Children can give us prematurely gray hair—well, the hair that they don’t cause to fall out—and keep us youthful simultaneously. It is one of the miracles and mysteries of life. Among other things, children can provide moments that will live on, long after parents and childhood are gone. For now, as a father, I will hold onto the following as long as I can (but I’m writing it down just in case the day comes when I no longer will be able to remember my name or what a baseball is.)
As far as Father’s Days go, 1994 was the best. Or at least tied for it. Maybe because baseball played such a large part. Maybe because of the socks.
This particular Father’s Day fell on the last game of the playoffs for my 10-year-old son Mark’s baseball team. It was a battle for third place, the Cardinals against the Athletics. More than that, it was at the Kenilworth Pee-Wee field, spruced up for the day’s festivities. Music from the Village People blaring over a loudspeaker system. Groundskeepers watering down the infield. Three umpires. Baseball—and life (you mean there’s a difference?)—doesn’t get any better than this.
The Cardinals had played on this same field the day before. With runners on first and third and the score tied, Mark had connected on a pitch. The opposing shortstop went into the hole, made a great stop, and barely threw the runner out at second to end the inning. But, boy, did my boy whack the ball.
In pregame practice that Saturday, he had walloped the ball almost over the fence in left. For a kid who had trouble making contact early in his first season of playing baseball, Mark was progressing quite nicely.
With the best yet to come.
The A’s sent the league’s best pitcher to the mound for Sunday’s playoff game. A few years later he would be the star catcher on the local high school baseball team. In Mark’s first at-bat against him, he led off the second inning with a single to left. A bullet. The coach had moved Mark up in the batting order from his usual sixth or seventh spot, and it paid off—especially in the next inning.
With two outs and runners on second and third, Mark again ambled to the plate to face his athletically advanced adversary. This time Mark lashed a drive to right-center that rolled to the fence for a two-run triple. If momentarily living vicariously through our children is wrong, I didn’t want to be right.
With a 3-0 lead, Mark went behind the plate to catch the bottom of the third. Stocky youngsters frequently wind up catching. It’s a form of baseball typecasting. Bright sun bathed the field, as if the field needed enhancement. It featured infield grass, an alien concept to many of us who had grown up on fields of dirt and rock.
With the catcher’s mask, shin guards and protective padding, Mark was in a position that the manager and Mark were comfortable with. Any worldly worries evaporated before they had a chance to descend from the cumulus clouds high above. Mark was playing well, and I was in the stands bathing in hopes/dreams/unrealistic expectations for my son the ballplayer.
It was like the scene from “Field of Dreams,” slightly altered:
“Is this heaven?”
“No. It’s Kenilworth.”
Close enough. Until…
Until a pitch deflected off Mark’s right ankle. Ouch! Major ouch! And out of the game he went. Fortunately, one of the other players’ fathers was a doctor. He examined Mark’s agonizing ankle.
“It’s a bruise,” the doctor declared.
Small comfort for one youngster, who now was sitting on the sidelines and preparing to ice down his ankle. One slight problem. There was no ice pack and no bag we could fill with ice from the ice chest. So being a good though not particularly sanitarily correct dad, I took off one of my socks and slid a bunch of cubes in it. Mark bravely applied the cold sock to his ankle. A little while later, he was sufficiently recovered to return to play (ah, the joys of relaxed re-entry rules in youth leagues), and I put the soggy sock in the chain-link fence to dry.
Later, in his third at-bat against a lesser pitcher, Mark struck out. I wasn’t any less proud of him. After all, everybody strikes out. Some of us more often than others. One of the Cardinals’ star hitters also whiffed against the new pitcher, So did another of the team’s best players—the coach’s son—with the bases loaded.
The Cardinals saw their lead vanish and were trailing before they scored on a short sacrifice fly to tie the game. After that, however, the balls didn’t bounce the Cards’ way, and players who normally made plays didn’t. Final score: A’s 7, Cardinals 4.
End of season. Not end of world. A concept that occasionally is difficult for a 10-year-old–among others—to grasp.
An on-field awards ceremony followed the game. So did picture-taking and congratulating the other team.
And then the walk to the car. Mark, usually an upbeat soul, was upset.
“What’s the matter?” I asked.
“I didn’t play well,” he answered.
Despite my objections, he remained unconvinced.
“My catching,” he said sadly in a quiet voice.
I tried to explain how he had done fine and how people don’t always succeed. All they can do is try. And Mark had tried.
The music from the ballpark was playing a Carole King tune “Now and Forever” from the movie “A League of Their Own.” The song worked for a movie about the All America Girls Professional Baseball League, and it was working in another baseball-ish setting: Now and forever, you are a part of me…And the memory cuts like a knife…
We sat in the car before we journeyed to a nearby hot-dog emporium for a team gathering.
I told Mark how proud I was of him and how wonderful it was to see him progress as a player (not to mention as a person), how fortunate I was to have him for a son, his sister for a daughter, and his mother for a wife. My voice started to break, and he could see the tears in my eyes.
So he started to cry.
Mine were tears of joy, I tried to reassure him. It was Father’s Day, I explained, and maybe I missed my dad, who died 17 years earlier, and for whom Mark was named; and maybe I was remembering when I was Mark’s age and playing ball with my dad as the manager.
I wiped the tears, along with a lot of dirt, from his face.
It’s not often we see our fathers cry. And when we do, it leaves an impression long after they are gone. So, hopefully, this was an occasion that Mark would deposit in his memory bank and look back on fondly.
Mark and I made the short ride to the mac-and-cheese banquet. One of the team’s assistant coaches had gone beyond the call of duty to purchase trophies and award them to each of his players.
Mark was the first player called to the podium. “This guy is like a sponge,” the coach said. “You can tell him something, and he absorbs it. I told him before the game today: ‘I don’t have anything more to tell you. You’ve learned it all.’ ”
Proud sister, mom, and dad watched, along with teammates, their moms, dads and siblings.
Before Mark went back to sit down at the table, the head coach made his brief speech about Mark: “I just want to say that Mark is the most improved player on the team.”
Mark was back at the table and showing his trophy to his beaming family.
When the gathering was over, after the handshakes and words of congratulations to the other players and words of thanks to the coaches, Mark and I walked arm-in-arm to the parking lot.
His mom and sister drove home in our other car.
As I was starting the ignition, I realized I had left my blue sock at the baseball diamond. No great loss. After all, it was dirty, possibly still wet, and it did have a couple of holes to begin with.
“You know what, Mark?” I said. “We’ll forget that sock, and I’ll give you the other one (well, after it was washed). That way, if things are going bad, or it things are going good, you can look at it and remember today and all the wonderful things that happened.”
When we got home, I opened my Father’s Day cards and presents. Included were two pairs of socks.
All these years later, I’m still not sure life/baseball gets any better than that day.
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ELLIOTT HARRIS is the former Chicago Sun-Times “Quick Hits” columnist who covers the worlds of sports and beautiful women when they intersect (and even when they don’t) at elliottharris.com. He is co-author of “Hoodoo: Unraveling the 100-Year Mystery of the Chicago Cubs” and co-hosts “Sports & Torts” on talkzone.com.
STORY ART: Main image made in-house with art photo from Elliott Harris.