Dreams, like spider webs and hard-hit softballs, are difficult to hold on to.
But sometimes those dreams and the stories of those hard-hit balls connect us to both our past and to our posterity.
In my case, to my father and my children.
Let me tell you a story…
On a recent morning I awoke in the midst and the mist of a just-ended dream, thinking about something that happened a long time ago. An event of no particular importance, but just about the most intense moment of my life.
I was playing right field in a game of 16″ softball at James Park in Evanston, Illinois. The team was called the Psyclones, a pun on the fact that most of us were graduate students in the “Psyc” department at Northwestern University. A pretty good team for a bunch of educated guys, one that won more often than it lost.
Sixteen-inch softball is a game played almost exclusively in the Chicago area. Everywhere else a softball is 12″ in circumference and caught with a gloved hand. But “real men,” as Chicago males fancy themselves, favor a game with a bigger ball caught bare-handed, one that is rock hard at the contest’s beginning and softened, but never really soft even after it has taken a pounding from wooden and metal bats.
In truth, the ball is your enemy. Sixteen-inch softball — Chicago-style softball — is a game that leaves you with broken or dislocated or jammed fingers if you play it for any length of time.
On the day in question the Psyclones were playing the best team in our league, the outfit that had won the first round of a two round championship season. But as the second round drew to a close these two teams were tied. If only we could beat the other guys, we would win the second round and face the same team once more in a single contest to decide the league championship.
As the final inning began, our team was ahead 3-2. We were three outs away from victory.
Their first batter took a ball. Then, on the second pitch, he hit a low line-drive like a laser headed for the right-center field gap. It was clearly mine to catch if it was to be caught, but I didn’t know if I could get to it in time to prevent it from going for a home run and tying the score.
An outfielder learns to gauge the flight of a batted ball — the speed, the distance between himself and the ball, the effect of gravity, and his own movement — so as to intercept it just before its return to earth. You do this instinctively. It is all reaction, no part thought, entirely based on experience, all the while running, straining, and preparing for the intersection of your body and the “Clincher,” as those softballs were called.
I was not prepared for this particular line-drive, however. No one had informed the ball that gravity was supposed to get the best of it. And as I neared the spot where I might have a small chance to catch it, the nervy Clincher had the audacity to proceed in the most irresponsible way.
The ball was actually rising. It had been hit so hard that it had not yet arced.
My path had taken me to my right, but also away from home plate. In order to intercept the spheroid I had to twist my body back to my left (so that I could more nearly get in front of the ball), turning and leaping and reaching simultaneously.
The ball hit my hands as my body faced left field, even as I was moving in the air toward deep right center field.
The Clincher started to bounce free, but I grabbed it a second time, then hit the ground and staggered, running fast, tilting toward the turf, aiming to take a header.
But instead of eating dirt and watching the ball bounce away, I kept my balance.
In another moment I was finally stationary.
I was still on my feet with the ball in my hands.
Shouts of congratulations and encouragement sounded out across the field from my teammates. Other than a few friends and those of the opposition, the grandstand could not have held more than a couple of dozen onlookers, but a few voices called out from there, as well.
Simultaneously, a chemical charge ran through my body, a wonderful exhilaration, a tingling flush of adrenalin. And with it, a tremendous split-second, unrealized urge to cry that took me by surprise.
And almost as quickly, in the time it took for the next batter to come to the plate, all that was gone and the game continued.
The following hitter walked, but then we retired the side and the game was ours.
It wasn’t the very best performance of my exceedingly modest athletic career. I’d played games in which I’d hit two home runs and even a basketball contest where I scored 2/3 of my team’s points on 10 consecutive jump shots. I’d also made “circus” catches before — other successful leaping-diving-acrobatic maneuvers, sometimes to save the game.
But nothing in my life ever came close to the super-charged voltage of “the catch,” the flood of emotion to the point of tears, not as experienced in sadness or joy, but for the need of a kind of fluid outlet for all that high-octane chemical “juice.”
If you’ve played sports with any significant level of committment, then you know how the game becomes more than a game — sometimes becomes a thing that feels like life or death. But realistically, in the big picture, or even a pretty small picture, this game meant nothing. Winning the championship (we didn’t) meant nothing.
All of it was part of a “pastime,” something we do to enjoy ourselves and test ourselves, both at once; something to show what we can do and exorcise all the demons inside of us that are waiting to be purged; a play we act out just because we are human and we need the outlet and the (hoped for) mastery of a physical and psychological challenge.
Why did I think of it just now? Why the dream?
I can’t say for sure, but maybe (in part) it’s because my youngest daughter recently sent me and my wife an outline for a video and oral history that she proposes to do soon with each of us separately. And, of course, she wants to know about all the important moments in our lives. Which would necessarily include this particular athletic episode, an instant of no objective importance other than the feeling it produced; something of value because of the sensation alone. It didn’t mean anything, but it felt meaningful.
Carly, the aforementioned young woman, has watched the same kind of video I produced of my dad that she hopes to create with me; something I did about 25 years ago.
I am touched that she wants this, since I remember very well why I wanted to do it with my father. To bond with him, to receive whatever very personal things he would share in the course of it, to understand him and therefore myself more fully. And most importantly, to create something that would outlive him, leaving some part of him that I might catch hold of and keep hold of, like the 16″ softball. Something that would, like that catch, be over in a short time but last a long time — in the video, in his words, in his feelings, and in my memory.
A thing, like “the catch,” that would be unimportant but all important. And only to me.
My dad was at the game I mentioned, the game where I made “the catch.” I remember him congratulating me, commenting on how extraordinary it was. Extraordinary to me for reasons I have mentioned. Extraordinary to him, I suppose, because I was his son. For others, not so much. No, you can probably watch its equal or better regularly on your TV during baseball season.
When I was a little boy I remember my dad telling me of his own athletic exploits as a young man and being fascinated. Some time later we found ourselves at the site of one of those events. It was a relatively small school yard enclosed by a fence, with a tall flag pole attached to that boundary in deepest, but not very deep center field.
From home plate it was easy to see that one could hit the ball over the fence without too much difficulty, so the ad hoc rules of the game required that any ball hit out of the park in fair territory would be considered an “out.”
The players had to tailor their hitting strokes to the restricted conditions. Only safely hit line-drives and ground balls could be of any help to your team. And money was on the line, so said my dad as he told the story of his game, since the two sides had made a bet on the contest.
The young man who was to become my old man came to bat with a runner on first base late in the battle, with the score tied 1-1. He tried to place-hit the ball into right center field, and normally was quite adept at such a task. But, on that day his efforts to keep the ball in bounds appeared to have failed him. Too much of the 16″ ball struck too much of the wooden bat and the former took off in a long, high arc toward the not-so-distant reaches of the ball yard, sure to clear the center field barrier.
But, to his surprise, not to mention the delight of his mates, the center field flag pole got in the way, and with a dull metallic twang sent the shot back on to the field, by which time Milt Stein was standing on second base, and the baserunner had crossed home plate with the winning run.
Dad was a good story-teller and he had a good audience in his little boy, even when that boy was no longer very little.
What is it about baseball, softball, and the bond between parents and children?
Much has been written about sharing a game of catch, being introduced by your parent to a sport that he loves and you will come to love, watching together in the great ball parks of our country in the sunshine and under the arc lights, cheering together for the home team. It is one of those things many dads are good at, something that doesn’t require very many words.
But, I think there is another feature to this act of bonding.
It is the story of the game itself. The thrills, the disappointments, the surprises — the mutually experienced emotions.
The sharing, in other words, of a story.
And when the story of the game is told (especially if your father was in the game) — your father to you, you to your children — the child “sees” the tale through the lens of your memory and his own imagination. He learns what matters to you, how you shape the words, remembers how your eyes light up, drinks in the moral lessons about effort and courage and winning and losing.
The child roots for and admires the parent, even though the drama may be ancient, unchangeable history. The telling is personal, almost like a secret message, something that can only be decoded by the heart of the little boy or girl who loves the story-teller who is already his hero, with or without the “heroism” depicted in the tale.
Later, the child will take the parent role with his own children, relating the narratives of his father along with his own, tying him to and keeping faith with his hero, now aged or departed; and keeping the chain-letter of attachment alive as he brings the youth and grace and speed and strength of his parent alive once more, along with his own youth, when he first heard the tale told.
It is a sweet and tender and irreplaceable thing, this telling of stories to your children.
Nothing better in the winter for a baseball fan or an ex-softball player who is, more importantly, a father.
Time to start the camera, Carly.
The image above is Baseball Softball Love Festival by THOR, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.