Tuesday, April 25, 2006


In Which We Have A Catch...

Well, Thomas must be getting over his stomach bug, because not only did he manage to avoid vomiting yesterday for the first time in three days, but he also found the energy to freak out when his mother told him he was still too sick to go to his baseball game last night.

Thomas is in Little League, the 7-year-old division, which means you get live pitches, but they still have the tee handy in case you can't connect on the 10th or 12th swing. They still don't really keep score, but now, unlike last year, the outs count, so the kids in the field are really hustling to get three outs and get back to the dugout so they can get more at-bats. No wonder Thomas likes to play, and he's a good hitter too, one of the few who can get some altitude on the ball and actually send it into the outfield.

You still see a lot of comedy in the field, though. None of them have the aim to correctly hit their cut-off man, and when they make a throw at the plate, they often as not hit the runner or one of the coaches. They're all still deathly afraid of pop flies, which leads to a lot of plays where four kids converge in order to watch the ball hit the ground. On the other hand, at least once a game, some lucky fellow manages to snag a mild pop-up or line drive, and they are all getting good at jumping on grounders and making throws to the correct base.

Some moms grouse that the dads who coach the teams are too serious, and while there are a couple of aggressive fellows (including a frustrated ex-minor leaguer who yelled at the catcher for not snagging a foul that popped up by the plate. He very narrowly escaped a mob of little league moms who were ready to string him up by his balls, and made a public apology from the pitcher's mound the next week, a move that allowed him to keep his job as coach, and saved him from a messy, emasculating death), I actually think the dads have the right idea, insofar as they feel the kids are old enough to start understanding the fundamentals of the game and they spend a lot of time showing them proper batting stance, practicing catching fouls and making double and triple plays, and in general instilling in them the concept of digging it out and making sure everyone knows what the best play is whenever a new batter comes up to the plate.

I certainly didn't have that kind of training when I played baseball. I played in a very loose league in Kansas for three years and playing and practicing for games, while fun and exciting, was also weird and dysfunctional too. Which I suppose is as concise a definition of my entire childhood as you're likely to get.

I won't go in for one of those classic American guy clichés and tell you that baseball was the only thing my dad and I had in common, because it really wasn't. Oh, when he was home, he liked to have a good old-fashioned catch with his sons. And what quality time he spent with us generally involved some bats, gloves, and the few mud-stained baseballs we owned. The truth is, we had almost nothing in common. But of all the things we didn't have in common, baseball was the least of them.

So there was many a dusky spring and summer evening when my brother and I found ourselves out near the pear orchard, squinting in the gloaming as my dad hefted his ancient brown varnished wood bat and cracked ball after ball out to us. I was a terrible batter and not good at infield work (too many variables. And too many line drives). But I liked the outfield. For one thing, I had a knack for judging a high pop fly and getting under it for the catch. For another, I was the only kid on the team who could throw a ball from the back fence all the way to home plate, quite a feat for an 8- or 9-year-old, and one I can't duplicate now without watching my left arm dangle freely from its socket afterwards. My dad played to this one strength and so he constantly drilled me in snagging high flies, scooping up grounders and working on my control so that I could get the ball to the catcher instead of, say, the folks sitting in the bleachers behind the plate.

But every once in a while, my dad would come home of an evening and decide to take out on us whatever frustrations the work day had visited upon him. I could always tell if it was going to be one of those days as soon as he got out of the truck. Before he'd come into the house, he'd head for one our back sheds (where I realize now he must have had a bottle or four hidden) and then come back, at first refreshed, but later surly and mean. He'd snipe all through dinner, and then decide I needed to work on my batting or try catching some hard throws and line drives.

Batting was an unending source or embarrassment for me, and, I guess, my dad. See, in this little part of Kansas, among the 8 or 10 teams we played, I was the only left-handed hitter. When our coach wanted to get someone on base, he would put me in to bat. I could barely connect with the ball, but my being a southpaw always threw the pitchers off. In eight consecutive at-bats, I was hit by the pitch for an automatic walk. The first three or four times it happened, it was just kind of funny. But then my coach started calling me his "secret walk-on weapon" and my dad caught wind of this and he wasn't so happy. I think on some level, he wanted to protect my dignity, but it never translated that way. By the end of the season, I was collecting an impressive set of baseball-sized black-and-blue marks on my side, my back, and one memorable one on my right buttock. I was also absorbing a lot of abuse from my dad. "If you didn't crowd the plate, you wouldn't get hit so much," he'd say. Or "You know, if you just tried hitting the goddamn ball, you might connect."

I'd listen to this sort of thing as he'd wing fast ball after fast ball at me. And my dad was no pitcher himself. He was no coach either. He never told me how to stand, or correct my swing. Just kept telling me, incessantly, to keep my eye on the ball.

Other times, he wouldn't bother with batting. He just threw balls at me as hard as he could. "If you weren't so afraid of the goddamn ball, you might be a better hitter!" he'd cry, and then oomph another fast ball at me and I'd catch it, feeling the sting of the impact deep in my glove, my fingers aching a little more each time he threw. I always thought he was being unfair. I mean, I knew a lot of kids on my team and other teams who were petrified of pop flies. Indeed, most of the head injuries during games in our league were from fielders spectacularly misjudging a descending ball and catching it in the crowns of their heads, the hollow sound of the impact echoing across the field, eliciting winces and sympathetic "Ooooh!" sounds from both sides of the bleachers.

I hated when we'd play this kind of catch. It wasn't a game; it was more like duel. I'd get tired of catching such hard-thrown balls fairly quickly. But you couldn't let down your guard or try to slow the pace of things. That only infuriated my dad. "You better catch it!" he'd call, firing another hand-stinger at me. "You know what'll happen otherwise."

To some this might sound like the "or else" speech of an abusive father, and maybe it was, but not in the way you think. My dad wasn't threatening to beat me if I played badly; he was simply reminding me of the consequences of lax attention. I remember from a very early age my dad taking me and my brother aside and showing us the ball. "See how hard this is?" he'd say. "It'll hurt like hell if it hits you in the face. And that's what I'm aiming for. Best way to learn how to catch a ball is if you aim to hit someone in the head. You might miss once, but by Gorry I bet you won’t miss a second time." And he meant it, so my brother and I got very good at catching balls. We didn't dare miss.

Helluva way to learn to play ball, I know, but at the time, I didn't know any better and, I suppose, neither did my dad. He just wanted us to be good, to be prepared to play well in a tough game, and I suppose in that he succeeded. I just wish I could say it was fun when we did it.

And of course, now I wanted my own son to have fun, but he sure wasn't when I got home last night. Thomas was still fuming about not being allowed to attend his game. "I feel fine!" he insisted to me, as if I'd be stupid enough to try to countermand his mother's ruling.

I did, however, have a compromise. "You know, when a player's on the disabled list, he doesn't just jump right back into the first game. He usually practices and warms up for a few days to get back in the rhythm. So, if it's okay with you mother, why don’t we go out back and play catch and see how you feel. And if you feel up to it, we'll do some batting practice too."

Her Lovely Self thought the wisdom of this idea was positively Solomonic (and she was getting pretty sick of his crabbing anyway) so out we went, the whole motley bunch: the Brownie retired to a hammock in the corner of the yard ("I will be the cheerleader," she said to me. "I will yell the rah-rahs when you get hit." I hoped she meant when Thomas got a hit.") And Blaze was attached to his recently installed runner, which not only gave him plenty of romping room in the back yard, but also ensured that he would get his big doggy ass and the runner leash in our way at every possible opportunity.

Still, it was a good practice. Thomas wanted me to lob balls way up, mimicking the trajectory of the average pop fly. He was scared to get under the first few. But after about three dozens throws, he was actually getting good at snagging them.

Batting, as always, was an adventure. When I was a player, I had good aim from the outfield, but I was a lousy pitcher, and time has not improved my aim. Not that it mattered. Thomas swung at anything and everything. When he finally got his timing down, though, he sent four balls into the neighbor's yard (where all were helpfully retrieved by their 17-year-old son, who was mowing the lawn at the time), several dozens grounders bouncing off of rock walls and father's shins. And there was one spectacular line drive that came this close to beaning me smack in the middle of my forehead. I dropped like a stone, and even with my cat-like reflexes, the ball parted my hair and took my grandfather's Red Sox cap with it. Thomas laughed and hooted, the dog sitting next to him, panting in that way that seemed like a laugh. In the far background, the Brownie stirred from her hammock and cried, "Gimme a Dad! Gimme and E! What's it spell? Dad-eee! Goooooo, Dad!!" I lay on the ground in a heap, suddenly feeling like I was 9 again, and waiting for my own dad to start yelling at me to get my ass up and chase the ball.

But the moment passed and all in all, it turned out to be a good but short practice. After the near-miss with the line drive, the Brownie became bored and went into the house, taking Blaze with her. Then, after about 20 minutes more minutes of alternately playing catch and letting him hit away, Thomas was bushed. "I'm so tired," he said, in an uncharacteristic moment of honesty. "I guess I was too pooped to play." He flopped on the ground and grabbed for a nearby water bottle.

"This was good practice, though," I said, sitting next to him and fanning myself with my cap. "You're getting really good at snagging pop-ups. That's going to come in VERY handy next time you play."

We sat for a moment and drank our water and looked out at the lowering sun.

"Dad," Thomas said, "Papa said he was mean when he practiced with you. He said he used to throw the ball to hit you in the head."

I was a little surprised. "He told you that?" Thomas nodded. I shrugged. "Well, it was true, I guess. He thought it was the best way to make sure we learned how to catch the ball."

"Why was he mean to you?"

I sighed. "Well, Papa was a different guy back then. He was kind of like that coach who yelled at the catcher. He sometimes took fun things too seriously and forgot what he was doing."

Thomas took this in. "I'm sorry I laughed when I hit the ball at your head. It looked funny. But I didn't mean it."

"I know," I said. It was almost dusk now and Thomas yawned hugely. "Ready to go in?" I asked.

"Yeah," he nodded. He stood up and almost instinctively high-fived me, as he did with his teammates after every Little League match. "Good game, Dad," he said.

Good game indeed.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

You're a good dad MM!

My Dad was one of the coaches of my soccer team when I was little. He taught us a lot of good stuff without being mean lckily for me. We were one of the only teams that didn't look like a giant kid amoeba with a soccer ball nucleus.
The only thing my softball coach ever said to us was: Don't swing at anything until after your first strike. Since a lot of pitchers were bad, that worked very well for us.

Thomas' game sounds like more fun though.
Hey MM, this was an awesome Dad solution that you decided on. Never hurts to practice the fundamentals! As long as you can avoid getting hit in the head, that is.
The highlight for me was Thomas, not just apologizing for almost hitting you, but for having the brains to see that sometimes something that looks funny isn't actually funny in real life. I know many, many grownups who fail to see this important lesson in being a friend. Mr. Man, your son, by gorry, he is one soulful spirit.
Ah, baseball...

I suppose that's one of the biggest things I felt lucky about as the kid of divorced parents...

I think I shall blog about this... Thanks for the inspiration, MM!

(that pretty much means I was writing a comment and decided it was better as a post)

That is one perceptive seven-year-old.


Great story.
...Shafa, I just realized that you attend my alma mater.

Small world!
moments to cherish, for you and the art lad. all that were missing were the fireflies.

thank you, as ever, for sharing.
Great story, great times MM. I enjoy hearing the stories of you and Art Lad. I think it's great that you take the time to help him with baseball!
I can't wait to have kids for experiences like this. But it'll still be a couple years until it happens.

Okay, so Dariush and Heather are both UK alums. I want in on this bandwagon! I lived in Lexington for five years and was accepted to UK, even though I didn't wind up going there. Does that count for something?
Great post. Your kids are going to grow into wonderful human beings because of you and HLS.

Sometimes doncha wish you could hear it from Dad's mouth instead of second hand?
Wow...great story. Could turn it into a Sam Mendes movie or something...
A baseball story! I love a good baseball story and this certainly was a good one. My season (fast-pitch softball) starts this Sunday - 49 and still playing.
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