A few months back, while watching the Ken Burns documentary on baseball and hearing commentator after commentator wax poetically about how every American boy knows what it’s like to share that first catch with dad and to feel the crack of the bat, I was overwhelmed by a realization and a great emptiness.
My dad never played catch with me. Oh, the horror! Suddenly every single emotional, mental, spiritual, psychological and physical issue I had ever had made sense. No wonder I was still single!
How could this have happened? Especially when my dad was a huge baseball fan and player? He grew up on the streets of the Bronx in the ’30s in the shadow of Yankee Stadium where baseball wasn’t just a sport but a requirement.
And watching baseball with my dad, as well as basketball, hockey, boxing, tennis and any other sport, was our primary form of communication while I was growing up. My mother was the very intellectual, overly analytical and intense type, so my father’s simple, easy-going, relatively trivial sports talk was the best thing for me. Since she knew nothing about sports, it was my secret language with my dad; not even my other brothers shared it, because they didn’t like sports much.
So why did he teach them to play baseball and not me? At 42, I decided it was about time we remedied that.
“Dad, did you know we never played baseball?” I randomly asked one day. “I want to know what it feels like to hear that crack of the bat,” I demanded. “And I want to play catch with you.”
I had no idea what he would say. After all, he was 80 years old, and even though he was in good shape, I wasn’t sure he was up for trotting around a baseball diamond with me. “Really!” he exclaimed. “I can’t believe that. OK, we will have to do that some time.”
But I wanted to do it now! When I suggested the idea to my editor at rebel, he said, “Let’s get it on film.” Aha — now it was work-related. I could use that.
“Dad, I need you to play catch with me for an article,” I told him a few days later, playing into his strong work ethic mentality. “Oh, OK. Sounds good,” he responded nonchalantly.
We set a date and confirmed it with the film crew. Squaring away all the details stopped me from thinking so much about the emotional ramifications until the night before. Then it hit me, and I was incredibly anxious. Not like how you feel before a big test or a job interview, but the way you feel the night before Christmas, thinking about all the great presents you will receive.
But the next morning, the Grinch was about to steal away my Christmas. The whole operation threatened to fall apart at a municipal ballpark when park employees refused to let us film. My editor was ready to scrap everything. I couldn’t let this happen — my whole mental and emotional well-being was on the line. Damn it! I felt like Charlie Brown getting the football yanked out from under him at the last second. I will not be denied again!
But wait — my dad reminded us there was a small schoolyard park down the street. (Way to go, Dad — you’re pulling for me!) The schoolyard was deserted and the perfect place for our long-awaited date with the diamond. Score! While the crew set up, I tried to conceal my excitement, but I felt like a 5-year-old. Honestly, I was scared. What if he hit me in the head with the ball? What if I lost a tooth?
Dad assuaged my fear when he gave me a glove — my first glove! He calmly and carefully instructed me how to put my fingers inside — leaving the very edge of the hand out. I slipped it on — and it fit so sweet, like an extension of my being.
Now it was time. As my dad threw the first ball my way, I recoiled. I dropped it. Disappointment, sadness, embarrassment crashed down — I was less than a man! Dad smiled, didn’t laugh and kindly instructed, “Don’t move back. Stand and catch it.”
He fired another. There it was — that sweet comforting, soft sound of a ball finding its way into the comfy confines of the mitt. Victory, happiness, manliness, solidarity with my dad and every other red-blooded American male was mine — finally!
We threw a few more — faster, harder, higher. I caught them all! With every throw and catch I felt more and more connected to him and to every other father and son who ever played catch. Then he lobbed me a grounder. “Just lay your glove down and let it roll right in,” he said. After a couple rolled up my arm and almost hit me in the face, I got the knack. I was a regular Derek Jeter!
Now it was time to bat. Again, I ran away from the ball. “Lean into it, you got a bat to protect you,” Dad assured me. Strike one! “Damn it!” Strike two. “Drat!” But the third time was the charm. There it was — that magic sound of success, of the bat and ball connecting. I nailed one right down the third baseline. “Great job, Chris!” my dad cheered.
After a few more hits and catches, we called it a day. I didn’t want it to end. But he promised to take me to the batting cages next time. Wow!
That night I felt like a million bucks! I told a few friends about it. They talked about their own fathers teaching them. Then, as I turned on the TV before bed, there was that same Ken Burns documentary. But this time, it made me feel good.
The following day, at a local breakfast joint, I saw a couple of excited kids and their father in full little league outfits; their dad’s jersey read “coach.” For the first time, I could relate.
And I will forever understand. Now I am a man.