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By Dennis Fletcher

The other day my son came set on the pitcher's mound while I was kneeling down behind home plate, preparing to take his throw. In that brief pause from set to windup, panic suddenly surged from the tips of my toes to the hairs that remain on the top of my head. My glove hand already ached from a casual game of catch, and the thought of him uncoiling, then stepping toward me from the mound and whipping a ball my way with all the strength his seventeen-year-old shoulder could bear was just too much. Funny I hadn't realized it 'til just that second. Call me a wimp. Call me old and slow. Even call me a fool for being dumb enough to find myself in that vulnerable position. But we've been doing this for years; in fact, it seems just a few seasons ago from when I had to carefully guide my throws into his glove to keep from hurting him. Toward the end of last summer, I began taking a little more defensive posture, then seemed to have trouble with his fastball in the twilight. I figured it was just my eyes and not the speed of the ball. It must have been a little of each.

But it was much too late to do anything about it. Before my brain could tell my mouth to stop him, he was in full windup. I first thought about simply diving out of the way, but my survival instinct suggested I stay put and use my eyes, glove, and reactions to defend myself. Of the three, the only thing I really trusted was the glove, though I was fairly sure I could handle a pitch that stayed clear of the ground. One hard and low and in the dirt would not be pretty. Odd how many things can flash through your mind in an instant. I imagined a shattered kneecap, a broken breastbone with subsequent heart attack, a lung-piercing busted rib, a broken nose. Worse.

My son, apparently, had no such concerns. His task appeared to be calmly, almost deadly straightforward: throw the ball with all your might at the target. After all, I had caught or blocked everything he had thrown my way since infancy without loss of life or limb. Why should this pitch be any different? I guess he didn't notice that I was a little weaker and a lot slower than last year, and he probably couldn't see that my eyes had become a little worse, since he let it fly with all the controlled muscle action his body could muster. Snap. A perfect knee-high strike on the center of the plate and into the sure webbing of my glove. No problem.

Safely in my car and during saner moments later in the week, I began to think about so many tiny, seemingly insignificant things that happen every day: not miracles, really, yet nearly so when I stop to reflect upon the many circumstances involved in the way events unfold. Again I was reminded of that split second of terror when I suddenly realized my son was not a young boy anymore, but a young man—capable of hurling an object at deadly speed. How did all this happen? On one hand, I know full well how it happened and can trace a strictly biological sequence from cradle to grave, yet it's these unpredicted extras that take place between those two extremes that make life so fascinating—or at least help to pass the time in traffic.

I casually began to make sense of the links of events that brought us to the field that day. Small miracles, sort of—like the fact that a father and his seventeen-year-old son would even be playing catch together in the middle of a hot summer's weekday afternoon and that two such characters could stand each other's company, let alone actually enjoy it; that he threw a perfect strike on the first pitch and that I caught it so cleanly in the webbing . . . on and on, the links went in my mind, sometimes clear connections and at other times hyper-leaps—remembering a flyball he had skied me that same afternoon, how it seemed to fall from far above like the day Dad died, when I had asked my son to hit me some Wiffle pop-ups and the cold, hard plastic slapping the leather of our floppy old glove seemed the only real thing in a nightmarish day filled with numbness. Perfectly round whiteness, dropping slowly from the sky, white against the deep blue. And the high clouds overhead—clouds like the ones floating above our yard when I was a boy and Mom challenged me to see familiar shapes, then left me to discern them on my own.

I thought about my daughters and how they had inherited Mom's giggle. I heard it clearly the other day when the younger, already a young woman herself, became so animated when she talked about my niece's kids—a sincere laugh that starts in the throat and ends in a high-pitched sort of squeal that can be annoying to anyone outside the clan or not in the thick of the conversation. Not so long ago, I heard that squeal when she was four and ran to meet me at the bus stop. Another daughter works at a nearby McDonald's—five years at the same one where I had lasted eight short weeks. She moves from station to station, gliding on grease, smiling, and looking ahead to whatever job needs done when she completes the present task she has repeated a thousand times. Saving her pennies for her wedding next June. Those three kids never could finish all that food in a Happy Meal, storing their Cokes and their fries in their precious boxes in the fridge. How strange these three should have grown so strong and wise as the children of fools, and how maddening that they should be blind to so many of the important things we taught them so well.

Odd how things work out. Though it seems like everything just "happened," it certainly did not. There were decisions made, good and bad, that brought us all to where we are. A slamming door and homework tears and "I hate you" side by side with "nobody understands me" and "I'm scared"—sometimes, it seems, all at once. Through it all, my wife and I planned and worked and worried and saw the plans get strangely squeezed into something different and the kids grow into people who are intimate strangers. I guess they always were, but they were so easy to manipulate when they were small that we fooled ourselves. There was no discussion, debate, or conference when it was time to go—pick them up, strap them in the car, and go. Tiny little extensions of self. Then I suddenly find myself a vulnerable, middle-aged man behind home plate, flinchingly awaiting a pitch that could take me out of the world, thrown by one I helped bring into it. A few seconds later, the ball was safely in the glove. What, after all, was the big deal?

I pulled into the driveway mildly amused at how my mind could have taken me from fastballs to Happy Meals and back to fastballs again, but it's really not so strange. You start off thinking you're headed somewhere, and you are, but you always end-up someplace different. Things get muddled along the way. You try and try to get back on track but never seem to quite make it. Looking back, you can see a logical link to what then seemed just random snippets of chance. But there is no chance—only an intricate order of events that brought you here and will take you somewhere else. You always believed that you were the one steering your course but had this hunch there was something else to it—other elements that at first brought the most subtle dips and swirls that eventually knocked you so far off course, you end up in a place you never could have imagined. Sometimes you see that there is a bigger plan at work, one that includes you but is much bigger and much more real than your puny, pathetic image of the way you think things should have been. Each day you go through the same tasks. Brush your teeth. Eat. Wash the dishes. Sleep. Dream. Wake up. Brush your teeth. Sliding on grease from station to station—never getting much of a foothold, yet never quite falling. And sometimes it seems you're just spinning on the surface—weak, stupid, tired, and lame—while others are walking casually with such confidence to their destination, pausing for a comfortable sip of sweet tea, then going on their way.

Then one night, in one instant, you're standing again young and strong on the mound in a gorgeous summer twilight. Cleats dig deep into the fresh earth as you palm the ball and come set, and for just a fraction of a second, you wonder what all the mystery was about. Things sometimes seem so clear. It's really not that hard to figure out. Aim for the target. Throw with all your might. Get yourself set for what happens next.



DENNIS FLETCHER is an English instructor at Mercyhurst College and Gannon University, both in Erie, Pennsylvania. He is a lifetime Indians fan, a passionate sports fanatic, and a compulsive writer. He was smitten with the game in the second grade when Sister Carmel ran alongside him at recess, explaining what bases were all about, and became addicted upon hearing Cleveland broadcaster Jimmy Dudley's voice calling play-by-play on the radio.

© 2003 Dennis Fletcher


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