Father's Day Memoir: The Inches We Need
On a typical Saturday afternoon in America, in April, I witnessed a remarkable failure: my 11-year-old son’s baseball team blew a nine-run lead in the final inning.
Up 11-2, the Pirates lost to the A’s, 12-11, an instant classic in the Majors division of Richmond Little League in Richmond, Virginia. I walked along the sidewalk that encircles the baseball fields of Byrd Park—a place where, like the natural world itself, spring thrusts young people into the uneasy throes of growth.
Beside me, his face perpendicular to the ground, his mind in the grip of sport’s cruelties, my son traveled through a wave of compounding emotions—failure, yes, but also: disappointment, sadness, shock and disbelief. The various intruders had overtaken his body. This dad could only watch as his son’s eyes began to see water.
In that climactic inning, when the Pirates were desperately clinging, he had been oh-so-close to making a game-ending, and game-saving, catch at shortstop. He only needed an inch, in fact. Honestly, one inch. I couldn’t help but channel that Al Pacino-delivered truism from “Any Given Sunday” (albeit, a football movie): “The inches we need are everywhere around us.”
As fate would have it, one week later, I bent down to stick my face up against the chain-link fence at the John B. Cary Elementary baseball field—a field directly across from Byrd Park. On the other side of the fence, sitting there on a strip of aluminum bench in the dugout, my 6-year-old son was utterly dismayed—he, too, had become a member of the watery-eyes club.
His inaugural season in the Machine-Pitch division, my youngest was groping with the first two-strikeout game of his budding baseball career. Half-dazed, with a sniffle, he looked at me squarely as if to assess: “So this is how it feels to come up short even when you try so hard?” Naturally I mumbled something about strikeouts being part of the game—you know: part of the learning—even as I hoped like mad he’d get that inch he needed the next time he held a bat.
In the early 21st century, my personal love-affair with this national pastime is undoubtedly in a protracted lover’s quarrel—mostly due, of course, to that stubborn narrative concerning performance-enhancing drugs as well as that accompanying tale concerning that other pastime: self-deception. The dark side of inch-getting, to be sure.
Notwithstanding, the game originally caught—and held—my eye in suburban Dallas, Texas. Baseball wasn’t particularly my dad’s thing, but by some quirk in the Garland residential planning codes, a relatively large empty lot sat between my family’s house and our immediate neighbor’s. Minus the Midwestern rows of corn and the eerie whispers emanating from dead baseball players, this lot was always poised to become a craggy field of dreams.
In my 10-year-old memory, in 1983, summers in Texas were defined by neighborhood pick-up games in the side lot. These games would last well into twilight, with my mom’s sweet tea providing the occasional break in the action. During the Reagan-era economic boom, I remember the stand-out day when—suddenly!—an apartment complex appeared behind our house, and voila, a perfect home-run wall. It was, indeed, a trickle-down effect.
On the boring days when games never materialized, I was known to throw a tennis ball against the apartment complex wall for hours, playing a baseball version of solitaire in a world still anticipating Sony PlayStation. I pitched through entire lineups and played marathon games—complete with diving catches in a fictional short-center and clutch extra-base hits down the imaginary line in right.
Meanwhile, in that 10-11-12 age range, I also played the game formally for teams named US Steel, Garland Roofing and Roy's Sporting Goods. My best friend’s dad coached one of the teams—and he was a passionate baseball man. He knew the veritable inches of the game, had a quick wit and a fiery temper to boot, dipped tobacco and generously took us to Texas Rangers games.
A few years later, after my family moved to Ohio and after my sporting attentions moved to basketball, my best friend flew up to visit me. Before we had exited the airport parking lot, he told me that his dad was dead. My former baseball coach had been driving extremely fast while intoxicated, ran into a barrier in the highway median and threw himself from his truck some two hundred feet.
Vulnerable, of watery eyes, my best friend stared at me. I could see he was hoping for inches.
In the pantheon of sports, baseball is certainly not unique in its capacity to teach—that is, to reveal—especially through the often unforgiving context of failure. But I still prefer baseball’s peculiar way: its deliberateness; the incremental (base to base); its no-clock-in-sight; the movement from spring to fall, its accumulations over the seasons.
The truth is, I can no sooner control or actually provide the inches my sons need to make the catch or to get the hit than my best friend could ultimately control or provide the inches his dad needed to save his own life. Yet, as I confront the thought more fully upon Father’s Day, it is this profound inability—a dad's inevitable dis-empowerment—that creates a precise opportunity. In this exact space, if we help our sons to know where to look, they can discover the inches they’ll surely need in order to accept the failure that will surely come.
This space must be where the overcoming becomes possible and the transformation awaits.