102: The Pinch Hitter

102: The Pinch Hitter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

The Pinch Hitter

They say genes skip generations.
Maybe that’s why grandparents find their grandchildren so likeable.

~Joan McIntosh

With a tray full of refills of popcorn, I rushed back into the living room just as Jason squealed, “Mom!” His voice raised an octave. “Hurry! You gotta see this!” Popcorn flew across the floor as his arm connected with the tray, oblivious to anything but the game on TV. “Look! Look! It’s a pinch hitter! Larkin’s a pinch hitter, just like me.” It was easy to ignore the popcorn scattered all across the room as I joined my son on the couch. His enthusiasm was contagious. The couch shifted as he plopped down, then shot right back up again. “This is it! He’s gonna do it! I know he is.” We were about to witness what some would tout as the greatest World Series game ever played.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the game, but when I hear the bat connect with the ball, the cheering crowd and the sports announcer racing to keep up with the runner as he tears for home plate, I can’t help but love the memories it evokes. The sound of baseball always takes me home.

Dad was a sportswriter and a diehard fan. He could rattle off stats, quote game scores and give an illustrated rendition of a pivotal moment in the most colorful language. He rubbed elbows with the likes of Nolan Ryan and shoulder pads with football great, Frank Gifford.

In those days, before the invention of split screens, it wasn’t unusual to hear one ballgame blaring on the radio while Dad sat entranced, watching another on TV. My siblings and I assumed all kids in America went to bed on Monday nights with Howard Cosell’s staccato delivery as backdrop to their mom’s bedtime story. Whistles, referee showdowns and the roar of fevered crowds played soundtrack while visions of popcorn and peanuts danced in our heads.

Somehow, that sports-fanatic gene skipped my generation, and to my dad’s disappointment, neither of my brothers shared his love for baseball. It wasn’t until the summer of 1991 that Dad found his pinch hitter.

By then, Dad had moved on to other playing fields. He no longer covered the sports scene, but wrote for a public relations firm that took him to bigger fields around the globe. The pencil that was once tucked behind his ear disappeared and a briefcase, suit and tie, took its place.

We visited Mom and Dad that July. And though Disney World scored a run, it was the bond that developed between my dad and oldest son, Jason, that knocked the ball clear out of the park. At eleven years of age, Jason embodied everything my father had longed for in a son. He was a baseball fan. He also believed my dad was the epitome of a true hero. And there, on my parents’ couch, one aging used-to-be sportswriter and one stars-in-his-eyes eleven-year-old boy became the best of friends.

Dad and Jason spent every waking moment together. They discussed the sports page over coffee and cold cereal, scoured the shops for baseball cards and then watched a recap of all the day’s baseball scores before going to bed — just to get up and do it all over again.

As each great game eventually comes to an end, so too did our vacation. But Jason’s newfound love for baseball didn’t die once we hit home, and neither did his love for his grandpa. Somehow, my son had managed to break through the tough exterior and got to know the real man — something I had not been able to do until I saw him through the eyes of my child.

About two weeks after our return from Florida, I found Jason studying the flipside of his baseball cards and carefully taking notes.

“What are you working on?” I asked, curious as to why he’d taken an old picture of himself out of the family album.

“I’m making a surprise for Grandpa,” he said, without looking up.

“So what’s a pinch hitter?”

“Grandpa said it’s someone who stands in for someone else and takes their place at bat.” He chewed his lip as he thought a moment, then showed it to me. “Do you think Grandpa will like it?”

“He’ll treasure it,” I choked out.

September 1st dawned like any other Sunday morning back then. Frantic chaos ensued as we scrambled to eat, dress and make it to church on time. The ringing phone was just one more interruption in an already harried morning. But shocking news that my father had died the night before while away on a writing assignment shook me fully awake. I was stunned. Images of the extraordinary bond between my father and my son flashed over and over, then stuck on replay. Sadness weighed heavy on my heart. I knew the worst was yet to come. I had to tell Jason that his grandpa, his new best friend was gone.

My father was buried with his glasses and one other item. Tucked inside Dad’s coat pocket was the picture of a pint-sized, blond-headed, swinger-to-be, up at bat. Jason had transformed the photo of himself at nearly two years of age into a rookie card. On the backside he’d listed fictitious statistics in perfect baseball lingo, the envy of any major league hero. Included was the title: Pinch Hitter. It was obvious the card hit a grand slam when Dad received it. Dad considered it priceless.

It was the bottom of the 10th inning and bases were loaded. Popcorn littered our family room floor as tension filled the air. We watched, with bated breath, as Minnesota’s Gene Larkin stepped up to the plate. Peña, of the Atlanta Braves, stood on the pitcher’s mound. You could have heard a pin drop. Peña wound up, then let the ball fly. Larkin swung. And connected. The pinch hitter drove in the winning run, making the Twins the 1991 World Series champs.

“Grandpa would have loved it,” Jason said, his face flushed with excitement. And I had to agree. He would have loved the game, but not as much as sharing it with his stand-in.

~Dawn Lilly

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