Earlier this month, my 10-year-old daughter expressed frustration at the abrupt end to her softball season. Her final scheduled game was rained out ... having already been postponed by Mother Nature a few weeks earlier. “You know,” I told her, “softball season can be whenever we choose, as long as we have a ball, a bat, and our gloves.”
“But it can’t be softball season,” she replied, “without playing catch with your dad.”
This was probably the closest I’ll come to that final scene in Field of Dreams, the one celluloid moment when grown men are authorized to choke up. Heartfelt sentiment aside, though, the scene says a lot about the way sports connect dads (and moms) with their children. With Father’s Day this Sunday, what better time to let a ball — or a bike, racket, or jogging trail — help us parents play the most important game of life?
The best way for a dad to connect with his child (and this includes grown “children”) is to talk with them. Gifts, gestures, notes, sign language ... they all work to some degree, but not like the simple act of sitting down for a chat. Without an agenda. Without direction, even. Just a chat.
But when the words are hard to come by, or when moods may be divergent, you’d be amazed what two mitts and a baseball can do. Playing catch forces two people to share focus (unless you want a black eye), to take turns, to pause, and to, yes, look at one another. Whether it’s from a distance of 20 feet or 100 feet, the tossing of a ball between two people is an intimate act, and in such a way only a parent (and later, a son or daughter) can fully appreciate. The very fact that playing catch requires two people lends itself to communication, to outreach. Go shoot baskets if you want an hour of solitude. You can even play 18 holes by yourself. Try playing catch with yourself, though, and you’ll look like a Labrador retriever.
I played catch with my dad, but not enough. By the time I reached junior high school, I had teammates. And teammates interrupt the sports bond between father and son. It’s a welcome interruption for the son who is gradually approaching manhood, and for the father who wants nothing less from his progeny. But it’s an interruption nonetheless. It’s why Ray Kinsella yearns so to have one more catch with the ghost of his father. Ball to mitt is a beautiful sound, and a feeling unlike any other. But compared with father to son, parent to child?
I play catch with Sofia as much as I can. She already has teammates, and I enjoy seeing my daughter — and her teammates — adjust to errant throws just as they’ll have to adjust to the vicissitudes of life (and without a glove to protect them). When we do play catch together, my throws get stronger each season, as Sofia’s skill with her mitt improves. Three years ago, I released each toss with a seized breath, hoping the ball didn’t strike the face I’d battle armies to protect. Today, I more casually and confidently hurl the ball her way. And I pay closer attention when she throws it back, needing to protect my own mug, lines and all.
Sofia’s little sister is 6 years old, and a lefty. The last time we played catch, I had to remind her to put her mitt on her right hand. Once it was on, though, she smiled at me with the comfortable recognition of a glove fitting the way it should. She’s got a good arm, and soon enough she’ll be tossing with her big sister, and then her own teammates. And, I’m convinced, Elena will make the connections so many kids have made, over so many generations. I’ve got a lot of lessons left to teach my children, but I hope they’ll remember this one for every Father’s Day to come. It’s always baseball season when you play catch with Dad.