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Thursday, April 25, 2013

Spring Ritual, Rhythm, and Magic


For many the crack of a bat is the defining sound of spring. I used to feel that same way. I loved Opening Day. The sound of the ball dancing off of the bat as it rocketed over the manicured infield into the deep lush outfield made me feel like a combination of Independence Day and Christmas Eve. I still love Opening Day. I still enjoy the orgy of Newtonian physics as a ball is hurled faster than a car at a man with a stick who then somehow manages to fling the ball 330 feet out of the field of play. But for me, the defining sound of spring, the sound that is more exciting than a firecracker and filled with more anticipation then sleigh bells, is the snap of a ball hitting a leather mitt. 

Starting four years ago I began a new spring ritual. Once the winter deluge begins to abate, and the trees begin to bud, my daughter and I head outside to play catch. We play real catch now. The ball zips and snaps into our mitts. There is a rhythm now. 

My second daughter joined us last year. She and I still play fetch more than catch. But sometimes we will throw and catch three or four in a row. Zip, snap, zip, snap. We never mention the streak while it is ongoing, kind of like not speaking about an in progress no-hitter. Once the ball goes by one of us we both break into wide smiles and laugh. She is starting her second year of t-ball.

My oldest is in her second year of softball, after having played t-ball for two years. This year will the first year they keep score. She likes to play first and third base. But, she really wants to pitch. She has been working on her pitching this winter. My grandmother once told me the two most graceful things she has ever seen a man do are shoot a free throw and pitch a baseball. I never really thought about it until I spent more time watching softball pitchers. The beauty of the softball windup and pitch is not in its grace but in its raw power. A softball pitcher is like a piston pounding, forcing the engine to operate. My oldest is beginning to exhibit some of that raw power.

My son has joined us in our ritual this year. He is three and almost four. He throws equally well with both his right and left hands. He bats left. He is a boy of action. He has little patience for explication and can barely endure taking turns. However, he will play catch, again it's more fetch than catch, with an otherwise unknown patience and focus. Even as we scramble after the ball the exercise has a kind of rhythm. 

All of the children are still such neophytes that they think I am skilled. Soon they will have mastered the fundamentals. I will then no longer be able to teach them the hard skills. Some future coach will teach them what they need at the next level, should they choose to keep playing. I am amazed that the older three love baseball. I have not watched much of it since they have been born. I have been too busy. I only played organized baseball for four years as a kid. I wasn't very good.

But, baseball is inside of me. When I was eleven we moved to the Bay Area. We got there in 1987 just as the Oakland A's and the San Francisco Giants were reaching perennial contender status. I became an Oakland A's fan. I remember my first game. I went with my friend's family to the Oakland Coliseum. We took BART, Bay Area Rapid Transit. We watched the A's play the Angels. McGwire hit a towering home run. I still remember the crack of the bat and the trajectory of the ball. I saw a double play. I saw Dennis Eckersley save the game. I remember the smell of stale beer and hot dogs from the stadium. It was the best thing I had ever seen. I would go to many A's games and many Giants games in the following years.

The kids know that I am an A's fan. They are A's fans too, sort of. My oldest really likes the Phillies, in part because they went to the World Series both of her t-ball years and she was on the Phillies. I can live with that. My second daughter doesn't really care about Major League ball yet. I worry because the girls have been on Yankee teams and now my second daughter is a Red Sox. I don't think I could abide a Yankee or Red Sox fan among my offspring.

I love taking my girls to practice and to games. I am nervous when the ball comes their way. They are both good fielders. They make good decisions. I am not worried they will make a mistake; I am worried they will become embarrassed. I fret when they are up to bat. I want them to succeed. I want them to get hits because I want them to continue to like baseball and softball.

I have been driving my wife nuts by re-watching Ken Burns's masterful Baseball documentary on Netflix. The original nine parts debuted in 1994. The film still holds up. She thinks it is boring. I love the story and the history of baseball.  Baseball brings those elements to life for me. The great thing about the game of baseball is that it connects generations. The game is essentially the same today as it was ten years ago, fifty years ago, one hundred and fifty years ago. Fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters grow old together watching the game.

I have also been reading Michael Chabon’s Summerland. Baseball is at the center of this book. Baseball is magic and somehow unites the entire universe, with the baseball diamond being almost a kind of Garden of Eden. Baseball is part of the fabric of time itself, uniting distant and disparate species and creatures. Baseball is everywhere in my life lately.

My oldest hurt her wrist at practice last week. We thought it might be broken. It wasn’t. She had to wear a wrap and a sling for a few days. I was proud of her injury. She had gotten hurt trying to field a grounder on a difficult hop. Her glove was too low and the ball hit her wrist and bounced off her body. She picked it off the ground and completed the throw to first. I was relieved it wasn’t broken. She asked me if she could still go to her game Saturday and just watch. I told her yesterday I thought her wrist would be healed enough for her to play Saturday. Her eyes grew large and her smile grew wide. “Really?” she asked. Really I said. Then she hugged me. She is eight years old and hugs me a little less often and a little more reluctantly lately. This hug was a bear hug. This was a thank you for the wonderful surprise birthday present hug.

Second has her first game of the season Saturday as well. She is excited to wear her uniform. She told me she is going to hit the ball hard, she is going to imagine she is really mad at her brother and hit the ball hard. I am proud. I just want her to run a little faster around the bases. She hugged me too. We hug more often. She is still six.

I want my children to like baseball because I want to insulate us from the coming generation gap. There will be a time when I won't have much in common with my children. Their icons will be a mystery to me. Their lives will begin moving towards their piers and away from me. We will speak different languages, if we speak at all. But, I want us to always have baseball. I want us in ten years to go out back and play catch. Zip, snap, zip, snap. Maybe we won't say anything. Maybe will talk about the amazing double play at the softball game all those years ago. Maybe we will have a little magic. At least we will have the rhythm. Zip, snap, zip, snap.





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