The Ball Toss and Growing Up

“Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” — Roger Angell.

In early 1990, I was flying home after having been away from home for over a week. At the time, my boys were nine and six. The movie on the return trip home was Field of Dreams starring Kevin Costner. The film was a fantasy about an Iowa farmer who is haunted by voices imploring him to construct a baseball stadium in the middle of his cornfield. “If you build it, they will come.”

To some, the movie was about the fictitious return of “Shoeless Joe Jackson,” who had been unfairly banned from baseball after the Black Sox World Series fixing scandal in 1919, to play baseball once again. On a more profound level, it is about how families support each other. Baseball is often the medium within which the conventional passages of life are played out.

The young Iowa farmer, Ray Kinsella, who is the protagonist of the film, has been estranged from his father since the age of 17. Even when they disagreed, baseball used to be the one thing Ray and his father could generally discuss civilly. They could talk while tossing a baseball between them. Their estrangement was deeper than baseball, but it was an argument about baseball that symbolized their final separation. As Ray and his father parted, Ray insulted his father by wondering aloud how his father could idolize a criminal Joe Jackson. Ray’s father died before they could reconcile.

At the end of the movie, old ballplayers emerge from the cornfield to play on the field Kinsella had built. One of the players was Ray’s father, youthful before the worries of age had overwhelmed him. Ray reconciles with his father through the simple expediency of grabbing a mitt and tossing a ball with his dad. Anyone who would not want to immediately go home and toss the ball around with his son after seeing the movie needs a remedial parenting class.

It is often unclear whether baseball is a metaphor for life or visa versa. Nonetheless, how one tosses a baseball with his child measures the stages of a child’s growth as certainly as the marks on a doorway mark a child’s height. In the beginning, you sit inside with your son or daughter on a soft floor legs spread, feet touching, so you form a small, enclosed, and protected world. The simple rolling of the ball back and forth unites father and child in a common endeavor.

When a child gets a little older, you can toss the light whiffle ball back and forth with them until, through trial-and-error and instruction they master the coordination required to guide the ball’s trajectory. When they get older still, you entrust their young hands with a hard ball, capable of great velocity and damage. Placing a hardball in the hands of a youngster says, “I trust you” more eloquently than poetry. Nonetheless, you carefully throw the ball back to them so they do not get hurt as they master the art of predicting where the ball will fly off your hands and placing their mitt into a position to received the advancing ball.

Then there comes a wonderful moment, sometimes imperceptibly, when your faith becomes complete. You can throw the ball at them, without taking a little speed off of it, confident that they can catch the ball. Kids know when you are going easy on them and when they realize you are not pulling pace off the ball, their pride swells within.

Raising children, however, is not without pain. Part of being a teenager is testing limits and testing yourself against adults. There comes a time when a child not only returns the ball with pace, but tests you by throwing the ball as fast as they can, happy if they can elicit a wince from the sting of hard thrown ball. Throwing the ball hard is an assertion of independence. It tells the parent, the time when your child needs your constant attention is nearing an end. Finally, they find they do not need to throw the ball too hard. They relax and throw the ball just for the enjoyment of throwing a ball. Your kids have grown up. They have the confidence of adults.

Both my boys are now in college and have passed through the stages of the simple baseball toss. I do not know yet, but I am fearful that there is another stage. A stage when they do not throw the ball at you with all their might; when they do not throw the ball at you as an equal; a stage when they deliberately take pace off the ball so as not to endanger you.

Recently, my 14-year-old daughter asked to play catch with me. I now can throw the ball at her with little worry about her ability to handle it. She surprised me by throwing the ball at me as hard as she can and the ball stung a little. She is getting to be a big girl now. I am a proud parent.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.