Catching up on the game of catch
October 30, 2005
Playing catch with your son is a fundamentally American pastime, a true Norman Rockwell moment that confers an ethereal bond between father and son. What follows on the arc of the ball is as familiar and indefinable as the smell of an old Rawlings baseball mitt. My son, Tait, and I play catch with a 12-inch softball in a Basalt park where tall cottonwoods shade the sun’s glare and the river flows nearby with a soft murmur. We start throwing from just 20 feet away so the old man – that’s me – can limber up his arm.The ball flies back and forth with a rhythm that becomes hypnotic, and soon we catch and throw on autopilot. The whap! whap! whap! of the ball in the glove becomes a metronome by which a father can mark time with his son, a time that stretches into years.Gradually, a step at a time, we move back away from one another and the throws become harder. The farther the distance, the more dynamic the ball becomes until it is burning into our gloves with a velocity that leaves our hands tingling.I glance surreptitiously at Tait and watch his expression narrow into a focused effort. He wants to make my hand hurt. When his throw slaps hard on my palm, causing me to wince, he tries to hide a satisfied smirk. I’m still a kid, too, so I up the ante and fire one in. He makes the catch with a look of surprise, then eyes me warily.Pretty soon we’re locked into a serious game of burn-out where the throws get a little wild, and we’re reaching and lunging for stupendous catches. Then one of us throws a wild ball that goes soaring into the woods and briars.We drop our gloves and feel the cool air on our sweaty hands. There is a smell of leather and sweat, a manly smell that women rarely understand and never desire. We scour the bushes and discover beer bottles, an old shoe, maybe a condom wrapper. The ball is usually jammed in the middle of a sticker bush.We start out again standing close together, throwing nice and easy. We talk. This is where wives and moms become interested … wanting to know the things a father talks about with his son. All I can say is that we talk about stuff; nothing of real importance or deep meaning … just stuff.As the ball passes between us, it opens the air for words to pass with it. The flight of the ball becomes a catalyst to the conversation. Then, as we eventually move apart and the throwing gets harder, the words drop off into unspoken thoughts that fly with the ball.At the most intense part of the throwing, when we’re 50 or 60 feet apart and the ball is zipping across a low trajectory, communication devolves to a basic, instinctive, competitive physical expression of strength and power.When the ball slaps our gloves hard and makes our hands tingle, we have reached the true level of a father-son relationship where the challenge of physical prowess is manifest in the catch and throw, catch and throw. The game becomes a duel between two males of different generations but of the same root stock.When I was kid growing up in suburban Chicago, rooting dutifully for the Cubs and White Sox, I mostly played catch with a brick wall. My father disdained sports, except for occasional tennis, and I never saw him don a baseball glove or throw a ball.My buddies weren’t always available, and I was desperate to catch and throw, so the brick wall by my garage made a perfect backboard. I zeroed in on a single brick in that wall that became my strike zone. I can still picture that brick and I can still hear the solid, satisfying sound when the rubber hardball smacked it.The brick wall was a one-way game that eventually lost my interest. It was like riding a stationary bike … a virtual journey to nowhere. The brick surface returned the ball, but could not return thoughts, ideas, words … the stuff that a boy needs to communicate, whether in words or physical attitude.When my son and I go off to play catch, we pair up. It’s just him and me, father and son. I still have a fairly decent arm, and except for an occasional ache in my shoulder, derive much the same pleasure throwing as I did when I was a kid.Playing catch with your son is about bridging the space, the distance, between you. It’s not just the softball that does it, and it’s not just the words. Call it “stuff” and leave it at that.Paul Andersen likes to see the ball curve. His column appears on Mondays.
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