Stealing My Heart
By Tim Madigan
Illustration by Jeffrey Smith
Every generation, every season, the mysterious language of baseball unites fathers and sons.
One night about two years ago, while I was lying in our bedroom watching the Texas Rangers on television, my 7-year-old son came in with a question. "Can I watch with you?" Patrick asked.
Of course he could, I said. He crawled up on the bed, where in past years he might have watched a pitch or two, lost interest and disappeared. But this night he wanted to know the score, and the questions kept coming after that. What's a grand slam? An error? Why can that man steal? What's a double play? Thus it seemed that a watershed moment in our lives had come.
Sure enough, Patrick was back beside me for the next night's ball game. And the game after that. Before long, he could tell you that his favorite Ranger, Pudge Rodriguez, hit after Will Clark in the batting order, and he worried when Pudge missed a few games with a sprained ankle. Patrick eventually knew every player in the Rangers lineup. He cheered Rangers runs and groaned with me when innings went sour. Then, around the fourth or fifth inning, he would get sleepy.
"I'm going to bed now," Patrick would say, sliding off the bed and trudging to his room. But it was drowsiness that took him from the game now, not lack of interest.
My wife noticed the change, too.
"All of a sudden, Patrick has become such a guy," she said.
Which was true. But something more than guyness had happened. I had long vowed to let my son's passions and interests take him where they may, to not try to create a replica of myself. But I hoped nonetheless that he would come to enjoy a few things I did. The outdoors, for one thing. Baseball, for another. Playing catch. Rooting for the major-league team. Box scores. Baseball as I've loved it since I was old enough to swing a plastic bat.
Maybe it happened through osmosis, with all the hours I've spent watching baseball at home, studying batting averages in the morning paper. But it happened. Patrick loved baseball.
"Is Pudge's ankle still hurt?" he asked one night.
"Yeah, but he'll be back in a few games."
Funny how answering such a simple question can give a father such joy.
It is a cliché, I know, the ties between baseball and fathers and their children. But with this cliché, no matter how much you scrub it, the golden sheen never wears off. Each generation experiences it anew. I know for a fact there is nothing trite about spending evenings watching baseball with your kid.
For baseball is more than a game. It is a language created especially for dads. Too often, we men are struck dumb when it comes to our children. Mothers know more intuitively which words will penetrate young hearts and minds. Dads hem and haw, a little bewildered by little people, at a loss as to how to relate to them. We love our children as much as mothers, but generally have a much harder time expressing it.
So God gave us baseball, a language to suit all occasions.
Writer Roger Kahn, for great example, tells of his boyhood in the 1930s, when his father was ordered (by his mother) to explain the birds and the bees. Kahn's father bought his son a baseball, took him to the park, and started hitting grounders instead.
While recovering from a boyhood case of scarlet fever, my friend [retired Fort Worth Star-Telegram book editor] Larry Swindell memorized a slew of baseball statistics, thereby dazzling a baseball-loving father who had pretty much ignored him before.
"Without baseball, I never would have gotten through to him," Larry told me. "That's why I became a baseball fan."
My own father worked long hours when I was a kid. He was tired when he got home, his attention badly splintered in a family that would grow to seven children. But there was one time when I knew I had his undivided attention. He would take a glove, and pace off the distance, and squat down like a catcher, pounding his mitt, holding it up for me as a target. I had a lively left arm as a kid, could make the air hiss as I fired the ball toward him.
Sometimes I made his hand burn and he would pull off his glove and shake it. But he looked at me approvingly as I practiced my pitching. As a kid, those looks were more precious to me than gold. In memory, they still are.
Take me out to the ball game
Now I speak the language of baseball to my son, who is a guy. We play catch in the street, or take batting practice at the park. Often it is a wordless conversation between us, lying next to each other on summer nights, pitch after pitch, inning after inning until Patrick grows weary. We are blissfully content but always expectant, waiting for a Rangers home run.
It was suggested to Patrick at the time that we wait until September, when the weather had cooled some, to attend a Rangers game in person.
"I can't wait that long," he had said in all of his newfound guyness.
Turned out there was no way I could have waited that long, either. Patrick had been to the ballpark several times in the years past, but only as a child, not as a guy. A toddler, for instance, cannot appreciate the walk from the parking lot to the stadium, a happy pilgrimage with the hundreds of other fans, or the meaty smells of the concession stands inside, or the buzz of the pregame crowd in the bustling concourse. A guy can.
We rode up on two escalators that night at The Ballpark, climbed to the upper deck, and finally passed through the portal, looking down as if from the lip of a great canyon to a spectacularly green oasis far below, where the Dodgers and Rangers ran their pregame sprints. Patrick's jaw dropped then. Mine, too. I think a memory was made.
We found our seats and watched fly balls arch poetically into outfielders' gloves, infielders pick hot shots from the dirt, a Dodgers home run. Patrick went through a bag of peanuts, a bag of popcorn, and two Cokes by the end of the fourth inning. In the sixth, my friend Danny bought his son, D. J., and Patrick ice cream, which they immediately applied from chin to forehead. We all lost the scoreboard dot race. Every so often came a breeze to soften the hot night. We sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the seventh-inning stretch.
I doubt that in 30 years Patrick will recall that the Rangers lost, 4-1. But I know he will remember the night. Every so often, I found myself watching him instead of the game, the toothless grin, the freckles, the big blue eyes twinkling in the stadium's artificial light. We spoke the language of baseball that night, words that went straight to my heart.
As I sat beside him in the ballpark, it occurred to me that there are times when nine innings aren't nearly enough.
Tim Madigan is a Fort Worth Star-Telegram staff writer. Reprint courtesy of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
May-June 2000 Table of Contents
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