Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can still hear a specific melody from my childhood.
I remember it from when I was eight years old, growing up in Puerto Rico. I would be drifting off to sleep … and then, from the living room, I would hear the strum of a guitar. I knew it was my dad playing. He was a U.S. Merchant Marine, and after one of his trips to Spain he brought home a guitar. It sat, mostly unplayed, in the living room. But at night — once my mom put me and my brother, Hiram, to bed — dad would get lost in his music.
I wanted to sneak out of bed and go to the living room to listen, but my parents ran a tight ship. So, for what felt like months, I would fall asleep to the sound of my dad strumming his guitar. Eventually, I worked up the courage to go out there and ask him to teach me how to play.
That night ended up being my first lesson. And in the process of learning the guitar over the next few years, I became much closer with my dad than I ever could have imagined. In that time, I discovered so much about who I wanted to become, and who my father was. I learned the intricacy that goes into building a melody and rhythm. And I learned how hard it is to really be good at something. Those ideas carried over to the baseball field, too.
When I was in elementary school, like every kid, my favorite part of the day was the last bell. For me, it meant one thing: baseball. My dad would pick me and my brother up and we’d go straight to a nearby field to practice. He would bring us some tennis shoes and a change of clothes to play in. We’d spend hours learning how to hit and catch, but — just like in those guitar lessons — my dad was doing so much more than teaching us just one thing. He instilled in us the values of discipline, motivation and commitment.
As a kid, it can be hard to grasp the reason why you need to work hard. But he made it so clear for us. Every few weeks he’d show us how we could throw harder than before, how we could hit the ball farther.
“Those results,” he told us, “only come from the hard work you put in every day.”
To this day, I think back to those late afternoons in the island sun. I remember the voice of my dad echoing across the outfield, teaching me about baseball and life. In those messages were lessons I carry with me now.
My dad was my hero.
He was a man who was ahead of his time, I think. He grew up during really hard times in Puerto Rico and left school when he was in the fourth or fifth grade. He had to become a man quickly. In doing that, he was forced to become wise beyond his years. But — like most graduates from the “school of hard knocks,” as he called it — he was stubborn.
When he started showing signs of illness in the late ’90’s, he didn’t want to go see a doctor. Our family begged him to go get help, but he didn’t listen at first. And, to an extent, I understood it. He was a tough guy who had made it to that point in his life on the strength of his own convictions — he believed he could fix himself. But the signs got worse. He was having trouble breathing just doing everyday activities and would get into these bad, painful coughing fits.
Eventually, it became too much. The first couple of doctors we visited had a hard time diagnosing what was wrong. A few months into our search we found someone who could perform the proper tests, and the diagnosis came back shortly after: My dad had IPF, or idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. It’s a rare lung disease that was causing my dad’s lung tissue to scar and harden, making it difficult for him to breathe.
We looked for a cure or help over the next couple of years, but his symptoms were getting worse. And even though I could see it, I couldn’t believe it — I was almost in denial. My dad was … Superman, nothing can happen to Superman, right? The doctors we were working with started talking about “managing his symptoms,” and his “quality of life.” My dad? They’re talking about my dad?
When I became a regular in the lineup with the Yankees in the early ’90’s, my dad followed my career closely — coming up from Puerto Rico to watch me when he could. We’d talk on the phone after games and he’d give me hitting tips or critique my play in the outfield — he was that type of dad. When he came into the clubhouse he was a big hit with the guys, too. Players would come up to me and say how much fun he was to talk with or how interesting he was. He was the sort of guy that if you met him for just five minutes, you would remember him for the rest of your life.
When he got sick, it was hard not hearing his voice as often after games or being able to see him. He was down in Puerto Rico with Hiram — who took such amazing care of our dad when I couldn’t be there due to baseball. Back in New York, the Yankees became my distraction from what was going on with my dad. Baseball is such a mental sport, and from the first pitch to the last, I thought only about the game. For those few hours every night, I could take my mind off my family.
As my dad’s illness became worse and worse, I’d dread the end of games. I didn’t want to go back to reality and hear negative news from Puerto Rico. One day in May of 2001, after we played the Orioles, our p.r. person with the Yankees let me know that my dad’s condition had taken a turn for the worse and that I had to leave immediately.
I did, and that four-hour flight to San Juan was the longest four hours of my life. I wasn’t sure how he was, but I thought I’d be able see him.
And that’s all I prayed for that night — I just wanted to see my dad.
When I landed, Hiram called me and told me he had passed away already. I was heartbroken. I was also frustrated that I hadn’t been there. But I knew he had been surrounded by people who loved him.
Even now, 16 years later, there isn’t a day that goes by without me thinking of my dad. He would have loved to meet his grandkids, and I wish I could have shown him where music has taken me.
What I know he would be most proud of, though, is what I’m doing now — taking a difficult experience and turning it into something positive. My dad’s passing led me to an opportunity to help raise awareness for IPF. By teaming up with the Breathless campaign, I hope to educate others who have never heard of IPF, and empower those who are experiencing symptoms of this disease to talk to a doctor who can help them get the right diagnosis and treatment. I’ve focused much of my energy on making others aware of this disease — which affects nearly 132,000 Americans every year and is often misdiagnosed — and helping to make resources to fight IPF more readily available.
I always thought that the most important thing I would do in my life was play baseball. But, like on those afternoons on the field with my dad, it’s in the things I’ve experienced along the way that I’ve found true meaning. First music, and now the ability to fight something like IPF.
I urge you to learn more at www.BreathlessIPF.com, and to pass along the information you find there to your loved ones — you never know who may need it.
I miss you, Dad.