There is something to be said for a fly ball hit by the father, chased by the son, in some quiet corner of a park, when the sky's afterglow warms the spring leaves to a muted orange, and the grass is redolent with the smells of twilight.
I remember my father hitting those fly balls to me, in such a time, such a place. From the perspective of years, long after he has gone, I am tempted to read into those moments thoughts and ideas that were not there then. I am tempted to see the small boy running, running, in pursuit of some vague image of the father.
In my mind it becomes a flight of emulation, a mad dash in search of . . . confidence, self-esteem . . . maturity? And after those quick steps: success--a heart-swelling catch, or failure--a frustrating chase after a perpetually skipping ball. However it ended, he was the father, I was the son, and those roles were made a little clearer in our minds.
But I didn't think those thoughts then. And I'm sure my father didn't either. We were both too immersed in the moment, in our ritual, one that began around 7 o'clock on a late spring or early summer night, when my father had ensconced himself in his easy chair after dinner, tired from a long day's work, eager to pore through the newspaper.
"Hey, Pop, how about going over to the park and hitting some fly balls?" I knew he wouldn't say "yes," at least not right away. His eyes never moved from the paper. I heard him grunt a few words I couldn't make out. They were not encouraging. "What do you say?" I asked impatiently.
I was afraid he would get started on some long news story--my father was a slow reader.
He flipped a page, sighed and settled more comfortably in his chair. Just about then my mother's voice called in from the kitchen: "Why don't you go out and play baseball with the boy?"
"Yeah, how 'bout it?" I knew he couldn't resist the two of us, not for long. And usually he gave in.
We didn't have much time; as the sun settled into the horizon, the less-than-white ball would become harder to see. But for those few moments, we had our quiet, private drama. I was the eager-to-please boy, in the sunshine of my life; Pop was the patient, attentive father, in the twilight of his, and I would have only a few minutes to show him the skills that I was learning and would learn. I'd move in close, daring him to hit one over my head, or I'd go way over to left field, inviting him to hit the ball to center, all the while confident that somehow I'd manage to catch up with it. And when I did, feeling much like Willie Mays, I'd rifle the long throw back to him. "See, Pop," I'd say to myself, "you figured I wouldn't catch it," and then I'd wait for his words of praise.
No, we didn't take the time to ponder the deeper meaning of our little ritual. We might have felt something afterward, on the walk up the hill back to our house, when it had got too dark or Pop had got too tired. But we never said much then; perhaps our shared experience had said enough.
It was only much later, when I would hit fly balls to my own sons, that I began to understand those earlier days. I found myself challenging the boys in the same way I had asked my father to challenge me, hitting balls away from them, over their heads. And I took pleasure in watching their small forms racing after a deep fly ball, as though nothing else could be so important as those few seconds of intensive pursuit. And when it turned out well, the slightly uncoordinated body making the game-saving catch, I saw the sweat-glazed face looking back at me, waiting for the shout of approval, the ring of confirmation that would say: "Yes, you are my son, and I'm proud."
Of course, I gave it, generously, enthusiastically. It was easy to give: I felt so much like my father, and my sons looked so much like me.
They are grown now and have moved to things far removed from the warm, uncluttered days of chasing fly balls in neighborhood parks. But I still have a few bats on hand, and baseballs, too--a good supply of them, all of them much cleaner and whiter than those my father and I had used. Whenever my boys need them, they'll be there; I suspect that somewhere down the road they, too, will understand that there is something to be said for a father who hits fly balls to his son.