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Dropping the Gloves

Frank K. Baker is my son’s namesake. He is also my grandfather and the sports reporter whose droll smile is a throw-back I chase with my keyboard. Working as a journalist for the Salt Lake City Telegram, my old man’s old man and the “Manassa Mauler” stand linked elbow-to-elbow in black-and-white, my grandpa in a fedora, International Hall of Famer Jack Dempsey bulging fit in his turtleneck and velvety dress slacks.

At the altar of my desk, populated by postcards and children’s Origami, I offer cocktails made of language to my ancestors instead of Tequila shots. Today’s special is an offering for my grandpa Frank, who’s been dead more than twenty years now.

What little I know about Frank can be summed up in this single photograph, circa 1930, and these three words: sports, grammar, and decorum.

We share two-thirds of that legacy in common.

For some years, while living in Mormon country, Frank wrote a regular column called “Back-Seat Driving.” In a tentative effort to soft-shuffle into his footsteps, I began to publish my own weekly column called “Baker’s Dozen” in the Campus Press at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1996 just a few years after he died.

As an aspiring journalist, I also reported for the school newspaper and ended up writing a profile of a young woman boxer – Jack Dempsey with a female twist. When an editor from the Boulder Daily Camera recruited me shortly thereafter to cover sports, I turned him down because I lacked the confidence required to enter a man’s world, even if my own grandfather had prevailed there. I loved words like “fisticuffs,” “counterpunch” and “eight-count,” but I worried about using them the wrong way.

In other words, what if I ended up leading with my chin instead of with my fist?

I also lacked the dignity my grandfather possessed. He seems to have intellectualized sports, watching with restraint and grandeur, maintaining an outward appearance of utmost composure.

But in the 1980s, when I was growing up, if the Packers played the Bears, my dad Ralph, Frank’s son, was the opposite of restrained. He was a raging lunatic bellowing at the T.V., his face animated and wringing-wet like the inside of a watermelon. Walter Payton, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, and all the rest of the guys were “dirty fucking scoundrels.” He screamed at the referees, the coaches, the quarterbacks, the tight ends, and the kickers. Even if you were just out there on the sidelines, he read you the Riot Act.

My son Leo, “Little Ralph” as we call him looks, smells, thinks, and acts like my dad. When Leo watches sports on T.V., a bubble of tension dilates and vibrates in the veins of his neck. When the Packers blew the NFC Championship game to the Seahawks, he vomited on the living room floor, and when the Badgers lost in the NCAA tournament last year, he shredded his Bucky Badger Fathead. Where is Frank Baker when you need him to demonstrate the art of self-discipline and correctitude?

In a long line of sports aficionados, sometimes I think I’m the worst one. I’m more Ralph and Leo than I am Frank.

Ryan says if it weren’t for the venue – a hockey arena in Waupun, a baseball diamond in Winneconne, a pool deck in Green Bay – I’d be considered, at times, borderline “disorderly.” Nearly a decade into his law practice by now, he has defended hundreds of clients for “Crimes against public peace, order, and other interests.” According to Chapter 947 of Wisconsin Statutes, “Whoever, in a public or private place, engages in violent, abusive, indecent, profane, boisterous, unreasonably loud or otherwise disorderly conduct under circumstances in which the conduct tends to cause or provoke a disturbance is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor.”

“Come on,” I tell him. “I’m not that bad.” This isn’t Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park. It’s not like I’m not lobbing souvenir baseballs onto the field like a gang of Dodger fans or lobbing ice-packed snowballs at the Camp Randall referees. Fans did that after a November game against Northwestern in 2015.

“Mom,” Irie says. “You were crazy at the one baseball game.”

Sure, in the Little League Parent Code of Conduct, item no. 14 reads, “I will promote the emotional and physical well-being of the athletes ahead of any personal desire I may have for my child to win.”

But what if your kid’s not just losing but being annihilated, game after game, with scores as ugly as 22-1. Oshkosh was the Bad News Bears but not comical, so bad even Hollywood critics would dismiss the storyline as implausible. Nobody loses in baseball by twenty runs. Leo straggled to the car after these games more crumpled and lifeless than the discarded paper bags of popcorn strewn about the park.

“It’s not fun anymore,” he’d say, tears dredging clean streaks onto his dust-caked face.

And as Leo has moved up from Squirts to Pee Wees in hockey this year, the game has evolved from rough to rougher. Though not technically allowed to “check” each other, Waupun boys especially like to slam Oshkosh boys into the boards. Juvenile refs laugh off the penalties, and mother hooligans in the bleachers hasten toward boisterous. The boys are only 11 years old, fewer than 100 pounds each with their pads and skates on.

After multiple injuries for our small team – only ten boys on our best day – Waupun dropped one of our boys with a stick to the gut. When refs finally blew the whistle, I just might have waited for the lull, then hollered, “Think about calling a penalty.” I stopped short of an insult, caught between annoyance and shock, my throat jagged against the refrigerated air.

Ryan has umpired baseball and refereed football. He stands apart from me, embarrassed mostly because I remind him of rude spectators he’s endured, or worse yet, his clients, who end up behind bars for getting belligerent in public.

Sporting events bring out the rioter in me. Somebody slips a different battery into my brain. The electrochemical effect zaps me into a totally different mindset, and I’m freed from my normally calm and unrattled demeanor.

Frank K. Baker, who went on to become president of the American Bowling Congress and later was inducted into the Bowling Hall of Fame was a much more dignified enthusiast than me. At least that’s what my keyboard tells me. I am punching away, one key at a time, trying to understand his pin-striped suit, arms crossed in relaxed fashion as Dempsey clutches my grandpa’s bicep – a pose to end all poses. Nearly a century has lapsed since this photo.

Mostly in life I roll with the punches, and I also pull them, but when my kids compete – on any rink, diamond, or course – I can’t resist a sucker-punch to the air. I wonder what Frank felt when he watched his own children dribble a ball or swing a bat. Did his heart erupt from his chest as mine does when I see my children learn to fine-tune their bodies’ magic?

Blow by blow by blow, I can hear myself breathing as the miracle of athleticism vies for my attention. Everything else – dishes, laundry, emails, lesson plans – fades into the roar of the crowd.

Leo’s body defends the Warbirds’ goal, or Frank dangles the puck past a defender, up the ice, for his first goal. We are bound by the moment, their bodies and mine, athlete and spectator. I remember, they used to skate around inside me, still the size of my fist.

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