The following is excerpted from Are We Winning?: Fathers and Sons in the New Golden Age of Baseball by Will Leitch, published by Hyperion.
1994. Once, in college, I came home for a weekend when I was somewhat depressed, for those vague, completely stupid reasons people get depressed in college. It was springtime, and the Cardinals were playing an afternoon game at Wrigley; I was supposed to meet my father for lunch to watch it. I drove to his office, the CIPS Electric Company substation, where a bunch of electricians had Playboy calendars and posters of Camaros peppering all available wall space.
My dad works, essentially, as a troubleshooter for the electric company. You know those big unwieldy metallic configurations with the power company’s logo slapped on a chain- link and barbed wire fence? They’re usually siphoned off away from everything else, because they’re highly dangerous. When your power goes out, because of a storm or something— sometimes a kamikaze bird will do a death dive right into a transformer, shorting out half the town— it’s because one of those has broken down.
Well, my dad’s the guy who fixes those and makes sure nothing goes wrong with them. He’s been doing it my whole life, and he’s very good at it. He has developed a reputation among his coworkers and bosses as a guy who never does a job half-ass, never complains, and never leaves work for others to do. Troubleshooting can be hazardous; while on the job, Dad has watched a man be electrocuted to death, only a few feet away. When I was in junior high, an accident once chopped off his middle finger at the knuckle. They put it in iced milk and sewed it back on. You can poke his middle finger with a needle, and he can’t feel it. It’s kind of fun.
About fifteen years ago, my father’s union was threatening a strike. Management had been considering the possibility of locking the workers out as a preemptive maneuver, but they weren’t quite sure if the union was bluffing. A large part of my father’s job is overtime; he’s on call twenty-four hours a day, because you never know when your power’s going to go out. In twenty years, my father had never once, for any reason, turned down overtime; when they called, no matter what time of day, no matter what he might have had going on (he once left halfway through opening Christmas presents), he always dropped what he was doing and did the job. The union, as a matter of protest, distributed word throughout its ranks that, as a show of solidarity, when the dispatcher called, they would feign sickness to let management know they meant business.
At 8 p.m. one night about two weeks before my high school graduation, our phone rang, and I answered. The dispatcher said, “Will, is your dad there?” I handed him the phone and watched as my dad, saddened, going against his very nature, said, “Sorry, Bob, I’m, um . . . I’m real sick. I can’t make it.” If Bryan Leitch was turning down overtime, management knew the union wasn’t kidding around. They locked out the workers the next day. Eventually management caved. There were a lot of guys like my dad in that union.
Anyway: The day I went to go meet Dad for the Cards-Cubs game, Buck, a guy my father has worked with forever, saw me pull in and told me Dad was stuck on a job just outside of town and wouldn’t be back for half an hour. We shared a cigarette and he asked me about college. “You still writing about the Illini for your student paper? I’ve had just about enough of Lou Henson; he should retire.” I told him I was, in a dismissive, this-is-a-waste-of-my-precious-time type of way. I was sure he didn’t care about my newspaper columns any more than my dad did; my father had famously lectured me on the foolishness of majoring in journalism, where no one did anything but write pointless, usually inaccurate stories, and besides, there weren’t any jobs anyway. I had a big chip on my shoulder about my family in college. I think most college students do.
Buck told me I should just wait in Dad’s office—which didn’t really have a desk; it was mostly a card table where he ate lunch—until he returned. I scowled and pouted my way through the endless parade of work trucks, with ladders and hooks and big metal things I’d never know how to use stacked loosely on their sides, past the welders and the sparks and all the real work, and made my way to Dad’s office. He shared the large room with about ten other guys, and it was empty.
I threw my backpack next to his desk with disgust and slouched in his chair. I then looked up. The first thing I noticed was a picture of my sister in her cheerleading uniform. This was before my sister had discovered the counterculture, back when she was a gymnast and a popular kid. She was carrying pom-poms and flashing a bright braces smile. Next to that was, to my shock, my most recent sports column for the Daily Illini, surrounded by a whole collage of others. My father’s desk was covered in his son’s newspaper clippings. He even had one I’d written about the annoyance of incompetent teaching assistants; that story must have had as much cultural significance to my father as an exposé of the oppression of Muslim women in Iran. I’d had no idea he’d ever even read the Daily Illini. I’d had no idea he even cared.
I sat quiet for a moment, then grabbed my backpack and headed out to my car. I’d wait for Dad there. I didn’t want him to see me seeing all that at his desk. It would have been embarrassing for both of us.