Opinion

Nothing like baseball for Fourth of July fun | Skager

For me, every Fourth of July is special.

As far back as I can remember, and more so than with any other holiday, I’ve looked forward to celebrating the day our country declared independence from England.

Unencumbered by any obligations, like buying gifts, the Fourth has always been simple. And in my hectic, complicated world, just being able to spend a day doing nothing except eating barbecue, drinking beer, blowing stuff up and watching baseball is a rare gift.

This year, however, the Fourth of July has an added significance. This year my dad, John Skager, will be posthumously inducted into the Mandan, N.D. American Legion Baseball Hall of Fame.

I grew up a Navy brat, courtesy of my dad’s 26-year career in the United States Navy. Although many of the Fourths in my youth were spent in far flung, exotic locales such as Greece, Australia and Utah, whenever we could, we returned to North Dakota – where I was born and my parents grew up – to spend the holiday with relatives.

Now, I’ve heard many people brag about how good the Fourth of July celebrations in their hometowns are, and I’ve experienced a few as well. But let me tell you here and now — all of them pale in comparison to a Mandan Fourth.

Typically, the festivities start around 10 a.m. with the Main Street Parade, followed by a host of activities such as the rodeo, the demolition derby, music in the park or just chilling with the cousins in a backyard, drinking beer and barbecuing.

Paramount among the festivities, however, is the American Legion baseball double-header at the Legion Memorial Ball Park.

In my extended family, baseball is like a religion, ranking somewhere near the top with God, country and family.

My grandfather, Melvin Skager, was a gifted semi-pro catcher, who played for the semi-pro Mandan Trainers after his return from fighting in World War II.

My father kept up the family tradition in high school, winning two North Dakota state titles as the catcher for the Mandan Braves in the 1960s. According to my cousin, Michael Kaip, a manager for the current incarnation of the Braves, my dad still holds the record for being the youngest player to make the varsity squad, at 14.

Although I never got to see him play baseball, I was lucky enough to have been the bat boy for my dad’s fastpitch team in the ’70s.

Gifted with a rocket arm with a short release, courtesy of the time he spent behind the plate, my dad was legendary for his ability to gun down ambitious baserunners from his spot in right field.

In addition to his raw talent on the diamond, dad was also notorious for the way he played the game — all out, all the time.

Giving it his all, that was his approach to life. He passed that template on to me, and even though he’s gone now, it guides me still.

Baseball was also important for dad and me in my rebellious teen years. As we struggled to communicate with each other over simple things, baseball always provided common ground, especially talking about how the Minnesota Twins were doing.

This past year, just a couple months after dad died from esophageal cancer, I got the chance to spend another Fourth of July in Mandan. It was everything I remembered. But the high point for me was talking with many of my dad’s high school friends while we were out at the ball park. Being able to see my dad through their eyes, as they shared stories with me, was crucial to my grieving process.

Just little glimpses, like an e-mail received from Bruce Toman, who played high school football with my dad, mean so much as I continue to deal with the loss of my dad.

“Your dad was not a giant guy then, but he was one tough guy, and he had a heart to match,” Toman wrote. “What he lacked in size he doubled in courage and sheer guts.”

It pleases me no end to know that other people saw the same guy that I saw, the man who was, and always will be, my hero.

This Fourth of July, I’ll once again get to celebrate in my home state of North Dakota.

But this time I’ll be celebrating more than a a holiday. I’ll be celebrating my father, John Skager. It’s going to be the best Fourth ever.

 

 

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