Ten years ago, I sat down one afternoon to relax with Donald Hall’s classic book on sport, Fathers Playing Catch with Sons, one of my all-time favorites.
While reading one of its essays, I was interrupted by the clicking of a computer keyboard from across the room. My son Jason, then in his first year of college, was preparing a website development assignment.
I asked him how the class was going, and then our chat tuned to the diamond. Engaging in the familiar back-and-forth of home runs, stolen bases, and the like, my thoughts sauntered back to Hall’s book, and a past baseball moment Jason and I had once shared.
In the early 90s, while living outside of Boston, our lives were so different.
At seven years old and the child of divorcing parents, Jason had been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. While intelligent and high-functioning, he faced a lifetime of uncertain challenges, as did his family and friends.
Add to the mix that Jason spent part of the year in New England with me, and part in the Midwest with his mother, and it was easy to see how confusing life must have seemed to his strained imagination.
Back then, one of his sanctuaries was a local Little League team. So in the spring of 1993, I timed a long-weekend visit to Davenport, Ia. to watch him play.
But on the day in question, an early thunderstorm rumbled through the area and forced the game’s cancellation. Jason, decked in full uniform and ready to show Dad his stuff on the diamond, was visibly upset.
Still, the rain eventually passed, and sunlight strained through the clouds. Grounds crews sheltered in the dugouts just moments before scurried back to rake fresh, dry soil on the municipal field.
Huddled together in my rental car, I wiped away Jason’s tears and suggested that we get out so he could demonstrate the hitting acumen he had boasted about the night before.
The morning was damp, and the smell of late spring saturated the ball field. Since the pitching mound was unavailable, we headed to the outfield grass.
I warmed up my pathetic arm, slowly playing catch with my first grader son. His throws back to me possessed the zip of youth, a lyrical naiveté absent from my own efforts.
When ready, Jason picked up his bat and stood tall – taller than I felt his staccato existence should have allowed him. He responded to my first underhand effort with a glare, as if to say: “C’mon Dad, can’t you do better than that?”
Jason swung through my second pitch, still underhand but with a flatter trajectory. Sensing his mounting frustration, I realized something about the impending divorce that finally hit home: My emotional world had ceased to turn without his daily pushes.
Digging his feet in, Jason waited for my third pitch. Serious now, and with memories of my own boyhood returning, I wound up for real, unleashing the facsimile of an overhand fastball which my son had seen so often on TV.
Here you go, Jason, I thought; the old lion’s still got some zip in his arm.
Yet it’s fathers who dream of the major leagues; their sons just want to play ball. Unimpressed, Jason cocked the bat. With Botticellian eyes fixed on my incoming lunar offering, he took a Ruthian cut.
Back in the future, Jason looked up from his semester project and asked me to come over and have a look. He pulled up the website design and it’s theme – no surprise – was baseball.
Jason handled the keyboard like a piano virtuoso. I rested my hand on his shoulder, losing myself in the color schemes and the clean, crisp lines of the home page’s layout.
But nothing in my life was as clean and crisp as the crack! of a drive launching off Jason’s bat so long ago. He flipped away the lumber and began his home run trot, fist raised and pumping in celebration, prancing around four imaginary bases.
My fatherly duty was to teach him to be humble–run the bases, keep his head down, and don’t show up the pitcher you just took deep– but there were plenty of years ahead for that.
Instead, I whipped around to watch the ball. It sailed through the spring air, over the outfield fence, and into the adjoining neighborhood trees.
Jason’s giddy, boyish laughter filled the silent void, and approving passers-by paused to watch us, one sunny May morning, after the rainout.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
Subscribe for free by e-mail to From The Stacks at the bottom left of this page, or follow Telly on Twitter: @TellyHalkias