“Little League baseball is a very good thing because it keeps the parents off the streets.”
– Yogi Berra
1. Things Unseen
I was sitting out on the patio at Casey’s with Dewey, and the conversation came back to baseball, as it inevitably does.1 Talking about the competitive league our sons play in—which everyone here just calls “travel”—exerts a strong undertow; there’s no way to avoid getting drawn in. Dewey and I could talk for hours about poorly behaving parents and problematic coaches. We pore over the mechanics and prospects of young players like scouts during a rain delay or sports-radio jockeys. At times, we retell specific plays with the misty nostalgia of one of those documentaries on PBS.
Like the time six years ago, in the first round of the playoffs, his nine-year-old son Hayes was playing second while my Theo, an unflappable eight-year-old lefty, was on the mound. Our guys were overmatched, but we were somehow holding a 2-1 lead coming into the bottom of the sixth with the top of their order coming up. The tension on every pitch was far beyond what you’d expect for kids this young. It was even worse for us parents, who stood arm in arm in foul territory literally holding each other up. Theo somehow gets the first batter to tap out to the mound. But now their power hitter is up, and you can tell he’s ready to smash it. Theo throws low in the zone—strike one! “Way to go, Theo!” Dewey yells. The big guy fouls off the next pitch—strike two! “Atta boy!” shouts Jackson’s dad; you hear the anxiety in his voice. Theo throws a ball inside—1 and 2. “Great count, Theo!” I yell, hoping he’ll know I mean to waste a pitch low and make the batter chase. But Theo has been told by his coaches to throw strikes, and the fact that he can do so under tremendous pressure is what makes him our go-to closer. He throws it right over the plate. The batter opens his eyes wide, cocks his front knee up like a pro, and simply crushes a stinging line drive to right. There’s a sharp collective inhale on our side as the parent-line watches the ball sail over the head of the right fielder; it carries all the way to the fence and makes a loud smack against the boards that comprise the right field wall. We parents curse our luck because Grant is playing right. Grant isn’t very coordinated. He could hit the ball harder than anyone but hasn’t yet “grown into his body,” as the coaches say about boys they are willing to wait for, ones they know are going to be big by glancing at their parents or older brothers. Now, as he lumbers back to the fence to get the ball—"run, grant, run!” his mother yells in desperation—Hayes, spry and competitive, wearing number 2 in honor of his hero, Jeter, runs way out into right field to take the cutoff, arms waving: “Grant! Cut off, Grant!” Grant’s parents are yelling loudest from our side: “cut off!” After what seems like forever, Grant finally gets the ball to Hayes, who turns, God love him, and hurls a miraculous throw all the way to third base on a fly to tiny Jackson, who sweeps down with a flawless tag. It was the play of the season. I remember it better than my wedding.
Forgive me for indulging, but that is what Dewey and I do: we indulge each other. We’d say we have an unbiased perspective. We’ve each coached at least a dozen local teams; most boys in town have played for us or against us. Inevitably, we drift into perilous waters. We lower our voices instinctively as we wade into some of the most troubling of subjects: the corruption by which the professionals hired by the town select the travel teams and make lineups, whether there is collusion between the local baseball academy where several of the coaches give private lessons in the off-season, and how few Black kids play travel in our town and what might be done.
Dewey would admit that his intensity takes away from his enjoyment. He can’t just sit back and watch his son play, and Hayes is a lot of fun to watch. If you showed up at a travel game, you’d find Dewey and his wife Abigail standing apart from the rest, speaking rapidly in hushed tones, bitter about the latest perceived slight. And while they may be an extreme case, they are hardly alone. In my years along the foul lines on the North Shore of Chicago, I’d say not too many parents were enjoying themselves. In some of the other suburbs, you’d see it openly blow out of control: parents screaming at their kid, at the ump, or even—in one scarring incident I recall with a cringe—at their own coach. At least our parents kept their rage bottled up and saved it until they got back home, letting it out across their granite-topped islands in spacious kitchens over glasses of pinot grigio.
At the field there was a taxonomy of emotional investment. Down around the backstop were the most intense dads, followed closely by the parents who sat in the stands. In the outfield grass, some families set up lawn chairs and blankets in foul territory. They gave off a more relaxed air, but the unhappiness here was deeper, the anxieties rawer, as I’d recall each time I’d stroll up there to visit. I mostly sat in the stands close to the action and tried to filter out the running commentary.
“Now he calls that a strike? He has been calling that a ball all game. At least be consistent, Blue!”
“Come on, Blue! It has to come CLOSE to the plate.”
“Lincoln knows it’s not a strike. GOOD EYE, LINCOLN! DON'T GO CHASING. How do you expect him to be disciplined at the plate? YOU'RE KILLING US, BLUE!”
Let me say this to you now because I’m going to need you to trust me later on: as the seasons pass, I think I’m becoming progressively more umpire than coach, standing back and calling what I see. It’s surprising for people who watched me coach back in the day, but I saw things differently after my oldest son Oliver went through the system and I was doing it a second time with Theo.
Also, I want to say this: there is no pure truth in baseball. You have to filter out the bias. It’s built into the game, incorporated into the edifice of watching it, talking about it, or writing about it. Nothing happens in baseball without interpretation of what happened. The philosopher Alva Noë argues that baseball requires reflection. Agency, responsibility, and time all feature largely, and to ignore these factors is to disregard what makes baseball meaningful. Noë puts it this way: “There’s no playing it without participating thoughtfully in the problems it raises.”
Around the diamond, two people see the same thing, but they perceive it differently. And when it comes to youth baseball, it’s taken me five decades to realize that the game is about failure as much as it’s about heroics. There is no success in baseball but with an accompanying failure, nothing earned without something given up. Bias and failure, what a combination. The national pastime.
2. Eyes Wide Open
I moved away from this town two years ago, and it’s easier to see things clearly when I come back to visit. We now live in Louisiana, a thousand miles away. I’m in Chicagoland for a week during the pandemic, checked into a hotel, working remotely by day and having socially distant drinks outside with old friends like Dewey in the evenings. It’s June, and the ivy is finally green on the wall at Wrigley. Back home in New Orleans, Theo played the first half of his baseball season before things shut down, but here on Chicago’s North Shore, where they start later, the 2020 high school season was canceled before it began, abruptly ending many young careers. By now, the Chicago suburbs should be deep into travel season, but after a cautious delay, they’ve only just commenced. Even the Cubs won’t play games until late July, in MLB’s abbreviated schedule.
Across the patio I see Ron, the father of Harrison, who played baseball with Oliver. The boys who eventually make the varsity team at the high school in this town have played travel together since they were nine, winnowed down over the years through a painful process of selection. I’m happy to see Ron. You spend a lot of time in the stands with other baseball parents out in Chicago’s north suburbs, in frigid April weather wearing parkas under blankets and on gorgeous summer nights with smuggled-in beers and bored younger siblings. It brings you close, like cousins in a big family, meaning that you talk about only a limited range of topics but still have a kinship. You’ve shared a sea of emotions, sat with them when their kids struck out in a key situation or made plays of a lifetime, like Hayes did that game.
The last time I saw Ron was five years ago, at the end of Oliver and Harrison’s sophomore year. As the season wound down, it was clear to us all, or at least the parents who knew baseball, that Harrison wouldn’t be around next year. There was one more cut to come—a brutal one—down from sixteen on the sophomore team to ten rising juniors who would ascend to varsity. I could quickly pick three boys who would be let go first and Harrison was one of them. He just hadn’t grown when he hit puberty, and his well-crafted swing and early talent for driving a fastball up the middle didn’t survive the move to the 60/90 field. Ron himself was a strong athlete who routinely qualified for the Boston Marathon, but he and his wife were both short, and Harrison wasn’t showing signs of outpacing them. Ron saw the writing on the wall. After the last home game, he bid farewell. “Well, fellas,” he said, addressing the dads, “I probably won’t be back here in the stands next season. It’s been a great run.” It brought tears to my eyes. I felt for him. But I was glad it wasn’t me. I wasn’t ready.
It was now five years since that little speech. I call out across the patio: “Hey, Ron!”
He turns. “Hey, Brian, what’s up?”
“Crazy times. I’m back in town visiting,” I say.
“You moved?” he says, looking surprised. After all, it was he who had taken leave that day in the stands. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ron was actually relieved after Harrison got cut; the boy wasn’t getting playing time anymore, and his sophomore season must have felt eternal. Still, the last time you play baseball, or the last time you watch your kid play, is a kind of death. It’s hard to pull the plug.
Ron goes back to his table. Dewey says to me, “Who was that?”
And I say, “A dad from Oliver’s team. His kid was there all the way through the sophomores but didn’t make varsity.”
Dewey nods. “Wow, that’s tough.”
It’s starting to seem distant, all those nerve-racking tryouts and key at bats, the unspoken rivalry among the parents, then the end of the season when you all end up at Herm’s Palace or Dengeos for a final postgame meal. You don’t see the parents again until next January’s tryouts at the field house when everyone’s sizing up who grew how much. August to January is a long time in the lives of families, but nobody checks in about the big stuff: the marital tensions, the barely hidden alcoholism, the lost jobs and professional disappointments. Easier to worry about whether Hayes or Abe will be chosen for shortstop on the A team.
“Dewey,” I said, “you remember that Yogi Berra quote about how little league keeps parents off the streets?”
“Yeah, I love that one.”
“I think travel baseball keeps parents out of their forties.”
3. Last At Bat
A lot changed about the way I watched baseball when I took Oliver out to California to let the college scouts look at him. By that point, Theo was in the middle of his season with the eleven-year-old team and stayed home. I wasn’t sorry to ghost those dads; their folding-chair banter was particularly bad that year. Oliver and I flew from O’Hare to SFO and then drove out to Sacramento for a two-day showcase at Cal State. After that, we planned to drive south for a three-day scouting camp at Stanford. Oliver was sixteen. I was forty-seven.
There are a lot of baseball showcases out there. We chose those geared toward serious academic schools—mainly Division III and Ivies—which drew dozens of scouts from across the country. Oliver had been told that for every point on his ACT above 30, he could discount 5 miles per hour off his fastball. (The team has to maintain an average ACT score among their recruits.) Since Oliver had a 34 on his test, I figured he was effectively throwing in the nineties.
The first was organized by Headfirst Honor Roll, a national organization that runs showcases in California, Florida, and New York. The day was carefully scripted. It began with fundamentals in front of forty or so scouts, each armed with a clipboard and a radar gun. If you’re an infielder, you’ll get hit ground balls—to your left, your right, then a dribbler to see you throw off balance. If you’re an outfielder, you go out to right field and make throws to second and third and then home. Next you get timed on your 60-yard dash and how fast you can throw a ball into a net. Then you go to another field for hitting against live pitching, where everyone seems to be aiming radar guns at everything. During breaks, there are motivational speeches about attitude, how players should sprint to first base even when they draw a walk, and how if the scouts notice parents hanging around the backstop or clapping or really saying anything, they mark that against you. (I thought of the crowd around the backstop at Theo’s games back home and shivered.) The players listen from the bleachers, parents crowd around the edges, and everybody attends to the coaches as if they’re gods with the power to change lives, which maybe they are. You get a heavy dose of philosophy and psychology thrown in, but more of the Carol Dweck Mindset kind than the folksy Casey Stengel variety.
Then there are the simulated games. Later, I wondered whether we were misled by the fact that they were called “games,” which steered us into the erroneous belief that recognizable markers of success, such as that getting on base is good for a batter and getting the batter out is good for a pitcher, would translate onto the scouts’ clipboards.
Part of the problem was my reading. I had brought Michael Lewis’s Moneyball with me to California. Moneyballis about how major league scouts look at the wrong things when they evaluate players, and how Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, exploited those errors and changed professional baseball. It’s one of those books you want to tell everyone about. But looking back, there’s no question that it steered me away from recognizing what was happening at the Headfirst showcase.
There is a wide sea separating metrics and mindset. Metrics is what Billy Beane and the visionaries behind sabermetrics, like Bill James and Beane’s assistant, Paul DePodesta, saw when they looked at baseball, which is that batting average for hitters and ERA for pitchers tell a story about performance, but not the most valuable one if your goal is to win games. Lewis argues that not only were managers and scouts valuing players by the wrong metrics but that in the absence of useful statistics, they used intuition: this player reminds me of a young Anthony Rizzo or some familiar prototype—sign him! Talented players who didn’t fit the recognizable models were overlooked. A player like José Altuve, five-six and 165 pounds, is a case in point. The Astros originally turned young Altuve away because he was so small that they assumed he was lying about his age. No one had seen a hitter who looked like him. Since he was promoted to MLB in 2011, José Altuve has been a six-time All-Star and won three batting championships.
Mindset, on the contrary, is what the coaches at the showcases were obsessed with. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck’s book is about how we approach failure—is it an opportunity to learn or a confirmation of our inherent lack of talent?—and how to bring what she calls a “growth mentality” to work and life. For baseball coaches, a growth mindset is key in how to move beyond a slump, or what to say to yourself after you’ve struck out two times already and are coming up again with the bases loaded—in short, how a college player should approach the game. I was reading the wrong book to understand my surroundings. Scouts hadn’t given up on intuition; they had just added another element: their instinct about a prospect’s mental attitude.
In the simulated games, in order to speed things along, every batter comes up with a count that starts at 1-1—a huge adjustment if you’ve never played this way. The ratio of four balls for the pitcher to three strikes for the batter is profoundly different from that of three balls to two strikes, which is what Headfirst left you with by starting at this adjusted count. The first is baseball, the second some variant, an incomprehensible provincial dialect. At the plate in real baseball, Oliver works a count; he has what sabermetricians call “quality at bats.” He can hit the ball hard, but he’ll happily take a walk and he rarely strikes out. If you were reading Moneyball, you’d think he’s valuable to a team because he’ll get on base and give you a chance to score a run, and what you need to win baseball games is runs. But watching him out there on day one at the showcase is painful. The pitchers have evidently played under these modified rules before and are taking full advantage of his impulse to take the first pitch. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
Oliver faces a shaggy-headed pitcher who hides the ball remarkably well until right before he launches it to the plate, giving him a tremendous advantage. Oliver doesn’t pick up the ball until it’s already close and takes. He’s immediately down 1-2. The next pitch, a curve ball, freezes him. Strike three, and the at bat is over quickly. He starts walking back to the dugout until he remembers to run. Next time up, he leads off the inning. Bad luck: new pitcher, a lefty with a wicked sidearm. Since Oliver bats from the left side, it won’t be fun. He watches the warm-ups and steps in. The pitcher leans so far out that the ball seems to come from off the side of the mound, then crosses Ollie’s body on a terrifying path. There’s little time to adjust. After two pitches (a ball outside and a foul tip), he gets plunked hard in the helmet. I fight the urge to stand up. “Parents’ reactions on the sidelines are a tip-off to the mentality of the college-ready player,” one of the coaches had said. I remain frozen in my spot in the stands.
Oliver is fine, but he’s shaken. In the rules of the simulated games, he immediately gets another at bat. The lefty’s weird motion is even more effective now, and Ollie quickly goes down swinging. The afternoon proceeds like that. It’s like playing a carnival game: you know the odds are against you, yet you can’t help giving the carny dollar after dollar. Oliver strikes out three times over two games. He is on deck for his fourth at bat, swinging a weighted bat—I know he wants this chance to redeem himself—but the game ends without him coming up. He drops his head and walks to the dugout to take off his spikes.
I had learned about Headfirst about a year earlier. I was waiting for Theo to finish practice and found myself next to James, a circuit court judge and volunteer commissioner of the local travel system. I respected James, who seemed above the petty competitiveness which otherwise pervaded baseball parents in town. His wife’s family were part owners of the Milwaukee Brewers, making them baseball royalty. James’s youngest child was on Theo’s team, and during games, James and his wife stood to the side, rarely speaking. Hits by their son—or errors—barely provoked a remark; they knew the drill. As we stood waiting for practice to finish, I asked James whether he had any advice for Oliver, who had recently been promoted to number two in the sophomore pitching rotation. A growth spurt had kicked in, and Oliver’s dedication to the batting cages and to weight lifting was paying off. James had heard.
“Have you considered taking him to Headfirst?” James asked. It was like that scene in The Age of Innocence when Newland is sitting at the farewell party for Countess Olenska and realizes that everyone knows something that he doesn’t, though none of the guests say anything. Why had no one mentioned the showcases during all those hours in the bleachers? I pumped the judge for details. James advised bringing Oliver to at least one showcase the summer before junior year, to get the hang of how they work and to acclimate to their customs so as to prep for the one that would really count the summer before senior year. I nodded, but once I learned that the showcases charged a thousand dollars in fees, plus airfare, rental car, and hotels, I decided Oliver could figure it out on the fly. James wasn’t wrong, though. By the look of things, Oliver’s competition had been through this before; they knew how to manage the shortened count. Parents get this idea that college sports are their children’s ticket, and they throw ridiculous amounts of capital into it. Maybe we simply weren’t invested enough.
After that first day, Oliver and I drive back on Route 50 to Rancho Cordova where we’re staying at a Holiday Inn. I talk about the college admissions session I attended. I make no comment about his performance. Oliver interrupts me.
“What do you see, dad?” He sounds desperate.
I hold the question up to the light. I think he is asking me whether I saw something technical, like about his swing, but maybe he’s asking me how I thought he stacked up against the West Coast players. Now I can see it was a bigger question, something that neither of us could then put words to. Did I see, I think Oliver was asking, that here amidst a higher level of play, he was wondering whether he might be ready to say goodbye to baseball?
Perhaps that is reading too much into it. Maybe I am projecting a future I could not see from Route 50. After all, Oliver is a fighter. He makes adjustments, as they say in baseball; he has that growth mindset. I gave him a baseball answer about how to adapt to the 1-1 count. He listened. The next day he made the adjustment, and then we went to Palo Alto for a showcase on the perfect grass of Stanford’s famed Sunken Diamond, where we saw some of the same players again and heard more about mindset. On his final at bat of the last simulated game, he hit a long fly ball well over the head of the center fielder that bounced up against the fence. He ran and ran and finally stopped at third base—a triple. As he stood there on top of the bag, the college scout coaching third said something to him, and his face broke into a wide smile. I found my mind wandering. Maybe he could play baseball in college.
Oliver did get an offer to play at a D-III school, but he turned it down because it wasn’t on the East Coast, and the next season, his senior year in high school, he moved off the mound and became a starting corner outfielder, since his bat was getting better and his fastball never did hit 80 mph, and your ACT score doesn’t matter one lick to the high school coach. When he headed off to Massachusetts to a college that had sent scouts to the Headfirst and Stanford showcases but who passed on him, he brought his baseball gear and was going to take a shot at earning a walk-on spot. But then he met the crew coach and decided to try rowing, a sport that brought together his love of being on a team with the steady rhythm of oars in water. A couple of years later, on the banks of the Connecticut River, I watched him row from the stroke seat in the only regatta I made it to and felt a great swelling of pride.
Still, I can’t shake the memory of Oliver’s expression when he struck out in Sacramento for the third time, that tight wince of frustration that foretold the eventual end, a specter on a distant horizon. I can flush it out by bringing back the memory of what I’ve decided to call the last at bat of Oliver’s career. It was late spring in his senior year, nine months after the showcases in California. I marveled at his confidence at the plate, how strong his swing had gotten against varsity pitching. Now, at the home field at his high school, with a 2-1 count, he pulled a fastball hard on the seams. The ball sailed high and deep and kept going, and it was heading toward the spot marked 319 on the right field wall. The entire bench of his teammates jumped to the top step of the dugout in anticipation, those boys he had played with when he was nine who were now deep-voiced men. Oliver was sprinting toward first as the ball kept flying toward the corner. As he began his turn, the ball too began to turn, hooking ten feet right of the foul pole as it cleared the fence. A long strike. The bench went wild anyway. Even though Oliver didn’t end his career with a home run, as Ted Williams did in myth and history, it was a good finale. A broad smile broke out across his lips as he jogged back to the plate, that same expression that spread across his face when he was three years old and hit a spongy ball over the fence of our little backyard. When Bart Giamatti wrote that baseball breaks your heart, that it’s designed to break your heart, was he thinking of Oliver’s smile as he took his place again in the batter’s box, a palimpsest of a thousand at bats and ten thousand pitches overlaying each other the way fields of grass push through the hard ground each April?
4. You Can’t Throw Home Again
When I was really young, my father would pitch to me at a field near our house. And then, after I had finished hitting, we’d switch places and I’d pitch so that he could take some swings of his own. My father was born the year after World War II ended. He grew up working-class, the only child of a single mother amid the rapid development and disappearing potato fields of central Long Island. As a boy, he’d been a pitcher. He told me once that when he was twelve, maybe thirteen, the coaches asked him to stop throwing so hard because it wasn’t fair to the other kids.
It was the 1950s, the men running the league looked after their own sons and those of their friends, and my father was a skinny blond kid who rode his bike to the field and had no parent that anyone had seen. They stopped giving him chances on the mound. His mother, a redheaded beauty named Geraldine, didn’t have a lot of time for my dad, and when she did, spent it verbally abusing him. As soon as he and my mom got married at the age of twenty-one, Geraldine moved far away. I only met her once that I recall, when I was twelve and she showed up unannounced, having driven from Florida with husband number four and a stepson. My dad made her stay at a hotel, and we visited her. I remember swimming at a dingy indoor pool and feeling awkward. The next time I saw her was a dozen years later at her funeral.
From the stories, Geraldine was a whip-smart, chain-smoking firebrand who got stuck with a kid she didn’t want in Eisenhower’s America. She worked nights at a window factory, leaving a dollar on the table for my father to get himself dinner. She brought a series of men into the house, each of them tolerating her son with varying levels of disdain. My dad didn’t know his own father except by name: Willie Edwards. (Years later my parents saw his name in the newspaper among the survivors of a fire at a boardinghouse.) But Willie’s father, Alfred, my dad’s grandfather, stuck around. Alfred lived in the apartment upstairs and looked after my dad, took him to church, and stood as a check on Geraldine’s temper. He died of a fall when my dad was thirteen or fourteen, which was also about the time my dad decided to give up baseball. I don’t have many details. My father talks so little of his childhood that I only learned about Alfred while writing this essay.
My father tried to run away when he was four. He made it a few blocks before Geraldine’s new boyfriend, the one who drove a motorcycle and had slicked-back hair, found him and hauled him back. It was a lonely childhood. When he was nine or ten, he wandered down to the diamond that had been carved out of a potato field and asked if he could join the team the town had organized for their boys. I imagine that my father brought his bottled-up rage to the pitcher’s mound without modulation, and when the dads of kids with dads told him to stop throwing so hard, he threw harder and harder until he threw out his arm. Maybe they meant well, but no one called when he walked away and didn’t come back. With baseball taken away from him, he decided the way out of this life was school. He became a straight arrow and an A student. He raised guppies to pass the time. In high school, he got a night job and saved up for a bound set of the Great Books, to which he dedicated himself. His mother mocked him and belittled his ambitions.
Growing up, my brother and I were crazy about baseball. My dad taught us to bat lefty because he believed it gave the batter a tremendous advantage: a step-and-a-half toward first, a significant head start. Baseball was more science to him than religion, physics more than biology. He thought he could train us to pitch in a way that wouldn’t throw your arm out. His mistake as a boy, he came to see, was that he’d thought you threw with your arm, by sort of whipping the ball as hard as you could, but it was really your body that was important. My dad built a real pitcher’s mound in our backyard. He taught us to build energy with our legs and the rotation of our hips and chest, a twisting of what today we’d call the core. At that time, Luis Tiant was pitching for the Yankees and twisted his body like a corkscrew, the human incarnation of torque, a concept my dad taught us. I never became a pitcher (I gravitated to third base, later catcher), but my brother Cliff, two years younger and eventually four inches taller, with legs like trunks, dominated on the mound well into high school before he, too, threw out his arm and they had to hide him at first base.
But that was much later. I’m not quite sure how old I was on that day when my dad pitched to me at the field near our house and then said he wanted to take some swings. I used to tell the story that I was five, but that can’t be right because a five-year-old can’t pitch in a way that an adult would feel comfortable swinging hard. It was definitely before I turned eight, because that was the year I hit Mary Draper in the mouth with a bat by mistake at recess and knocked out her front teeth. So I was six or seven years old on the day my dad let me pitch to him.
Before I had kids of my own, I told the story this way: my dad hit a hard line drive and there was no time to react and the ball hit me in the head and knocked me out cold. I don’t remember passing out, but when I came to, I was lying on the mound and had to make a choice about whether I would ever play baseball again. To be honest, I don’t remember actively weighing options; I just went back to playing baseball. We never really talked about that day afterward, my father and I, the way we don’t talk about his childhood. I wonder if he remembers it today and if so, how.
To tell the truth, it receded in my memory until Oliver started playing baseball, and even then not until Oliver was eleven and I was forty-two; and one day, I was throwing batting practice to him at a field in a Chicago suburb. Things weren’t going well in my marriage in those days, and I’d been distracted; but I realized I could now throw harder to Oliver—he’d gotten stronger. As I started my delivery, I felt the muscles flex in my back. And then that desire to take some swings kicked in. Ollie grabbed his glove and took the mound, innocent of any potential danger. I stood on the left side of the plate. Oliver wound up, his form reflecting the hours of coaching we had struggled to afford. As he was midway through his motion, I flashed back to my father swinging three decades earlier and visualized myself hitting the same line drive at my son’s forehead. I felt light-headed and stepped out of the box, dropping my hands to my knees. “It’s okay, Dad, you can swing,” Oliver reassured me. I took a breath and stepped back in. He pitched, and I pulled the ball so far right of first base, you might have thought it was cricket. We tried again, but I simply couldn’t enter into the inherent aggression of the relationship between hitter and pitcher against my son. Perhaps in the mid-1970s you might go out to a field and let a second grader pitch to you and swing with all you’ve got, particularly if you grew up without a father to watch you play baseball, but in that case, baseball is a curse, not a gift, passed from one generation to the next.
We live in New Orleans now. Oliver is away at college, his baseball career a memory. Theo is a sophomore, playing on the varsity team of a high school named after a segregationist. His last appearance on the mound in 2020 was March 12, a warm evening when he pitched the final two innings of what would be the unanticipated finale of the season. As he pitched, one of his coaches, an older Black man who had worked at the school for two decades, coughed repeatedly in the dugout. Twelve days later, Coach Parker was dead of the coronavirus. The season was suspended. A month later it was canceled.
Bart Giamatti’s most beautiful meditation on baseball, in my opinion, is the one in which he speculates on how baseball reenacts the quest for home. Why don’t we call home plate the fourth base, he asks, eliciting instead the metaphor? In this nation of immigrants, this land of mobility, the path around the bases is Odysseus’s voyage played out repeatedly. “And when it is given one to round third,” Giamatti writes, “a long journey seemingly over, the end in sight, then the hunger for home, the drive to rejoin one’s earlier self and one’s fellows, is a pressing, growing, screaming in the blood.” That magnetic energy—you never hear it openly from the stands, but perhaps you sense it as a player skips home joyously when the way is unobstructed. And how could we ever reconcile the pain of our childhoods, the unresolved tensions and infractions, but by the fraught collision of masked catcher and helmeted runner? We run from home, and yet we seek it endlessly; we want our children to make their way around the basepath, and yet we hold them close to the bag.
As a player, I gravitated to third base. I loved the danger of the position, the speed with which the ball would come my way—the hot corner. I liked to play close in, on the grass, creep in toward the plate. In high school I briefly converted to catcher and thrilled at being at the center of the action, armored against the pain, the only player on the field who looks out on the game. Each position with its particular perspective, its view of what is happening from a hundred contested directions.
The patio conversations with Dewey never end, but we keep deferring the subject. We indulge each other with stories—our interjections and our interruptions, our conspiracies and our conjectures—but the truth we are seeking is ever postponed. What we’re craving after all is home but leave unspoken its everyday tensions and terrible trusts. The long strand of stories stretches late into a Chicago evening in midsummer. There is no end to baseball, the game without a clock. Baseball can go on forever, so why does it feel that the last at bat is always ineluctably approaching?
1 All of the names, and most of the identifying characteristics, have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty. Except those of public figures. And my family—we really do all bat from the left side of the plate.