A Father-Son Dialogue, With Ball

As if on cue, baseball gloves recently blossomed at our home in tandem with the swelling of the buds on the silver maples. My son had dutifully excavated them from the basket in our unheated mud room. The winter had stiffened the leather, and dust lay in the seams and crevices. But soon after slipping them on, the fresh air and repeated poundings from fist and ball had them once again "as good as old," for there is nothing so good as an old glove.

There are few things as satisfying as tossing a baseball with one's child. My 12-year-old can throw a slider, a fastball, and a promising curve. He's working on his knuckleball, but his hand is still too small to clamp the ball with the first joints of his fingers rather than his fingertips.

I don't know where he gets his talent. It certainly isn't from me, for I adopted Alyosha when he was seven. I sometimes catch one of his fastballs a bit off center, and I wince as it slams against my palm. "Are you all right?" he calls with palpable concern from the other end of the yard. I nod, shake off the sting, and lob the ball back.

The rhythm of the windup, the release, and the pop! against leather eases me back in memory to my own boyhood.

I lived in a city, and though expansive backyards were not part of my urban landscape, baseball was. We kids threw the ball along the length of the narrow, car-lined street that ran through our neighborhood. In our fervor to emulate Whitey Ford, our throws sometimes went wild, and many a window fell prey to our enthusiasm. I can still see Mrs. Strenger, her hair up in curlers, screaming at us from the living-room side of a shattered pane of glass. Later that night there were deliberations among neighborhood parents to decide who would pay for the damage.

Unlike my son, I was a mediocre ballplayer. My father -a pitcher on an Army Air Corps team in North Africa during World War II - was dutiful in playing Sunday-afternoon catch with me. I still recall his perfect pitcher's profile, which seemed to auger a blistering fastball.

At the last moment, though, he'd ease off and throw me something he thought I could handle. But I was a clumsy catcher who had difficulty coordinating the positions of my glove and the incoming ball. That didn't daunt my father. It was not my ability to play well that brought us out in the bright sunshine on a spring or summer day, but rather the act itself, the ritual passing of a baseball from father to son, like a legacy so important as to bear repeated emphasis.

I eventually got better at catching and throwing, to the point where I felt confident enough to go out for the seventh-grade team. It was a terrible mistake. I found myself outclassed by kids who not only had natural abilities, but had been playing on teams for years. To make a long story short, I quickly became more a victim - the butt of their pranks - than a teammate, in an age when coaches scoffed at boys they considered "weak." I returned home defeated and mortified, swearing I'd never attempt to join a team again

My parents noted my dejection. My mother tried to cheer me up with kind words and the promise of a special supper, to no avail. And just when I thought I never wanted to see another piece of baseball equipment, my father appeared with two gloves. "Let's go out," he said, and magnetically, it seemed, I followed.

We went out into the driveway and began to toss the ball. Gently at first, then with a little more of what my father called "pepper." Back and forth, over and over. Every so often I heard a "Good throw!" or "That-a-boy!" I didn't realize it then, but throwing a baseball is a sort of dialogue in which little is said, because little needs to be said. In the way the ball is thrown, in one's dedication to the partnership of the game of catch, one pledges support and encouragement and love. In this way it is intimate, but does not crowd.

As I tossed the ball with my very capable son the other day, he expressed doubt over his ability to make this year's Little League team. I knew that he would have no problem. But stating this would not have encouraged him. Instead, it would probably have tapped into his frustration, eliciting cries of, "How do you know?" or "You just don't understand."

And so I waited for our interplay to take effect. We threw the ball for 20 minutes: grounders, pop-ups, and stuff with a bit of pepper on it. With each successful catch my son grew brighter and more energetic. The door had opened. I hauled back and threw the ball as high as I could halfway between the two of us.

We both made for it, but at the last moment we ran into each other's arms, the ball falling with a soft thud beside us. "You have nothing to worry about," I told Alyosha as I hugged him long and hard.

He didn't say anything. He didn't have to.

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