Tossing Fastballs Into Twilight

MY father would stand at one end of our yard, under the big maple tree and I, at the opposite end, would fire fastball after fastball into his glove. It was our way of saying hello after a long day at work and school.

To this day, the very sight of two people throwing a white ball back and forth in the fading light of an early spring evening weakens my knees. It's called playing catch, and it remains intact as the primary memory of my childhood.

Baseball. The word has a roundness to it, simple yet elegant, provincial yet worldly, always returning to its boyish charm which has kept so many men from growing up. Baseball. The word takes off like a line drive, evoking smells of grass, sweat, dirt, and sometimes, if the wind is just right, entire childhoods can be tasted, if only for a few fleeting seconds.

When spring arrived, we'd dig out the gloves, thaw out our arms, and once again resume the dialogue that bonds so many fathers and sons. How many times did I count the hours, minutes, seconds, leaning against a window, waiting for my father to get home and don the leather?

Growing up with baseball first, second, and last on my mind, it was nothing short of a religion, something my grandfather passed down to my father who passed it down to me. I will inevitably pass it down to my own son someday.

My mother was a spectator and sometimes manager, allocating the duration of our catches before meals would be ready. Like good ballplayers, my father and I always obeyed the manager. On weekday evenings, if my father caught an early train home, we might have time for a quick 15- minute catch in the front yard before it became too dark or our manager called us in for dinner.

Sometimes we'd toss a hardball back and forth through the twilight into the first layer of darkness, stealing every last second of fading light we could ("just one more throw, one more throw"), until one of us would lose sight of the ball and it would come spiraling into a nose or get lost in the bushes. That happened more than once.

Our yard was small and narrow with low-hanging maple branches and two protruding hemlock shrubs that had to be negotiated. Not to mention tufted mounds of crab grass and gaping holes in what we referred to as our front lawn. These natural obstacles added challenge to our pleasure.

It was on weekends that we had a chance to really test our arms. With two or three bats and a dozen baseballs, we'd head to the school ballfields and spend endless hours on Sunday afternoons gathering grounders, shagging flies, and playing catch on a diamond-shaped infield with real dirt and green grass and a blue sky that devoured pop flies as quickly as we hit them.

We spoke little on most of those Sunday excursions into our dreams, which after all was what they were - my father always yearning to pitch for the New York Giants and myself, assured of centerfield in some future Yankee lineup, as soon as I learned to hit a curveball. The few words we did share were of baseball: "Keep your eye on the ball," he'd say again and again as I swung and missed at pitch after pitch. "Get down on the ball," he'd warn as ground balls scooted between my legs. Our devotion to the game was consummate and talking about things other than baseball seemed senseless, even sacrilegious. There were bad-hop bloody noses and misplayed black-and-blue shins, despite our attention to detail.

It wasn't until the ride home that talk finally eased away from the afternoon's work and broached the topic of school, one of my least favorite. By late Sunday, my father's work worries had receded into a back corner of his mind, and he wanted to know all about my life, what classes I was having trouble with, who I was hanging out with, and which girls were making my life miserable. After I gave him a dose of my week's events, he would fill me in on some of the doings in his busy affairs. Baseball was ou r bridge, a common meeting ground that gently led us into the intimacies of each other's lives.

Today, our phone calls are still prefaced with talk of baseball - the latest trade rumors, outrageous salaries, if the Yankees will ever win another championship. If not for baseball, we might not even know each other; in fact, thousands, maybe millions, of fathers might not know their sons and vice versa.

Once again, it's springtime, and I find my mind wandering to greener days when the only thing that mattered was how many times I might get to bat in a pickup game, or if I could stretch a big enough lead to steal second base. But most often, I think of those late afternoons waiting for my father to get home from work.

I know it's spring when the crocuses pop up, when the days get longer, and when I get the sudden urge to call up my old man and see if he'd like to get together, and maybe have a little catch.

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