For the record, it ended in a grungy sports bar in Tallahassee, waiting for a game that never happened, on Saturday, June 9, 2012. When they finally announced, after a two-hour rain delay that we rode out in that sports bar, that the second game of the baseball super regional was cancelled, we had to hustle out of town to get back to Tampa to catch our early morning flight the next day.
Like so many things in life—sometimes even the greatest of adventures—it ended not with a bang, but a whimper. Just in case you were wondering, though, I did catch you wiping those tears out of your eyes as we drove away from that sports bar. Both of us had hoped against hope, without ever articulating it to each other, that somehow the baseball team could extend it by giving us one last trip to Omaha. Though there was still a whisper of hope as we hustled out of town, both of us knew it was almost certainly over.
“It” was our quest to be there when Stanford won a national title. It did not start out as a quest, of course. But, ironically (or perhaps fittingly), it did start out with another game that did not exist. And Florida State, of all schools, was involved in that one, too.
Our first attempt to see Stanford win a national championship was a trip from Columbia, Missouri, to Omaha, to see Stanford play for the College World Series title in 1999, when you were five years old. As is usually the case in the post-season, there was risk in even starting out for Omaha that Friday afternoon, June 18, 1999, because Stanford had to beat Florida State in the semi-final game for there to even be a title game for our beloved Cardinal. In those pre-satellite radio, pre-smartphone days, we pulled into St. Joseph, Missouri, roughly half way to Omaha, and caught the scratchy distant sound of an Omaha radio station, where an announcer said something like “In one of the greatest comebacks in College World Series history, Stanford scored seven runs in the seventh inning to take a two-run lead on Florida State. They are now just three outs away from the championship game.”
After that barely audible announcement, we lost the station completely. Because we could not get the game on the radio, we stopped to play mini golf, then headed for Omaha again. It took forever to finally get close enough to Omaha to tune in that radio station again, only to find out that Florida State tied the game in the ninth with their own comeback, then won it in the 13th.
So the bookends of our trips were two games that did not exist. In between, though, we had some awesome times together, did we not?
As it became a quest, we settled into a pattern. Once we found out that Stanford was playing in the post-season somewhere near us (mostly, though the “near” restriction was defined broadly and sometimes not applied at all), you would pretend to have no particular interest in going, while desperately hoping we could. You did not want to ask, because you knew it would put extra pressure on me, but you were not very good about hiding the hope that somehow we could go. Meanwhile, your mom would be figuring out a way to get tickets from the Stanford ticket office, then find us cheap hotel rooms and, sometimes, flights. After she got all of that arranged, I had the fun of telling you we were going. To the end, your face always beamed at that news.
It was never meant to be a quest. We always drove that car out of Columbia, and later Laramie, with hope in our hearts, believing that this was the time when we would follow the Cardinal all the way to a title. We tried to keep our expectations low, of course, talking on the way to wherever we were going about how great the opposing team was. But we always thought this would be the time.
As it turns out, the very first trip to a national championship game that actually existed was the closest we ever came to seeing the good guys win. When Stanford made it to a College World Series title game in 2000, the year after our trip to the game that did not exist, we were there. The inside of Rosenblatt Stadium was about the most amazing sight either of us had ever seen. As you undoubtedly recall (because your memory of these things is stunning), Stanford staked itself to a 5-2 lead through the first seven innings. In the eighth, LSU scored three to tie the game. Looking back, the run LSU scored in the bottom of the ninth to win the game now looks like a sign of things that were to come. Back then, though it was crushing for me to look at you crying a river in your cute little Stanford shirt, as the game ended, I figured things would even out for you someday.
As it turned out, you have endured more pain in Omaha than almost the rest of the world combined. We have seen six national championship runs end for Stanford teams in that town, usually in championship games. [By the way, I just compiled a list of our trips, so we would have a record of them, to the best of my recollection. See below. If you include a couple of trips to bowl games, by my count we have taken 17 trips, covering 6,750 air miles and 12,954 car miles, to see Stanford go 3-20 in the post-season, with not a single season ending in victory when we showed up.] After a while, I started to wonder if taking you there was some sort of child abuse.
But I remember that middle school assignment you were given to create a travel brochure for “the place in the world you most wanted to visit.” Your buddies did brochures for Paris or London or Africa. You did a travel brochure for Omaha. [I am pretty sure I still have that brochure.] That told me that, despite all the heartache of seeing all those Stanford teams we loved so much lose, time after time, you treasured those trips.
On every single one of those 17 trips, we left a stadium massively bummed. Then we drove, usually back home. The trip home was never as good as the trip to the game, but somehow it became part of our bonding, too. Loyalty, after all, is not built from watching your team win, but from watching them struggle, and you are the most loyal sports fan I have ever met. At some point on the trip home, the conversation turned to other Stanford sports teams. There was always going to be a “next time,” somewhere down the line, when we would see Stanford win. Until now.
Now I am the one crying as I write this ode to those trips we had together, so we don’t forget them. You are off on the great adventure of life, starting college. We might someday have a chance to watch another Stanford team chase a national title, but the odds are now against it. Life is different now. You will find other pursuits, with other people. That is entirely as it should be. But it means that our little quest, almost a lifelong one for you until now, is over.
Dragging ourselves out of that grungy sports bar in Tallahassee was not the way it was supposed to end. I always figured we would one day see Stanford win, if we just kept chasing our peculiar holy grail. So I figured our quest would end in a bear hug. Even after you got too old to hug your old man, I envisioned the day we would squeeze each other in celebration, tears probably running down our eyes, with people around us in the stands wondering, “What’s the big deal?”
Alas, it did not happen. But let’s not forget all the great times we had, hoping that it would. There was that time in the boot heel of Missouri when you hit wedges in the ditch by the side of the interstate to pass time while we were waiting for a tow truck. You really connected on one, sending it skyward toward the road, where it bounced so high it hit the window of a semi (luckily hurting nobody). And the flamboyant lady at the Whataburger in Houston asked for directions, with the emphasis on where she should turn when she got to “the big ass white guy,” which we knew to be the garish statue of Sam Houston only because we had seen it the day before. And all of those rounds of golf in all of those cities when we were waiting for games to start, culminating just this spring in you finally beating your old man in our standard match. And lots of other great memories.
Speaking of good times, though we almost always saw Stanford losses, we did see a few wonderful Stanford wins on our post-season trips. We saw Brooke Smith and the Cardinal women upset UConn in Kansas City in 2005 (before seeing them fall to a mugging Michigan State in the regional final). From seats right behind home plate that we begged off of a man leaving Rosenblat in 2001, we saw a thrilling extra innings win against Fullerton (before seeing the championship game loss to Miami). We saw the volleyball team smoke UDub in the 2006 national semifinal in what turned to be a “too perfect” effort, because it seemed they peaked one match too early before falling to Nebraska in the final before the largest volleyball crowd in history. We also had a few trips, though not as many, to watch Stanford in assorted regular seasons, and the Cardinal almost always won when we took those trips. And let’s not forget how lucky we were to have been rooting for a school that so often is a player in the post-season, giving us the chance to take all those trips.
Then there was the greatest “trip” of all for us, though it really does not count as a trip because it was less than a mile, to see the softball team in the Columbia regional in 2005. You and I broadcast those games for KZSU. Because you were a mere eleven years old, seven years younger than the NCAA minimum of eighteen to even enter a press box, we had to sneak you into and on top of the press box so you could do the color on those KZSU broadcasts. [You were quite the “Bootleg” broadcaster.] What a glorious weekend that was, to not only see our Cardinal win those three games, but also to do those broadcasts together. It was the only one of our “trips” that ended with a Stanford win, so that makes it special even though our dream of broadcasting the Women’s College World Series died when Tennessee won the Super Regional. When I someday lose all of the rest of my memories, I hope I will still remember that weekend.
As you grow into your manhood and your old man becomes less and less a part of your daily life, I hope you will treasure those memories. In City Slickers, there is a scene where Billy Crystal and his buddies talk about how, when their relationships with their fathers were at their worst, they always had baseball to share. For the two of us, I hope we will always have our beloved Cardinal, even as other things replace it as the most important thing in your life.
I am pretty sure you feel that way, too. On Father’s Day this year, you told me that my present was downstairs in our game-watching Man Cave. I walked down to see a giant lump of paper. When I ripped it off, there stood two chairs from Rosenblatt.
After you and your mother drove away from the parking lot at my office two days ago on the trip to college, I had to walk around campus to compose myself before I could go back into our building. When I got home that night, there was a Walmart photo services bag. Not sure if it was for me, I opened it. Rolled up inside was a poster with pictures from several of our Stanford sports trips (along with pictures from the cycling trips we used to take on our tandem bike).
That might be the most touching gift I have ever received, because it confirmed that those trips meant as much to you as they did to me. So far, though, I have only been able to look at the poster once, because I am still trying to deal with reality of you being gone. [Eventually, of course, I will be able to put that poster into a frame and hang it somewhere so I can see it often. But your father is, as you know, an emotional fool, so that will have to wait for a while.]
I just snuck a quick look at the poster to copy the caption at the top, because it is a fitting end to this note. The quote you put at the top of the poster is: “Sometimes those moments that you spend hoping and believing and waiting for something good to happen are the best moments of your life.”
That they are. Thank you for spending those moments with me.
Record of Post-Season Trips
1999 College World Series (for game that did not exist): 616 car miles
2000 Rose Bowl (for loss to Wisconsin): 2,620 air miles; 420 car miles
2000 College World Series (for championship game loss to LSU): 616 car miles
2001 College World Series (for win over Fullerton, then return trip for championship game loss to Miami): 1,232 car miles
2002 College World Series (for loss to Texas in preliminary game): 616 car miles
2003 College World Series (for loss to Fullerton , then return trip for final series loss to Rice, two games to one): 1,232 car miles
2005 Women’s Basketball Kansas City Regional (for win over UConn, then return trip for loss to Michigan State): 502 car miles
[Non-Trip: 2005 Softball Columbia Regional (for wins over Robert Morris, Southern Illinois, and Missouri)]
2006 Softball Tuscaloosa Super Regional (for two losses to Alabama): 1,246 car miles
2006 Volleyball Omaha Final Four (for win over Washington, then championship game loss to Nebraska): 616 car miles
2008 Men’s Basketball Houston Regional (for loss to Texas): 1,640 car miles
2008 Softball College Station Super Regional (for two losses to Texas A & M): 1,534 car miles
2008 College World Series (for loss to Georgia): 616 car miles
2009 Women’s Basketball St. Louis Final Four (for loss to UConn): 248 car miles
2009 Sun Bowl (for loss to Oklahoma): 1,130 air miles; 332 car miles
2010 Women’s Basketball San Antonio Final Four (for championship game loss to UConn): 1,590 air miles; 338 car miles
2012 Women’s Basketball Denver Final Four (for loss to Baylor): 302 car miles
2012 Baseball Super Regional (for first game loss to Florida State): 3,000 air miles; 848 car miles
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