coaches, Coach Atkins, who gave me the chance to walk on when no one else would, and Mark McQueen, our pitching coach who now leads the Richmond program. He loved the way we played and how it seemed our coaches mixed true talent with hard-nosed, solid ballplayers. And he loved the camaraderie of being a parent.

About five years after hanging up my cleats, I followed in my Dad's footsteps. I began coaching an AAU team, and of course, Dad and Mom had to travel up from Georgia to see us play in Tennessee. Dad and Mom came up to Richmond to see me coach at my first high school and my current school - as he always had been, Dad was a nice sounding board after we lost in the state final in 2009. When we won the state title in 2010, Dad couldn't be there but was the first phone call.

In December, when CBI ran one of its coaching clinics in Atlanta, my dad sheepishly asked if he could attend. He didn't take a note that day, but he absorbed everything Danny Hall, David Perno and John Cohen taught about hitting and relished everything Dave Serrano and John Pawlowski said about pitching. Those that can't do, teach - even though he hadn't coached a team in years, Dad apparently never retired from coaching.

Which brings us to about a month ago.

We were in Ohio for my grandmother's funeral. Dad's mom just turned 100 in January and lived an amazing life. We were at Grandma's house and my sister and I were about to leave for Virginia. I told Dad, "I need a scorekeeper, why don't you come up to Richmond for our season?" He laughed, and I said, "I'm serious." I thought it would be fun, even though I knew Dad wouldn't spend our season in Richmond. He was, however, going to come up for our Spring Break tourney. And he was going to check out his 6-year-old grandson on the diamond. I wouldn't have been surprised if he brought along a "ball on a string" to make sure I was teaching my son the proper fundamentals.

Four days after we left Ohio, Dad died while tending to matters related to his mother's passing nine days earlier.

Fans come in all shapes and sizes. My biggest, not uncommon to many, was my Dad.

He practically carried me as a sobbing 12-year-old after my last Little League tournament that ended well short of Williamsport. He shared in my pain after my last high school game, when my last at-bat banged off the fence, a couple feet of possibly pushing us toward another state title. And he knew to leave me be after my last college game that ended in Kinston, N.C., rather than in Omaha.

Thank you, Dad. Baseball season won't be the same without you.

(photos courtesy of the Ryan family)