The National Fathering Pastime

Father & son playing baseball photo
© 1999 Corbis. All rights reserved.
by Stephen Bratman

Last month my 4 1/2 year-old son informed me that he wanted to
play baseball.

Hearing him say this was like stepping into a time machine and
scooting back 30 years or so to a time when the game was of major importance in my life. I could see the groundskeeper laying down the thin ribbon of chalk
on the 1st and 3rd base lines while the warm summer sun made me
certain that I would enjoy the trip to the Dairy Queen after the
game.

I remembered waiting for the rest of the guys to show up, silently
cursing my mother for washing my dirty uniform (strictly against
a ball player’s superstition), and being thankful that I’d successfully
hidden my dirty socks for yet one more week.

I remembered the struggles and the triumphs, the heroes and the
goats, and the way that nine boys as different as their races
and social backgrounds could possibly be could come together once
each week to play a game and do something together that they couldn’t
possibly do separately.

As Jeffrey and I went in search of the necessary tools with which
he would pursue his quest towards surpassing the stature with
which I once played, I couldn’t help thinking about all the subtleties
and strategies I would teach him about how to succeed in the game.

The path he would take to greatness was crystal clear to me, from
Little League through a college scholarship, and then, who knows?

While I sat on the bench watching Jeffrey play his first game,
it became abundantly clear to me who would be the teacher in this
relationship, and who would be the student.

As I watched Jeff flail away unsuccessfully at the ball, I continued
to cheer him on with words of encouragement. The outward Dad was
coolly watching his son’s failed attempts with detached professionalism,
secure in the knowledge that sooner or later the inevitable would
happen and stardom would be realized. Meanwhile, the inward Dad,
the nine-year old, was once again learning the lesson through
his tears that it wasn’t very much fun to fail, but that you could
learn not to repeat mistakes if you tried really hard the next
time.

And the one time that day when cosmic forces came together and
Jeff’s bat somehow connected with the ball, the outward Dad sat
on the bench clapping, an all-knowing look on his face saying
how commonplace this occurrence was to become, while the inward
Dad was running around on the field yelling, jumping up and down,
screaming, “Yeah! Did you see that? He hit it! Yahoo!”

Alas, it was the inward Dad who was fated to learn another lesson
the following week when his son announced that he didn’t want
to go to baseball that day. After picking up the pieces of that
crystal clear path to the major leagues which had been blown into
a million fragments, inward Dad retreated into a shell of depression
while outward Dad took out his frustrations on the lawn and shrubbery
and wore a sign around his neck which said, “Stay the heck
away from me!”

And when my concerned son sat me down later that day and told
me gently, “You know, Daddy. Sometimes I want to go to baseball,
and sometimes I just don’t want to go,” the lesson for that
day for inward Dad was, “Please be tolerant of me. I’m only
four and I don’t have your views of the world or of the future,
or even of tomorrow, and I will explore the universe where and
when I decide. So let’s not continue this relationship with unrealistic
expectations, or you’re just going to go home crying again. Enjoy
my discoveries with me, whatever they are, and guide my steps,
but don’t push me too hard, for I walk on my own.”

And so my inward self once again has a teacher in the form of
a little boy, and hopefully, we’ll both grow up wide-eyed and
hopeful, enjoying whatever of life’s miracles are before us.