BETWEEN THE LINES - Meet 'Let's Play Ball Dad'

Thursday, April 19, 2001

For the first time in a long time, when they hold their gala Iowa Newspaper awards in a fancy hotel ballroom somewhere in Des Moines, I won't be there.

It isn't that we won't win anything. The Pilot is one of the best ever at what it does, and we have a wall about ready to collapse under the weight of those golden first-place plaques to prove it. When they hand out the honors this month, we will have our share, I suppose.

If they happen to call our name this time around, I just won't be there to answer. And I won't miss a minute of sleep for it.

You see, I have a more pressing request. As tickled as we are with all the awards the newspaper gets, I am twice as honored by a more simple invitation.

My kids, Kate and Chris, want me to play ball.

In all honesty, I am more comfortable on the dusty old Little League field than I am in a luxury hotel anyway. I feel more natural in jeans minus knees and a sweaty tee-shirt than I do in a sport coat and shiny shoes. I'd rather be in Lakeside than in Des Moines.

I was never very good at trying to impress anybody. My kids don't need impressing, but they do need their dad. Too many times, an important story or editorial or special edition has called me away. Too many times I've ended up at a fire or a meeting, and by the time I got home, all I could do was look at their faces while they slept.

If there isn't a law that says a spring weekend is made for throwing a baseball with your kids, there should be.

I apologize to the people who give out awards and plan elaborate banquets with sand dollar-size hunks of gray meat that I can't quite identify as pig, cow or chicken. I apologize to the governor and whatever other bigshots they get to give windy speeches to a hall full of captive journalists. Nobody just skips out on such a thing, and I do not want to appear ungrateful.

Maybe there will be time enough for that later. Sadly, the day will come when my kids won't be young enough to want to ask dad to play ball any more. There will be time for banquets and schmoozing then. Um, maybe.

In the meantime, I consider it an honor to be asked to play ball by two little grass-stained urchins who mean the world to me. I wouldn't trade a single day of it for all the trophies in the world.

I never was much of a ballplayer. There's a hitch in the old swing, a hang in the old curve and a fly ball perpetually lost in the sun. The kids don't mind - they go easy on the old man. Kate's the slugger of the family, and Chris promises to have a better glove than I ever did. My father would have loved to see them play like that on the impossibly green grass of the local outfield; baseball was his passion, and we spent a lot of afternoons watching ball games together before he died. Maybe he does see them, at that.

Kate and Chris aren't the least impressed by the fact that in my time here, I've put out 2,000 issues of the newspaper along with the best news staff people in the business. They don't care that I've rattled off 700 columns (geez - if there's an award, you people who have had to put up with all of that junk should get it!)

My kids aren't impressed that we've won about 120 state, national and international awards in that time, including Iowa Newspaper of the Year. They are impressed that I can make the The Top Secret World's Best Cheeseburger after the game, though.

They don't care at all how many presidents I've interviewed and photographed, or that I've been invited to the White House by a former president because of something I wrote somewhere, sometime. They do care that I can make all the background animal noises while they read me the adventures they wrote in school that day.

They don't care about circulation or the magazines my stuff occasionally appears in. They love that I can show them the constellations in the night sky and how to lay down a bunt down the third base line.

Those two don't give a rip about what I make, who I know, what I drive, what I wear. They sure care about throwing that scuffed-up baseball around, though. Frankly, I think their priorities are pretty good ones at that.

To them I'm not an editor, or a journalist, or a businessman, or a writer, or a photographer, or whatever it is that I'm supposed to be all week. All they ask is for me to be home a little more. I'm just "Let's Play Ball Dad," and that's a pretty good job if you can get it.

The other day my little girl came in and left a painting on my desk. They don't give those out in Des Moines. It is brightly colored, even the fingerprints on it. It shows a smiling sun shining on a baby blue lake with orange swans and fish in day-glo red. Yeah, I can see that fine place from the field where we play ball.

I think I'll throw away some of these award plaques to make room for it on the wall here.

Have a great convention, Iowa newspaper people. I wish you all great luck and great happiness with your well-deserved victories. And if you need me, you know where I'll be.