Robert A. Lazzari passed away on June 3rd at the age of 83--his body finally giving out after decades-worth of health problems. He instilled in me a HUGE love for sports; he remains solely responsible for yours truly writing this weekly column and currently being involved in so many other media endeavors. But it all started a long time ago.
I think it goes all the way back to those catches we used to have together in the backyard so many years ago—him using his Red Schoendienst glove (that was barely bigger than his hand) and me trying to maneuver with the Vada Pinson model that he had purchased for me at Mark Hardware. He taught me how to catch and throw--maybe the greatest gift a father can give to a son--and boy was I hooked. He bought me my first football and, when he could find the time, would actually throw passes to ALL the neighborhood kids. They were always amazed at how the man could lead them just perfectly--having the ball fall directly into their waiting hands. He bought me my first basketball--an ABA ball--making me the first kid on the block to own the fancy red, white, and blue one that we’d see the pros play with on TV. “Bob Sr.” later coached me at the Babe Ruth League level where I witnessed how much he valued discipline and the 'no-nonsense' approach. He watched me play sports at the high school level and was so proud when I enrolled at Fordham University. The day I graduated college, he said, "I'm proud of you—nice job, kid." That was my Dad. He didn't say much when it came to reaching so-called ‘milestones’; he simply believed that life should be a constant journey of trying to become even BETTER.
He took me to my first baseball game when I was 8-years-old--Yankees/White Sox. I clearly remember as the bus pulled up to this monstrous building as the young, bright-eyed kid inquired, "Hey Dad--I thought they played baseball OUTDOORS!" He just smiled at me, delighting in my naivete, and simply said, "Just wait, Bobby--you’ll see." And he'd always take me to the old "Sports Nights" at St. Jude’s Church in Derby where I was able to actually get autographs from pro athletes; there was no event bigger than that when I was growing up, and it was my Dad who made sure that we always had tickets prior to that awesome gathering.
We both grew older but I chose never to be far from the man geographically (we lived in adjacent apartment rooms). O.K., call me a "Daddy's Boy," but how could I stray from a guy who was not only my father but my BEST FRIEND? I’ll particularly remember the amount of baseball games I watched with my Dad over the years; friends were always welcomed, too. I received a call from my buddy Al down in Florida shortly after my Dad's death. In tears, Al said to me, "Man, I'll never forget coming over your house every night during the summer back in the 70's--and then having your father chastise me the next day for falling asleep by the 7th inning!" Yeah, I remember it well, Al, and maybe someday the three of us will do it all over again.
He enjoyed all sports (loved the Triple Crown races), but it was ALWAYS about baseball to my Dad; he even LOOKED better and SOUNDED better every time April 1st appeared on the calendar yearly. When baseball's regular season began, the man was truly reborn--SO excited at the prospect of having eight full months to soak it all in. Prior to his death, he'd tune in a game on his TV EVERY night in his small room--while at the same time reading the latest NY Times bestseller that he had loaned from the local library. Yeah, my Dad could multi-task that way--even at the age of 83. Geez, I only hope I'm able to do that at 53, Dad.
For the past couple of years during baseball season, my Dad had the same routine nightly: TV turned on at 7PM while always asking me beforehand, "Hey Kid--what's the best game to watch tonight?" I'd give him my opinion--he'd balk a bit--then say, "Well, I can always turn the channel, right?" My Dad truly was like a child when watching baseball; in fact, his routine ALWAYS included having an ice cream cone around the 4th or 5th inning of each game. He knew I always kept an ample supply handy for him in the freezer that we shared, but he'd still play dumb each evening: "Hey, Kid--any of those ice cream cones left?" I’d chuckle, he'd smile, and I'd grab one for him along with a napkin. I'll miss that, Dad.
He knew that I worked extremely hard on my sports writing; he’d sometimes walk over and peek through my door only to witness me banging away on the PC--working on an upcoming column or researching stats. He'd say to me, "Hey, Kid, why don't you walk away from that thing for awhile and watch the game with me." Sometimes I’d do just that--desperately in need of a welcomed break. Looking back, I wish I did it EVERY time, Dad, in order to have spent just a bit more time with you. But I'm sure we'll have many more games to watch together down the road in a better place; the thought of that will fuel me for my remaining days on this earth.
Since his passing, I’ve received kind condolences from various former athletes—including former Red Sox players Rico Petrocelli and Roger LaFrancois. Ex-big leaguers such as Ron Kittle, Ron Swoboda, Carmen Fanzone, and newly-elected Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven also chimed in after hearing the news. Even former Olympic figure skater Tai Babilonia emailed me in order to express her sorrow. No, not one of these people ever knew my Dad personally, but they did know me from past interviews, etc. I can only surmise that they probably recognized my passion for sports and realized that I must have come from "good stock". Yes, folks, it was from stock that was truly worth a fortune.
As fate would have it, the last exchange between my Dad and I came in the emergency room almost two weeks ago. "That 'King Felix' is one helluva pitcher," he said--referring to the Mariners hurler who would be facing the Yanks that evening. Yes, while in excruciating pain, THOSE were the last words of a passionate baseball guy. I know my Dad went out the way he would have wanted--with baseball talk being part of his final conversation.
Thanks, Dad, for being a great father, friend to others, and showing me how important discipline is. I can never repay you now; maybe I'll just share this column with others for the next few months--hoping they realize how lucky I was to have such an amazing presence guiding me all these years. And hopefully, we’ll be watching many more games down the road, my friend—ice cream cones and all.
Rest in peace, "Big Bob". No one knew you, understood you, and respected you more than your best friend and only son. May you rest in peace.