Catching

“Dad,” Liam began with that tone I knew so well, that tone that meant he wasn’t very thrilled about something. “Dad, when is baseball season over?”

He’s become more strategic in his strategies, less obvious, but I can still smell the tactic from a mile away.

“We have two games this week and then the tournament next week,” I replied, matter-of-factly, best to let him take the lead.

He was lacing up his shoes as if it he was 5 again, one lace over the other. Stop. Loop the lace under and pull through. Stop.

“Do I have to play in the playoffs?” Make a loop.  Hold.  Grab the other lace. Hold.

Nope. You are not pulling me down that road.

“Do you want to play in the playoffs?”

” I guess…I don’t know…” He mumbled. Wrap, pull and done.  He took time standing as if he were his stiff jointed Papa and started meandering towards the ball park. His younger brother, Ben, skipping and hopping and sauntering with the level of energy befit of any summer-time child. Liam, however, seemed to get more and more tired as the field approached. Whether it was the long summer day sun or the lack of excitement for the game, I couldn’t tell but I did know that this boy was not chomping at the bit to take the field.

The game started and unfolded. His team had scored early and through a combination of strike outs, chance pop fly catches and a few plays by our head-above-the rest first baseman,  we had kept the opposing team to a shut out. Though from the look on Liam’s face and sauntering manner he entered and exited the field, you would not know it. But when the final inning approached and the head coach asked for volunteers to play catcher, Liam, after six games of disinterest and laissez-faire, surprisingly piped up with a firm by quiet, “Me!”

During our next at bat, while I was out coaching at third base, I watched as he donned the catching gear.  I have learned with Liam that he needs to venture out on his own, still connected but independent. I wanted badly to help, do the fatherly duty of strapping in his shin guards, the same type of gear I had once put on and taken off countless times over many summers. I knew this was an arena best left to him to explore on his own. As I came in to help transition our players from batting to fielding, I beamed at my guy, dressed head to toe in the over-sized gear. The shin guards and chest plate hung on him like a toddler dressed in his parents clothes.

“Are you ready, bud?” I asked, giving him a playful slap on the top of his helmet.

He glared and splayed his hands out to the side, “Daaaaad…” The look on his face made me want to swoop him up in a bear hug and stuck a knife in my side at the same time.  A look of 8 year old indignation congealed before he turned on his heal and marched toward the plate.  It was the biggest spark of life I had seen from him in the game.  What Liam could not control, though, was that while our team was in the field, I had to back up whoever our catcher may be.

The score was three to zero and we were playing the final half inning to secure our second place seed by ousting our tied-for-second seed opponent. For a park district baseball, league, it had its fair share of drama.

We walked the first two batters and throughout Liam made only small stabs at trying to catch the pitcher’s delivery. I could tell he was scared but still brave enough to crouch-slash-kneel behind the batter and attempt the recoveries.  With the next two hits and walk, the score was now three to one and the bases were loaded.

I ventured a bit of coaching. “Liam, if the ball is hit, you have to stand on home plate and catch the ball coming to you or go get the ball and touch home plate.”

Liam turned to me wide-eyed, yet with an air of urgency.  “What’s the score? Do we get to bat?”

I gave my canned coaching response. “Don’t worry about the score, just worry about home plate.” But as I watched Liam dig in the balls of his feet and raise to a now proper catching crouch, I could see the determination, henceforth undetectable, rise to the surface.

“If the ball is hit anywhere, pop up and stand on home ready for whatever comes next. I’ll tell you if you need to get the ball and tag home.”

He nodded, locked into the game. This was the most in-game coaching he had let me give thus far.

As the pitch came in and the resulting “ping” of an aluminum bat rang, Liam shot up and stepped to home.  The ball had been driven past our shortstop and stopped by our left fielder. Two runs had scored and the game was now tied.

Liam turned once again, wide eyed but determined. “Dad, do we get to bat?”

I could have countered with another coaching cliche or have been annoyed that he hadn’t been paying attention to the game thus far, or the other games thus far, but the look on his face gave me pause.  He wanted to win. He wanted to know what was at stake. He wanted to be prepared to help his team.

“This is it, tiger. We don’t get another at bat.  We have to hold them here. If we do, we tie and we stay tied in the league at second.”

Again, he dug in, raised his mitt and bobbed on his feet. The next batter struck out and I could hear the deep breath being released as the next batter approached.  Again, he dug in, raised the mitt and bobbed.

I didn’t care what happened next.  I cared that he cared.  I don’t need him to be an all-star or even just a star.  I just want him to explore different activities and experience what they have to offer.  Baseball is unique.  It’s a team sport yet still relies on a lot of individual accountability.  Even the most complicated of triple plays might only involve a little more than half the team and that is on the high end of simultaneous team work.  I want him to know what being on a team means. To be both highlighted and obscured, to do what you can for the benefit of your squad and to celebrate in each other’s contributions and victories. And here he was, once a shade above boredom, now with a racing heart and team-driven determination.

Ping! the sound of impending doom.  A squibbler to the first baseman, fielded and tagged. Out. I looked back and there he was planted on home plate, glove out and ready.

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