Archive for Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Chinstraps and Mouthpieces

Dad was greatest coach ever

August 4, 2004

Shasta and baseball.

One can't get more American than soda pop and the nation's native sport.

I almost can step back in time to when both were what my summers were all about.

It was 1988 and I was playing for the Washington Blue coach-pitch baseball team. Decked out in my blue trucker hat, blue T-shirt, blue pinstripe pants and blue shoes, I was ready for some baseball. I wore No. 17 because I was a first baseman who, of course, had to have major leaguer Mark Grace's number on his back.

After every game, the coaches provided us with that essential energy drink -- Shasta. Sometimes we would have Best Choice cherry cola or root beer instead, but no matter how a game unfolded, an ice cold carbonated beverage always was waiting for us.

Man, I would trade just about anything to relive one of those quaint summer evenings in Washington, Kan.

If granted that wish, I could once again sit beside arguably the greatest coach to ever manage a summer youth baseball team.

Francis Linenberger coached player after player after player in the small north central Kansas town. The legend known to the masses as "Frank" couldn't out-manage Joe Torre, but given the chance he could turn any greedy and self-centered major leaguer into a model citizen.

That's pretty much what Dad was -- an everyday human being who could take a person's Monday morning and instantly turn it into a Saturday night.

On July 22, however, just nine days after turning 67, Dad's body no longer could swing for the fences. He died about 1:45 p.m. that day at the University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kan.

Health problems in the last month forced Dad to undergo three surgeries. The first was procedural and quite routine, but the other two were much more tedious and proved that my father was far more sick than we could have imagined.

Throughout much of the last month, I never felt the need to punch the panic button. This was the same man who came back from multiple-bypass surgery and several other heart procedures. He also came through radiation treatment for colon cancer three years ago. A few years before that, Dad had terrible chest pains and was rushed to our local hospital. The monitors showed Frank to be flat-line momentarily, but the doctor brought him back and he was life-flighted to Topeka. When I first heard that Dad again would need to be life-flighted from Washington, this time to Kansas City, I was concerned, but was accustomed to the routine.

Or so I thought.

I'm not the first to endure a father's unexpected death, but Dad meant so much to so many. That magnifies the void beyond my comprehension.

Someone mentioned that 600 people attended the funeral.

Washington's population is around 1,200.

Whether that number was accurate I'm unsure, but plenty of extra chairs had to be set up to accommodate the overflow.

Because of that overcrowding, it probably didn't hurt that the funeral's official start time was 10:33 a.m., not 10:30. Our family "occasionally" runs a tad late for community events and, especially, Sunday morning Mass. To honor that trait, we made sure we all would be ahead of schedule that day.

Dad was a longtime custodian in the Washington school district, prompting a college friend to inquire about naming the high school gymnasium after him. He never coached high school basketball, but as my friend said he loved to do floor after floor.

Frank wore many other hats. He managed a gasoline station in the '60s and then a milk route in the '70s. After retiring a few years ago from the school district, he ventured into general public transportation and was a board member for two non-profit groups and was an American Cancer Society representative. And, of course, he coached coach-pitch, pee-wee and high school league baseball.

Whatever his position, Dad came into contact with so many people, most of whom became instant friends.

Dad certainly had the gift of gab, whether your age was 5, 25 or 95.

Frank could connect with people on so many topics, but it was hard to beat a good discussion about Stan Musial or Ernie Banks or any other baseball player for that matter.

He particularly was interested in naming father-son tandems in the majors. There were the Griffeys and Ripkens, but Dad always would clue me in on several others.

"I think his dad played too," Frank would say while watching a game on television.

Dad always planned to start a baseball card collection of father-son players. In general, collecting sports cards always has been a required hobby in my family, especially with one of Dad's brothers. Uncle Clete made sure to leave Frank with a card of former St. Louis Cardinal Stan Musial, my dad's all-time favorite player.

My father never made it to a game at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, but he sure loved the redbirds, whether they were in a baseball uniform or outside in a tree.

When we returned home for the first time since Dad's death, my brother, mother and I needed some time before venturing back into the house. For some reason, while collecting my thoughts, I looked up at a yard light.

Perched right there atop the light was a cardinal. It looked at me, sang a few notes and flew away.

Coincidence? Not a chance.

No matter the sport, my father enjoyed it. Whether it was a grandson's soccer game or a bowling gathering, Dad could handle watching or playing -- when his body allowed it -- sports.

And football was his true forte.

Although he also ran track at Fairbury Junior College in Fairbury, Neb., his main sport there was football.

During a very successful senior year in high school, the running back had a particular game that caught the eye of scouts from the University of Kansas.

But Dad wanted no part of Mount Oread.

"Not for all the money in the world," Dad told them.

And then came me, his third son who had a different view of KU. After deciding at an early age that I preferred the University of Kansas, Frank realized he could not fight the movement. The older I became, the more he liked the Jayhawks.

That was Frank, though. He went along with the flow. As long as everyone else was happy, he was peachy keen.

Despite some of his health problems, I had this idea that Dad would live into his 90s. He was so active in the community and never missed a beat. The man could take a 5- or 10-minute power nap and be ready for another hefty task, a gift that certainly was not passed on to me.

That's not a problem, though. There were so many other things he taught me.

Kindness, generosity, open-mindedness and humor to name a few.

Even humility on the baseball field. Dad's sons never got too much playing time in the summer leagues. After all, Frank didn't want people to think he was showing favoritism. I wasn't destined to become the next Mark Grace, so it all worked out. And I learned a little more about life in the process.

Oh, to hear his voice one more time. Dad had classic words of encouragement that only Frank would holler.

"Rock and fire, rock and fire" he would tell his pitchers from the dugout, along with "Don't aim it, just throw the ball."

And I couldn't forget the words he saved for me. If I were running the bases after a hit, everyone in the ballpark could hear "Dig, Shawn, Dig, Dig!!!" being forced up from Dad's lungs. No one could produce more encouragement than Mr. Optimistic.

Whether he was telling a story or just saying "Hey, what's going on?" Frank always had something to say. Dad, by the way, was king of the greetings.

"What are you up to, Frank?" someone would ask.

"Oh, about 5-8," he would reply with a sly grin.

With that height, the witty German never materialized into a center on the basketball court.

He might as well have been 7-7, though.

After all, plenty of people -- especially his 6-foot-2 youngest son -- looked up to him in so many ways.

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