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When Al Buls was growing up, baseball was a big deal in Garland, Nebraska.
"It's a little town about 20 miles northwest of Lincoln," he says. "A town of about 260, 270 people."
Al and his friends would play ball whenever they had the chance.
"This was during the Depression days. And in '33 I remember once leaving my glove in the schoolyard," Al says. "And this sounds impossible, but that was the year that the grasshoppers were so bad — they were just everything. They ate up all the crops, and I came out the next day and the strap on my glove was — the grasshoppers ate the leather off of my glove.
"I couldn't get a new glove. I played without that strap for quite a while before I got another glove. It was tough time, but it was a relaxed time."
Al says he'd pick up his glove and ball and get some kids together to play.
"If we didn't have enough kids to have teams, we'd make something up so we could play back and forth," he says. "The thing that I think about now was how free it was. There was not a lot of pressure."
Garland’s town baseball team was founded in 1902. It wasn’t made up of professionals, just farmers and grocers and other townspeople — adults, not kids.
"Every Sunday afternoon there was a baseball game," Al says. "There wasn't a whole lot else to do. We had bleachers and a little stand where they had drinks. I remember one Sunday when it rained, they were afraid it was too wet, they couldn't play. So the local garage guy brought his truck out. They put gas on the field and lit the field to dry it off. It was a big deal for our small town."
Passing On His Love Of The Game
Al went away for school. He played on the town team in Seward for a while — they played in the Blue Valley league. He became a Lutheran minister and married a woman named Velma.
"Dan was born then in '50. And right off, when he was — I don't know, maybe 3 or 4 — I started giving him a ball. And he took to it very well," Al says. "I had a pretty tight schedule, but I just went out of my way to be part of it."
"You know, he worked all day and then after supper we'd go out and play catch," Dan says. "I looked forward to that."
From pretty early on, Al had lots of ideas for how Dan could improve his game.
"Maybe it's an old-fashioned belief that you do something and do it right, that's what you're supposed to do," Dan says. "Nobody says anything until you mess up and do it wrong. And then you hear about it."
Dan remembers wanting to hear about the good things, too.
'I Couldn't Get An Even Break'
The real trouble began when Dan started playing on organized teams.
"I never had any dreams of him going to the major leagues or anything like that, but I think the thing that turned me astray in the story that follows is that I wanted to pass on to him my love of the game," Al says. "And I thought, now, in order to do that, if he could play better than I could, it would be even more fun."
The story that follows is one that’s played out, generation after generation, as fathers and sons — and mothers and daughters — take to the baseball diamonds and soccer pitches and basketball courts.
Al figured it was his job — as a father — to help his son become a better ballplayer.
"In my mind, at that point, was I'm going to have to tell him all of these things that he does wrong," Al says.
Al says he never yelled at Dan. But he nitpicked.
"I guess when he was 6, we lived in a little town in southern Illinois, and he played on a kids' team. And I was the umpire, and he was a catcher," Al says. "And he would sit too far back — I thought he was sitting too far back of the batter. So I would stand, and he was just pushed up against my legs. But I was trying to teach him, you know, 'You've gotta sit closer to this batter.' "
"He was nudging me up," Dan says with a laugh." As I recall, one time, the batter swung and hit my mitt. But he says that never happens. But that was, kind of, my fear. You know, in my mind, that bat could hurt."
Having his Dad as umpire was even worse when Dan was on the pitcher’s mound.
"I couldn't get an even break, as I remember it," Dan says. "You know, he didn't give me any close calls, and that used to irritate me to no end. Because I knew I was throwing the ball over the corner of the plate, where it was supposed to be, and he wasn't calling them the way I saw it."
"He would tell me later on, 'You would have called that a strike if anybody else was pitching, but you called it a ball because you didn't want them to think you were favoring me,' " Al says.
"Was he right?" I ask.
"Ah, no, I don't think so."
When Dan was 9, he played Little League for a team sponsored by the local funeral home.
"Mercer Mortuary. The Little Stiffs," Dan says with a laugh. "I don't think they could do that today."
"And the pitcher really threw hard, but Dan caught him — I was really proud of him, he'd sit back there and catch," Al says.
It all came down to the last game of the regular season. The team that won would go on to the playoffs.
"And it was the 7th inning, and Dan came to me and he said, 'Dad, I can't — my hand hurts, I can't catch.' And I said, 'Dan, when you're a baseball player, you just — you don't stop just because you've got pressure.'
"So he went to his manager, and his manager was wiser than I was. He took him out," Al says. "The next day, I took him to the doctor, and he had a broken finger. I was not only embarrassed, but it was pretty humbling.
"It was right after that that Dan said to his mother, 'I don't want to play ball when Dad's there.' And I was kind of stunned, but started thinking about it. And it was then that I suddenly had an epiphany. I realized that I was undoing the very thing that I thought I was doing."
What Al had most loved about baseball was playing the game with no pressure. But here he was, putting pressure on his son.
"I just realized how — how easily I slid into this with every good intention," Al says. "That haunted me later on. I was — I really felt badly about that."
But here’s the thing. That conversation Dan had with his mother? The moment that’s haunted Al for almost 60 years.? Dan doesn’t remember it. He doesn’t even remember feeling that way.
Still, that moment turned things around for Al. He kept attending his son’s baseball games, but he tried to be more encouraging. He didn’t give Dan advice on how his game could improve — unless Dan asked for help.
Dan continued to play baseball through high school.
"As I remember, it was pretty fun," he says.
Dan’s own sons didn’t play baseball. They preferred other sports. But Dan’s sister had a son named Ross. Ross loved baseball, which meant that as a grandfather, Al got a do-over.
"I'd be out in the garden, and Ross would come out of the back door. And he'd say, 'Hey, Opa. Let's play ball.' It was just, it was really, really rewarding," Al says.
Al taught Ross many of the things he’d learned about baseball over the years, but he didn’t push.
"I went to every game that I possibly could," Al says. "But I sat in the bleachers. Boy, I was on every ball, but I kept it to myself."
"So you still had all the same thoughts of what he was doing wrong?" I ask.
"Yes, I did, yeah. But I kept my advice to myself."
Dan Buls will turn 67 soon. He says it’s been nice to reflect on his baseball-playing days with his dad.
"He's going to be 93 and Mom will be 92 in July, and it's just a precious thing," he says.
"How often do you talk to your dad now?" I ask.
"Twice a day, almost every day. I call in the morning and we do the crossword puzzle. And then I call in the evening before they go to bed."
"So that makes me think that you must think your dad was a pretty decent dad."
"He was a good dad. He was a good dad."
This segment aired on March 24, 2018.
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