A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 6/26/2021.
It was a little strange. My eight-year-old son and I were across the street in the park working on his pitching. He'd just started playing baseball, had a good arm, and I was playing catcher.
A man walking along the sidewalk stopped and stared. He moved close, stood in the grass, just watching. This was a Chicago city park, and we see odd folks all the time. Usually, they move on. He stayed.
After a time he approached me. He was late fifties, maybe 60. Looked and moved like he had been an athlete. "Do you mind if I give your son a few pointers?" he asked.
Sure. My son looked at me for reassurance. "Go ahead," I said.
The man showed him that the accuracy of his pitch depended on his gloved hand. "Pull it tight to your hip, and don't let it flop," he said. That little trick narrowed his pitches immediately. He also showed my son how to grip the ball on the seams, and how to avoid short-arming. It was a half-hour pitching lesson, and hugely valuable.
I could see he had done this before, many times. He was back in his element. At the end he thanked me in a quiet voice for giving him the chance to do this again, as if we were the ones who had given him a gift.
"Are you from here?" I asked. "No, just visiting. I'm here to see my son play baseball." "Where?" "He plays for the Cubs." Thank you, I said.
I later Googled the Cubs player, and found his father as well. He was quoted in a Miami Herald article with words that have stuck with me. "Baseball is a game that's played with your father. It's not that complicated. You just have to toss the ball all the time." Yes. Exactly.
It's a game that takes thousands of hours to perfect. It takes coordination of arm, wrist, torso and feet to rifle a ball hard and fast. It takes well-timed muscle memory to swing a bat at a target that moves faster than a car. It's hard to get that kind of practice in school or on a team. There just isn't time.
There's only one way to do it. It takes a dad, a brother, an uncle or another dad-substitute.
My son and I have spent those hours across the street, and farther away on the fields, throwing, hitting, snagging grounders and catching pop flies. We both love it, and it's really not about baseball. We just like hanging around together, on those summer afternoons, passing the time.
When early evening comes and the shadows lengthen and the light falls, it's hard to see the ball. "Let's stop," I say. "This is dangerous." "Ten more throws!" he says. Ok, fine, and then after the ten are done, he shouts, predictably, "Ten more!"
We lay down in the grass. The first fireflies of the season blink under a nearby tree. It still too early for mosquitoes, so we're safe. My son lays crosswise, his head on my stomach. The dog, now off the leash, lays down against us.
We talk. The topics always come from left field. When he was eight, his mind worked to make sense of the world, and the connections he made between what he had seen and heard were unpredictable. I explained things as simply as possible, and learned a few things myself.
Now that he's twelve, his questions often start with "Why do girls...?" My answers are, more often than not, "Nobody knows, son. Nobody knows."
As we lay there, I find it hard to imagine a more perfect world. There is nothing better than laying in the grass with my son. I certainly can't point to a happier moment in my life than this.
I never did have moments like this with my own father. He was present when I was growing up, but not really. We never threw a ball, never had a real conversation. He was a good dad otherwise, reliable, and we never lacked for food, clothes, or schooling. But he had a different conception of fatherhood. He met his obligations as he understood them.
My understanding is different. Baseball creates a bond between generations. It creates sons who know the comfort of having a place in the world, and the fathers who know the comfort of having a purpose. The thousands of one-on-one hours that it takes to get good at the sport creates a bond that does not break.
I later discovered that that man in the park, the father of the Cubs player, had been in prison while his own son was growing up. He was released only shortly before his son played his first major league game. He had taken up baseball coaching after his release, perhaps to capture what he had lost. I do not know how the Cubs player learned the game.
But I do know that the man's words that day gave us much more than a pitching lesson. It gave us a perspective on what it means for a father and son to take the time to toss a ball together.