Here’s an interesting thing, a chance to get the same father-son story from the perspective of two writers. Daniel, my son, had an interesting (not exactly tragic, but close) baseball experience when he was little, and later that night, after it happened, I sat and wrote the whole thing down, so I wouldn’t forget. Years later, Daniel grew up and decided to write a song about it. He just posted it on his new “song blog,” Daniel’s Song Blog. (And for those of you who don’t know…he can sing.) Read the story first. It’s a pretty short read–okay, I’m lying. It’s 3000 words. 10x too long. I don’t care. Read it anyway. Especially if you like baseball. Then fast forward about 13 years and listen to the song. Or, skip the story and just scroll to the bottom of the page and listen to the song. Either way, you’ll get the idea. And then go out and have a swing for the fences kind of day.
And by the way, Daniel changed the name of team so it would rhyme in the song. Go figure…
THE BATTING CAGE
by Jeff Berryman
Fat Bat. The local batting cage down on Central.
We were to meet there at seven o’clock, for an hour’s worth of batting practice. Coach Mitzel’s Triple A Rangers got three measly hits against the Marlins on Saturday, losing 13-5. A batting practice was needed. Good idea, harmless enough: what could a bit of extra batting hurt?
Little did I know.
It was the end of a spectacular April Tuesday in the middle of the local elementary school’s spring break, and as expected, when I arrived at Fat Bat with Number 3 in tow, the place was buzzing, swarming with batters. There were three parking spaces for 80 cars, and I sat there, wanting to swear, hesitating, hating that dreadful feeling of incompetence. When there’s nowhere to park, where do I park? I could hear my wife, who’d stayed home, pleasantly suggesting I pull over the curb, into the field. I finally decided on following the lead of Riley’s mom, who pulled her SUV along the curb just ahead of me.
When she stepped out of her car, Debbie looked at my Number 3, who was heading for the cages as hard as he could go. She snapped her head back to her son.
“Were you supposed to wear your uniform, Riley?”
My son insists on being dressed for the occasion. He had worn his full uniform, minus Ranger shirt, to practice.
“No, no, Debbie,” I said. “That’s just my son. He likes to match.”
Yeah . . . oh.
Entrance fee for this practice was three dollars. I asked the man at the counter if I paid him or the coach. His looked at me like I was an alien. Clueless.
Number 3 was anxious to bat. A natural hustler, he finally convinced me to cash in a couple of bucks for tokens. I had a five-dollar bill, owed the coach three for the hourly rental, so I explained there would be no coke after practice. He lied, said that was fine, that he wouldn’t need a coke after practice.
Fine. I got the tokens.
My kid was next in line, but just as he stepped into the cage, Coach arrived.
From a distance, Fat Bat resembles a circus tent full of holes. Towering, draping nets gather around a single pole rising out of the center of the cages, towering to maybe 50-60 feet. The pitching machines whir at the pole’s base, gathering up orange, scalloped balls the size of baseballs and softballs, sending them through what I suppose to be a fantastically amazing array of tubular mazes. (I have never actually seen the inside of the machine house.) The machine house itself is a constant roar, a seven-mouthed beast, spitting and coughing up balls in all directions, at varying speeds. Batters wait, bats cocked, eyes glued to the space in front of them. They are bizarre prisoners, locked in a semi-circle of netted stalls, sectioned off by chain link and net from their teammates and rivals. They slap and hammer at the balls, hoping for the sweet spot of the stick, the fat part of the bat, swearing softly as their efforts yield little but knicks, dribbles, and whiffs.
The Rangers gather at a cage on the south end of the fan. A make-shift placard below the warning sign (if you get killed in there, its not our fault) designates this as a 55 mph cage. I hear Coach tell one of the other parents that this is what they will face with an above average pitcher in the league. Nine batting helmets tilt upward, eager, chomping at the bit, trying to catch Coach’s eye.
“Daniel, first up. Bunt three, then swing away. You get twelve pitches.”
Number 3 darts into the cage, crosses home plate, and fixes his eye on the machine house. Body bent and ready, bat cocked, elbow up . . . he is the picture of preparation. Flashing lights just to the right of the machine tell him something, I suppose, though I don’t know what. That a pitch is coming?
I smile. He looks good.
The first ball comes spitting out, an arc of challenge that crosses the plate chest high.
The catcher in these stalls is a slab of dull rubber strapped to the fence just behind the batter. If the pitch gets by the batter, the slab takes the ball in, stops it dead with a sickening thwack that has more mock in it than an opposing dugout’s laughter. Then, adding insult to injury, the balls trickles slowly toward the batter, to stop at his feet, so that while getting ready for the next pitch, the poor soul has to shoo off the last miserable pitch not only from his spirit, but from his tangled feet as well.
His eyes still fixed straight ahead, Daniel swats the ball away from his feet.
Be ready. Here it comes. Thoom. Orange rushes at his chest.
Coach frowns. “Bunt.”
Daniel squares around.
“Don’t step on the plate.”
The ball comes in high once again.
In Double A ball, my son was a contact hitter. Never hit the ball hard, but rarely struck out, choosing instead to poke the ball here and there, betting on his graceful, better than average speed to get on base. And in Triple A preseason, he struck out only once.
I can see Coach thinking over these two missed bunts. “One more bunt.”
I shift my weight, scoot to the left to get a better look. With the ease with which he does everything, Daniel comes around, holds the bat ready, surely about to lay down an expert bunt down the third base line.
He shoots a grin at Coach, which tells me he’s in trouble, that his precious heart, so full of oh-so-tenuous bravado and swagger, is under siege.
Failure. In a world of multi-million dollar companies selling self-esteem and good feelings, regardless of what’s actually done or achieved, failure gets little play, and less respect. Failure is a forbidden word, refused entrance into the lexicon of life’s experience by all but dull, vicious nay-sayers. In yesterday’s mail, a flyer proudly announced that finally, there would be a beauty pageant where all the little cherubs would be winners; trophies to be had by all. Failure is chased out the door by non-competition, by the egalitarian desire to equalize life’s experience, by a communism of spirit. At the same time, however, winning remains dominate in the image of popular culture, with little thought given to the indisputable fact that when in comes to competitive endeavors, most lose. Even St. Paul says it: many will run the race, few will win. Seen this way, the absence of training in the art of losing seems a crime.
We teach dreams. We say to hold fast to dreams, their death being tantamount to our own. Romantic images roll over us from infancy to old age, touting the best of foods, the sexiest of relationships, the most luxurious of cars. We sit at the feet of sports heroes and celebrities, measuring our lives by theirs. We watch the stock market rise and fall, and look over at millionaires on the right side of the tracks, and daydream about what might be–or, as the years fade, of what might have been. And in later years, the TV coaxes us into sleep, flashing before our eyes the never ending parade of dreamy achievers, the ones who did it right, had the most character, somehow found the favor of the gods, while we labor on in the realm of the failed.
The batter can’t dig in at Fat Bat, nor can he hide. The other eight batting helmets waiting their turn peer through the fence, fingers tugging at the links. They are a classy bunch and yell out bits of encouragement as the machine keeps spitting.
My head drops involuntarily. I stare off to my left, across the way, at other young prisoners in netted stalls. Whack! The kid in the stall next to ours connects time after time, and it’s the same in the stall past him. I look back to my son.
The Coach wanders over to me, smiling, but frowning, too. He folds his arms, places one finger next to his mouth. He’s thinking how to say it.
“Has he been in this cage before?”
Not a month ago, Daniel and I were here, arguing whether he should be batting in the 45 mph cage, or the 55. I talked him into the high heat, and the first time through, he struggled, hitting maybe 4 or 5 of 18. The next two rounds saw him hit 13 and 15, respectively.
“Have you had his eyes checked?” Grasping at straws.
“He’s been up eight times this season and struck out five times.”
We stand and watch in silence. Awed, for all the wrong reasons.
“Okay, Daniel, last one.”
I say a little prayer. There is a delay in the machine as the monster searches for a ball to spit. Finally the light flashes, and I catch a glimpse of orange sliding down a chute.
Perfect ready position. The ball launches. The kid triggers, transfers the weight in a picture perfect swing, a clinic in technique.
Missed by a mile.
Being a father means teaching your children how to suffer, a wise man once told me. If Buddha was right, if suffering is one of the basic pillars of life, then it belongs in the curriculum, not as a thing to be added to their young lives, but as a thing not to be taken away. Crosses must be carried.
Watching my son vainly swing at these mock baseballs exposes me, tears open the wound I visit daily in my own work as actor/writer/idiot artist. I sit in front of the computer screen or blank paged journal, and I struggle to catch a glimpse of what is being thrown at me. I swing and swing and swing, and at the end of the day, what do I have? Nothing, I fear, but splats.
Daniel and I will play a scene on the way home. We’ve played it before. He will stare through tears at the floorboard, ask me for a coke. And I will pour salt onto fresh wounds with my simple “no.” He will beg, I will remain firm. He will then stare back at the floorboard, and begin muttering something roughly translated–in fact, these are his very words–”I stink.” Then a decibel or two louder, he will repeat the mantra, eventually shouting at the top of his lungs.
“I stink . . . I stink . . . I STINK!.”
With every shrill cry, my wound will gape at me, widening, and I will look out my driver’s side window, away from him, fighting to stay calm, to stay present with him. To be dad, and not fellow sufferer. My desire is not to shout, or scream, or even tell him, “No, you don’t stink.” What I want is to enter his little body and help him hit the ball, so that he will hit well, and no longer stink at batting.
For that is his cry, so different than my own.
If I were to cry “I stink,” I might mean my core, my being, my sense of personhood and worthiness. Self-esteem and all that. Not my strong suit.
But for him “I stink” means “I stink at batting.” This is his meaning–no more, no less. My son knows–and I take comfort in this–he knows that, in the end, his batting is of no consequence. Strike out a thousand times, and he will remain my jewel, my joy, my delight.
Three more times, Daniel makes his way down the gauntlet, borrowing his buddy’s bat, ready to dart into the cage. At least two other parents wonder openly about his eyes. There is concern. How could such a gifted athlete be missing these balls so badly?
I am sure he cannot see the ball for tears.
I watch his swing, ever the analyst. He back foot lifts off the ground. He’s not following through, but punching at the ball. He is batting defensively, flinching before each pitch. He’s scared. Waving the bat too much, cocking his elbow too low, not stepping into the ball, bringing it around too slow, backing out of the box, not lifting . . .
He puts down the bat, hustles out of the cage, and drags over to me, his bat trailing behind, that blanket again.
I place my hand on his head, mussing his hair, pulling him close.
“Can we just go home?”
“We have to wait for Coach to let us go.”
I pull my discouraged warrior into my body, asking him to tell me what’s happening.
“What are you thinking about?”
“I don’t know. I just can’t hit the ball.”
“Sure you can. I’ve seen you do it a hundred times.”
At least forty swings, and no contact made. Well . . . perhaps a foul tip on a bunt.
Coach and I have a last conversation.
“If I were to buy him a bat, what size would I need?”
Coach hollers at his son. ”Jeff, bring me your bat.”
The precocious coach’s son struts over, hands him the bat. Coach turns it over, looking for numbers. Finally, he stops looking.
“28, 29 inches, 19 or 20 ounce. Take a bigger one, it’ll last you longer.”
We turn and watch a junior Babe Ruth hit solidly, a massive strike climbing over the machine house, lost in the tent of nets on the far side. Then another, and another.
“Dad, can we just go?” He speaks softly, his heart screaming.
Finally, its 8:00 p.m. No more spitting orange balls, no more watching eyes, no more strikeouts. Not tonight.
We ride in silence.
A morbid fascination sidles up next to my hurt. I know something important is happening in these moments, and as a father, I am unsure how to play it. It is a fastball coming in high and inside, and yet hittable. Oh, so hittable. In fact, to miss this pitch will be to miss a major opportunity with runners in scoring position.
But I am frozen at the plate.
I think of what I do when I swing in futility. I think of the flunks and the flubs of my life, so prevalent, so crushing, so weighty, so foolishly dwelt upon.
What will my boy do?
“I stink.” It’s a mumble from the passenger side. I think, “Here it comes.”
My mind races, but still hasn’t found what its looking for. I stall. “Put on your seatbelt.”
Number 3 sits back into the seat, reaches over his right shoulder, straps himself in. No argument. No resistance.
“Wanna go buy a bat?”
“I finally remembered to ask the coach what size.” I’d been planning to for at least two weeks, but it hadn’t been a priority. Now it is.
My head clears. “Tell you what. Let’s go to the store, see what we can find. Let’s go to Big Five.” I wonder out loud if they’re open.
He looks up at me. I nearly wreck.
His eyes are clear as a post-rain sky.
“Okay. We could go to Fred Meyer.” His mouth hangs open in that goofy nine-year-old fashion, as if made for nothing but drool.
Perhaps my son stinks at batting. I don’t know.
But I doubt it.
I am resolved to help him figure it out. Tonight I bought twelve new baseballs and a bat, and tomorrow I will throw perhaps a hundred pitches, perhaps more. I will pitch until my arm falls off, or I tear a rotator cup, or I hit him in the head and knock him cold. I will let him pitch the ball up in the air and swat at it, and I will run through the fields like a wild man. We will have fun, as we did when we learned the glove and the arm. And before it’s all over, my son will hit a ball. Somewhere, sometime, when the game is on the line, he will stand in the box, and know that his Dad cared enough to play. To play at the hardest game we face.
The game of overcoming failure. Overcoming fear.
And he’ll remember.
Perhaps it’s silly to mention this kind of courage. (“My son missed the ball over 40 times today at the batting cage, and had the courage to keep on going.”) Not exactly fighting famine or flood waters or drug cartels, but for a nine year old American kid facing the potential ongoing ridicule of teammates and friends, the courage to go on is the small beginning of a hero’s deep heart.
Now, back home, Number 3′s having a hard time sleeping. But it’s not worry, or fear, or embarrassment. After one of the most humiliating experiences a boy can suffer through, he’s pumped about trying again. Pumped about batting.
But I don’t miss the truth, and I realize again what it all means. Its not so much that he’s pumped about batting.
He just wants to be with tomorrow’s pitcher.
For he knows the secret we all try to get in on, but rarely do. He knows that even if he strikes out, that even if he’s brushed back, that even if he’s hit, there is nothing but love out there on the mound. And that at the end of the day, this pitcher will gather him back into his arms, and stinky batter or not, this pitcher–his father–will carry him home.
“Though you slay me, yet will I trust you.”