As I put my fingers into the too-expensive ball glove and slammed the baseball into the pocket a few times, the sound, feel and smell of the ball and glove made fond memories come rushing back. The ball and glove were gifts from my son for Father’s Day. He knew I no longer needed a ball and glove, but we both knew it was a symbolic gift—a symbol of the bond between father, son and grandson. He said the three of us would play catch again someday.
Catch—probably one of the most common ways for fathers and sons to bond when I was a boy and when my son was a boy. I coached at least one of his boy baseball teams and I tried to never miss a game when he played for other coaches. He developed into a good player.
My father never coached, but he would come out of the dairy barn, the hay meadow, or a plowed field to make it to my games. He didn’t coach my team, but he did coach me. I wondered how a farmer dressed in overalls knew so much about baseball. I had to learn from someone else that he had been a top player in his youth and had to pass up a chance to play on a traveling team because he had to earn a living.
I wrote a piece several years back about boys and baseball, but never could find the right place to publish it. In the piece, I criticized the sorry state of boys’ baseball these days. Here is part of that article:
Was I scared, tense and nervous that first Little League game? You bet. But I would rather have had a ground ball hit me in the teeth than let that coach, my father, or myself down. My teammates were the same. The message—if you are going to do something, it is much more joyous to do it right. Put your heart and soul into it.
Today’s message: Relax, don’t take it seriously – being a slacker is cute—everybody should get a trophy. What fun is that? It misses the joy of knocking down a ground ball and throwing out a runner at first with heart as much as skill. Sure, there are boys who are natural athletes and those of us who have to put forth much more effort to get the same or less results. Some boys may not be cut out for baseball or for any sport. That’s fine. I will be just as pleased if one of my grandsons chooses a violin over a baseball. Whatever he chooses, I want him to put his heart into it. Because that is the way you squeeze joy out of life.
I am not advocating taking away fun or traumatizing young boys for the sake of winning. Just the opposite. We have taken the joy out of the game and replaced it with political correctness. Take infield chatter—they don’t do it anymore. The sound of “batta, batta, batta, eeezy out, swing batta swing, two away, get your easy man, force out on every base, run on anything”, was as sweet as the sound of tree frogs singing on a summer night. Now, we can’t say easy-out because it might hurt someone’s feelings.
The message in the old days: Don’t let a few words rattle you if you are coming to the plate. Today’s message: Sticks and stones can break my bones and words can also really, really hurt me. Nobody is allowed to put any pressure on me. Sorry, but life is not like that.
Am I saying that baseball is lost? Far from it. Select teams play a great brand of baseball. But they are select—a pretty exclusive club.
My appeal is for those kids who want to play for the love of the game. Let’s teach them how to play it, how to enjoy it, before they make a decision about the role of team sports in their lives.
Baseball is a metaphor for life. I used it that way in my first novel. Writing that book made me realize what I learned from those glorious days of baseball. I learned to look fear in the face and stand up to it by hitting a fastball that seemed headed for my head instead of the plate. I learned patience as I let balls pass by and waited for the right pitch. I learned to handle embarrassment when I struck out, let a “skinner” get by me, or missed a pop fly. I endured and survived absolute mortification when I was not chosen for an all-star team.
I learned how to function as a member of a team and support my teammates. I learned how to suck it up when we lost and how to be a good sport when we won. I experienced the pure joy of hitting a fastball in the sweet spot of the bat and watching it sail just over the reach of a jumping shortstop, the thrill of stealing home. All boys should have such sweet and bittersweet memories.
And then I got to experience the warm glow when a symbolic gift brought it all back. Thanks for that, son.