Playing Catch With My Son
I wanted him to love the game as much as I do, so we started when he was very young. When he was three he had a plastic bat and ball, and he would knock the ball around the living room, swatting it off the bookcases and the coffee table, or bending over awkwardly to field the soft grounders I sent his way. During the summer of 1999, when he had just finished his first year, he fell in love with Sammy Sosa, who would rhythmically tap his chest and send kisses to the cameras after hitting a home run. Michael copied Sammy’s moves, and dreamed of one day hitting the ball as far.
Living in Minnesota then, we treasured the summers. On nights that were as soft and sweet as a mother’s kiss, we would go for a quick swim at Bryant Lake, then swing by Dairy Queen for a cone before heading home and watching the Twins for a while until the fireflies pocked the twilight with their brilliant floating pinpoints, and it was time for him to go to bed.
He learned the language of baseball. Michael went to his first major league game when he was two, and a year later David Ortiz picked him out of a crowd to give him a huge smile.
He learned division by calculating batting averages. Whenever I traveled I would come back with a baseball cap from the city I visited. By the time he was ten he had official caps from more than 20 big league teams. Baseball was our language, our comfort, and our common ground.
I look out now at the backyard where he learned to play this game. Most nights in the spring and summer, I would meet him there, after work, after school and homework, and we would throw. Timid at first, and somewhat afraid of the hard stone-like sphere that came his way, but with time he grew more comfortable, then confident, and at last magnificent, diving to his left or right to snag grounders that I threw to be just out of his reach. He developed quickness, and, on the uneven turf, he learned to keep his hands low and loose to handle bad bounces. The pop flies that eluded him, or he dropped, when he was seven he caught with ease when he was eight.
Our yard was just big enough to lay out a small baseball field, and neighborhood kids would come over for pickup games on the weekends. Ten or twelve kids, boys and girls both, would divide into teams and play for a few innings. Home plate was in the corner, near the point where the garden intersected with the woods out back. The bases were no more than twenty feet, but that was enough for a bunch of eight-year-olds looking to play.
They’re all gone now, the neighborhood kids who all grew up, or moved away, or found interest in other things. The base paths that would wear thin each summer are now grown over with thick grass. Somewhere out there is the pitching rubber that I dug into the ground sixty feet from the pitching net I placed behind home plate. It’s grown over, too. Michael would pitch to the net when no one else was around, and some nights I would come home to find him back there throwing into its tape-drawn strike zone. The balls bounced quickly back to him off the net, and he sharpened his reflexes as they jumped back at him with a force equal to his own throws.
I sit here now holding a baseball in my hand, regarding its weight and shape, smelling the earthy small of its seams, and considering what power there is in simple things. We played catch with this ball, and with maybe a hundred of its brothers, hearing the plock of good throws smacking into the pockets of well-broken mitts, watching the arc of dirty-white against the green of trees, smelling the grass beneath our feet. We would talk then, as we threw. Little things mostly, but things that would otherwise go unsaid – bits of information, a quick story, maybe a piece of gossip. I would encourage him, or offer tips on catching, or throwing, or positioning. He became a better player because of it, but that was never the point. The point was to be father and son. The point was to form something that was as strong as a real diamond.
This week he leaves for college, and eighteen years are channeled into a single day. Because of this, I see the things at hand that must carry me forward, that confirm who he is, and what we are together. I hold this ball now, as mystical to me now as the bone of a saint, or a druid’s staff. And I realize now that baseball was never a game. Baseball was a sacrament.
This spring, after Michael had played his last competitive baseball game, I planted a tree in the back yard. It’s a lovely little red maple that promises to reach 6 or 7 feet when it’s mature. I planted it right where home plate used to be, and, as I did so, I said a silent prayer that its roots would develop as strongly and as deeply as the roots that had already grown in that sacred place.