When the Red Hots ruled -- and Dad did, too
"You are the best ballplayer I've ever seen."
That's a statement usually reserved for someone such as Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or Dot Richardson. Unless, of course, it comes from a dad -- a loving and overly exuberant dad who has just seen his daughter hit a home run in the state championship game during her senior year of high school.
That was my dad, Cesare M. Gentile. He was unabashed in his love for me and was supportive of my athletic endeavors from T-ball to college. (My team lost that state title game, on a gloomy day in Newburgh, N.Y., after a three-hour rain delay -- and, yes, it bothers me still.) Dad and I shared a special bond through our love of sports. Whether we were driving two hours each way to watch our beloved New York Giants or he was simply sitting on the sidelines at one of my games, we were together.
Dad passed away July 19, 2008. It's been four long years. In that time, my son -- just 12 weeks old when his grandfather died from heart complications -- has grown into a young boy who walks and talks and swings a bat. My business team and I have launched espnW, a different but wonderful kind of birth. And I now have a new perspective on what's important in life.
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX this year, I can't help but connect that to my own experience. Growing up, I didn't know about Title IX, but it didn't matter, because I had my dad. Perhaps all we need in life is a person who gives us faith, inspiration, support and a well-timed hug. Title IX laid the groundwork for equal opportunity in sports, but it would have meant little without people who could put its message into action. People like my parents and my older siblings. A family that cares.
My mom, Janice, was and is an absolute rock, a deep source of love and dedication. My older brothers and sister -- Raymond, Michael and Susan -- allowed me to learn from them, listen to them, encouraging me to put my dreams into action. Sometimes it helps to be the youngest in the family, by eight years no less.
When it came to sports, softball was my first love, but in high school, I realized field hockey was my future. On the day I received a scholarship offer to play at Duke, we were overjoyed. And when we took a step back, we were amazed. How did that happen? How did a tireless little tomboy get to play the sport she loved at the Division I level and get an education of the highest order? In large part because my dad was there for me every step along the way.
It all began in the mid-1980s, when a new, slow-pitch softball program was established in Long Island; a select summer team composed of local all-stars would travel around the tri-state area playing the best competition. It was a novel idea, spearheaded by a local politician with a good heart and big plans. Tryouts were held, and turnout was impressive. When the team was finally chosen, it truly was a collection of the best players from miles around.
Back then, I was a chubby 10-year-old with a good arm and a desire to field ground balls all day. And my dad would hit those grounders -- all day. I liked nothing more than going to the local batting cage and hitting line drive after line drive. Dad was the one with the bottomless pocket of quarters.
The travel team was originally named the Red Devils. But when a parent complained about the connotation, we became the Red Hots. It was a name you couldn't hide from. It demanded a quality team, one with style. And the Red Hots delivered for seven seasons. We won many, many games, county and regional championships -- and we cried whenever we ended up with a second-place trophy. A few girls came and went, but the core stayed true over the years. Melissa at first base. Cheri at second. Michele in left. Diana at third. Christina and Patti, Caroline and "Bert." I played shortstop.
Eventually, the local politician moved on to his bigger plans and my dad became our coach. We dedicated our summers to the Red Hots, practice after practice, game after game. We looked sharp in our red uniforms and played even better, motivated by a love for the sport and each other.
I was so serious about softball, I wouldn't swim before games or lay out in the sun, for fear of sapping my energy, and I'd occasionally become annoyed with teammates who did. But that was the full extent of any drama. We came together each hot summer afternoon, and we celebrated together after each win. (To this day, we laugh at the memory of beating the older, larger, super-talented team from Bay Ridge and its dreaded shortstop, Douey.)
Best of all, my dad was there, always. He set the lineup, organized our practices, made sure we hit the cutoff man. He never hollered. He never demanded anything but quality play. We knew he wanted to win badly, and yet he simply steered us in the right direction.
As I grew from that little Red Hot, eventually becoming captain of my college field hockey team, my dad and I stuck together. We held hands, laughed, listened to sports radio and talked about our favorite teams. And as my dreams grew bigger -- as I developed the discipline and focus to build strength, gain speed, hone my skills -- we still held hands, sharing hugs after victories and losses. My dad was as supportive as a father could be. He never pushed me, never imposed his dreams on me and mostly marveled at my desire to improve, to practice, to set goals. I became his pride and joy, and he became mine.
I look back now and think about all the time we spent together, from the mundane to the spectacular, from shopping at the hardware store to attending the Super Bowl. We cleaned the pool and watched the Yankees sweep the Braves. We spent hours at the local driving range, and we stood in the gallery when the U.S. Open came to Bethpage. My dad could somehow appreciate basketball games in which I scored six points while missing several layups, and he cheered me on as I broke the career field hockey scoring record at Duke. We shared it all. He was there, always.
These four years without him have been harder than I ever could have imagined. It's hard not to hold his hand, or to call him and talk about the New York sports scene, or to see his smiling face when I walk in the door. It's hard not to see the twinkle in his eye as we'd share an inside joke or chuckle at old stories. It's hard not to tell him about my latest plans, to have him hold my son, to see him embrace my husband, to play another round of golf at our favorite course.
But he is there, always. His spirit, his love, his warmth are still there for me, and his impact is everlasting. It's strange not having him present, convinced in his heart and mind that his daughter can do anything -- that we can do anything together. It's painful in a way I've never felt.
This Father's Day, I'll savor memories of my coach, my friend, my golf partner -- my dad -- while listening to the Yankees and playing catch with my son, William Thomas Cesare.
And I'll always remember one of the loveliest moments of my father's memorial service, when I saw the enormous arrangement of red and white roses, and the placard emblazoned with the words "Beloved Coach."
Sent by his Red Hots.
Laura Gentile is the founder of espnW.