At 3rd base, a father-son moment

Posted June 20, 2010, at 7:13 p.m.

It was the top of the fifth inning. The wind finally had calmed down, except for an occasional breeze that threw pollen into the air. Because the sun was setting, the sideways light made the flying specks shimmer like fireflies. They flickered and rained down on the baseball field.

There were only a handful of games left in the season, his first in Little League. He still had not hit the ball. Dustin spent hours coaching him in the backyard. Through the screen, while I cooked dinner, I heard the rhythmic thump of the ball hitting the inside of their mitts.

“You ready to try batting?” Dustin would say.

“No, not yet, Dad.”

More thumping.

“You afraid of getting out?”

“No, not really.”

“Just keep your eye on the ball and swing.”

“I know Dad, but —”

“You can’t hit it unless you swing.”

They went to the batting cage a couple of times for practice. And every night before and after dinner, they threw the ball in the backyard. Still, twice a week I sat in the stands twisting my fingers into the palm of my hand while he stood frozen at the plate, unable (perhaps unwilling) to swing. At some point, this became a metaphor to me: My son, who didn’t stop wearing his Superman cape to preschool even after the other kids made fun of him, was now uncharacteristically unmoved by the opportunities flying past him. Where was the kid who told his first coach, “I’ve worked real hard all summer, and if you give me a shot at the infield, I think I can do it”? Where was the kid who once told me, “No one knows what you are capable of until they give you a chance”?

Well, he was there at the plate, paralyzed in the face of his peers, suddenly the victim of wanting to save face. He had taken off his cape.

Sometimes he was walked. Other times he was out, and I could see his small shoulders slouch as he walked back to the dugout.

Dustin never missed a game. While I chatted with other moms and made trips to the concession stand, Dustin stood like a lighthouse rising up from the ocean behind the fence near third base. He could not be moved. Often I saw them speak to each other with their eyes and movements. Dustin would swing a pretend bat in the air, reminding him to keep it level. Or he would point to his eyes as if to say, “Focus.”

Still the bat never left his shoulder. He wouldn’t swing. I grew frustrated, caught up as I was in the idea of the metaphor. But Dustin never lost patience. He never sighed. He just watched.

I had grown used to the routine: Here he comes to the plate; there he is frozen with fear; now he’ll trot to first base or head back to the dugout; the crowd will politely cheer and say, “Nice try, kiddo!” So I almost missed it when it finally happened. He had two balls and two strikes. One more, and he was out. I tucked my camera back into its bag.

I looked up just before I heard the crack of the bat. It was a nice crack, too; the solid kind that comes from the center. The ball flew in the air to left field, past third base. No one looked more surprised than he. His eyes grew large and round as he watched the ball move dangerously close to the foul line. He ran to first base holding onto his helmet with one hand on his head. I stood and screamed, dropping everything from my lap. Then I leaned to Dustin and asked, “He did hit it, right? I didn’t imagine it?”

Dustin didn’t take his eyes off the field as he answered me. “Yep, he hit it.”

When he got to third base, he was directly in front of us but facing the opposite direction. He leaned his hands on one knee, ready to run home after the next batter hit the ball. He looked over his shoulder, his dark brown eyes peering out from under his helmet. He didn’t need to search; he knew where his dad would be standing.

Dustin gave him a thumbs-up.

He smiled back.

I always thought it would be me he looked for in the stands. (Well, at least until there was a girlfriend there.) But I wasn’t the one at the batting cage, and I wasn’t the one throwing the ball in the backyard. His dad was.

The bleachers were loud with excitement. Younger siblings played beneath the metal stands. People walked to and from the concession stand. And in the middle of all this commotion, a father and son shared a moment. It was a moment that didn’t necessarily include me, but it is written on my heart just the same.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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