Excerpt: 'The Best Seat in the House'
May 18, 2006— -- USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan was raised by a sports-loving father who taught her that she could do or be whatever she wanted. He inspired her through her career, which has included stints at the Miami Herald and the Washington Post and required tricky navigation through a male-dominated field. Her memoir, "Best Seat in the House," is a tribute to her inspiration, her dad.
Read an excerpt below.
My Father's Daughter
"Two tickets to a Cleveland Indians game," the announcer wassaying on the Saturday-morning radio show on WSPD inToledo, Ohio, "for the person who knows the answer to thistrivia question."
All six of us were at the kitchen table on a typically chaotic,noisy Saturday morning in late May of 1969. I had my headburied in the newspaper, poring over the baseball standings. Idon't think my parents or my siblings heard the question, but Idid.
"Who were the two pitchers involved in the only double nohitterin baseball history?" the man on the radio asked.
"I know the answer to that," I said, as much to myself as toanyone else. "Fred Toney and James Vaughn."
It was in one of the baseball books I was reading. Having justturned eleven, I already was smitten with baseball, with ourminor-league Mud Hens and with all the major-league teamssurrounding us: the Cubs and White Sox in Chicago, the Tigersin Detroit, the Indians in Cleveland, the Reds in Cincinnati. Unlikeso many children in other parts of the country, I didn't haveto pick one team to cheer for. I had a half dozen in my big Midwesternbackyard. But those weren't the only teams I followed.
When I tried to fall asleep at night, I didn't count sheep. I recitedWorld Series teams, going backward from 1968, until I didn'tknow them anymore.
My father turned to look at me.
"You want to call in?" Dad asked.
I shook my head no. I pictured a sports fan, a man, already athis phone somewhere else in Toledo, dialing in, answering correctly,winning the tickets.
We listened for a few moments.
"We still don't have any callers," the radio announcer said.Dad looked at me and smiled. I pushed my chair away fromthe table and walked to the phone. I still thought I would be toolate. I picked up the phone and looked at my father, then mymother. They nodded approvingly without saying a word. I dialedthe number.
A man answered at the radio station. I recognized his voice. Itwas the announcer. Everyone in the kitchen fell silent. Momreached for the kitchen radio and twisted the knob to turn downthe sound so I wouldn't get distracted, then ran to their bedroomto listen.
"So," the announcer asked, "you know the answer?"
"Yes," I said in the firmest eleven-year-old voice I couldmuster. "Fred Toney and James Vaughn."
"Oh, we've got a young fan here," the announcer chuckled."And what teams did they play for?"
He was adding another question, right then, on the air. Itwasn't a problem. I knew the answer.
"The Cincinnati Reds and the Chicago Cubs," I replied.
"You're right! You win the tickets! What's your name?""Christine Brennan," I said.
"Oh," the announcer said. "You're a girl."
* * *
My first press box was in our family room, ten feet from thetelevision. Every Saturday morning during baseball season, Ipulled Mom's manual Olympia typewriter off a closet shelf, setit on a small table, and typed up a three- or four-paragraph previewof the NBC "Major League Game of the Week." Mybrother, Jim, who was four years younger than I was, would doresearch, looking up statistics in the Toledo Blade sports section.He was very thorough for a seven-year-old, giving me all the informationI asked for. We wrote about the starting pitchers,about who was hitting well, about what to expect in the game.My stories had a circulation of six -- five not counting me: my father,a former high school tackle and shot putter who once had atryout with the Chicago Bears; my mother; and my siblings.There were four Brennan children; I was born in May of 1958,my sister Kate in November of 1959, Jim in June of 1962, andmy sister Amy in August of 1967.
Those little stories flew off my fingertips. I had read hundredsof articles about baseball in the Blade, the Toledo Times, and theDetroit Free Press. I also had some previous writing experience.My parents gave me a diary for Christmas of 1968. It had a blueand green floral print on the cover and a lock that I never used.My first entry, on January 1, 1969, was typical of what I believedmy diary should be: "Woke up late after staying up last night towait for the New Year. After lunch, went to the Sports Arena toice skate. After that, watched the Rose Bowl and Orange Bowl.In the Rose Bowl, Ohio State won over USC, 27-16. In the OrangeBowl, Penn State won over Kansas, 15-14."
I sounded like a stringer for the Associated Press.
Barely a day went by when I did not report in my diary thescore of a University of Toledo Rockets basketball game, or anNFL play-off game, or, when spring came, the score of a ToledoMud Hens or a Detroit Tigers game or the Saturday "Game of theWeek." My entries also covered the daily activities of a girl turningeleven: memorizing spelling words, going to classes at theToledo Museum of Art, skating on someone's frozen backyard.My entry for February 28 was particularly memorable:
"Today I begged my Dad to try to get tickets for the Rockets'game tomorrow against Miami (O.). It is Steve Mix's last game.Daddy will try to get tickets."
Steve Mix was the first big sports superstar I idolized. He wasthe University of Toledo basketball team's six-seven, 220-poundcenter. With his broad shoulders and tree-trunk arms, Mix lumberedthrough the key and under the basket like a giant, and weloved him for it.
"The Mixmaster!" Dad would yell, his deep voice boomingabove the crowd, as Mix grabbed a rebound and threw his elbowsside to side, churning like a blender to protect the ball. Iwould look up and smile at my father, a big block of a man atsix feet and two hundred pounds, with a quarter-inch crew cutand black-rimmed glasses.
And when Mix laid in a basket, rolling it off his fingertips ashe blew through the lane "like a freight train," as Dad said, wecheered mightily.
The Rockets won the Mid-American Conference championshipin the 1966-67 season, going 23-2 and making the NCAA Tournament,which was quite a feat because only twenty-three teamsqualified for the tournament that year. Mix and his teammates cutdown the net after they clinched their spot in the tournament, andthe next morning, I was stunned to see it hanging off a kitchen cabinetin the home of one of my friends whose father was a Universityof Toledo professor with connections to the team. We were living inthe well-manicured middle-class enclave of Old Orchard in WestToledo, just across busy Bancroft Street from the university. The oldField House where the basketball team played -- no one called it themen's team because there was no women's team that we knew ofback then -- was a five-minute walk from our home. Dad and I hadgone to a few games that season, but not the one that clinched thetitle. Instead, I listened to every minute of that crucial game on theradio. Seeing that net the next day made it real to me.
We went to a few games the next year, Dad and I, and on occasion,Kate and Jim. We went to several more the next, whichwas the 1968-69 season. Mix was a senior that season, and theMarch 1 game was Toledo's last, our final chance to see himplay. My father did find two tickets -- he bought them from astudent -- and we joined the crush of spectators streaming intothe Field House. The building held just four thousand fans. Itwas hard to say if the more remarkable quality about the oldbarn of a gym was the heat or the acoustics. Let's call it a tie. Itwas the hottest, loudest place I had ever been.
Dad and I found our seats in the last row, just under the ceilingat the top of the student section. We were a long way fromthe court. "But we're here!" Dad said, turning to me with a bigsmile. "That's the important thing. We can smell it."We could smell, see, and hear every second of Mix's finale. Idon't remember how many points he scored. I do rememberbreathing in every moment of the event as if it were pure oxygen.I kept looking around the gym, taking mental pictures ofevery significant moment. I could feel my heart racing. This was,I would later come to understand, the adrenaline rush of the bigevent: so many people gathered in one place, and us with them,for a grand, two-hour high-wire act. Nothing that happenedwithin the confines of the usual routine of my young life couldmatch this. Nothing even came close.
When the horn sounded near the end of the game, whichToledo lost, 70-65, Dad nudged me and motioned for me tolook toward the Toledo bench.
"They're taking him out," Dad said.
Steve Mix was walking slowly toward the Rockets benchdown on the floor many rows below us. Coach Bob Nicholsshook his hand. His teammates patted him on the back. Someonehanded him a towel. Mix sat down hard.
"And thus a great career comes to an end," Dad said.
I looked at Dad. I tried to blink back my tears. Dad smiled atme. I thought I saw a tear forming in his eye too.
Dad introduced me to sports when I was only four, during the1962 World Series between the New York Yankees and the SanFrancisco Giants. While watching the first game of the series onour black-and-white television, I made a pronouncement thatMom recorded in my baby book: "Yogi Bear is going to catch.When he gets the ball, he'll steal it, as he does the picnic baskets."The next summer, I used one of Dad's old gloves when we firstplayed catch in our backyard. Dad immediately taught me how tothrow the baseball properly, firing it from behind my right earwithout the slightest hint of the motion that has come to be knownas "throwing like a girl." I don't remember hearing anyone usethose words until late in elementary school; certainly my father ormother never used them. Nor did the boys I played ball with everyspring and summer day in our neighborhood. I was the only girlwho regularly played with them --
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