Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Catching Up

My son rears back to fire the ball to his mother while playing catch last week. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I don’t do a lot of things that a lot of people like to do to feel good.

I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I don’t have any tattoos. I don’t ride a motorcycle. I don’t hunt, own a gun or drive a pickup truck. I don’t drink coffee. I don’t have an iPhone or an iPod. I don’t even text.

But there is one thing that I really, truly love to do; play catch with my son.

I loved playing catch with my son even before I had a son. I had visions of tossing the ball around with my kid when I was just a kid. It may even be the reason I had kids in the first place.

All those years of cleaning up his puke and poop, getting him in and out of annoying car seats, and watching really bad shows on Nickelodeon, seem worth it now, now that my son can deliver a fastball on target.

We’re a great partnership, he and I, he loves it just as much as I do. My dad wasn’t so crazy about playing catch with me when I was a kid. Not that I cared. I’d still pester him to no end when he’d get home from work.

“C'mon Dad, let’s play catch ... Dad, c’mon … c’mon Dad!”

To his credit, despite being dog-tired after another hot, endless day in what he called “The hole” (but what most folks referred to as the Ford plant) he’d usually take the extra glove from my outstretched hand and begrudgingly walk to one end of our seemingly endless backyard and start tossing the ball to me.

My dad was pretty good too. At least it seemed like it. He’d sting my hand on more than one occasion with the heat he was bringing. Maybe he was getting out his frustrations from work, or maybe he was just pissed that I was keeping him from a date with the couch, or a beer, or dinner. Whatever it was, it was the first time I ever heard a baseball sizzle as it traveled through the air. It was kind of scary, but I liked it.

I’m not even sure how old I was when I started, or how I even learned to play catch; foggier still is when my dad decided our days of playing catch were over, but I always knew when our after-work catch sessions were finished. They always ended when my dad would “accidentally” chuck the ball a good 20-feet over my head (usually about five minutes after we started). Like the na├»ve kid that I was, I’d happily dash back to retrieve the ball so we could continue our game. The only problem was, after I’d get to the ball and turn around to throw it back, my dad would be nowhere in sight.

It was a good trick, but over the years I’d counteract my old man's intentional overthrows by slowly creeping back with each successive toss in anticipation of the final heave, thereby making it more difficult for him to actually get one over my head. He, of course, was no dummy. Once he’d caught on to my "creep-back" method, he’d just throw it several feet off line and achieve the same result. 

And then one day, we just stopped playing catch altogether.

I think about those days all the time when my son throws a ball to me. I think about how sad I’d be if I couldn’t play catch with my son anymore. I think about how much I love the feel of a well broken-in ball glove on my hand, the sting on my index finger and the unmistakable smack the ball makes when I catch one perfectly in the pocket.

I think about the feel of the ball in my hand. How the seams come up and greet my fingers with the grace of a dance partner. How it snaps off my fingertips upon release and slices through space toward its target with just the slightest curve.

I love the many different ways there is to throw a ball – overhand, sidearm, three-quarters – even underhand, and no matter what the style, I love the fact I can throw a ball pretty much where I want without even thinking about it.

I love the evolution of playing catch - how it all started with a soft, squishy ball being tossed to my son when he was a toddler, and then a year later, buying his first glove and watching him trying to catch everything basket style. I loved seeing his face light up when the ball actually would stay in his glove if I aimed it just right. I loved seeing his leap in confidence as he began catching the ball the right way, even if I did make it easier on him by throwing it where he liked it nearly every time.

With each successive year, as his arm has gotten stronger and his ability to catch the ball seems almost major league in quality, I realize that now, even though he's only 10, his skills are about to surpass my own. He’s getting to the point where I may be holding him back by not being good enough anymore. The problem is we’re both getting older; only he’s getting the good kind of older - bigger and stronger, and I’m getting the bad kind of older - slower and weaker.

The other day he threw one so fast that I didn’t even see until it almost hit my face. His ball sizzles now when he throws it, just like my dad’s did, but I’m not going to stop playing catch unless he kills me with a heater to the skull. To make sure that’s not going to happen anytime soon, my wife suggested I start wearing a helmet when I play catch with him. But why stop there. I want to do what my dad didn’t, or couldn’t. I want to be there every time my son asks to throw the pill around, even if it means I have to go out and buy a chest protector, shin guards, mask, and a cup.

My son’s dream is to play Major League baseball. He’s good. He’s real good, and I’d say that even if he weren’t my kid. He might make it to the big leagues someday; he might not. To me it doesn’t really matter, as long as one day, when he’s all grown up and he comes back to visit his old man, he brings along a ball and a glove, and says,

“Hey Dad, wanna play catch?”