Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Grand Slam

     On Sunday, my son walked around the house holding his baseball mitt.  He climbed on a stool to get mine, which hangs as decoration on the wall in his room, beneath his grandfather's glove.  He quietly searched the house for a suitable ball, finally deciding the one normally used for roller hockey was soft enough to play with.  I did not witness any of this.  All I saw was the culmination: a six year old standing at the back door with his arms full-- "Hey dad, want to go play catch?"

     Such a situation doesn't typically fill a father's eyes with tears.  But anyone who takes each breath with someone else's lungs is far from typical.  I joked on social media that the situation was exactly like Field of Dreams, except for the fact that I'm not a ghost.  But as I think about it, the final scenes of that film are not drastically different from what transpired this past weekend.  In my son's eyes, it must seem like I was resurrected by the bilateral lung transplant I received almost nine months ago.  I may not disappear when I walk into a corn field, but having a father who can't, can't, can't, and then suddenly can is surely a magical phenomena to someone who believes in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

     I was on oxygen and hovering at or below 30% lung function for two summers.  During the first, he was four going on five.  Old enough to begin understanding the basic idea of how baseball was played, swing a bat, and catch with a glove.  Also old enough to see I couldn't participate in most of these activities.  I could show him how to hold a bat, but relied on mostly verbal instructions since the classic "hold the bat with the person" maneuver was difficult with my extra long oxygen cord trailing behind me and back inside the house through the sliding glass door.  I made the most of the opportunities in the back yard that year, sitting on the deck and tossing the ball. It was good enough because it had to be.  Last year, he was showing even more baseball skill and interest.  A tee that launched the ball up in the air that Grandma gave him proved to be a popular gift.  I couldn't help him round up the balls very easily, but we did recreate the scene from The Sandlot where Benny hits the ball straight into the glove of the Smalls:  I would use the soft baseballs and the kid-sized plastic bat to one-handedly hit fly balls while sitting on the deck, and somehow, each time we played, several would land right into my son's mitt.  It was almost fair compensation, considering he had to chase down not only every ball he didn't catch, but also all of the ones he threw to me that ended up beyond my reach.  I learned patience from my son on those days, as he was unfazed by all of the extra running he had to do.  I know this was his normal, but I wonder if he realized just how not normal our backyard baseball experiences were.

     These past two summers made Sunday all the sweeter, of course.  His interests since spring finally arrived have been flag football and roller hockey, and being an increasingly active participant in those pastimes is wonderful.  But there's something about baseball... Maybe it is best captured by the distinctive tone and timber of James Earl Jones, in a quote from his character during the final act of the Field of Dreams: "America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers.  It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again.  But baseball has marked the time.  This field, this game: it's a part of our past..."  More to the point, it is part of my past.  It's the only sport I was ever any good at, unless you count four square. (I'm awesome at four square.) Baseball is the one sport I will really be able to directly pass down to my son, from my glove to his.

     This process began in earnest last weekend, as I caught his tosses and returned the ball to him.  This time, I was able to chase down his errant throws.  This time, I could show him exactly how to squat down and move in front of a ground ball.  This time, we took turns batting and running to the bird feeder (first base), even trying to stretch a single into a double by making it to the tree (second).  I was struck by how natural it all felt, how it was like I never took the glove off even though it's been years since I did anything this close to actual baseball.  But what was most satisfying is that I probably looked like any other dad in our neighborhood, having a catch with his son on a warm afternoon.  Except inside, my heart was beating a little faster, and my lungs were certainly breathing a little deeper.

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