Your granddaughter and I play T-ball these days at a local rec center, a patch of trampled grass and dirt just north of where the 134 cuts from Pasadena to L.A.'s west side. Tess wears number 12 and meticulously pulls the front of her red jersey down over the top of her pants so you can read ANGELS across the front. She has rituals. She runs out to play second base and draws a broad circle in the dirt with her right toe and then steps into the circle, crouches down, reaches her glove toward the ground and looks up at the hitter. In the batter's box, she licks her upper lip, taps the plate twice, takes two deliberate practice swings, then pulls the bat up and back until her chin and nose are tucked behind her left shoulder, like she's got a secret, like she's The Shadow peering from behind his cape.
I help coach the team, and she and I practice hitting in the backyard at home sometimes. At the start, I'll wrap my arms around her from behind, and put my hands on hers so we can swing the bat together. We're close enough to hear each other breathe, and I'll whisper to her: "Watch the ball all the way. Swing through." When I was her age, you and Mom had already split up; you'd moved out, and the divorce was pending. I remember taking practice swings in front of a mirror in my bedroom, trying to hold the bat still at the finish, trying to imagine what I should look like. So much can go wrong at the beginning. Your arms aren't quite strong enough to bring the bat level through the zone. Your feet get anxious. You lose your balance. So I like to wrap my arms around Tess those first few swings and move through them with her. I like to whisper in her ear.
She's become a pretty good hitter. Lets it fly on contact, even rolls her wrists a little bit. The other day before a game, she told me she knows now how it feels when you hit it right. When I asked her to explain, she put a ball on the tee, drilled it out past second base, then turned to me and said, "That's the way it should feel, right, Daddy?" I was looking for words, something we could talk through and reinforce, but she was flexing other muscles. I wanted to understand what she had learned and how she had learned it. Which bit of my advice had been sage? Which suggestion had been heard? But she just wanted to hit.
Later that same day, when she was experimenting with a new pigeon-toed stance in the third inning of our game against the Blue Jays, I reached down to square her foot to home plate and she stepped back. She brought the barrel of the bat to the ground, put both hands on the knob, like Chaplin's Tramp with his cane, looked up at me with a sweet patronizing smile I thought I would be spared until the teenage years and said, "Daddy, you just don't understand how I want to live my life." Cracked me up. But caught me short, too. She's only 6. It's easy to see the green in her. Maybe sometimes I'm missing what she already knows. I think it's easy to see myself -- when I was still green -- in her, too. Maybe sometimes I'm telling her what to do because I wished you could have told me more. Maybe I'm coming to T-ball looking for some sort of salvation. Maybe I should remember to let pigeon-toes pigeon.
On Monday night, our center fielder lost his hat chasing a ball through the outfield grass. He picked up the ball, and I shouted, "Throw home! Throw home!" but he ran with it. Not toward home plate but in a wicked serpentine motion, chasing after the hat. He finally picked it up as the runner was rounding third, and I shouted again, "Throw home! Throw home!" He stopped, dropped his glove and the ball, put on the hat, pulled it snug, and then picked up the ball and ran it the rest of the way to home plate where he did not, alas, find the runner. When the next batter came up, Tess held her glove to her face as if it were a hockey mask. From my position behind her on the right-field grass, I shouted, "Take your glove down, T!" "I can't," she replied. "Why not?" I asked. "My lips itch," she explained. Of course they do. "Can you play through it?" I asked. "I think so," she said. "With my glove up." Check and mate.
You teach the kids where first base is. You teach them to hit and to throw and, when the gods smile upon you, to catch. You want to pass on tools, to gird them for what's to come. But you don't coach T-ball so much as you experience it, surrender to it. It has a way of forcing its kids-do-the-darndest-things Zen on you, of knocking you off your moorings, one unpredictably behatted head and itching lip at a time.
The first time I can remember playing catch with you, you had come to visit at an apartment where I lived with Mom. It was that low-slung, pale cinder-block building with a strip of yellowed grass out front. I fixed you a plate of powdered-sugar mini donuts and a coffee mug full of milk. Remember that? Then we went outside and tossed the ball around. I don't think I caught anything. When you had to go, I stood on the curb watching you drive off, wishing we could play again the next day. Thirty-five years later, I felt the tug of that afternoon while playing catch for the first time with Tess on the T-ball field. Her wayward throws and squinting efforts to catch seemed to echo mine. But that was the game locked up in memory, that was me holding on to a little boy's sadness, rubbing some old jagged keepsake in my pocket.
Tess prefers to play catch with a sock ball thrown back and forth across the living room. She can snag it out of the air, and she likes to throw it high over my head and see how far I can reach. We're just goofing, trying not to knock over a vase, but we're connecting, too. And letting go. "You know, Daddy," she said the other day, "this is our best game."
Outs in T-ball are little miracles. The ball comes fast when you're small. You have to learn to read its path and meet it not where it is but where it'll be. You have to trust you can handle the hurt if you take one on the chin. We've been working on staying low to the ground and moving her feet. I'm teaching the shuttle step -- feet apart, then together, then apart -- but Tess favors a scissors kick, crossing one leg over the other. She falls about half the time, ends up reaching for the ball from her knees as if she's crawling through the desert looking for water. I think she secretly likes getting dirt on her uniform, likes standing up and brushing herself off.
But you should have seen her in our last game, Saturday morning against the A's. She put it all together just the way we'd been talking about. In the second inning, she was playing second base with a runner on first and two outs. The kid up to bat was a monster -- belly like Fat Albert, swing like Pops Stargell -- and he hit a screamer to her right. It was going through to the outfield. It was going to roll for days. Only it didn't. She floated to the ball and got her glove down. Timed it perfectly. Scooped it on one hop, brought the glove to her chest and kept running to step on second base and end the inning. Her teammates ran to the dugout celebrating, but she stayed out there, standing on the bag, clutching the glove and ball. I watched her from near the backstop. Beaming. Feeling the sun. Breathing in the sweet dusty tang of her triumph.
God, I wanted to hold on to that moment. She was a ballplayer in that moment. I was a coach. We had it nailed. But there was more game to play. The next time the monster came to bat, Tess was in the middle of the diamond, in the pitcher's spot, and she took a ball hard off her right forearm. She came off the field crying at the end of the inning.
I told her it was great the way she put her body in front of the ball. She told me she never would have stood there if she thought there was any chance she'd get hit and looked at me like I should have warned her.
I knelt down and hugged her. Wiped her tears.
I told her she was brave -- because I believed it and because I wanted her to believe it, too. But it was everything I could do not to pick her up and take her home, not to tell her we could play again the next day.
She shook it off. She loves to hit, even with tear-stained cheeks and a purple welt on her arm. I waited for her in the box, put my arms around her and my hands on her hands, ready for our practice swing. She wriggled her shoulders and hips a bit and inched her feet closer to the tee, just out of my grasp.
"I got it, Daddy," she said. "I like the part when you hold my hands." She paused, turned her head over her right shoulder and added, "But only until I don't need you."
"OK, Tess," I whispered, and backed up. Watched her swing through.
Made me wonder, who's coaching whom?
See you soon ... Love, E
Eric Neel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.
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For more great Father's Day reading (including Wright Thompson's E-ticket classic "Holy Ground"), check out Fathers & Sons & Sports, a collection of masterful writing by Buzz Bissinger, John Ed Bradley, Bill Geist, Donald Hall, Mark Kriegel, Norman Maclean, and others.