Take Me Out of the Ball Game
The pitch is coming in slow motion.
I don’t mean that time has somehow dilated and my perception of reality is unpleasantly drawn out like a post-1990 Robert Altman flick. I mean the ball actually seems to hang perpetually in the air as though suspended from the sun by a preposterously long string. It’s a Bugs Bunny slow pitch, comically lackadaisical in its casual efforts to reach home plate, an underhand toss that scientists should study for its gravity-defying properties.
I watch it dawdle toward home plate, and now maybe I am also imparting my own time dilation to the event as well, because I want more than anything on the planet in that moment to hear the metal thwunk of contact and to see that glorious orb soar. It is, after all the very last pitch of the very last game of the season and the bases are loaded with rich scoring possibilities.
And at bat is my six year-old son.
Standing there under the warm morning sun, he almost looks perplexed. “Wait,” he seems to say, “what is this large bludgeon in my hands and why is that tall man throwing things at me?” He is a boy waking from a dream, and while the weight of the moment seems to press at me as I sit a helpless observer with only the power of overwrought encouragement, he seems to not feel it at all.
It’s been kind of a long season at this point. My son is a wonderful boy, but he is also — let’s call it dynamic. In my mind, baseball was a way to channel his unyielding perpetual motion properties, but when standing in the outfield as the game swells and ebbs all around him, blades of grass tossed into the breeze are much more his kind of thing. My son is Ferdinand the Bull in the outfield, happy and relatively oblivious to the fact that a sport is being played in such close proximity. You can almost see the Bubble of Solitude that separates him from the world.
I find that the game is teaching me far more about who I am as a parent than it is my son. I had hoped that sport might be a way to build some kind of mutual understanding between us, something that at times seems to be painfully missing. How many soccer moms and baseball dads had that wrong-headed idea before, I wonder.
When I was my son’s age, there was this weird conflict between my parents, one of whom was recruited to play football for a prominent university and the other who seemed to view enforced team sports as a sentence of indentured recreational servitude. Negotiations on the point were strained over the years, and eventually took on a tone that might remind one of the Middle-East peace talks, though with far less success.
The balance of power shifted, however, as I grew into a frame that seemed equal to pretty much anything that rural high-school contact sports could throw at it. Six-four and with a body sculpted by life on a dairy farm, what I lacked in decades of childhood development I could at least partially make up for through brute force.
Long story short, by high school if it was a sport that kept me from cleaning cow manure in the afternoons, I wanted to be involved. Football, basketball, golf, track and swimming, it was never really about the actual event so much as it was an opportunity to be engaged in a social structure. I liked the perks of sports, the status. No recruiter was ever going to knock on our door and no award trophies would ever decorate my walls, but I always had somewhere to go and someone to be with on the weekends.
Now, I am where my own father was, trying desperately to explain why the consternations of competition and the shared experience of team play are valuable to my six year-old. And, yes, it’s an argument built on a foundation of fodder that I might once have shoveled with my own pitchfork, but my son seemed game for the idea and so I pulled the trigger with grand designs dancing in my head.
In between that moment, and this one where the last pitch of the season is finally closing in on home plate, he’s had a few hits, commonly followed by an almost casual, self-satisfied stroll to first base. He’s scored a few runs. We’ll just say that fielding is not his strong suit and leave it at that, but his enthusiasm for the game is pretty obviously built on the heart-rending foundation of doing-it-for-dad, and I suspect that I’ve fallen for that hoary old patriarchal trap of trying to shove my son into my own mold.
And now, by some trick of fate, he is the very last batter of the season. He does not seem aware of the stress of the moment, and I’m certain the only moments ago he was on an entirely different planet that may have seemed far more real than this one of dusty diamonds and batting stances. That pitch, though, is still coming just now over the plate, and he swings. Or, rather than saying he swings, perhaps it is more accurate to say he simply relaxes the muscles that were holding the bat upright and allows gravity to impart its will through a strange but potentially useful arc.
It’s a strike, the last strike, and the season is over.
And, more than anything else at that moment, I am ridiculously and unrealistically surprised. That’s not how the story goes. He gets a hit — his best hit of the season — and runs his endearing little six year-old run around the bases to close out the year. Who the hell is writing this reality anyway? Do they have no sense of narrative arc?
But, I don’t have time to synthesize my feelings, as my rational mind suggests that perhaps I could try and remember for half a second that not everything is about me.
“Nice swings, buddy.” I shout as he wanders into the Good Game line that concludes every game, and then I work to compartmentalize what I’m actually feeling from what I want to project to him before he comes over. I have no idea what his mood will be.
Moments later, he is there, a bright faced boy with freckles on his nose and his baseball cap askew in a way that somehow is the perfect definition of his equally off-center but endearing character. He grabs the strawberry lemonade from the drink holder in my chair and gives my outstretched hand a casual five as he takes a long, thirsty pull from the bottle. He is inscrutable.
“Those were some tough pitches to hit,” I lie, feeling ridiculously awkward. He shrugs in response, red lemonade still to his lips, and seems totally unaffected. “Did you have fun?”
“Yeah. I gotta go back for my trophy.” In the history of unconvincing yeahs, this is a contender for the top spot.
The other kids have begun congregating around a cardboard box and the coaches who have done a great job of being relentlessly positive for months begin to hand out generic white boxes to every player as though each one contained a tiny Arc of the Covenant. There are some staged photo ops, some team pictures and a cooler full of Capri Sun and Oreos.
And, while I mill about with parents who seem trapped in their own heads like myself, I look on as the kids joke and laugh and shove around with each other with total comfort. My own son, who loves jokes, is holding court near the cooler for maximum access to refreshments, and around him are his teammates laughing and trying to extend this last moment that they will all be together as a group.
As I stand there and look at the great chasm between the two groups, the parents and the kids, I begin to wonder which of us have really missed the point. Now, days later, thinking back on the season, I realize that maybe reality had penned a pretty good story arc about personal growth after all. I just hadn’t necessarily realized who had the most growing up to do.