Elysian Fields

A father's dream for the Angels comes true.

In a life zestfully devoted to kids and family and sports and words, it is a moment that stands out like few others. I sat on the floor, my back resting against the couch. Next to me, in a baby carrier, slept my infant son. I was jotting down notes for an article I was going to write for the fledgling Tucson Weekly as Alexander, all round and soft--and whiter than Nicole Kidman--blew spit bubbles in his sleep. On the TV, history was unfolding. It was 1986 and the long-hapless California Angels were about to make it to the World Series.

The Angels were up three games to one in the best-of-seven series and were leading 4-2 heading into the ninth in Game 5. The Red Sox had a couple runners on base, but there were two outs and the Angels' fireballing reliever Donnie Moore was on the mound. I put down my clipboard and used my little finger to pop one of Alexander's bubbles, half-hoping that the spitwash might wake him so we could share the moment together. I looked at my son and thought about my dad.

Leo Francis Danehy grew up in America's heartland but never shed his Irish roots. The Danehy clan had stuck it out through the Potato Famine and the devastating poverty that enveloped Ireland through the next several decades. But as the political unrest, headed by the brash Michael Collins and the duplicitous Eamon De Valera, threatened to rip Ireland apart, his family left for America and settled on a small farm in Iowa.

The memories of my father come in a sloppy, uneven package. The image is one of cars and beer and almost-crippling World War II injuries that severely narrowed his options over the last 40 years of his life. And despite a startling life change around age 50, where he went from itinerant used-car salesman to influential union leader, his life remained simple. He loved his wife; he loved his kids; and he loved baseball.

I don't know if he ever played the game, even once. I do know that in his teens, his life consisted of eight-hour (or more) days on the farm sandwiched around his time at school. Up at 4:30, asleep not long after sundown. Not much time for anything besides cows and chickens, pigs and books.

After high school, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), part of FDR's New Deal. And when the war broke out, the entire CCC was drafted. My dad saw action in North Africa and Italy, and for a while he got to drive around Bill Mauldin and Ernie Pyle. But one day he was driving a colonel someplace and the rear left tire ran over a land mine. They only found parts of the colonel, and my dad was left unable to hear in his left ear and with shrapnel embedded throughout his back, some of it perilously close to his spine. A series of operations over the next quarter-century would leave him in constant pain and unable to hold down anything other than low-paying, dead-end jobs.

Baseball was his lifeline. He always had a radio next to his bed during his long stints in the hospital and he watched games on TV while at home. And when he was physically and financially able to do so, he'd take his only son to a ballgame in person. Unfortunately for me, they were always Angels games.

Los Angeles in the 1960s was owned by the glamorous Dodgers--Sandy Koufax and hometown star Don Drysdale, whose catcher back at Van Nuys High was Robert Redford. The Rams were lousy and the Lakers, perennial runners-up to the Celtics, were but a delightful off-season diversion for many. Even with USC football and UCLA basketball, the Dodgers towered over the sports landscape. And at the absolute bottom of the barrel were the Angels, a little too good to provide comic relief and not nearly good enough to be taken seriously.

I don't know why my dad liked the Angels. Maybe it was the Irish affection for the underdog. He even spent money the family couldn't afford to buy me an Angels cap. You have to understand: Being the only white kid in the projects during the Black Panther days was nothing compared to wearing an Angels cap in Dodgertown. When I used to say my prayers at night, I'd put in an extra thanks to God that it wasn't legal for kids to wear caps to school.

My dad never faltered in his love for the misbegotten team, even as they broke his heart over and over again with one near miss after another. And so I put down my writing and focused on the TV as the moment he had dreamed about for so long was nearing.

My dad had died a couple months earlier. He never got to meet his grandson. We had been planning to visit my folks that summer after we baptized Alexander, but my dad died the same day as the baptism and that was that.

I remember thinking how much it sucked that after all those years of devotion, my dad would miss the Angels going to the World Series by a matter of weeks. But of course, the Angels blew it again in one of the biggest chokes in sports history. Donnie Moore surrendered a home run and then the Red Sox won two blowouts back in Boston to reach the Series. I actually heaved a sigh of relief for my dad that the Angels didn't win it. (Moore, overcome with guilt, spiraled into drug addiction and took his own life less than two years later.)

My son is now a high school football player and the Angels are finally in the World Series. My dad would have loved this team. As Ron Shelton wrote in Bull Durham, they play the game "with joy and verve and poetry."

If there's a heaven, as I believe there is, the past 16 years have been but a blink of an eye. I sure hope he's happy now.

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