From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

Watching the Next Mark McGwire?

It is not flesh and blood but the heart that makes us fathers and sons.

Friedrich von Schiller

It could have been any vacant lot, any playground, any open field. It just happened to be the park two blocks from my house, the park where I took my two-year-old daughter on sunny afternoons when I manage to ditch out of work early and on weekends.

Surely you know the scene, fresh off a Norman Rockwell canvas—a young boy and father playing catch. It is a rite of youth, a rite of fatherhood and always a rite of spring.

Thus it was that I witnessed my first father-and-son baseball game of the new year—a sighting equal in magnitude, and goosebumps, of spotting one’s first butterfly of spring or one’s first robin. Long days and warm nights, double-scoop ice cream cones, swimming in a lake and sunburned noses cannot be too far off.

The boy, his head only barely peeking up into Ken Griffey Jr.’s strike zone, looked to be about four years old. As with puppies, guesstimating the exact age of these little fellows of boundless energy is sometimes difficult. To be certain, when he swung the bat it was like the tail wagging the puppy.

The block from which the little blond chip had been chopped was tall and lanky and bespectacled. He also looked a little worn out and weary, probably from a hard day at the office. His short sidekick, on the other hand, was bursting at the inseams with energy.

After a few compulsory minutes of fielding practice— pop-ups mostly, with a few worm-burner grounders mixed in—the boy flung his mitt to the ground and picked up a bat, a huge oversized plastic job. Blue. It was a Prince tennis racket of a baseball bat. Probably a King Kong autograph model. Or at least a Mark McGwire “Power Stick.”

As the small boy took his big cuts, the park magically transformed into Dodger Stadium, or so the boy’s L.A. baseball cap suggested. Probably got it at “cap nite” last year, I reckoned.

Two trees, a sweatshirt and the boy’s discarded mitt became the four bases. And unbeknownst to the two players, an SRO (sitting room only) crowd of two watched from the upper deck of the jungle gym. For the record, no pop fouls came the spectators’ way.

Surprisingly, the small boy wielded the big bat with deft control. His hand-eye coordination was excellent. The Dodgers could use a lead-off man—er, boy—like him. Whack! Whack! Whack! The sound of the white plastic ball meeting the blue plastic bat echoed through the air far more often than did Whoosh! or Whiff!

Laughter, too, filled the late afternoon air after each successful swing of the lumber—er, plastic—as the batter giggled and tried to outrace the pitcher to the first-base tree. And then to the second-base sweatshirt and the third-base tree and the home-plate mitt.

More than once the fleet-footed giggling boy turned a swinging bunt into an inside-the-park home run.

After a while, the dad took his swings in the invisible batter’s box. Between pitches that bounced on their flight to the home-plate mitt or sailed wildly over the batter’s head, the dad connected with a 1-2-3 inning of easy ground outs, which the boy fielded like a Hall of Famer.

And, of course, the future Joe DiMaggio—or Mark McGwire, perhaps, because the boy surely doesn’t know who Joltin’ Joe is—giggled as he chased his father from tree to sweatshirt to tree to mitt.

And the dad, who always got caught and tagged out just short of scoring, laughed even louder.

If any sight is more pleasing and heartwarming than a smiling father and his giggling son piled in a ta ngled heap together on the grass in a park under the late afternoon sunshine, it escapes me at the moment. Unless, perhaps, a father playing on a jungle gym with his daughter.

And so the two fellows played—the four-year-old dreaming of being a man and the man magically transformed to four years old again. For a moment, at least, life’s problems and worries were put on hold.

Watching the father and son laugh and play and run and hug and roll around on the grass, you could not help but think this was baseball in its purest form. Sport at its best, even life at its best. Play ball!

Woody Woodburn

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