Ever since I realized it was cool to have parents who have done extraordinary things, I’ve told all my friends that my father won a Finnish championship as a young man. It was a major ace in the hole when other kids were bragging about their parents’ successes.
Now, my Dad was no longer a player, like Lare’s father – who played Division II soccer – and my Dad wasn’t a candy wholesaler like Pekka’s, but he sure had won that Finnish title.
Except that he won it in pesäpallo, which while being Finland’s national sport, was, and is, also a small and rural sport, and therefore, not the coolest of sports.
Also, he only sort of won a championship. That he was on the team that won can’t be disputed and never will be disputed, because I have the evidence right in front of me. On my desk there’s a photo, a newspaper clipping, in which he’s holding the trophy and his teammates are all around him, beaming.
Back then, every year, young athletes in different sports – wrestling, track and field, gymnastics, swimming, bastekball, weight lifting, and pesäpallo – came together at the Finnish sports federation’s main camp, and competed for their district teams in their sports.
My father, a skinny and short – but fast – boy from a tiny village in Eastern Finland made his district team, North Karelia, which then won the pesäpallo tournament, with that skinny boy as their shortstop, and sometimes the first baseman.
Now, pesäpallo, while a national sport, is a small sport. Only two of the ten biggest cities in Finland have a team in the highest league these days, and that’s the way it’s always been. One of the most classic teams – now third in the standings – comes from Vimpeli, population: 3,500. Vimpeli was the visiting team in a 2007 game when Koskenkorva (pop: 2,200) broke its attendance record: 3,500.
There had been a pesäpallo team in Helsinki, and I have a vague memory of going to a game with Dad once.
For us surburban kids in Helsinki, a big city by Finnish standards, pesäpallo was simply a nice game that we sometimes played at school. And even then, we most often played an even simplified version of the game, because the actual pesäpallo field is huge, and our schoolyards were small.
As far as I was concerned, the best part of playing pesäpallo in school was that often when we played it, the entire class played together – girls, too.
Then, in my teens, we moved to Joensuu, a smaller town in Eastern Finland, and a town actually had a pesäpallo team, and just a 45-minute drive away, there was a Finnish league team, that was very popular. Not that we ever went to games, but at least the game was around us.
One summer, nobody knows why or how, or whose idea it was, the neighborhood kids picked up their bats and started to play pesäpallo in the small park just outside our house, and then, once more kids, and bigger and better kids joined, in the soccer field around the corner.
It was the kid next door who got me to join their games. He was the same kid who asked me to play soccer with him the first morning I woke up in our new house in the new town. I had seen them play outside our house, of course, but hadn’t gone out and played.
The one time, I rode my green Peugeot bike from the hockey team’s off-season practice, and they were playing outside our house, and the neighbor’s kid stopped me and asked me to come out and play.
“Well, I can’t. I don’t have a glove,” I said, and went home, and then watched them play from my room.
“Why don’t you go out and play?” Mom asked me, when I was sitting at my ZX Spectrum+, playing “Manic Miner”.
“Don’t feel like it. Besides, I don’t have a glove,” I said.
“Oh, we have a glove,” she said, turned around and walked away.
When she got back into my room, she was holding a mustard colored pesäpallo glove, that had a leather strap around the wrist, and the brand name imprinted into the leather. The glove was small, much smaller than the gloves I had used at school, but I liked it because it was a perfect fit.
Somehow Dad had managed to hold onto his old glove through the years, and through at least a half-dozen moves into, out of, and within Helsinki. The championship glove was back.
I played that night, and the next night, and the night after that, and at one point, I told the kids about my father the champion, and how that was the reason that I was such a great shortstop (or a first baseman). And how the mustard colored glove was the actual glove he had worn in the tournament thirty years earlier.
A week later, I started to rush back home from the hockey team’s practice so I could play ball with my mostly new friends. We played until it was a little too hard to see the ball, but fortunately, summer nights in Finland are long. Then we’d go home, and without any decisions or promises, we’d be there the next day to play some more pesäpallo, and to hang out, and to show off.
Me and my glove were unbeatable. We were so good that I would much rather play in the outfield, than bat.
Then one day, I couldn’t find it anywhere. I looked for it everywhere in our house, and then ran out to the soccer field, to see if I had left it there, and if, by any chance, it was still there, lying on the ground all alone.
I could still see the bases that we had drawn into the gravel, and I walked from base to base, and around the pitch, but the glove was nowhere to be seen. Dad’s championship glove was gone.
I never went back.
This summer, Son and Daughter, Dad and I went to a pesäpallo game in Joensuu. The local team has made it to the top division, and I thought the kids ought to see Finland’s national sport played. Afterwards, Daughter and I drove to the local supermarket, and bought a pesäpallo kit to her: a bat, a ball, and a glove.
And then I bought a glove for myself.
We rushed home, and we rushed to that same soccer pitch, and we drew the bases into the ground, and we began to play. I pitched and played first baseman, Son and Daughter took turns batting.
A little later, Dad came out to play. He took his position as the shortstop (and a first baseman), and used his baseball cap as his glove.
I looked at my brand new glove. It was much bigger than the championship glove, and instead of being mustard colored, it was blue. It was also fake leather, not real like Dad’s.
“Take my glove,” I yelled, and threw the glove towards Dad.
“OK,” he said, and loosened the Velcro strap, so he could get his hand inside the glove.
“Pretty good,” he said, “it’s a little stiff, but it’ll get better.”
He made a fake throw to second base, laughed, and then threw the ball to be at the home plate. I caught it with my baseball cap.
“Hey, kids, did you see what Grandpa did?” I said to Son and Daughter.
“Did you know that Grandpa once won the Finnish championship in pesäpallo,” I added, and threw the ball straight up, as you do in a pesäpallo pitch.
Daughter swung, and missed.
“He did?” asked Son.
“He sure did,” I said.
Dad nodded, and tightened the wrist strap on his blue glove.
I pitched, Son connected, and Dad caught the ball in. The game was on. Nothing was going to get past him.
Championship glove or not.