I wrote this a year ago and put it on the now defunct Pearl Soup site, so those of you who were my friends there will have already seen this. Older Son, now 23, is moving into his own place this weekend and baseball season is upon us, so I thought this would a fitting time to re-post this, with apologies to those for whom it’s a “rerun.”
It is a tie that binds us together, a connection that has eased us into some uncomfortable conversations.
My older son, now a 22-year-old man, started playing baseball when he was five. He always took it seriously and I never told him that, genetically, he faced an uphill battle.
My own foray into athletics as a child included a couple of hapless enrollments in organized sports during a time when, sadly, most coaches – volunteer or otherwise – had little interest in one as clumsy as I. I gave it up quickly and sought out the more creative avenues for which I was better suited.
I watched from a distance, though, as my peers advanced through the ranks of the various games of their choosing. I envied their fit and agile bodies. I loved the whole idea of athletic games but had no natural ability.
Sill, I loved following sports as a youngster, especially baseball. I have early memories of not only watching my older brother play (he got all the athletic skill in the family), but also listening with him to St. Louis Cardinals’ games being broadcast over the radio. Family vacations included a couple of trips to Major League parks.
So to have a son who actually played the game gave me great joy. I knew my own limitations, however. I thought that, although I could be supportive and encouraging, there would be little I could offer in the way of assistance.
My son had other ideas. In the early days of tee-ball and coach-pitch, when I would arrive home from work, he would often be waiting for me for a game of catch in the yard. Even then I was a bit self-conscious, but I could hold my own. At practices I would pick up what I could from more experienced dads and would try to impute those lessons.
As he got older, it had to have become evident to him that this was not my strength. I remember a game where the head coach, who had not gotten to know me very well, asked me to coach third base.
With butterflies dancing in my stomach – but with my son grinning and looking on with pride -- I took my place. Runners on second looked at me with questioning eyes. One even called out my name and asked if he should run. I said something along the lines of, “Sounds good to me.” I was soon reassigned to something like keeping up with the batting order.
At the end of one season, when he was nine, an evaluation was required in order to play in the next year’s “competitive league.” I do not remember the day of the evaluation, but I do remember that we never heard from anyone in the league as to whether or not he made it. Although I knew the answer, I got the name and number of the spineless guy in charge of the “draft” and gave him a call to get the official word. It ticks me off to this day that he was not man enough to notify us.
I gently broke the news to my son. He was disappointed but took it in stride, and asked if there would be another chance to try out in the spring before the season started. I had asked that very question and had been told yes, but there would be only a few spots available. He might want to consider playing in the “rec (recreational) league,” I had been told. I managed to get off the phone without telling the guy where he could go with his “rec league.”
After getting past the initial disappointment, I remember being relieved that, for at least the next few months, we could forget about it. But I was mistaken. I don’t remember if it was the very next day, but if not, it was only a few days later, when my son was back in the yard, glove in hand, and asking me to help him.
We spent a good part of that fall and winter, whatever the weather, either in our yard or at a nearby park. He practiced all of it methodically – catching flies, fielding grounders, running bases and hitting. I did whatever I could to help. I was sending up prayers asking God to please, oh please, let it happen for him, telling God that, although I was a wretched person, this little boy He had blessed me with, he deserved a break.
On the Saturday morning of the spring evaluations, he got me up early and we went to the park. We went through all of the routines we had been practicing over the winter. In my estimation he looked perfect. But what did I know?
I have no memory of the evaluation itself, probably because my head was buried in my hands during that time. I have always had trouble facing things.
A couple of weeks passed and the call finally came. I will never forget the joy of hearing that my son had been “drafted” to play for “the Sox.” I was told that he would remain with this organization for the next four years and would have the opportunity to work his way up from “C” to “A” league.
I went and found him. I hugged him. I tackled him and threw him to the floor. I hugged him some more.
The rest is, of course, family history. He enjoyed a three-year stint before a move to another city cut short his career with the Sox. During those three years his game improved drastically, thanks in large part to some dedicated and fair coaches who had not just knowledge of the game, but the ability to teach.
He quickly affiliated himself with a team in our new hometown. His new coach asked me if he might like to try pitching. I told him I felt sure that would not be something he would want to pursue, that he had worked a long time perfecting his abilities at first base and other occasional infield positions.
What I did not say was that I had expanded outside my borders about as far as I could. My knees were far too old to be squatting down to catch practice pitches.
He was pitching within a week. He struck out nine batters his first game on the mound. I cried at the end of the game.
By then he had moved into a new dimension. It thrilled me to see his self-confidence and poise grow in this game, and I was glad the coach who had eyed him as a pitcher had possessed the good sense not to listen to me.
I also knew that, at this point, he had grown beyond where I could be of much help to him. Though it saddened me a bit, I was more than happy to sacrifice that for his personal development.
Once again, however, I had way underestimated my son and his perception of his dad. For Father’s Day that year he presented me with my very own catcher’s mitt. The unspoken message overwhelmed me and that mitt is among the most treasured gifts I have ever received.
Today baseball has given way to intramural softball but we both still love the game. After his high school graduation, the two of us went to Baltimore’s Camden Yards for a couple of games, another step in the goal he set a few years ago for us to visit every Major League Park. (We are about half-way there and his little brother has now joined us in this delightful journey).
We had some great conversations during that trip about the changes taking place in his life and he confessed some of his concerns about the future. No, we did not necessarily have to go watch baseball for that to happen. But he is so much like me -- so much like the male species – so much needing to talk about his feelings, but not quite being able to get there without the right conduit.
Thank God for the beautiful game that allowed a father, over and over, to see into the heart and character of his son, and that gave that son the opportunity to believe in himself and learn the age-old lesson of what can be accomplished through persistence and hard work.
And thank God for the game that caused a son, over and over, to reach out and affirm his dad.