He's Always There : After Growing Up in a Children's Home in New York, George Karros Makes Sure Every Day Is Father's Day for His Son, the Dodger First Baseman

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eric Karros heard about it at 5 p.m., less than three hours before his first major league start.

His father heard about it moments later.

"I'm in my office in San Diego. I get this phone call from Eric in the clubhouse," George Karros recalled of last Sept. 4. "He says, 'Dad, Eddie Murray is hurt. I'm finally gonna get to play.' "

George was nearly a three-hour drive from Dodger Stadium, considering traffic. The game against the St. Louis Cardinals was possibly a sellout, and he had no tickets.

None of that mattered. He summoned his wife and jumped into his car.

They arrived in the second inning.

They ran from the car to the ticket window and got two of the worst seats in the house, high in the right-field section, but considered themselves lucky. They ran from the ticket window. They rushed up the pavilion steps. Just as the field came into view, so did their son, right before his first major league at-bat.

For the first time since watching his son as a Little Leaguer, George Karros did not cheer.

He couldn't cheer. He couldn't even move.

"It was like we were frozen," he said. "Everybody around us was jumping up and down. My wife and I just stared in disbelief."

Seven innings later, after Karros went hitless and struck out twice, his parents left for the long drive home.

It wasn't until the next day that Eric knew his folks were there.

"I was going to go down to the clubhouse and shake his hand, but I didn't want to embarrass him," George Karros said.

Embarrass him?

"Never," Eric said. "How can a man who obviously loves you so much ever embarrass you?"

The Eric Karros story is about more than a first baseman who leads the Dodgers in home runs and runs batted in.

It is more than the tale of the rookie who would be Steve Garvey.

Before anything, it is the simple story of a father and his son.

The son grew up with everything because the father had grown up with little.

The son learned never to stop dreaming, because dreams were all the father once had.

The son learned not to accept the word no because the father rarely heard anything else.

The father never pushed the son but was always there for him, from fearful times at Vero Beach to a crisis in Las

Vegas.

Soon, they shared a vision that is now being shared with the rest of the baseball world.

Karros has become a rookie-of-the-year candidate, and his father is pleased about not having to sit in the upper deck.

"The great thing about this year is, even though I'm getting a big kick out of it, I bet my father is enjoying it even more," Eric said.

On summer nights in the late 1940s, George Karros used to sneak through the window into the basement of the Masonic Home for children in Utica, N.Y., where he and 220 others lived and grew up.

There, he and his friends would jimmy the antenna of a tiny radio and spend the evening listening to games played by his idols, the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"We had to be quiet or one of the matrons would hear us," he recalls.

Perhaps that is why today, when Eric makes a good play for those Dodgers, George doesn't say much.

But by the way he digs his elbow into his wife's arm as they watch from seats he never realized could be so close to the field, she knows the magic is understood.

"It is unbelievable how things have turned out," Karen Karros said. "My husband never tells his oldest son how he feels. He just tells him he'll stand behind him, whatever. Then one day his dream becomes his son's dream."

For Father's Day today, Eric, with his major league salary, would like to buy his father something lavish. But that would go against an unspoken tradition in the Karros family.

"I used to make a pair of pants last a year, so what would I do with something fancy?" George said.

In 1943, George's father, Peter Karros, was struggling to make ends meet, and his mother was seriously ill. So George and his four sisters were sent to the Masonic Home.

He was 4. He remained there 14 years, sharing rooms with two and three other boys, benefiting from a male influence only during his father's monthly visits.

With a bully around every corner and no shoulder upon which to cry, he developed the perseverance the Dodgers have seen in his son.

"I learned to adapt to whatever situation," George said. "You received no special attention, no pats on the back, so you did everything for yourself."

He missed receiving presents on his birthday or receiving anything special on Christmas.

"Our presents were always our clothes for the next year," he said. "And everybody in town knew who lived at the home because we all wore the same clothes."

His inner drive was strengthened, though, by the looks he received from townspeople.

"I learned that just because somebody tells you 'No,' doesn't mean you have to accept it," George said.

When he finally left the home, it was because he made the grades to go to Yale. When he graduated, he joined the Marine Corps. After a stint as a captain, he was married in 1965, went to work for a bank and had two sons.

The man who as a boy received so little guidance decided his family would be different.

"Maybe this is because he never really had parents," Karen said. "But he made the decision early that nothing would be more important to him than being a father."

When Eric, his oldest of two sons, began playing junior league baseball in San Diego, George Karros became the coach.

When George had to work late, his team would have to finish practice in the dark.

When he had to work very late, he would go to practice early, then spend the rest of the night in his home office.

"He always took his work home with him so he could be with the boys during their time," Karen said. "Many nights he would be back in that spare bedroom until midnight so he could coach them during the day."

When Eric began playing for Patrick Henry High, George would leave work early and attend all of his games.

Even though parents have shown the same enthusiasm for years, George was different.

"He never interfered, never got involved. He would just sit behind the backstop and watch," said Bob Imlay, coach at Patrick Henry. "He wasn't one of these parents from hell. He was just there because, I think, he wanted to be near his son."

As Eric grew older, he grew more tired of this scene.

In junior league he would sometimes scream at his father to go back to the bench when George approached the mound.

In high school he would sometimes ask his father, "Don't you have anything better to do?"

Eric laughs now at the question, and the answer.

"He would always say, 'No, I would rather be with you,' " Karros said. "I don't know if I understood it then. I understand it now."

When Eric graduated from high school as a marginal prospect because he was only 17 and growing, George took him on humbling visits to several colleges before he enrolled without a scholarship at UCLA.

At a couple of schools they couldn't even meet the coaches, and at UCLA they took Gary Adams by surprise.

"We're having a practice, and this guy and his dad walk up and introduce themselves," Adams said. "I had never heard of the kid."

But Adams liked his size, so he called his coaches in San Diego and made Karros one offer.

"We promised not to cut him before the end of fall tryouts," Adams said. "Looking back, I think, 'Gosh, Gary, how could you have treated such a good player in such an ordinary fashion?' "

Karros accepted the deal instead of going to San Diego State because he wanted to get away from home, and his parents agreed.

"I didn't leave home to get away from my dad because, if you notice, I didn't (get away)," Karros said with a smile. "I left home because I just wanted to see what I could do on my own, and so did my dad. It would like, make me stronger."

While Eric struggled to make the Bruins during his first year--he spent much of the year as the bullpen catcher--his father never missed a weekend game. He never even missed early batting practice.

"I'm warming up to pitch batting practice early in the morning and there was George, sitting in the stands by himself," Adams said. "The man never said a word, but he was always there. It was extraordinary."

Karros finally cracked the lineup and hit a combined 25 homers with 111 runs batted in during his sophomore and junior years, earning a sixth-round selection by the Dodgers.

Karros was angry he wasn't drafted sooner and spent a couple of weeks stewing before deciding to sign for a $32,500 bonus, $10,000 less than he expected.

"I wanted to go higher, but finally I figure, 'I just better go play and prove it to people,' " Karros said. "It's like my father says, 'There are no shortcuts.' "

When Eric Karros signed with the Dodgers, his father accompanied him to Great Falls (Mont.) in the Pioneer Rookie League. And his father has visited him in every minor league stop since, including Bakersfield, San Antonio and Albuquerque.

Once George flew to San Antonio for one game, because the season was ending and he thought Eric might like some company on his long drive home.

"His dad was always showing up everywhere. We all thought it was kind of cool," said Ernie Carr, Karros' former minor league roommate. "But Eric never seemed to to be spoiled. He never took anything for granted."

When Eric was at his lowest point in the minor leagues, last year after being benched when the team was in Las Vegas, he received a surprise visitor.

"I had been talking to my dad on the phone, and then all of a sudden he shows up," Karros said. "It was typical."

Said George: "I had heard his voice. It sounded like he was down. I just wanted him to know that he should not question himself."

They met, had lunch and George Karros climbed back into his car and drove six hours home.

Eric began playing well again almost immediately and may never have to play in Las Vegas again.

His even temperament enabled him to survive a tense spring, during which he made the team only because he batted .370.

His ability to handle bad times allowed him to survive his first 16 at-bats against right-handers, during which he had two hits and 10 strikeouts.

And he says his ability to remain close to one man has helped him hold it all together. Besides that card today, his father will receive a phone call.

"But not just because it's Father's Day," Karros said with the timeless shrug of a boy talking about his Dad. "On any given day, chances are I'd be calling him anyway."

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