What I Learned From My Father, the Grifter
Credit: Roberto Parada
When I was 18 got $47,000 after I signed with the Milwaukee Braves to pitch in their farm system. The first thing I did with that money was put it in a savings account. The second thing I did was take $5,000 and pay off my parents' mortgage so they could finally feel secure.

Later, after I was out of baseball, I raised five children in that house and became a writer. I was a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated in the early '70s, and one day my editor offered me a staff job. It would pay me almost three times what I had been making, along with an expense account, stock options, insurance, and a pension. There was only one drawback. Two, actually. Time Inc. would own all my stories. Which was also part of the second problem: I would be owned by an institution. My work, my life even, would no longer be in my own hands. When I told my father about the offer, and that I was contemplating taking it, he said, "For chrissakes, what's wrong with you? Didn't I teach you anything?" So I turned it down.

Ten years later, in my early 40s, I was going through a divorce. I gave my wife everything – the house, car, alimony, child support, everything she needed to meet her nut. It bankrupted me. When I mentioned, offhandedly, to my father one day that maybe I should have taken that Sports Illustrated job, he snapped at me: "Forget it. That's baggage. You made your choice, now live with it."

So I fled to Fort Lauderdale, where I could live more cheaply, in a rented apartment for $500 a month, with only my books, my clothes, my typewriter, and a rusted-out Alfa Romeo as possessions. I began using my many credit cards to pay my bills. Then I fell behind on my credit cards and stopped paying them altogether. I had tapped them out to the tune of $40,000. When I told my old man, he liked that – screwing an institution at its own game. "Even shylocks got more heart," he said of financial institutions. Then he added, "But you never screw a friend."

I remarried, got back on my feet, began to make enough money to live pleasantly, if frugally at first, in our small apartment. Then we began to accumulate a little money. We bought dogs and went shopping for a new car. We drove north into western North Carolina in 1989 and bought a mountain cabin as a second home. After three more years we began looking to move from our Fort Lauderdale apartment to a house and found an old wood-frame Key West-style bungalow for $100,000. But I'd have to put down one-third, and I only had $15,000 in the bank. When I told my father, he said, "Buy the house," and he sent me $20,000 in cash in a FedEx envelope. I was afraid to ask him where he got it.

Meeting my "nut" always unnerved me. Five children, five dogs, two cars, two mortgages, alimony, and exorbitant health insurance for my second wife, who had had breast cancer in her late 30s. There were so many living things that depended on me for survival that at times, I'd wake at 2 am in a cold sweat, get out of bed, and pace back and forth. Sometimes, during those early-morning dreads, I cursed my old man for all his cavalier advice. No institutions, no investments, give it all away. Easy for him to say.

My mother died at 97, and then my father died two years later, in 2005. A year after that, my wife and I sold the cabin in North Carolina for $230,000. We were in our mid-60s then, and the 12-hour drive was too much for us. Besides, we had to start thinking about our impending old age. We put $200,000 into a CD at 2 percent interest and the rest into a savings account.

When our CD came due in February 2006, our banker convinced us to invest that money in an annuity based on the stock market. He guaranteed we'd earn at least 5 percent more than we were earning on our CD. So we signed the papers. I put our future, our life, in the hands of someone else for the first time in my life. I heard my old man's voice, "A fucking scam!" as my wife and I left the bank. I said out loud, "Fuck you! What do you know?" My wife said, "Excuse me?" I said, "Nothing. Just talking to myself."

My old man believed the stock market relied on a "sucker's" gullibility. When it went down, he said, all the working stiffs lost their money; when it went up only the guys in the know made anything. Now I was one of those stiffs, a sucker, the lowest form of life for my father.

I decided I'd master the market myself. I'd find a way to regain control. I began quitting work at noon to watch Maria Bartiromo on CNBC. She reminded me of all the women in my Italian family. Tough, like men. And smart. The market would go up, and she'd explain why. Something about housing construction starts. And then it went down, way down, and she began talking about a mortgage crisis. I died a little death with the movement of each point. It was inflation. No, it was the price of oil. No, it was unemployment. No, it was hedge funds. It was all so fucking confusing I couldn't concentrate on any of it anymore. I stopped watching CNBC. I bid adieu to Maria. I resigned myself to something beyond my control. Not a bad feeling, really. Fuck it. Let it go where it wants to go. It was all baggage anyway.

My experiment in the market taught me something, however. I really was much different than my father in the way that mattered to him most. I rattled the bones and tossed them over the green felt cloth, knowing full well the dice were not shaved. I gambled, always have, because I always wanted to make my life bigger. My father deliberately kept his life small – that rented apartment, that battered Volkswagen – so he could gamble without fear of loss. I always feared loss, which is why I now wonder: Which of us really was the purest gambler?