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Why Every Man Needs Two Fathers

What I didn’t learn from my dad, I learned from my Little League coach

Two men playing baseball with young child at sunset
Shutterstock (2)

I fell in love with baseball because of Joe Zailski, my Little League coach. 

Every kid should have a coach like Joe. His passion for baseball, and all sports, never curdled into tyranny. Purpose calibrated play. Thirty-five years later, I remember every sign: Touch of the cap and skin meant steal; touch of the cap and belt buckle meant bunt. We learned to do the latter without looking like Tom Berenger at the end of Major League. We always hit the cutoff man. 

What made it all so intoxicating was we won. Joe’s teams were the 1950s Yankees of Matawan–Aberdeen Little League. He retained the same players for years, allowing for the well-coached cohesion that defines dynasties. I can still see George Morales scooping up grounders to my left at shortstop, and Chris, Joe’s massive son, stretching out for my parabolic throws. 

A baseball diamond in the mid-1980s offered clear definitions: Out. Safe. Win. Lose. If I tried hard and followed the rules, I could thrive and belong. The principles of thoroughness Joe espoused serve as self-help parables minus the smarm. As soon as you make contact, think double. Catch a ball with two hands. Joe was the straight-down-the-middle, all-American dad I craved. 

My actual dad was harder to categorize. Born in Buenos Aires, he was 6 feet tall, weighed 280 pounds and sported a full beard. People said he had an accent, but I never noticed it. He was introspective and blunt — qualities that make 10-year-olds feel protected even if they don’t know why.

In my memories, Joe is surrounded by sunlight and verdant ballfields, like the hero in a preschool mural. He was easily 6 foot 5, with a farm-boy face that softened the height. He drove a silver pickup truck and drank beer in cans. His “Hello, Pete” greetings felt like a clap on the shoulder. 

Early on, Joe urged Dad to play catch with me. “OK, Joe,” my dad replied, “but who’s going to teach me?”

He played, even though he didn’t have a clue how baseball worked. For years, he caught my prepubescent lobs bare-handed. (That’s apparently how they did it back in Argentina.)

Dad indulged my obsession. He watched, without complaint, every second of every rosin-dry baseball documentary on VHS. He attended every game I played in, turning himself into a fan because I was. 

That world couldn’t survive. By the time I was 15, organized baseball became more competitive, requiring off-season training and travel. It felt like punching in for the graveyard shift. Like so many other boys with limited athletic talents, I moved on to the next thing.

And as I moved on, Joes’s magic waned, allowing me to see my father’s. He was exact in his work as a contractor, watching This Old House with the fervor Tony Gwynn applied to watching video of his at-bats. He was meticulous, whether putting up kitchen cabinets or finessing concrete squares for the backyard basketball court in the relentless Jersey heat. As I picked up writing, he introduced me to writers beyond the Asbury Park Press sports section.

I think about my two dads a lot, especially when I watch my daughter, 6 years old, in our driveway. I hoist sputtering jump shots, and she pursues them like the 12th man aching to break into the rotation. 

I try to encourage her the way Joe encouraged me, and live by example the way Dad does: to be supportive for all of it, even what I don’t understand. Both men prepared me for fatherhood — Joe during play and Dad outside the lines, where my daughter chases a battered basketball and returns with it wide-eyed, wondering what’s next.

Follow Article Topics: Family-&-Fatherhood