If I only stuck a mitt on my head, I could have been a Major Leaguer. — Mark
Springtime brought the birds, the bees, flowers, green grass, and the start of baseball season—a big deal in our house when I grew up. Dad was a Pony League coach, my two older brothers played, and in my youth, I attempted to. And while America’s pastime bonded most fathers and sons, it drove a wedge between Dad and me.
Tiny Tim Baseball presented several challenges for me, the primary being focus, or more precisely, maintaining it. I liked baseball, but I also liked art. Playing right field allowed me the opportunity to satisfy both. I was one of the few left-handers in the league. The right-handers rarely hit to the opposite field. Except for a misplayed pop fly or the occasional grounder slipping through the infield gap, I had a lot of free time out there. So, I filled it drawing pictures in the dirt. If someone yelled, “Hey Mark, incoming!” I’d chase down the ball, throw it back, and return to my canvas. By the end of the game, I’d collected a hit or two and created an impressive work of art.
But this was not the dual threat my father imagined for his youngest son. Witnessing this once was enough. He avoided the rest of my games that season and avoided fielding the question, “Is that your Picasso in the outfield?”
But Dad continued to take time out from his own team to drill into me the fundamentals of baseball. And yet I continued to show little interest in learning them. Ground balls scared me. Touching your glove to the turf just meant putting your face closer to danger. Catching line drives sent shock waves up my arm. And pop flies? I’ll make my issue with them very clear, very soon.
The only thing I looked forward to at practice was when it ended. But one day my interest sparked after we—Michael and David—finished infield drills. Dad stood at the plate and launched fly balls deep into the outfield. These were no can-of-corn pop flies. These were Mickey Mantle home runs. I stood in awe as each rose skyward and momentarily disappeared beyond the clouds before returning to Earth and into my brothers’ gloves. Now this looked like my kind of fun.
I grabbed my glove and hustled to the outfield. After watching my brothers shag a few more and make it look easy, I waved my arms, beckoning my dad to send one my way. He all but ignored me. But I waved harder and harder until he finally gave in and pointed my way. I bounced in anticipation.
“Okay, here it comes, my very own Mickey Mantle home run.” He tossed up the ball and swung his bat.
It sounded like a cannon. The ball climbed up and up and up, high into the sky. I stood underneath as I saw my brothers do and waited and waited. Looking up at that tiny, seemingly harmless white dot, I started thinking.
That ball is really, really high. When it comes down, it will be going really, really fast. My heart raced. My feet froze. And it’s really going to hurt. I didn’t want any part of that pain, so I broke free and ran to the right. I only got a few steps before that fly ball found my head and knocked me to the ground.
My dad and my brothers traded looks. Did that just happen?
As I writhed in pain, all three rushed to my aid. Nothing major, just a lump and a bruised ego. Hoping to temper the inevitable teasing, I dried my tears, got back on my feet, and dusted myself off as Dad trotted back to home plate. Did he do that on purpose?
My brothers caught several more before I got my nerve up and called for another. Dad resisted, but I flapped my arms like a crazed bird until he caved.
Up, up it climbed, higher than the last. But throb, throb went my head. No way. I’m outta here. This time I escaped to the left, and down I went—again. Two for two. They couldn’t believe their eyes. I couldn’t believe my head. The pain. While they wondered if I was gifted in a strange sort of way, I wondered, Does my father hate me?
Under normal circumstances, practice should have ended then and there, but “normal”vanished two laser-seeking Mickey-Mantle-home-run fly balls ago. Once again, I struggled to my feet, wiped my tears, and dusted myself off. Blame my bruised and battered ego. Blame the two possible concussions. Or blame my hell-bent need to blunt Michael and David’s sure-to-come psychological torture. Whatever the reason, I was determined to prove the first two balls were flukes. I begged for another shot, set myself and waited, and waited, and waited.
The crack of his batsent shivers down my spine. My head throbbed, in stereo. What the heck was I thinking? I didn’t dare look up. My feet froze again, but this time I took it as a sign and stayed put. I buried my head in my chest, closed my eyes, and waited, and waited and—
Unbelievable. My brothers shook their heads, convinced I was adopted. Dad must have also considered the possibility. If Mom witnessed this magnetic display of ball-to-head, I’m sure she would have too.
Dad never took me seriously after that. Yet I continued to play baseball every spring. He showed up every once in a while, always unannounced, always far from the other parents, and when spotting him, I always screwed up by making an error or striking out.
At one of his surprise appearances, the umpire didn’t show. Dad volunteered. Since no one knew he was my father, no one objected—no one but me. Mum’s the word. I had an uneventful game, but in the final inning I had a chance to be the hero. I stood at the plate with the go-ahead run at second. I worked the count to full: three balls, two strikes. A hit would win it. A walk would extend the game. As I waited for the payoff pitch, my focus bounced back and forth between the pitcher forty-six feet in front of me and the home plate umpire crouched six feet behind. The pitcher wound up and delivered. I held up as it sailed high and outside. Clearly ball four.
Yet I heard, “Strike three, you’re out.”
I dropped my bat and hung my head. The opposing team rushed the mound and cheered, “Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate . . .”
That game forever cemented our baseball relationship. He never came to another. And we never discussed it until years later when I included it in a gift of seventy-five memories for his seventy-fifth birthday. Most were happy, some were pithy, but I cherished them all. Dad said he remembered that game and admitted the ball was high and outside. Definitely not a strike.
“But I taught you to never go down without swinging,” he added. Then he stunned me when he said, “I’ve regretted that call for twenty-three years.”
Twenty-three years. How we wasted all that time in between. Fuck mum’s the word.
Mom saw a few of my good games. And though her attempts were futile, she always defended me to Dad. Despite my inauspicious beginnings, I became a good ballplayer. In my last year, I led the league in home runs, made the All-Star team, and had a game of all games. I batted four for four with back-to-back-to-back home runs—two grand slams and a three-runner—and for good measure I drove in two more runs my last trip to the plate. Thirteen runs-batted-in in one game. Thirteen. Only major leaguer, Wilbert Robinson, came close when he drove in eleven for the Baltimore Orioles back in 1892.
When I told my dad, he replied, “You’re full of soup.” He didn’t believe me. Realizing I would never gain his respect through baseball, I gave it up.
Even though we never got it together on the field, ironically, baseball kept us close. When we didn’t go to Yankee Stadium, we watched the Yankees play on TV or listen to their games on the radio. When he came to visit me during my college years at Ohio State, we went to the Clippers games, the Yankees Triple-A farm team based in Columbus. Coincidence? Perhaps not. And the day Mickey Mantle died, I felt the need to call my dad, and we shared stories. During my father’s last week on Earth, we bet—our usual one dollar—on the World Series. His team won, but unfortunately, he never got the chance to collect his winnings. The first time I saw Field of Dreams, I cried at the end when the main character asked his estranged father to play catch. The entire film led up to that “If you build it, he will come” moment when father and son finally came together. I took my father to see it long past its opening, hoping he, too, would be moved. We sat in the nearly empty Egyptian Theater in Hollywood. As that scene rolled, I saw through my teary eyes my dad wiping away tears of his own. I hope one day we, too, get a second chance to play catch. I can always dream.