For a large portion of my life, baseball has been front and center in my life. It’s been a safe haven for me, a means of bonding between my son and I, and even provided a way to heal family divisions.
Oddly, the past two summers, baseball has been relegated to the margins. Somewhat burned out from coaching, and running a summer semi-pro league, as well as fed up with much that passes for the professional version, I became disinterested in the game that once meant so much to me.
Our son, now 24-years-old and no longer actively involved in playing (although he’s been a t-shirt vendor outside of Fenway for the past two summers) is readying for a move to the West Coast. He’s been home for a final visit this week, gathering belongings before heading back to Boston prior to his move.
The ball field at Durham Elementary School has been the scene of countless sessions of BP between the two of us, dating back to when Mark was eight, or nine. The early days were about instruction and lessons about the finer points of the game. I wasn’t always a patient teacher, but somehow, Mark gleaned the important points, and became a very good player, excelling at every level he played, up through college.
When I passed the school on my bike ride, I noticed a solitary L-screen setting on the pitcher’s mound at the field, beckoning me to return.
During the ride, I thought about the times Mark and I performed the ritual of me emptying the crate of 50-60 baseballs, as he scattered them about the outfield grass, with grounders, line drives, and long fly balls. Whether we were using a crate, ball bag, or bucket, eventually, it was emptied, and we would wordlessly trudge about the field, gathering the practice balls for another round. When Mark was in his teens (and I was in my 30s), it wasn’t uncommon for this to occur four, or five times, meaning that I would throw close to 300 pitches. When it was apparent I could no longer throw strikes, our session would conclude. Some of my best memories were the two of us, sweaty, sitting in the dugouts, talking, and sharing a water bottle.
Like Kevin Costner, in Field of Dreams, having a game of catch with the character he comes to recognize as his dad, Mark and I were able to share another session of BP, maybe the last one we’ll ever have.
As we tossed the ball back and forth to loosen our arms, the familiar “thwack” of the ball hitting the leather of our gloves was like a tune I hadn’t heard for a time, but something you never forget. As the ball hurtled to me, I realized that while I still could snatch the ball with relative ease with my mitt, I wasn’t as agile as I once was, even in my late 30s, when I was still playing competitively.
Both Mark and I were rusty. I had managed to have a game a catch with a work colleague this spring. Other than that, and tossing the football some this week, with Mark, I hadn’t thrown a ball all summer.
Amazingly, I was still able to get the ball the requisite 60 feet, six inches, to the plate. Mark’s timing was a bit off, as he hit left-handed to start (he was a right-handed hitter through college). Mark always enjoyed toying with the opposite side of the plate. In fact, when he was 13, and broke his right arm, he taught himself to throw left-handed, so he could play catch while recuperating. It wasn’t long before I was glad I had the protection of the L-screen to duck behind, however. Mark began rattling line drives around the ball park from his unnatural, left-handed side.
[60 baseball pick-up]
After one bucket, he switched over to the right-side. Several of the first few soft tosses were popped up. After about 20 pitches, the Mark I remember came to life, and lofted a ball over the pines in left, some 350 feet away. The “crack” of wood making solid contact was back, and he hit several shots that reminded me of his high school, and college days, and some of the majestic home runs my wife and I witnessed.
While my right shoulder is painfully sore, and my left butt cheek pulses with pain every time I take a step, this 46-year-old baseball has-been is happy for one final diamond outing.