Merry Christmas, Dad

The Phillies gave us the best present of the year

Holiday melancholy, the kind that whispers sweet and sad, crept up on me early this season.

For that, I blame the Phillies.

Finding a Christmas present for my dad was never easy. He didn’t want much or need much and preferred that we get something really nice for my mother instead. He would feign interest when opening a present but you could tell it meant little. [SIGNUP]

My dad died seven years ago. He was a pitcher as a kid, toiling mostly in the sandlots around Roxborough and Manayunk for leagues and teams long forgotten. An extended family member once told me that as a young guy my dad had a smooth windup, a knuckleball that baffled hitters and a killer pickoff move. Your father, he went on, got looked at by a major league scout or two.

This was big stuff for a kid, but I could never get him to confirm any of it. He’d wave his hand dismissively when I’d bring it up, never one for talking up glory days past when there was so much to get done in the moment. It’s like that, I imagine, when you have seven kids.

But I always assumed the report of his baseball acumen to be true. The clues were everywhere.

There was the way he held a baseball. He would grip it this way and that, two fingers across the seams one second, three fingers the next, his fingernails digging in a moment later. It was like a magician doing a coin trick; his fingers never stayed still long enough to get a good look at what was happening.

There were the pitching tips that mirrored his guidelines for life. “Control is everything,” he’d emphasize. “You want to be in charge.” And: “Power comes in throwing straight overhand; being all sidearm and tricky doesn’t fool anybody.”

When we’d go to Phillies games, he’d buy seats down low behind the plate. If those weren’t available, he’d choose upstairs behind the plate over better seats on the first or third base side. Baseball wasn’t fun unless he could see the kind of pitches being thrown.

For my dad, a great baseball game was a shutout; even better, a pitching duel. A one-nothing game was ideal.

As a kid, a game with little hitting was boring. While I’d be rooting for Dick Allen to jack one over the COKE sign, he’d be admiring the way Bob Gibson was blowing the Phillies’ hitters away. It was like we were watching two different games.

He was a Phillies’ fan by birth, but he’d quietly root for whatever pitcher happened to be throwing a gem—Koufax, Drysdale, Marichal, an unknown rookie, whoever. It was nice if it was a Phillies’ pitcher doing the handiwork, but since that wasn’t the case much back then he became quietly agnostic about the outcome of games. He was there to admire pitching art.

We all become our parents, everyone says, and as I got older I started watching baseball the way he would. I began to root for the pitchers, watch how they worked the hitters closely and relish the shutouts.

It would’ve been easy buying for my dad this Christmas. With the Phillies starting rotation, a pair of tickets behind home plate for a game—any game—would’ve made his Christmas.

Like a lot of Philadelphians, I expect to be at the ballpark a lot this summer. Tickets behind home plate promise to be tough, so if you want to find me I’ll be one of the guys standing in the walkway behind home plate, looking to see what’s happening on the mound from the best angle I can find.

Tim Whitaker (, is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.