I was 8 years old when I first suited up for Little League baseball. My coach was one of my father’s co-workers and we won every game we played that season. If I close my eyes and press the way-back button, I can still taste the watermelon we enjoyed after the championship game.
I enjoyed baseball and it didn’t bother me that I was never the best player on the field. I taught myself to catch pop flies by tossing tennis balls off the shingles of our high roof. When my father returned home from work, he grabbed his 9-iron and hit me whiffle balls from across the yard. Each night dad coached me along as I tried to beat my previous record of consecutive catches.
I used to wonder which I enjoyed more: learning to play the game I loved or loving the man I was learning from.
I don’t wonder that anymore.
Baseball remained my favorite, but after it came tennis, football, golf and pole vaulting. It was an odd assortment with one common denominator: dad.
Then the inevitable happened, just as it does for most men. The combination of career, parenthood and the realities of average athletic ability tempered my affection of baseball and other sports. I still enjoy playing catch, hitting the batting cages and cheering on our Washington Nationals. But I no longer dream of hitting a walk-off home run in Game 7 of the World Series.
In the spring of 2011, after three long decades, I got my own turn to hit balls to a young man in the yard. After two seasons of soccer, I was thrilled when my son Kason decided to suit up and take a swing at baseball. He played two Farm League spring seasons and one fall before being recently moved up to the minor league level.
But it was clear after the very first practice that things were different.
On his new team, practices were longer and more intense. Kids were learning to turn double plays, and baseballs flew faster and farther into the outfield. The talent difference between the two levels was striking.
I could sense that while he still enjoyed playing and associating with the boys on his team, something was off. We both noticed that at the higher level, parents bark more than they cheer and coaches push more than coddle. For the first time, there is hot pressure to be attentive and tuned in to every pitch – because picking daisies gets you more than a reprimand, it gets you a knot on your noggin the size of baseball.
I sat my little slugger down for a heart-to-heart after an especially difficult practice. His tears did more talking than he did. After some reluctance to open up, he finally revealed that he simply didn’t love it anymore. He still enjoyed playing, but didn’t care much about his form at the plate or perfecting his throw to the cut-off man.
My first instincts were to demand he stick it out and follow through. But before the words could fire from my pitchers mound, I saw myself in the backyard of my childhood with my own father. It seemed that every single mental picture of baseball and my childhood has him standing somewhere in the photo.
I collided with the truth like two confused outfielders. I didn’t really love baseball back then, either. I loved my dad.
If Willard Wright had suggested finding an ice rink and joining a curling league, I would have happily signed up. If he’d wanted to take a taffy-making class, learn Mandarin or join the North American Tiddlywinks Association, I would have been game. He just had to promise to be a part of the adventure.
Looking back at my son in his dirty practice uniform, with sweat-brown hair matted against his forehead, I wondered how many of his precious childhood hours he would have donated to a sport I enjoyed more than he did?
When my son and his siblings think back on their childhood, I want the images to be filled with lessons of work, play and faith. And I want to be posing in as many of them as they will invite me into. But I don’t want to create their favorite childhood memories, I want to join them.
As Kason made the final decision to contact his coach and hang up his cleats, at least for organized baseball, he asked me a final question: “Dad, if I quit, will you still play catch with me in the yard?”
Yes, yes, I will.