Small repayments of Dad's giant love
He worked so hard. So very hard. Drove a beat-up 1969 Valiant to work every day. Big hole in the floorboard. Glove compartment that popped open every time we hit a bump. Drove a 1969 Valiant so that my brother and I could go to a private high school Dad couldn't really afford.
Then his company moved to Chicago. You know what he did? Flew out of Miami first thing Monday mornings. Flew back last thing Friday nights. We were a family on weekends. Dad hates the cold. Man, he hates the cold. It is why he moved to Miami in the first place. But off to Chicago he went, cold and lonely, every week for more than a year. Didn't want to uproot his two sons from school and friends and familiarity, so he would uproot himself instead.
Kids being kids, and because the eternal lament of the parent is to be underappreciated, my brother and I would complain about having to give up every high school Friday night to pick Dad up at the airport. Mom being mom, she kept everything together, ever the loving glue, even though her protesting kids couldn't quite see the value in that yet back then. So wise, that woman. So loving and gentle and kind. You know how my parents met? Mom lost drawing toothpicks with her roommates for a blind date. My dad laughed big the other day, 45 years later, shaking his fists over his head about how she lost that day but he won.
And isn't that the life of the exile? Making so many sacrifices so your kids have to make so few? Giving up your dreams so that your children can chase theirs? Turning the short straw into victory with love and work and will? The island of Cuba rots 90 miles away from South Florida, choked by communism, but look at what the exiles built for us here in Miami. Freedom and land and childhoods stolen. Look at what they built.
My father taught me to love sports. My earliest memories are with him at the Orange Bowl, in terrible seats I thought were the best in the world, my little hand in his big one as we made our way through the most chaotic and magical place I'd ever been. One day, he came out to one of my baseball games late, still in a tie, and got frustrated by how often I struck out. Mom pulled him aside -- so wise, that woman, so loving and gentle and kind -- and told him that she could teach me just about everything while he was at work but she couldn't teach me how to be a man. From then on, in every single team photo I took throughout childhood, the coach you'd see smiling in the back was always dad.
All of that overwhelmed me this month, when I started a new television show, doing a dream job in the only city I've ever loved, sitting next to my dad. The gratitude. The blessing. The circle of life. I'm a head-over-heart guy, pretty even, and that shapes my view of sports, logical more than emotional. But what swept over me the day of our debut, amid the anxiety, caught me entirely off guard. It was a big day. And I was pretty scared. But then Dad walked in for his first day at the new office, guayabera slung over his shoulder. He was uncommonly happy, far less anxious and self-conscious than I was. And something melted away in me. He doesn't express himself very well. He would never say he was excited, but I could tell that he was. When I asked afterward if he had enjoyed himself, he said that what he enjoyed, what he always enjoys, is helping me.
"Dan Le Batard is Highly Questionable" airs on ESPN2 at 4 p.m. ET. It features sports writer Dan Le Batard and his father, Gonzalo Le Batard. Watch a Kevin Love interview.
Some backstory: I do the TV show in the armpit of Miami, a small city called Hialeah. It is very Hispanic and pretty poor. My father loves this place, even as he got me out of it to send me to that private school. He has called himself "el ratón de Hialeah" (the rat of Hialeah) for years. Knows all the hidden places, all the shortcuts. When I was in college and needed a tire for my car, he walked me through a labyrinth of back alleys, found a side door I wasn't even sure was a door and out of it emerged a man with a car tire for $15. Hialeah is where my father worked for two decades, as the plant manager of a factory. That's all there is in that neighborhood. Factories and mud and dust and work and a whole lot of people who came to this country looking for something else. And then, as he approached 60, after two decades, Dad was let go by a company that didn't appreciate him. Forced into early retirement. When he came back to clean out his office, all the things on his messy desk had already been thrown away. How's that for punctuation? If there was anything he valued in the place he had given two decades, he'd have to retrieve it from the trash.
This was hard, obviously. Really hard. That's how he had always defined himself. The supporter. The provider. That's what kept him working so hard in a job that wasn't much fun. It is what made him keep driving me to school in that car with the misbehaving glove compartment. It is what got him on flights to freezing Chicago first thing Monday morning. He got to this country with very little money and English, worked his way through college as a waiter, and got a master's degree in industrial engineering so he could provide for us. He didn't get a lot of joy out of his work, but he did get that. A man collects an uncommon amount of his self-worth and identity from his life's work, and now these people had come in and dumped all that in the trash cans next to his desk. No good reason, really. He hadn't done anything wrong. Change in management. And he was old. So it was all over, just like that, without warning and not on his terms, too late for him to start over.
But here's the good part: The new TV show? It is somehow in Hialeah. A few blocks from where he used to work. A few blocks! The factory that let him go? Closed. Dad is now coming into work every day again in the old neighborhood, at 68, a decade after being told he was too old. He keeps shaking his fists and yelling, "The rat is back! The rat has returned home!" He looks happier than I've seen him in a decade. And, implausibly, impossibly, even though he doesn't know very much about sports and even less about sports television, el ratón de Hialeah is in the middle of all those national TV lights now. The son he kept investing in, well, now I can start repaying a debt I'll never really finish repaying.
I don't know if this TV show is going to be successful in the way television does the measurements. No idea. What I do know is that I'm going to enjoy every blessed second at the side of the man who raised me.
I know this, too: As we got ready to go into the studio to do our first show Sept. 12, and I looked over to see my happy old man next to me, I couldn't keep it down.
I bowed my head and wept.
Dan Le Batard is a Miami sports writer and radio host.
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- Florida, Zona, Wichita, UVa get No. 1 seeds
- Brown, SMU snubbed by NCAA tournament
- AAC's standing may have led to L'ville seed
- No. 6 UVa tops No. 7 Duke to reign in ACC