I got my Father’s Day gift early this year.
As serendipitous as a butterfly landing, I realized the presence of an unforeseen present settle on my person. Appreciation of the moment makes it mine for keeps.
This gift is “time spent together” with my son, and it’s a baseball story, of sorts.
The Hollywood treatment of father-and-son baseball relationships brings to mind Kevin Costner’s corny, never-used-before phrase “have a catch,” while, Robert Redford’s perfect toss-and-catch form captures the gesture more eloquently in “The Natural” happy ending, intimating a place somewhere between here and heaven, where a father is when a son asks him to play catch.
Those moments are tucked away in memory for me like baseball gloves discarded to crawl spaces. This updated baseball tale of father and son is less movie script, more real life, less stand-up triple and more grind it out.
Our baseball yarn begins far from home base on a late Sunday afternoon.
Faced with four more hours of highway driving into heavy cloud cover, dusk and then nightfall, we departed the Wisconsin Dell’s best-kept secret—the Sandbar, home to the world’s greatest steak sandwich and Spotted Cows.
Three nights earlier driving north to Minnesota in a powerful rain, my son played shotgun-seat DJ, showcasing his guitar idols from his phone with music hip to him, new to me and all great. At his age, I was probing the dial for a good AM radio or plunging in a clunky eight-track cartridge.
An admitted control freak when it comes to choosing music, I restrained myself. It was time to lean into my son and just listen to his artists. Heck, Will actually plays and practices an instrument, just as his two sisters do. I can play a jukebox.
En route to Minnesota, I learned quickly that Gary Clark Jr. is going to be a big, big star. I heard all of Clark’s influences: Chuck Berry, Sly and the Family Stone, Smokey Robinson, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn and even Parliament, a 1970s band featuring funkmaster George Clinton.
My wife often scolds me for comparing artists from different eras. As if her voice were coming out of the car’s back seat, I steered clear of comments to my son like, “This guy sounds like … or I saw him at Alpine Valley before the helicopter crash …”
Like pitching a complete game, Will never missed a beat, and we arrived in record time before midnight. The dog slept the whole ride—another gift.
Leaving the Dells on Sunday, it was my turn; I pulled the plug on Will’s iPhone.
Charging up the ramp to I-90/94, I drew a crystal-clear AM signal for Chicago’s “670 The Score” with the instantly recognizable sound of baseball.
Baseball on radio is best seen in the mind’s eye. Of course, you have to know baseball intimately to get there. With our AM signal rolling under the clouds toward home, legendary play-by-play man Pat Hughes did what he does best—got visual.
As Hughes drew pictures of pinstriped uniforms and checked swings, my early Father’s Day gift got better with each frame—all 15 innings played in 5 hours and 36 minutes in a 6-5 Cubs victory over the Diamondbacks in Arizona.
If we were home watching the game, my wife would find a chore for us, or my son would float off to his other interests, likely channeling his inner Hendrix on his electric guitar.
Anxiety was building back in Chicago because the game was too long. One bombastic broadcaster posted a Twitter poll egging on listeners and soliciting replies to bring “change to extra-innings baseball” to make the game shorter in time.
Blasphemy, I say; I contend that baseball is a metaphor for American life.
Unlike all other sports, there is no clock in baseball, so that means that as long as a team is competing, it is still in the game. Failing two out of every three attempts is a given, but not a death knell.
Comebacks—free of time restraints—are the spice of life.
To dicker with baseball’s fundamental open-ended script is to treat it too casually and irresponsibly. Of course, my baseball cup runneth over with emotion. How dare they fiddle with my father-son baseball treasure—one not assured an encore.
Admittedly, the Cubs game was a “grind it out” affair with the Cubs blowing leads, leaving bases loaded, getting caught stealing home and nearly surrendering a 6-3 lead in the 15th inning when a long drive came up short of the wall for the last out.
Like kids of Will’s generation, he was multi-tasking during the drive: texting buddies and people he’d met over the weekend, scouring the web and posting.
But, he caught all the game’s nuances in the broadcast, commenting on whether Willson Contreras was “on his own” trying to steal home and weighing in on the plight of castoff Tyler Chatwood, a comeback story in his own right.
“How old is Pat Hughes?” Will asked.
“Ageless” was my reply.
“No, I guess he’s my age,” I remembered.
Like kids of my generation, I was daydreaming and driving, lost in thought but still heeding my wife’s advice to “be in the moment” and not try to compare then and now, at least out loud. So, while we drove I entered my mind’s eye again and into baseball moments I shared with Will, mostly good ones and one that left scars.
I resisted the urge to force my son to remember with me the time he made a perfect peg from left to home to cut down a guy twice the size of little catcher Brian Smith, who held his ground—and the ball—for the out.
Or, the time Will covered second base for the force out and the championship game’s final out. Will stared into his glove while a pile of kids smothered the pitcher on the mound. I stared at Will from the dugout.
Or, the time I took him fast pitching with rubber balls in the school parking lot after the season was over.
With us safe at home, my wife asked Will how it went.
“Ten hits,” said Will.
“Well, that seems pretty good batting against your dad,” said his mother.
“No, Dad hit me 10 times,” replied Will.
When Will was young, he looked up to me.
And then I looked up at him.
When did that happen? Was it one Saturday morning when I walked into the kitchen barefoot and Will had new work boots under his 6-foot frame?
In which middle inning of life it occurred doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it did during life’s great pageant and, sometimes, grind.
Forevermore, I will look up to a son who is tackling life’s challenges, becoming his own man and spending quality time with an old man—me.
Editor’s note: Bill Figel is Morgan Park resident, and with his wife, Kathy, is raising Lily, Frannie and Will.