My dad is 88. On the phone last weekend, he said he’d had a chance meeting with a woman who lived across the street from where we lived on the Southern California coast in the 1950s and 60s. “You know that house down on the cliff,” Dad explained, “across that strip of grass where we used to play catch.” That was how he defined the place – where we used to play catch.
I was thinking of that exact place and time as I sat in the stands last Thursday for a game between the Montrose High School Indians and the Fruita Wildcats. I arrived in time for the end of infield practice. The coach hit fungos to the infielders, who one by one gobbled balls up on the run, then rifled their throws to the first base, where in turn the ball was zipped back to the catcher, who flipped it again to the coach. A kind of cat’s cradle of throws.
I thought of Dad with his old college glove – black with use and no stitching connecting the leather fingertips! – and me with my new, stiff Rawlings Warren Spahn model, into which I rubbed sweet-smelling neatsfoot oil for weeks until it softened up. Dad lobbing popups into the sun, then skipping grounders at me chanting, “Get two! Get two!”
The high school players last week were superbly skilled. They stopped balls in the dirt, made diving catches and off-balance throws “like a frozen rope,” as my dad likes to say.
This is why baseball has always been the “national pastime.” Not because it is somehow superior to football or basketball, or somehow more germane to the American character. It is because only Americans do this hand-eye thing with a mitt and a hard ball. (Yes, I know, now it’s Americans and Caribbeans and Japanese and Koreans.)
The rest of the planet has soccer. The world is soccer mad. Soccer has taken over as the team sport of the young in this country, too. But have you noticed how most Europeans throw? They may be able to launch a two-handed catapult to get the soccer ball back in play, but when it comes to flinging a sphere overhand, one-handed, they throw like, well, they throw like a girl.
Not my girls. The cliché is not necessarily true. My girls learned to throw and catch in the backyard. They throw like, well, like me. And like my dad.
The game at Indian Stadium had everything: hot dogs, an umpire sweeping off home plate, pickoff throws at first, fine outfield putouts of high fly balls, despite the sun and a swirling wind. Pitchers tapped the rubber nervously, batters dug their spikes in, staring, balancing, touching both sides of the plate with the tip of the bat.
The Montrose pitcher worked fast and threw a lot of junk. He struck out the first batter he faced with a 3-and-2 curveball that absolutely froze the poor guy. The Fruita pitcher was more deliberate, with downcast eyes and a slow windup that nevertheless resulted in a buzzing, mitt-smacking fastball.
The game stayed a scoreless tie into the top of fourth when Fruita batters patiently worked the count for two walks. The next batter up, a lanky first baseman, drove a belt-high fastball well out beyond the 375’ sign in center field. Three to nothing, just like that.
I left in the top of the sixth, when Fruita’s catcher stroked a solo homer, also to straightway center, and it was four-zip. It was getting late and I had a 12-mile bike ride home.
I wish I’d stayed. Montrose scored five runs in their half of the sixth and seventh innings to pull out what was no doubt a thrilling comeback. I can picture the top-step excitement in both dugouts, repressed by baseball’s tradition of reserve; the crucial, inning-extending hits by Indian batters; the agony for Fruita as one by one the Montrose runners advanced and scored, the throws and catches on the part of the defense coming split seconds too late.
My dad interrupted our Sunday phone chat with news of Albert Pujols. (He had been watching TV the whole time tuned to the L.A. Angels’ game.) I forget what we were talking about before, but now suddenly we were talking about the Angels’ star $200 million acquisition. He’d been in a terrible slump, “hitting under .200,” Dad said. “And he hadn’t hit a home run all season, until just this second, he hit his first one just now.”