The summer my son was nine years old, he was on a travel team and discovered what it was like to play competitive baseball. A lot of the boys on the team were bigger and taller, and most of them could throw and hit the ball just as good or better than him. But he was fast, had a good arm, and was a fierce competitor.
His coach was a tall, athletic, middle-aged guy’s guy who did a stint in the major leagues as a catcher. He came from a working class family on the south side of Chicago and was tough on the boys, yelling at them from the dugout before and after every play.
“Move to your left,” Coach would shout at an outfielder in his nasal Chicago twang. When the boy would move to his right, Bob would bellow, “Not that way, you moron. Your other left!”
I never minded that Coach yelled at the boys, because he also always praised them when they did something good. And they listened to him. And learned from him. Plus, he made me laugh because every once and a while he’d blurt
out something that was really funny.
“Even a blind squirrel can sometimes find a nut!” he’d bellow when an outfielder dropped a fly ball.
“If you were standing on grass, it would be dead!” This when the shortstop didn’t move to snag a ground ball.
“Get the ball. We’re not at Sox Park!” as the ball slipped by the catcher and rolled toward the backstop.
From the start, my son wanted to be pitcher, catcher, or shortstop, because those players get most of the action. Coach rotated the boys and gave most of them a chance to pitch if they showed any skill at it and encouraged them
to practice on their own.
“Mom, will you play catch with me?” he asked me one Sunday afternoon.
“Sure,” I said. “Where do you want to go?” Because I knew our tiny front yard would not cut it any more for a boy who was starting to throw the ball harder and farther.
“Let’s go to the school playground, so I can throw some pitches,” he replied.
He and I walked to the playground at his school down the street, where there was a backdrop and a field that was mostly dirt. We threw the ball back and forth a few times, practicing pop flies and grounders to warm up.
“Ready to catch some pitches?” he asked, after a short while.
“I’m ready. Let’s do it,” I said, striding over to the backstop with a confidence I didn’t necessarily feel.
“I can do this,” I thought to myself. I crouched down opposite him, and he wound up and zinged a hardball into my glove. “Ouch.” I thought to myself again, shaking my hand. “He’s packing some heat.” I caught two, maybe three or four more pitches and started to feel more nervous. Zing. Pfumpf. Smack. The pitches seemed to be coming harder now. “I can do this,” I reminded myself.
On the next pitch, my fear got the best of me and I pulled back slightly as the ball zoomed toward me. It bounced off my glove and hit me in the side of the head. The pain was sharp and it hurt. I tried not to cry as I struggled to stand up and get my composure.
“Mom?” my son asked, in a worried voice. “Are you okay? Mom?”
“Yes,” I finally answered, staggering around, holding back the tears, a growing lump forming on my head. But I knew that I couldn’t quit just because I got hit. I could hear Coach yelling, “Whatsamatter, you can’t take a little pop in the head? Get back out there you big wimp!”
“I’ll catch five more pitches,” I told him, sighing and crouching down into the catching position. Zing. Pfumpf. Smack. “He’s not letting up,” I realized as the ball came hurtling toward me. “I can do this,” I said to myself.
Later that summer, my son went on to relieve the starting pitcher on the team to pitch a no-hitter and finish out the game. He gritted it out as catcher, did his time in the outfield, and had a few stints as shortstop. He got hit by a pitch and stayed in the game. His team lost in the first round of the playoffs to a team they beat the day before. “That’s
baseball,” one of the other moms said with chagrin as the final out was called and my heart sank.
Watching nine-year-olds play that summer, I gained a new appreciation the complicated and complex game of baseball. That fall, the Cubs won their division and lost to the Marlins one out away from making it to the World
Series for the first time in 64 years after an overzealous fan named Bartman interfered with a fly ball. It was also the last year that I played catch with my little boy.