Commentary

Baseball, boxing and father-son bond

After my dad's passing, I will cover the Yankees' home opener with a heavy heart

Updated: April 12, 2012, 9:04 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

I will be at Yankee Stadium for the home opener Friday, the day after my father died at the age of 79 of an insidious lung disease called pulmonary fibrosis.

I am going to work because that is what my dad would have done and, if nothing else, I am my father's son.

My dad -- also named Wallace Matthews, after his father -- instilled two traits in me. One was a deep love of sports, and the other was an even stronger work ethic.

For years, I saw this man get up and go to work every morning, and I saw him come home late every night. One of my earliest memories is him coming home after 7 p.m. on the night John F. Kennedy was assassinated. My mother was aghast but my father just shrugged. He still had his job to do. And I still have mine.

[+] EnlargeWallace Matthews with his father
Courtesy of the Matthews familyTwo generations' worth of Wallace Matthewses.

So I will be at Yankee Stadium on Friday, thinking about the first time I saw a baseball game, on our little black-and-white set in our small apartment in Astoria, watching a brand-new club called the Mets playing in an old ballpark called the Polo Grounds.

My dad loved baseball and, having grown up in Brooklyn, of course he loved the Dodgers. When they left for Los Angeles, he -- like a lot of brokenhearted Brooklynites -- pretty much gave up on baseball until the Mets came along. For him, the best center fielder in town wasn't Mickey, it was The Duke. The best shortstop was named Pee Wee, not Scooter. The best catcher went not by Yogi, but Campy.

He never said we couldn't like the Yankees, but you could just tell by his demeanor that such a show of borough disloyalty would be severely frowned upon.

He also loved boxing, another trait he instilled in me, and he really loved Floyd Patterson. Maybe it was a Brooklyn thing, or maybe it was because, like Patterson, my dad was an undersized overachiever, quiet, tough as nails and full of heart.

He used to tell a story, one that still makes us laugh even on as heartrending a day as this one. It concerned a Patterson title fight that my dad really wanted to listen to on the radio, only on this particular night, the radio went on the fritz, and my dad, an incorrigible tinkerer, fiddled with its innards, trying to get it to work until just before the opening bell.

Finally giving up, he ran down the five flights of stairs from our apartment to his car, where he quickly flicked on the radio, only to learn the fight was already over. The night he chose to fool with a radio was the night Patterson fought Sonny Liston for the first time, and the whole thing lasted a wheeze or two over two minutes. To make things worse, Patterson lost.

I remember being about 5 and fighting with my younger brother, as brothers always have and always will, until one night my dad came home from work with a box containing two pairs of boxing gloves. "If you two are going to fight," I remember him saying, "fight with these."

Thus began a lifelong love affair with the fight game that led me to the New York City Golden Gloves and, finally, into the newspaper business where my only real dream was to cover the fights. I got to live that dream, and one of Dad's great thrills was that while I served as president of the Boxing Writers Association of America, I ran an annual banquet at which he got to meet a lot of the fighters he admired so much, men such as Joe Frazier and George Foreman and Tommy Hearns. And of course, Floyd Patterson.

After about 20 years of boxing, I was fortunate enough to move on to my dad's other great love, baseball.

It made him happy to know that instead of riding the god-awful LIRR and going to work in an office every day, as he had for so many years as the manager of a photo-finishing lab in Manhattan, my office was the ballparks: Shea Stadium, where he took my brothers and me so many times as kids, and Yankee Stadium, which he sheepishly admitted he had been to once or twice in his life.

But as I began to cover the Yankees full time, I discovered something interesting about my dad. He really didn't hate the Yankees at all. In fact, he kind of liked some of them. He seemed to have a soft spot for Alex Rodriguez and repeated to me what many a Mets fan has grudgingly allowed over the past 15 years, that not even a Mets fan could dislike Derek Jeter.

After my mom passed away this past December, I had the opportunity to bring my dad to spring training with me for a week. I schlepped him to five ballgames in six days, and even though the pace was tough for a man of his age and increasing infirmity, he stuck out those early preseason games to the bitter end, watching the Zoilo Almontes and Doug Berniers with the same interest with which he would have watched Jeter or A-Rod. He had a great time, and we had both hoped to someday do it again.

That will not happen now. My dad is gone, but his spirit lives on in me, and I will be at the ballpark Friday afternoon, where I belong, because I do have a job and responsibilities, neither of which he would have ever shirked.

And he, hopefully, will be rejoining my mom, whom he missed so much.

And if he's really lucky, maybe he'll run into Floyd Patterson, too.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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