My 12-year-old son, Jack, has been playing baseball practically from the moment he found sufficient balance to stand without tipping over like a drunk sailor. On his third birthday, I bought him a plastic bat about the size of a spatula. It came with a little plastic baseball about the size of a jawbreaker, with these adorable little seams in the plastic just like a real baseball. Very much to my chagrin, I could not get him to wear his miniature Dodgers cap — the minute I placed it on his head, he reached up, snatched it off, and slammed it to the ground in apparent disgust (was he a Yankees fan? I didn’t dare ask) — but he was always delighted to go outside and practice smacking the miniature plastic baseball around the yard with his miniature bat. From a distance, he might have looked like a tiny, angry chef swatting at a housefly with his spatula. But I saw something else: Kirk Gibson, launching a home run to beat the Oakland Athletics in the 1988 World Series.
Why not? Who’s to say that Gibson didn’t get his start in some suburban backyard in Pontiac, Michigan, in the early 1960s swinging his own miniature plastic bat with his dad pitching, swatting balls into the neighbor’s yard? When Jack was 5, he hit one of my best breaking pitches over the garage and I was so proud that I had to stop the game and start calling people.
Ever since, when baseball season rolls around, he is ready to play. He’s had flirtations with other sports — basketball, soccer, golf, tennis and snowboarding, to name a few — but his interest in these sports waxes and wanes. With baseball, it is a constant. From tee ball on up, he has played every season for the past seven years, including fall ball. He’s been a Cub, a Dodger, an Athletic, a Brave, a Pirate, a Blue and a Black.
When he was much younger — say 7 or 8 — he wanted to be the next Albert Pujols, one of this era’s greatest sluggers. I bought tickets to see Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals play the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field about six years ago so that Jack could see his idol play in person. We were about 10 rows behind the Cardinals dugout, and when Pujols emerged to take the field and Jack got his first glimpse of him, I could see that look in his eyes, that perfect mixture of awe and ecstasy.
At the end of the fourth inning, Pujols tossed a baseball to a very sweet elderly lady in the first row, who had taken notice of Jack’s fairly obvious devotion to the Cardinals’ perennial all-star. Without any hesitation, she walked over to us and presented the ball to Jack to keep. Had he been of legal age, I think he would have married that woman on the spot.
In the winter when the snow is flying, we play baseball on his PlayStation. Years ago, I used to let him win. Now, he allows me to stay in the game and remain somewhat competitive, though he could clearly beat me by 20 runs if he wanted. He even has the good grace to be discreet about it: “I don’t know WHY I can’t seem to throw a strike!”
Sometime next week, practice for little league will begin again, and then the games. The postgame victory celebrations at Zaxby’s or Jack the Dipper, or the postgame consolation milkshakes from Arbys.
The key base hit to get the tying run home from third. The disappointing called third strike that was 6 inches off the plate. The low throw, scooped out of the dirt to save an error. The inside pitch, that little moment between a batter and pitcher who have known each other for six years, smiling at each other and thinking what they’ll say about this in the hall at school tomorrow. Gamesmanship. All the little perfect moments that make up baseball, the world’s most perfect game come around again at last, and not a moment too soon.
See you at the diamond.