Between the Lines/ The game of catch
On my way to work recently I saw a father and son playing catch in the early morning sunlight. The spring sunshine did little to warm the chilly air. The father was wearing his overcoat and the young boy had on a team jacket and cap. He had just caught the ball rather awkwardly in his mitt but managed to hold on. His exhaled breath floated in front of him in a little white cloud. This was still a long way from the boys of summer. The father looked up as I drove by as if to say, "I know we're starting early, but my boy couldn't wait."
This little vignette reminded me of my own father playing catch with his twin sons over 50 years ago. In that case it was Dad who couldn't wait to start. The days had warmed by then and the sun stayed out past dinner time. After work Dad would jump out of the car, drop his lunch box on the counter, give Mother a peck and then race out to the backyard with his old Rawlings glove. He'd still be in his dress shirt, work pants and leather shoes when he called us out to a game of catch under the maples in the back yard. It was pure Americana long before I knew what nostalgia was.
His wavy hair was bright red and his boyish face was freckled. His shirt collar was open and his long sleeves were rolled up. Dad had a real flair for the art of playing catch. His throws were quick and accurate-- pin-point control to the pocket. He loved the rhythm of the catch and throw, the back and forth, the snap of the wrist and the pop in the glove. Playing catch with my father was high art.
He had driven home from the factory across town to our Lake Forest lot ringed by tall trees and a fast-running brook. Back when the house was built, he must have dreamed of playing catch with his sons one day. Now we were the right age, but our older brother Kevin had no interest in baseball. Brian and I, the twins, were willing but erratic. Catch was far too Zen-like for our abilities.
I couldn't throw the ball straight, and Brian could throw it straight but usually 10 feet over Dad's head. He'd have to dig balls out of the dirt or suddenly leap high or stretch left or right to reach our wild throws. He knocked himself out to keep the ball in play -- scooping, back-pedaling and diving acrobatically. He quickly became exasperated and griped that neither of us had any talent for a simple game of catch.
Inevitably one of us threw the ball into the water, and then we had to run along the stream with a tree branch until we could fish it out. By then the ball was waterlogged and slippery as a trout. Dad held his glove in front of his face barely trying to hide his disgust. Early in life I got the sense that my father was a hard guy to satisfy. Even after I matured and had played high school ball, I wasn't very good at the game of catch. Dad was still throwing strikes into his sixties and I was still all over the place. I was a father then myself and had come to realize that there was some need in my father that could never be filled. I always felt it had something to do with his growing up fatherless during the Depression.
Like many boys of his hard-scrabble generation, my father bonded intensely with sports heroes. He found a kind of certainty and reassurance in the rituals of the great American pastime. Next to his Irish-Catholic faith there was nothing as important as baseball to him and nothing more relaxing than a good game of catch. None of his sons could ever occupy that special zone of his, however.
Our inability to play along must have reinforced his deep disappointment in a world of missing fathers and lonely childhoods. We couldn't restore what had been lost to him so young. The truth is, I was relieved when our catches were done for the evening. Not that I didn't love being with Dad on those evenings; it was just a feeling that it meant far more to him that it did to me. But I was nothing if not loyal and kept trying to hit the target.
Now when I look back, I am truly grateful for having those catches with my father. He was a good man filled with spirit and energy and rich in both joy and sadness. I remember our last game of catch when Dad was nearly seventy and battling leukemia. I had coaxed him out of the cottage to toss a baseball around with me in the sand at Pine Creek. My arm was rusty from years away from the game, and I was embarrassed at how softly I threw. Dad was weak and in pain but could still pop the ball into my glove, throw after throw. After I loosened up, I attempted to throw the ball harder. It slipped out of my hand, sailed over Dad's head and landed right in the incoming high tide. He turned to follow it fly west towards the setting sun on Kenzie Point. It was as if he were watching a replay of a lifetime of my bad throws. Then we both laughed and he folded his glove in his hands and went back inside.
Barry Wallace's "Between the Lines" appears each Wednesday.