I’ve been worried about baseball season ever since Dustin left in November. Basketball season was one thing. School plays, family nights and art shows all have been similarly manageable. But baseball without Dustin? I just couldn’t picture it.
Dustin loves baseball like I love chocolate frosting (Dustin might call “Better Than Sex Cake” something like “But Still Not Better Than Baseball Cake”). He operates multiple fantasy leagues, doesn’t miss many Padres games and cannot be moved from his spot behind the fence during Little League games. One time, he literally jumped out of the car to save a baseball glove from being crushed by the automatic garage door.
So when Ford, now 11, first started t-ball seven years ago, Dustin spent hours with him in the front yard, teaching him how to hold a bat and catch a ball. Even the smallest child’s glove was too big for Ford, and on his hand, it looked like one of those foam fingers people wave at football games. The batter’s helmet made him look like a bobblehead. But they were out there every day. And together, they loved it.
When I passed by the front window with a load of laundry or while swaying baby Owen to sleep, I’d peek out to see if Ford could catch the ball yet. Usually I’d see Dustin running in slow motion, his hand outstretched, showing Ford how to “move toward the ball, not away from it.” Oh, how many times we all heard that: “Move toward the ball, not away from it.”
Baseball became a symbol for Ford and Dustin’s relationship. It was like a secret language between them. Which is why I went against my normal calm, cool spectator character and yelled at a particularly insensitive t-ball coach after a game. When he called my son an “easy out” in front of everyone, he was treading on tender soil, mocking (albeit unknowingly) all the countless hours Ford and his dad had spent practicing on the lawn.
As Ford grew older, playing catch with Dustin became synonymous with “let’s talk.”
Me (to Dustin): “I’m worried that Ford doesn’t have good time management.”
Dustin (to me): “I’ll talk to him.”
Dustin (to Ford): “Want to go play catch?”
In the summertime, when our screens are open and the days are long, I cook dinner to the rhythmic thump of a baseball sinking first into Ford’s glove and then into his dad’s. Occasionally I hear the ball hit the side of the garage. When I stick my head out to complain (“You guys are going to break the siding on the garage!”), Dustin and Ford sheepishly blame the other:
Dustin: “Ford threw it too hard.”
Ford: “Dad wasn’t looking.”
Through the years, Owen seemed to sense this baseball connection between Ford and Dustin. He eventually shied away from the sport. When Dustin came home from work, grabbed his glove and headed for the back door, Owen busied himself with something else. Usually soccer (at which he is quite talented).
I worried about this and spoke to Dustin. He was always understanding. “If baseball isn’t Owen’s thing,” he said, “that’s OK. I’ll kick the soccer ball with him.”
One day, however, after we already knew about Dustin’s then-upcoming deployment, I stopped Dustin as he came through the house with his glove in one hand and a ball in another. I pointed through the open screen door so he could see what was happening outside: Ford and Owen were playing catch together. The ball sank into Ford’s glove and then into his brother’s.
Dustin smiled. He put his glove away and sat down to read the newspaper.
Last week was sign-up time for Little League. I knew because Dustin had told at least a dozen friends to remind me during his absence. Ford could hardly wait. Owen was pretty sure he didn’t want to play, even though, if he makes tryouts, he could be on Ford’s team.
“Come on, Owen. I’ll work with you every day,” Ford told him. “We’ll spend one hour practicing each day. We’ll work on your swing and your arm. You’ll make tryouts for sure!”
Owen, still not convinced, did agree to go in the basement (due to the snow) and play catch with Ford. While I made dinner, I heard the familiar thump of the baseball going from glove to glove.
And then there was this:
“Let your glove be part of your hand. You should be wearing your glove all the time — when we’re watching TV, when you’re lying in your bed. Let it become part of you. We need to condition it, too. I’ve got stuff upstairs for that. And, Owen, you have to move toward the ball, not away from it.”
Somewhere across the world, I knew Dustin’s heart felt inexplicably full, even as his baseball glove lay in the garage, empty.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at www.Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.