After a dreadfully dry winter, snow fell last week – must be baseball season in Colorado! Through the rain, snow, and sleet of year after year of springs in Colorado, I’ve witnessed the transformation of a boy into a warrior, slaying his opponents with a white orb and a long, skinny chunk of wood. With our first measurable snow, we embark on his last high school baseball season.
This boy entered the world obsessed. In cohorts with his natural propensity towards the game, an older brother shared and encouraged his preoccupation with balls and bats. His “twin” joined the fun until he deviated to football around age ten. Through the years, my house collected the resulting scars: shattered panes of leaded glass cabinets, installed in 1913; cracked windows; battered and grooved pine plank floors; holes in the lathe-and-plaster walls, repaired with hardware store mesh kits.
For every damaged corner of my house, my heart treasures ten thousand soaring memories…
The unique baseball rule developed in my backyard- “tree stop progress:” This phrase rang out, the under-lying beat for the song of summer. Wafting through my open windows, it assured me all went well with my brood. A large apple tree planted decades ago, right smack in the middle of what became the baseball diamond, stood as the extra player in the backyard summer season. Its effectiveness at slowing whiffle balls surely trained my boys to accurately hit certain parts of the field with real baseballs as they grew older.
The weekend tournament we struggled to see the field through curtains of white: If a kid could hit the ball, he got on base. The fielder’s hands were too frozen to stop a moving ball. And the snowflakes camouflaged the ball. Between games, a parent purchased a portable heater to appease our guilt for letting them play.
The 12-year old All-Star, ever the stable unruffled pitcher, winning a State Little League gam with nary a stray emotion: I trained my camera on him during that last pitch, anticipating the win. He rewarded me with a poker face and a several-inch fist pump. That’s it. Coach Dad, however, more than made up for my son’s reticence after the team won a district game. Just take a look, and I need say no more.
The summer the younger brother, finishing his first year of high school, kicked up his heel and hurled the ball to the older brother, the lanky catcher, about to start his last year of high school: For the first time, the brothers played for the same team and lined up for perfect captures in the same photos. Teammates for a season, friends for life.
Early accolades in the boy’s first year of high school, a slump in his second: Frustrated, he persevered. During the off-season after his sophomore year, the skinny teenager decided to go all out; he gave up sugar entirely. Even for his birthday, he wouldn’t allow me to bake cake. Instead, I chopped up a deluxe fruit salad. He worked out daily: lifting weights, sprinting hills, drilling in baseball skills. A carefree kid born with talent, he left no stone unturned to develop into a muscled young man, willing to sacrifice for his goals.
First game of his junior year, poised for the season of his life, hurling the ball into the unthinkable: Around pitch 44, the ligament in his elbow snapped. Still that unemotional athlete, the severity on his face could only be read by a mom and Coach Dad. One more pitch at half his usual speed, and he opted himself out of the game. We never imagined that step off the mound was the first into a one-year detour.
The year not playing taught him more than all the years of playing: After going under the knife for Tommy John surgery, he sat at home while the others in his class played in front of recruiters and signed for college teams. He threw from ten yards, twenty, thirty, and so on, painstakingly re-training his arm to do what once came so naturally in those long-ago days of backyard baseball.
The boy’s arm grew stronger. More than anything, the fire of adversity clarified a young man of character. What he loves can no longer be taken for granted; and, at the same time, it no longer defines his self-worth. When it came time to choose whether to give up the game forever or endure surgery and twelve months of rehab, he opted to work harder than he’d ever dreamed possible. He discovered he is so much more than a baseball player. By not playing, the game gave him its greatest gift. He realized he loves it more than he even knew; and at the same time, who he is as a person, who he became through this season of trial, will endure long after the game once again denies him play.
Now he and Coach Dad stand poised for the last season. After a year since I last watched my boy play, and our journey through tears, deepening relationships, hope, and sheer grit, I can’t wait.
I’ll settle in, come snow or shine, buried in thick wool blankets and layers of winter gear, warmed by my son’s fire for the game. I’ll lean my face back to catch any rays of sun I can find until the ump calls out “Play ball!” I’ll incline forward when my boy steps up to bat, in disbelief that the grinning eight-year-old who sent a bat flying through my lathe-and-plaster walls has now grown into this strong, courageous young man. I’ll watch him swing and close my eyes to savor the crack, to imprint it on my memory forever, then open my eyes to soar with the ball. I’ll follow every step when he takes the field at short stop, and I’ll will the ball to fly his way, just to see one more time the poetry-in-motion “Hoover” effect – that impossible scoop and relentless throw. I’ll trace his jog back off the field to the dug-out and delight in that shared grin between son and Coach Dad.
If I savor every last second with the eyes of the soul, perhaps I can somehow slow and capture the trickle of time…