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Each birthday, I pull out my weather-worn Wilson A2000 baseball glove, which has been restrung eight times, and grab a tattered baseball to play catch with my son, my daughter, my wife. For me, this is much more than a physical activity. For me—a romantic who still sheds tears watching that climactic, father-son game of catch between Kevin Costner and Ray Liotta in “Field of Dreams”—this is a tradition unlike any other, a connection to my family, my past, the game I love.
The simple act of throwing and catching a baseball remains a magical, almost spiritual experience. It has the ability to transport me back to my days as a young boy, to my days as a young father. It is my sip from the Fountain of Youth.
As with learning to ride a bicycle, it takes awhile to master the game of catch, to overcome the fears associated with it. The first time a baseball bounces against your shin or pops out of your glove and smashes you in the nose, you learn a reality of the sport: The ball is hard; it can hurt you. And you have to make a decision whether the pain inflicted by it is worth the pleasure of playing the game. As author Roger Kahn eloquently wrote, “Pain and pleasure, the stuff of love and life, runs strong in baseball.”
I vividly remember the first time my father let go of me on a bicycle sans training wheels and I was able to continue pedaling and balance myself and negotiate the path ahead of me. What a rush, what a triumph, what a sense of freedom that was. Likewise, I vividly remember, as a 6-year-old, beginning to master the game of catch, no longer fearful of being hurt by that shiny, white horsehide. I recall the thrill not only of learning how to catch less-than-perfect throws (excellent preparation for life) but also of cutting loose with my own throws and hearing the ball smack into someone’s glove. It’s a sound that still brings a smile to my face all these decades later.
By my late 20s, I had placed my old A2000 on a bookshelf near Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” (Yes, I’m a little strange; the juxtaposition was intentional.) It remained there, unused, for nearly a decade. When my son started becoming interested in baseball, I bought him his first glove and brought my trusty old mitt—and my not-so-trusty old arm—out of retirement. As had been the case with me three decades earlier, it took awhile for Christopher to get the hang of it. Over time, the catches outnumbered the misses, the fear of the ball subsided. The games of catch not only took me back, back, back in time, but they also gave me quality time with my son. As we tossed the ball back and forth, we were communicating and connecting even when we weren’t speaking. A bond was being strengthened.
During those early games of catch, I was fearful of throwing the ball too hard and clocking Christopher in the noggin or knee or someplace more painful. But those days are as distant as a Mickey Mantle tape-measure homer. There came that rite-of-passage moment during my son’s teenage years when his throws became faster and harder than mine. Now, all these years later, it is the son who is fearful of throwing the ball too hard and clocking his old man in the noggin or knee or someplace more painful.
Dizzy Dean, a Baseball Hall of Fame hurler who mastered his pitches and opposing hitters much better than he did the Mother Tongue, once lamented: “I ain’t what I used to be, but who the hell is?” Well, I ain’t what I used to be either. I recently celebrated my 59th Earth orbit around the sun. I clearly no longer can bring it as in days of yore, and my bruised left palm and creaky right shoulder hurt like Hades the morning after last Sunday’s game of birthday catch.
But it was a small price to pay. The residual pain was worth it because those tosses back and forth enabled me to briefly turn back the clock. The game of catch provided a respite from the rat race of life. It allowed for quality time with my family, away from the distractions of smartphones and computers and all the other technologies that rule us and occasionally dehumanize us. In a world of disconnections, of decreasing face-to-face human interaction, a simple game of catch allowed me to reconnect—with my son, my family, my past.
No, I might not be what I used to be, but just because I’m growing old doesn’t necessarily mean I have to grow up. Famed Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Roy Campanella said you have to have a lot of little boy in you to play baseball. Well, there’s plenty of little boy left in me, even though my arm sometimes feels and acts as if it is 80.
God willing, in a few years, I will buy my granddaughter a glove and a fourth generation will partake of this tradition, learning the life lessons it teaches and experiencing the joy it brings. Like my wife and children, she’ll invariably ask me what I want for my birthday, expecting that I’ll say something like movie tickets or a new book or the latest Springsteen album. And I’ll give her the answer I’ve been giving for nearly two decades: “A game of catch in the backyard. That’s all I want.” It is a present that is priceless, a chance to feel forever young for an hour or two each year.
Award-winning columnist and author Scott Pitoniak is in his 41st year as a journalist. His career is almost as old as his decrepit but still functional Wilson A2000 baseball glove.
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