By Laura Moore
Night after night, day after day, for nearly 2,190 straight days (from seventh grade through twelfth grade), my father dismissed any possible excuses, and--rain or shine, cold or heat, in sickness or in health--he grabbed his mitt, squatted forty feet away, and caught whatever I threw to him. This number, of course, would be higher if I included early childhood or college, but I choose 7th-12th grade because that time was the time I needed him the most.
During those years, I learned how to find the strike zone. I learned how throw a drop-curve and I learned how to deliver my rising screwball--on call--beneath a right-handed batter's chin. He helped me improve my leg drive. He told me when my release was impure. And he helped me figure out how to position my knuckle ball drop-curve an inch off the plate, six inches off the ground. We talked strategy for hours. We scouted the opposition. And we threw thousands of counts against hypothetical hitters. When he realized I was serious about improving, he drove me all over Central Ohio to meet with pitching coaches, all over the midwest to pitching camps and all over the country so I could test myself against the best of the best.
When I got married, our father-daughter song was Take Me Out to the Ballgame and we did our own dance to that song beneath the lights. My father grabbed his mitt, I grabbed mine, and right there on the dance floor, in a tux and a bustled wedding gown, we stood twenty feet apart, tossing the ball back and forth, and back and forth, and back and forth. Dancing the way we had for so many hours, on so many days, for so many years.
This all came to mind last week when I sat my eight and a half month old son five feet away on the floor and reached for an inflatable rubber ball that was virtually half his size.
"Do you want to play catch?" I asked him and he got excited the way he gets with everything: waving his hands, flashing his grin, babbling like a maniac.
"When I roll it to you, you need to catch it," I instructed, showing him what I meant with my hands. Then I sent the bouncy ball on a smooth path between his legs. Of course, I didn't expect him to actually catch it given the fact he couldn't possibly understand the exchange, but much to my surprise, when the ball arrived between his legs, little Z smacked both hands on top and held the ball still, looking up to see if I approved.
"Perfect," I screamed, "Nice catch!"
An enormous smiled spread across my cheeks and the minute Z recognized he did something well, he grew intoxicatingly happy, waving his hands over the ball, belting out "dada," over and over like he does when he gets excited about anything. Once the immediate hysteria simmered down, he began to strike the rubber intentionally, smacking his hands against the surface four or five times, before one of those smacks incidentally sent the ball in a perfect line toward me. When I recognized that he threw it, my eyes and mouth rose; I gasped.
"Oh my goodness," I yelled. "That was so good! You threw it to me!"
I trapped the ball when it arrived, and then I began cheer-clapping, repeating "Good job, buddy!" until he squealed back, waved his hands, and refocused his eyes. As soon as he appeared ready, I returned the ball in a smooth, straight line, and Z trapped it once more. Like the previous exchange, he initiated an enthusiastic, rubber-smacking regiment and the final smack sent the ball rolling in a straight line back toward me, back toward my fingers waving at him from five feet away. As it canvased the floor a second time--as it bridged the space between our legs--I could hardly contain my joy. Even if Z was unintentionally participating, I couldn't deny what was happening.
"You got it, kiddo! We're playing catch!" I told him, grinning and glowing.
"Grandpa and Mommy used to do this all the time," I explained, and though he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, much less what was going on, I recognized the magnitude of our "first." I recognized the transition between playtime involving me watching him swatting and smacking random objects, to us actually engaging in an activity. I recognized that our little baby was on the path toward becoming our little guy, and the joy I felt over that moment--over our first shared exchange--caused tears to summit my lower lid and streak my face like eyeblack.
We went back and forth eleven times before he got distracted, rolled over onto his belly and army crawled toward his squeaking caterpillar. And in those eleven exchanges, my childhood flashed before my eyes. In those eleven exchanges, I thought about family games of whiffle ball in the back yard. I thought about all of the miles my parents put on their cars to watch my brother and me compete on travel teams, to take us to camp, and to watch us play in college. I thought about my brother's football games, basketball games, and track meets. I thought about my mother opening up concession stands and sewing our outfield fence. I thought about both parents on the sidelines, and my brother racing from his track meets to cheer on my final pitches.
But mostly, I thought about all of the time I spent playing catch with my dad. All of the time I spent several feet away from him, learning. Learning how to succeed on the pitcher's mound, but learning even more about how to succeed at life. Learning how to set goals, script dreams, and pursue opportunities. Learning how to overcome fear, insecurity and failure. Learning how to persevere through injuries and manage my time. Learning the value of sacrifice, hard work, and resilience. And learning, above all, to say yes to the people you love. To prioritize them, to support them, to be there for them, to ensure they know--without a doubt--that no matter how defeated, how lonely or how heartbroken they feel, they will always have a catcher behind home plate, they will always have someone there waiting to receive them, to support them, to help direct them back into the zone.
As I watched my son bend and squeak the caterpillar, I thought about his first game of catch. And then I imagined his second and third and fourth, and I hoped, that even if he doesn't grow up to like baseball, he would still find his own form of exchange, his own way of reaching out, his own way of finding a sliver of life where he could comfortably learn and grow and imagine. Where he could feel strong enough to deal with pain and insecurity and fear. Where he could connect with us, his parents, and be certain of how much we love him. But mostly, I hoped that when the time came for me to pick up my mitt--be it figuratively or literally--I would have enough intuition to shout yes, to be standing there, a few feet away, ready to receive the ball.