Lately I’ve been trying to teach my son Tim how to play baseball, which frankly is a process fraught with pitfalls. Nothing brings to light baseball’s shortcomings like describing it to people who haven’t been indoctrinated to the idea that it’s supposed to make sense.
Lately I’ve been trying to teach my 4-year-old son Tim how to play baseball, which frankly is a process fraught with pitfalls. For one thing, it forces me to recall my own days learning the game, which were spent primarily swinging a bat in such a way that, to even the casual observer, it must have seemed to have no connection to the actions of pitcher or ball; we probably looked like we were on completely different planes of reality, like in an M.C. Escher painting. I also spent a lot of time ducking.
I actually think Tim has far more in the way of natural ability than I did; for one, he can connect with the ball while batting both righty and lefty, which is enough to conjure up in even the most cautious of fathers visions of a major-league contract large enough to fund a retirement home. The problem comes more when I try to explain the concept of the game; nothing brings to light baseball’s shortcomings like describing it to people who haven’t been indoctrinated to the idea that it’s supposed to make sense.
“So after you hit the ball,” I explain, “you run to first base and stop there.” Then I point to the Frisbee I’ve laid about 10 feet due south, not to be confused with the rock and the wadded-up sweatshirt that are portraying second and third.
“Why?” Tim asks. This is of course the second-hardest question a parent can face (right behind “How?,” which tends to address subjects such as God and procreation).
“Because,” I say, summoning up a coaching voice that I hope is equal parts instructional and encouraging, like Wilford Brimley’s, “those are the rules.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Tim, in a tone that clearly denotes the negotiations have ended — it’s one thing to try to whack something with a big stick, but all this running and stopping and waiting is clearly within the purview of lunatics. So instead we go find some cookies.
I know his interest in the sport will probably grow in time, but I’ll admit to having mixed feelings about whether that’s a good thing. I’m thinking again of my own childhood, when I was similarly disinterested not only in baseball but in any activity that required team participation or sustained movement. At least until the day I inexplicably approached my parents and told them I wanted to sign up for Little League.
“You do?” they asked, in unison.
And I would hope that if Tim does pursue baseball, he’ll have a better first season of Little League than I did, when I spent an entire summer swinging wildly at anything moving in my general direction (including gnats and airborne ice cream wrappers) without ever making so much as incidental contact. At least until one of my last games, when without warning I drove one down the first base line. I can still picture it rolling along — by the time my coach yelled “Run!,” the first baseman had already retrieved the ball, touched the base and gotten more gum.
Even more surprising, though, than the fact that I had voluntarily put myself through that for two months is that when it was over I wanted to sign up again the next year. (“You do?”) And that second season, buoyed by what seemed like thousands of hours of batting practice in my back yard, my father leaning over me with his arms around mine as I swung, I started — not spectacularly, but solidly and with some regularity — to hit.
First there were singles, then the odd double. And finally, toward the end of the season, came the triple that led to an evening of frenzied calls to relatives who hadn’t been fortunate enough to attend the game, during which I described in detail its beautiful, terrifying arc over the right fielder’s head as I spun my way around the bases.
“I looked up when I got to second, and the coach was waving me on!” I declared.
“Whose kid are you again?” asked Uncle Larry.
I remember I got so confident that my father and I even took to practicing pitching, with the idea that I could take to the mound the next summer. I think we both knew that wasn’t exactly realistic — to be a pitcher you needed to be able to get the ball in the batter’s box and reach the plate, sometimes all at once — but there was something satisfying about the hours spent watching my fledgling pitches disappear into Dad’s mitt as he crouched in the yard. I think he enjoyed it too, in that way fathers enjoy doing things with their sons, even when those things make their knees feel like they’ve been gnawed by weevils.
With that in mind, I haven’t given up on doing my own crouching as I teach Tim the fine points of the game — although I may wait until he comes to me and asks. I figure if it’s his idea, like it was mine way back when, he’ll be more amenable to my ministrations. Plus, that gives me more time to re-familiarize myself with the infield fly rule, just in case he asks.
Until then, there are plenty of other things we can do together. Cookies come to mind.
Peter Chianca is a CNC managing editor; e-mail him at email@example.com. He is on hiatus until May 1; this column ran originally in 2006.