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A Daddy’s Girl Returns to the Ball Game

This is not a story about baseball. I don’t know a single thing about batting-order strategies, different types of pitches, or base stealing. Like the vast majority of Americans, I know the basics: a man swings his bat at a fast-moving ball and, if he hits it, runs around a diamond-shaped, dirt path in a counter-clockwise direction with the ultimate goal of getting back to where he started.

The irony is, I basically grew up in a ballpark. I have two older brothers who love the game, and our family spent many summer evenings cheering on our hometown team, the Cincinnati Reds. I have vivid memories of Riverfront Stadium, home of the legendary Big Red Machine and the park where the team played when my siblings and I were growing up. Though I was never particularly interested in the game itself, I developed my own little rituals that made these outings fun. I memorized the players’ names, numbers, and batting orders, ate vanilla soft serve with rainbow sprinkles out of miniature, plastic batting helmets, and acted as my brother’s bait for the players who wouldn’t sign baseball cards for young boys, but couldn’t resist a sweet smile and pigtails.

But my family’s relationship with the baseball world has ties that go beyond pure recreation. My father, Lawrence Hadley, was a well-known sports economist – one of the founders of the field. Starting out his career as a general labor economist, my dad quickly tired of his initial specialization and began brainstorming ways to make his livelihood more enjoyable. While pouring over baseball player salary data, new ideas for research papers would bubble up in his head. He eventually realized that he could combine two of his loves, sports and economics, to create a career he could be passionate about.

So, in the name of research, our family vacations became focused on visiting the country’s Major League ballparks. A visit with extended family on the Jersey shore always included a trip to see either the Phillies or the Yankees. An educational vacation in Washington, DC would inevitably include a Camden Yards add-on. I happily did my memorizing, ice cream eating, and baseball card signature stakeouts while simultaneously getting introduced to many of America’s great cities.

When my father passed away, it had been years since I had been to a ballgame. I was 25 and quite busy trying to follow in his footsteps. I adored my father, and, in my eyes, his life and character completely embodied success. I joined a Ph.D. program partly because that’s what he had done. I figured that if I could live my life the way he had lived his, I would be happy. But I quickly left graduate school due to lack of interest in the subject I was studying. Then I moved to Washington, DC where I pursued research jobs; three positions later, I still search for professional fulfillment.

It’s not surprising that I found travel during this period of my life. For six years I felt emotionally incapacitated by my father’s death. My grief was so crippling at times, that I wanted to run half way around the world to escape it. So one day, I did. My first time abroad as an adult woman, I traveled solo through beautiful Switzerland. The trip was literally life-changing. Despite all of the academic and professional accolades I had received up until that point, I had never felt more accomplished than when I took on the culture, language, and transportation system of a foreign land.

The unfortunate downside of that trip was the stark contrast it provided against my day-to-day life. The monotony of the cubicle world seemed so extreme, and my psyche craved the freshness, vibrancy, and completely new experiences afforded by travel. I began living for my next chance to go abroad, hoping that the sights, colors, people, and adventures I encountered on one trip would be enough to sustain me until my next.

And then I started my blog. It was meant to be a springboard - something that would give me the experience I needed to join the travel industry in a more professional context… and it’s done just that. But more importantly, it awoke a feeling of passion for my work that I didn’t know I could feel. These days, I spend most of my free time “working” on my travel projects, and though I don’t get paid for the vast majority of these tasks, I feel more professionally fulfilled than at any other point in my life. This must have been what my father had felt in those initial days of analyzing baseball salary data.

Much like when my father took us to baseball stadiums to inform his work, my travels have now become strategic. I’ll be attending my first travel blogging conference this fall, which will take me to Ireland much sooner than I thought I would visit the country. Brazil, the site of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games has now skyrocketed to the top of my travel list. I visited three baseball stadiums in a row this summer to help get the creative juices flowing for the piece that you’re reading right now.

One of those visits was to Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Phillies. My family was visiting my aunt and uncle one last time at the Jersey shore before my uncle retired and they moved away. The last time I had been to that beach, my dad had been with us. This return trip was painful for me, as his carefree, playful spirit was noticeably absent. My brother Mark and I decided to resurrect the childhood tradition of doing a side trip to the ballpark, the closest of which was in Philly. Immediately upon entering the park, my sadness lifted. Despite the number of years it had been since seeing a game and the fact that my dad was now absent from this tradition that he had started, I felt very much at home.

On this new path that I’m traveling, I sense my father rooting for me. He would have been the first to tell me to follow my dreams and pursue the work that I love. And I realize now that I was taking away the wrong message from his success. Being a Ph.D. or a researcher wasn’t the key to his happiness; it was the fact that he loved what he did for a living.

As I was preparing this piece, I looked up some of the tributes that had been made to my father following his death in 2007. The Wages of Wins Journal collected some memories from a few of my dad’s colleagues. Reading each of them was an emotional experience, but there was one in particular that profoundly affected me. His young friend, Dan Rascher said:

“I first met Larry at the 1996 meetings as a graduate student unsure about whether I wanted to pursue sports economics as my major field (the usual worrying about its acceptance by economists). After I watched one set of presentations, Larry came and sat next to me and encouraged me to pursue the research that I cared about the most and worry less about the consequences. I took that to heart and have always only been a sports economist. I have frequently looked back at that moment as a very important one in my life, and Larry’s wisdom helped me tremendously. I will certainly miss him and his insightful research and guidance”

Sometimes, when I think about my travel writing pursuits, I wish desperately that my dad could be here to see how happy they are making me. And in that moment that I first absorbed Dan’s message, it felt like I wasn’t reading anymore. I literally could hear my father speaking the words, as if he were sitting right next to me. The experience was so real, I immediately broke down under the weight of the moment.

Do I believe my dad was trying to send me a message? Not exactly. I’ve read that same tribute a dozen times before, and I’d be willing to bet that my father actually did say similar things to me when he was still alive. The message has always been there. But sometimes it takes personal growth to understand the wisdom that has already been provided to you. After all these years, it felt like I was finally having that enlightening moment with my father, like the one that Dan describes. The realization that my dad can still teach me new things - that he can live on in that way - is a powerful one.

I’ll look forward to more of these moments with my dad, the eternal professor, as I move forward on this new journey. Regardless of what I uncover, his classic lesson will always be guiding my actions: no matter what I choose to do in life, I’ll swing for the fences.


5 Responses to "A Daddy’s Girl Returns to the Ball Game"

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  1. Gloria

    September 9, 2020 at 10:55 am

    Wonderful post Alena! A lovely tribute to your father, you express your love for him and travel so beautifully! Thank you for sharing!!

  2. Maia

    September 9, 2020 at 11:38 am

    Alena, this post is so moving and beautifully written! Thank you for sharing your travels and your memories with the rest of us!

  3. Alena Hadley

    September 9, 2020 at 12:32 pm

    Thank you both so much for reading and sharing in my dad’s memory! I feel honored for the opportunity to help continue his legacy.

  4. Holly Dimmack

    September 9, 2020 at 8:02 pm

    Alena, this beautifully written post has left me speechless with tears running down my face. You are truly inspiring. I just love every part of this and most importantly the journey you are on both professionally and personally. You are loved greatly lady.

  5. Alena Hadley

    September 9, 2020 at 8:38 pm

    Oh miss Holly - Now you’re making me cry!! Thank you for your support, as always XOXO


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