The 1999 newspaper sports section is now yellowing, yet another sign of how long it’s been since I wrote a column saluting my dad.
He died on Sept. 11, 1999, two years to the day before the date 9/11 became infamous. On Sept. 28, 1999, The Fort Myers News-Press, where I then worked as a sportswriter, published a column I wrote about dad.
My nephew David recently came across that sports section and a batch of other yellowing clippings of mine in the garage of the house where his mother and grandmother lives.
Below are the headline and text from my 1999 column on dad:
I’m one of the lucky ones. My father was always there for me.
Dad taught me to throw a spiral and tried teaching me to drop kick. I remember afternoons behind Rio Vista Elementary in St. Petersburg when he hit towering fungos I thought no human could possibly catch.
He bought my first bicycle and taught me to ride. On my first, tentative backyard trip, I steered straight into a tree.
My father was as eternal it seemed as the moon. He was always there and it seemed to me he would always be there.
I was wrong. My father is no longer there. He died Sept. 11. Death came at 5:45 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon. John R. Miller was 72. His sisters called him Jackie. I called him dad.
A friend described the experience of losing my father as “joining the club,” the huge club of men and women who lose parents.
Eventually, almost everyone joins.
When my phone rings I expect to hear dad on the line, marveling about the Atlanta Braves or perplexed by Notre Dame’s sorry football team.
When I call my mom, I nearly ask what dad is doing. Part of me is still in denial. That’s normal, I’m told. My rational side knows what happened.
My sister called me on the morning of Sept. 5 and said dad was in the hospital and not doing well. Dad had his first heart attack in 1975. He had a triple bypass in 1985. He had battled congestive heart disease for years. Earlier this year he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
When I arrived in his hospital room I could see the damage. The man who bought my baseball gloves lie still, eyes shut, just short of a coma.
When I walked in the room, I said, “Dad, I’m here.”
His eyes fluttered open for a moment. He knew I was there. Most of what else he knew is known only to God.
He wanted to leave the hospital. That much was obvious. At one point early in his final week, through the haze of morphine and other drugs, he somehow whispered one word – “home.”
Home meant memories. I remember him as a coach on one of my baseball teams. Following a practice, the kids stayed to play an all-day pick-up game. Dad also stayed and played all day. He couldn’t walk for two days afterward.
I remember 1960s summer evenings in the third-base bleachers at St. Pete’s Al Lang Field watching the St. Pete Cardinals. The names of those minor-leaguers likely mean nothing to most baseball fans.
For me, the names Sweetpea Davis, Phil Knuckles and Boots Day resonate with a magical, nostalgic ring. They remind me of times with my dad.
Sports of course are how many fathers and sons connect.
In Kevin Costner’s film, “Field of Dreams,” the ultimate moment of the movie is when the Costner character plays catch with his father.
Poet Donald Hall wrote a book called “Fathers Playing Catch With Sons.”
My sister’s suggestion for dad’s headstone epitaph was simple and eloquent: Family Man.
It fits. When the phone rings, I’ll expect to hear dad’s voice. It’s a voice I miss.
It’s been nearly 20 years since dad died and that column was published. At the time I was playing in a rec baseball league and for months afterward I had players in the league come up to me, even guys I didn’t know who played on opposing teams.
They offered condolences or said they liked the column or that it had touched them in ways that reminded them of their own fathers.