Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Catch: Part II

Few things center me like the crisp pop of a baseball snapping firmly into an old, leathery glove. The impact -- the collision of hard, fast-moving cowhide coming to a sudden halt into soft leather. The effect is instant, washing eternal youth over my mind and body. Life's challenges abate themselves for a moment. The memories of growing up trump the usual mind numbing mental gymnastics of processing grown up crap. I may feel like a lousy husband, dad and provider -- barely a man at all. But for now, I can be a kid playing with other kids. My kids.

A boy is alive again. A competitor awakened. A focused little soul whose only aim is to please his father. Each throw renewing my spirit. Every motion true, the mechanics solid, the brain switched-on, as it makes split-second calculations of hand-eye adjustments, willing my muscles and compelling my tired body up and down or side to side -- living in the moment, a beautiful dance to the timeless pace of playing catch.

My fondest memories of childhood involve throwing the ball back and forth with my dad. We could be camping on the Lochsa River, at my grandparents house in Couer d'Alene, practicing on a playground, or in the front yard of our house -- wherever we were mattered never as much as what we were doing. Father and son, communicating effortlessly in the back and forth pastime of chatter and baseball tosses.

"How was your day, son?" dad would ask, throwing and conversing in an elaborate symphony of movement and words.

"Fine," I would counter, not really thinking at all about my day but focused on making good throws and properly fielding grounders and camping under pop-ups.

"Come over the top more, son," he'd urge. "You're sidearming the ball."

OK, dad.

"Camp under the ball," he'd counsel. "Find your spot underneath and track it all the way into your glove."

OK, dad!

"Again. Use two hands to bring the ball in, close-by in case you miss or need to make a throw. Get in front of the ball, son, get your butt down," he'd command.

Mm hmm.

Every last bit of daylight was soaked up like a sponge. We worked on everything, until repetition and basic motions gave way to solid fielding skills. Working on fundamentals. Probably long after his arm began to throb with pain, we'd wrap up and head inside. Maybe tomorrow we'd do it again, or maybe this weekend. I didn't care. I always knew we'd play catch again soon, and that was enough for me.

When I was five years old and ready for T-ball, my Tom Seaver autographed Spalding baseball glove was broken in, and it felt good on my hand, like a piece of my own flesh, trusted and familiar. I could actually catch the ball (that made me the pitcher).

Playing catch was not common in other front yards. The action and laughter in front of our house was probably fascinating to watch from a distance -- something so sweetly innocent and pure, playful and boyish. The allure wasn't resisted long and soon a buddy with a glove would romp across the street hoping to join in.

Everyone was welcome. My sister, my cousins, my mother, and my friends. Bring your glove and you get to play. No waiting. Dad would take turns throwing to each of us in succession right to left. Throwing to my buddy Paul, Carrie and then me. Sometimes my buddy Mike, Paul, Carrie, and then me. Or my visiting cousin Greg, then Steve, then to me, then to Carrie.

But I liked it best when it was just dad and me. Together alone. As a kid it was the very best kind of one on one time I could ever want.

One time in Couer d'Alene, we were hours into another holiday -- a major gathering, like many we had over the years. My dad and his brother, Rick, dug out their old mits. Ancient, glorious, well-worn slabs of leather masquerading as portals to forgotten childhoods in Orofino, Idaho. It was pitch black outside except for the dimly strained illumination of a porch light in my grandparents backyard, and from inside we could hear the gunshot-like snaps and muffled grownup barks of grown men (two brothers, now two boys) engaged in a rapid fire engagement of tosses and grabs.

A "Ken Boyer" 6-finger Rawlings was dad's prized possession. His brother was fond of an even darker contraption, flimsy and mysterious. We watched and watched them, over and over, until they finally relented, sweating and short of breath, turning back once again to old men with sore arms and aching knees. They let us examine and compare the ancient tools to their more modern counterparts. Clearly our gear was superior in every way. Refined, not clumsy or worn out, and raw, like their gear. Little did we know.

On another trip to Couer d'Alene I can remember a pretty intense game of "pepper" going on outside. Four brothers, the Ripley boys, my dad and his younger brothers Rick, Dan and Jeff. This was new.

Rick swung an old bat and the others spread out in front of him not 15 feet away, fielding sharp grounders and throwing the ball back again to the batter, who then struck the ball to the ground again back at the fielders. Things happened lightning fast. The muffled clunks of cowhide on wood and the whisps of grass blades channeling grounders back into waiting gloves. Part of the fun was putting a little extra sting on the swings. Not really bunting, where you use the angle of the bat to deflate the ball's velocity and push it into play; these were more like half swings with intent on sneaking one by the fielders. If a fielder missed the ball, or muffed one, he was put in the back of the line, working his way up for a turn at bat. For the fielders, putting a little extra on the throws were designed to see if the batter might fist one up in the air for an easy snag. Next batter. It was mesmerizing. I watched for about six seconds and wanted to try it. They started easy on me, but soon realized I was up for the speed of the game. Field it, throw it, field it, throw it, field it, throw it.. bang bang bang bang.

Such a long time ago.

Dad has always been in love with his career. As kids, he was on the job well before we even got up for school in the mornings, and so focused that he routinely wouldn't show up at home again until well after 7 PM at night. He worked Saturdays too, and was gone a lot. But he always had time to play catch in the spring and summer. Dinner could wait, or be rushed and then set aside. We didn't hunt or fish as a family, but we knew how to pass the evening with leather.

It's a tradition I'm happy to share with my own kids today. It's fun. I mean it's really fun. We laugh and talk and enjoy many summer evenings outside. My girls can throw and catch a baseball, with sharpness and ease. My youngest son keeps getting better and really shows promise as a young ballplayer. (I should know because I coach his T-ball team.)