A GAME OF CATCH

A GAME OF CATCH

From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

A Game of Catch

I waited in the backyard with my thirty-year-old Rawlings PM5 fielder’s glove while my nine-year-old son, Jonah, at my suggestion, bolted upstairs in search of the mitt I’d recently bought him.

In 1955 in Lubbock, Texas, it had been a crisp, sunny day much like this one when my team, the Scrappers, had beaten the Rockets 3–2 in an extra-inning Little League game. We had a new field (built by the Lion’s Club), new bleachers (Ace Hardware), and an official, built-to-perfection, Little League specification pitcher’s mound. On that special day, I’d been atop it.

I threw the ball hard that day. I pitched good. My teammates chattered, “You got him, Babe,” “You’re in charge, Richard,” “Hey batter, hey batter,” and—best of all— “You’re the one, Big Rick.” In one game I’d gone from plain Richard to “Big Rick.” “Elated” fails to adequately capture how I felt that day.

The memory intensified my desire to “play ball!” I wished Jonah would hurry.

Hurry up, I thought, stepping off the official Little League distance between an imaginary pitching rubber and home plate. Jonah and I could build a mound on that spot where grass hardly grew anyway. Home plate could go over there, and the fence would be a backstop. Today, though, we’d just play catch. Or maybe I’d toss the ball lightly to him, and he’d tap it back to me with the bat. It’ll help Jonah learn to keep his eye on the ball, I thought. He probably won’t be a home-run hitter. I wasn’t. But he’ll be a solid, reliable hitter. And a great pitcher. Good arms run in the family. I’ll help him take care of his arm. No curves for years. I threw too many. Probably why my pitching career peaked at sixteen. I don’t like to think about it.

Where was Jonah, for goodness’ sake?

I tossed myself several pop-ups, catching them Willie Mays–style. Willie was the best. I’d seen him play an exhibition game in 1956. I was eleven. Willie, the incomparable and world-renowned center fielder for the Giants, had looked at me and nodded. He looked right into my eyes. I’d been too starstruck to nod back, and it’s a moment I’d like to live over. This time I’d say, “Say hey, Willie. Say hey.” Willie used to say “Say hey” a lot, or so I’d heard. Too bad Jonah never saw Willie play. I’d tell him about Willie Mays, but I’d emphasize the importance of learning the fundamentals of fielding before trying to catch Willie-style.

Where was Jonah?

I threw a few onto the roof and, as they rolled off, I scooped them out of the air, faking a perfect peg to home. I reminded myself to tell Jonah to keep the ball low on his pegs when playing the outfield and to remember to check where his runners were before every pitch. He’d have to watch runners as a pitcher, too, and learn to throw from a stretch.

So much to learn. We’d have to start now. I went inside and yelled. “Jonah, hurry up. Jonah, what’s up, pal? Jonah?”

I ran upstairs. No Jonah. I sprinted downstairs and into the front yard, still sporting ball and glove. My wife, Leti, was repotting a plant.

“You seen Jonah?”

With a side glance, she said, “He’s at Brennen’s playing Nintendo.”

My denial systems flew up like an armored shield. “No,” I said, as if she were sorely mistaken. “He and I are going to play catch.”

“All I know is, Brennen came by, Jonah asked if he could go play Nintendo, and they left.”

No catch. No high flies. Nintendo? Freckle-faced Brennen chosen over the pitching ace of the Scrappers? My heart fell into my stomach.

I skuffed back through the house to the backyard. Disappointment is a feeling like no other. It wracked my guts and made my bones ache. Seconds later, a funny loneliness set in—a longing—for Jonah, for somebody to play catch with, for times past. To be “Big Rick,” maybe. I thought, This is how little boys feel when their dads are too busy for them, not how dads feel when their little boys are too busy for them. I fielded a few more off the roof, but there was no zip in it.

Later, after supper, I told Jonah that he’d left me stranded and I was miffed. He looked at me with the wisdom of a sage, put his hand on my shoulder, and said—I swear—precisely these words: “Dad, I love you and I like you and we have the rest of our lives together. Don’t worry about it.”

It was exactly what I needed to hear. I felt soothed, yet off balance. Who was the older, wiser one here, anyway? There must have been a typo and Opie had gotten Andy’s lines.

It’s been that way with Jonah and me a few times since because, drat it, there is no script. He’s never been my son before, nor I his dad. This puts us in the position of figuring things out as we go along. It’s not a bad deal. In fact, all in all, I like it. While life experience is valuable, there’s something to be said for a fresh point of view. There’s an essence to who we really are. It’s had many labels: “soul” for one.

There are many wise souls on our planet. And it’s possible that some of them are housed in small bodies, love Nintendo and have never heard of Willie Mays.

Rick Carson

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