Dad, son bond over baseball milestone
When I let it go, it seemed just like any other pitch I had ever thrown … but it wasn't. And I couldn't possibly have imagined how significant it would be more than 30 years later.
One of my fondest childhood memories was the sacred pregame ritual I shared with my father, David. Before every Little League game I pitched, Dad would warm me up before we headed over to the field. Without ever saying it, we both knew it was as much for good luck as it was for practice.
As an 11-year-old with a bit of zip on my pitches, it never seemed to matter how hard I threw … or how loud I'd make the leather on Dad's old, beat-up infielder's glove pop. He'd just catch each pitch and toss it right back to me … one after the other … sometimes with some constructive feedback, sometimes not … but never giving any sign that my fastball was successful in causing even the slightest sting in his hand. But, on this particular spring day in 1979, something happened … something that would forever change our pregame warm-up ritual … and become an even bigger part of my life as a man than it was as a boy.
"Baseball is my life."
That's what my son Daniel declared one morning to my wife, Carolyn, and I, as we sat in the kitchen having breakfast. He said it with tremendous conviction and sincerity, as if born from years and years of soul-searching … digging deep inside for the most profound self-truth he could find. Daniel is 7.
During the spring/summer baseball season, because of his age, Daniel's Little League team utilizes what's called "coach or machine pitch." This means the kids don't face other kids pitching, but instead their own coaches or a pitching machine placed on the mound. The hope is that they can refine their skills so when they move on to the next level, they will have the tools necessary to succeed against "actual" Little League pitching.
However, in fall ball, when older kids are playing, the rule is "kid pitch." Knowing that Daniel would be one of the youngest kids on his team of mostly 8- and a few 9-year-olds, my wife and I were unsure as to whether Daniel was ready for fall ball. This past August, we sat him down to explain everything to him and find out if he might be interested in playing. It turned out there was no need to have this discussion … after all, as he reminded us … "baseball is my life."
Dad asked it that way every time when he thought I had thrown enough warm-up pitches. But it was as much to make sure I wasn't too nervous as it was to check on my arm.
"Yeah, I'm loose."
"OK, last one."
The next pitch I threw didn't seem any different than all the rest. I don't remember reaching back for a little something extra … I wasn't trying to do anything special … and when the ball hit his mitt it sounded the same way it always did.
But this pitch didn't end with the usual toss right back to me. It ended with Dad leaping out of his crouch position, yanking off his glove, and violently shaking his exposed hand up and down. Clearly, he was in some discomfort -- perhaps even a bit of pain -- and it couldn't have been from anything but the pitch I had just thrown. I wanted to ask him if he was OK.
And I would have, had I been able to stop giggling. Not quite that demonic "Damien-giggle" you know, the one from "The Omen" every time that little devil kid killed someone but a giggle that revealed how tickled with pride I was that my fastball finally achieved a new status.
Dad certainly noticed my pleasure, but he didn't seem to mind because he was even more proud than I was.
For Daniel's fall-ball team, like many other leagues with such young kids, it's a struggle to find enough boys who can throw strikes on even a semi-regular basis. These children are still developing basic coordination, so while a few are able to employ enough of the mechanics necessary to at least avoid hitting every other batter, many more reach their 50-pitch limit before recording a single out. The challenge is to find a way to avoid a never-ending parade of walks so the kids actually learn how to play baseball, enjoy it, and keep the game from reaching the two-hour mark before the top of the third inning. Not an easy task.
"Where are we going, Dad?" I asked as we walked to the car one evening after dinner.
"To the store to get something," he said as we got into his green 1969 Plymouth Fury that I can still feel and smell to this day by simply closing my eyes.
"Are we getting something for me?" I asked hopefully.
"No, we're getting something for me," he said.
After a couple of games, it was clear that Daniel's team was in desperate need of some pitching help. Because upgrading through trade or free agency was not possible, the coaches, myself included, held an impromptu meeting during practice one day to explore our very limited options. To this point, the older kids on the team were doing the pitching … the ones who had already been exposed to "kid pitch."
"Ya think Daniel can pitch?" one of the coaches asked out of the blue.
Daniel was the second-youngest player on the team, so I hadn't even thought about it. I figured maybe next year, but certainly not this one. The question just hung in the air.
"He's really young, but he has a very good arm, so maybe we should see what he can do," another coach said.
"What do ya think, Ira?" another chimed in.
I looked over to where my son was standing on the field, blissfully unaware of the conundrum his father now faced. I tried to imagine what it would be like for him at such a tender age to be out there, all alone, on the mound pitching for the very first time. Hard as I tried, I just couldn't get my head wrapped around it. What if he got out there and was just too scared? What if such an awful experience ruined his pure, innocent love of the game because it was too much too soon? But … what if this was really all about me … an overprotective dad being too worried about his little boy?
As the coaches patiently waited for me to respond, four words crept into my head.
"Baseball is my life."
Joe Torre, one of Brooklyn's most famous sons, had a family-owned sporting goods store in the Bay Ridge section of the borough. It was the place most everyone in my Brighton Beach neighborhood went to buy new equipment. They had absolutely everything … which is what a kid my age wanted as soon as you stepped foot inside.
"Are we getting me a new bat, Dad"?" I asked.
"But I need one."
"Not as much as I need what we came here to get."
"So what are we going to get?" I asked.
While sitting at a red light driving home from practice, I told Daniel he was going to be pitching on Sunday.
"You mean to you in the backyard?" he asked innocently.
"Uh, no, against the team from Waterbury in a real game … but if you don't want…"
"Yes!" he shouted, with pure exuberance … without even an ounce of hesitation or doubt.
"Are you sure you want to?" I asked. "Because if you think you're too …"
"Dad, how do you throw a changeup?" he asked, ignoring what I was saying while holding up a baseball. "You grip it like this, right?"
As I looked at him in the rearview mirror, I realized I had my answer. I know, I know … "baseball is my life," I thought.
The next day, I was rummaging through some junk I had recently taken home from the apartment I grew up in. I dug my hand deep into a very large, old, mildew-smelling bag, filled with everything from old paddleball rackets to broken Duncan yo-yos to empty tennis ball cans. As I worked my way down, I felt something buried towards the very bottom. I could barely get enough grip on it to pull it out, but something told me to keep trying. So I did. Finally, I had it in my grasp. I pulled and pulled and pulled until, finally, it emerged … and instantly 30 years compressed into a split second. In my hand was the item my dad bought at Joe Torre's sporting goods store in Brooklyn on that day in 1979: The thing he needed so we could continue our sacred ritual … a Rawlings-brand Johnny Bench catcher's mitt. It looked exactly the way I remembered it, as if frozen in time.
Perhaps it's a silly custom, but my childhood friends and I mark time by the anniversaries of our bar mitzvahs. It's just a little something we do to put it all in perspective as we've grown up, gotten married and had kids … how amazingly fast it all goes. A bar mitzvah is a rite of passage for a Jewish boy. Mine took place on Sept. 13, 1980. If you're a child who loves baseball, pitching in your very first Little League game is also a rite of passage. After checking the calendar, I made a discovery confirming that while sometimes life is full of bitter ironies … a few sweet ones are mixed in, as well.
Daniel's pitching debut was about to take place on Sept. 13, 2009 … exactly 29 years to the day I was bar mitzvahed. And the catcher's mitt I was going to use to warm him up … was the exact same one Dad used to catch me.
The second inning came to an end … and our starting pitcher Tim's pitch count was just about at the limit of 50. Mark, our team's manager walked over to me.
"They've got a pretty tough team, huh," he said.
"Yeah, got a few kids who can really hit."
"Daniel's going in to start the third …"
As he walked away, his words hung there … sending my heart into NASCAR racing mode. But it felt very familiar because it was exactly the same sensation I remember having when I pitched in Little League. I took a deep breath, tried to collect myself, and walked over to my son.
"Hey, bud, you're pitching next inning … you ready?"
He smiled and shook his head. The question he should have asked was … "Daddy, are you?"
"Hustle out there guys," one of the coaches shouted after we hit into our last out.
As our kids took the field, I looked around the dugout to find Daniel. I wanted to give him some words of encouragement, wish him luck, give him a hug … maybe even offer one last chance to change his mind. But I couldn't find him anywhere until I turned around and faced the field. There he was … already on the pitcher's mound, holding the ball, waiting for his catcher to get the equipment on to warm him up. He suddenly looked so much older to me … so much more like a big boy, than my firstborn little son. I stood there staring … at him … but also at myself … West Brighton Little League … 1979.
"Hey, go warm up your son," I heard one of the coaches say. It took a few seconds, but then I realized he was talking to me.
In a fog, I walked onto the field, crouched down behind home plate, and gave my son a target. The same way my dad did so long ago, yet no further away than yesterday. He went into his wind-up and threw his first warm-up pitch. It bounced about 5 feet in front of me.
"What have I done?" I thought to myself as I threw the ball back to him.
As he went into his wind-up for the next warm-up pitch, my mind kept racing.
"What kind of father puts his young child in this …"
Pop!!! The next pitch was right down the middle, a perfect strike, telling my racing mind under no uncertain terms to shut up. I began to quietly giggle … because even though it was ever so slight … I could feel my hand stinging.
I wish I could remember if the first pitch he threw in the game was a strike … but I was in such a daze, proudly staring at him on the mound, that I really have no idea. And truth is, I can't say I know what the leadoff batter did. But I do know this … it doesn't much matter. Standing on the other side of the fence behind home plate, one wonderful memory after another raced at me with every pitch he threw. But the best part -- the one thing I will never forget about this day -- was the enormous smile on his face with every pitch he threw. A more honest, innocent love of the game -- and of a special moment -- you could never find.
They tell me he struck out three guys, walked a couple, and gave up a hit here and there. As far as I was concerned … it was a perfect game.
When Daniel walked off the mound at the end of his last inning, I was a whole lot more exhausted than he was. We shared a big hug and I told him how proud I was. Then he walked into the dugout for some high-fives, and I walked to a quiet place away from the field. Because I needed to cry. The one person I wanted to see Daniel pitch more than anyone in the world was my dad, but he wasn't able to be there on this day to watch his grandson. In fact, he never had the chance to even meet him. Dad passed away many years ago, and not being able to share this particular moment cut very deep. He deserved to be there … and he wasn't allowed to be. My wife spotted me standing there alone and came over with our 2-year-old daughter, Lauren. When she saw my face, it didn't take her long to know where the tears were coming from.
"He's here … he's here … you know he's here," she said.
I hugged her and my daughter and whispered to myself … "I'm loose. I'm loose."
And every time I catch my son … I feel Dad's hand in that Johnny Bench mitt right alongside mine. He's right here with us, I remind myself … where else would he be?
Ira Fritz is a producer at ESPN. He also expressed his love for Little League baseball in an article he recently wrote for ESPN.com about rescuing a piece of his childhood in Brooklyn. He can be reached at email@example.com.