I’ve noted with great frequency over the past couple of weeks how important family is and I don’t think I can really overstate that, especially considering what I’ve been through over the last week and a half. The only way I know how to relate these feelings is through a story, so I thought I’d share one that is very close to my heart. It’s from my book, “Indian Summer” and it’s called “That’s my Grandpa.”
When I was growing up it was fairly commonplace, as it has undoubtedly been common for generations before me, for adults to view sports as one of the most meaningful pursuits that a young male can embark upon. Indeed, my grandpa’s first concern when I was born was relegated to what control my parents and even some doctors had over whether or not I would be a southpaw or not. Lefties, at least in Grandpa’s day, had a certain advantage over righties as they were less common and considered better batters in certain situations in baseball. Life, for Grandpa, was all about baseball. It was thus only natural that Grandpa’s first musings about me would be related to my competence in the exercise of his favorite sport.
Although I have little recollection of it, people tell me that much of my first five years on this Earth were spent learning the arts and sciences of baseball with Grandpa. I remember spending time with him at that age, but what exactly we were doing is still not expressly clear to me. I do remember going into my first little league game with an uncanny knowledge of baseball and an ability to play the sport that even my coaches found intimidating. That’s why they didn’t use my skills as often as they should have, Grandpa would say.
“They haven’t seen this kind of talent around the baseball diamond since they were in diapers,” Grandpa said. “The last time they saw anyone who knew what they were doing on the field was at their last professional baseball game.” I took comfort in that assessment.
As we practiced day in and day out, Grandpa was horrified by the equality demonstrated towards all of the players on my team at what he saw as the expense of the better players.
“Ted Williams could be out there hitting dingers into the outfield and they’d bench the guy for taking valuable playing time away from the kid who can’t even raise the bat over his shoulders,” Grandpa mentioned to me while in close proximity to the coaching staff.
“Why are you making these kids run around the bases?” Grandpa asked. “It’s not like they’re going to be doing this in a game time situation. That would require them to first get on base.”
I was the only player on the team to bring multiple bats and multiple gloves with me to practice. Some players questioned the wisdom of having such equipment at a practice, but I reasoned that if I couldn’t use it in practice, I shouldn’t use it during a game. As we approached our first game, it became frighteningly apparent that my skills were not going to be correctly utilitzed on the baseball field. Grandpa pled my case in earnest.
“How is he going to be effective if you’ve got him playing in the outfield?” Grandpa asked. “It’s not like any of the kids are going to hit a ball out there.”
The coaching staff quickly did away with the niceties that they had extended to Grandpa at practice. They didn’t even want Grandpa in the stands during the game, saying that it would detract from the team effort that is required to win a game.
“Win?” Grandpa asked. “How is that going to come about? It sure as heck isn’t going to happen with your best player wasting his time in the outfield.”
Grandpa didn’t let his pessimism get the better of him and he quickly figured out a way to use his banishment from the stands to his advantage. Before the game, Grandpa told me to try my best not to let the coach’s ignorance get the better of me and rightly pointed out that whatever happened it was best to just sit back and enjoy the game. He told me that there wasn’t really any point to expending any energy in the field as according to Grandpa’s scouting report, no one on the opposing team had the muscle to hit a ball into the outfield. Grandpa said that I should save my energy for when I’m on the base paths and that it would probably be best if I just sat down when I was in the outfield, so tha’s what I did. As the coaches looked on in a manner that can only be described as mortified, Grandpa loaded up his crutches and headed out to an area along the third base line that was masked in bushes and other shrubbery where he spied on the pitcher and catcher with a pair of binoculars. He watched the signs between the pitcher, catcher and infielders and took notes. When it was time for me to bat, Grandpa told me their signs.
“Listen,” Grandpa said. “These kids aren’t too bright. ‘One’ indicates a fastball, ‘two’ is a change-up, and ‘three’ is a curveball. Look out for the curveball because not only does it move significantly from one end of the batter’s box to the other, it doesn’t come anywhere close to the strike zone. Remember, when in doubt, duck.”
The coaches insisted that I bring a helmet with me into the batter’s box. Grandpa scoffed.
“If that idiot somehow hits him with one of his pitches, he’ll need more than a helmet to protect him from the damage that will be unleashed upon him,” Grandpa said with a ferocity usually reserved for angry preachers.
As I walked into the batter’s box, I dug my cleats in marking an area about one foot in front of me by dashing my foot across it, marking the point where Grandpa said his breaking ball would dive if he had somehow learned how to through a decent breaking ball. My fingers clenched together around the base of the bat and I awaited my first pitch. The pitcher took his time, waving through at least five signals from his catcher until finally coming to a reluctant agreement with his teammate. He clasped the ball with the edges of his fingers, placed the ball in his glove and delivered the ball to home plate. As the ball left his hands, I could tell that it took the pitcher by surprise. I also noticed that the ball was headed right for me and had no chance of coming anywhere close to the plate. I dropped the bat and put my arms out in front of me as I attempted to hit the deck. The ball hit me on the top of my head as I tried to make it to the ground. I laid there on the ground in immeasurable pain, somehow still conscious. It seemed like forever before anyone had the courage to make their way over to me. As I tried to open my eyes, the only thing visible to me was what looked like a long piece of metal tubing. It was Grandpa’s crutch. He took my head into his hands and placed the top of my head against the cool steel of his crutch. The coaches demanded that Grandpa get away from me, so that they could see the extent of my injury, but Grandpa refused.
“This is a crisis situation,” Grandpa said cooly.
“I don’t care if it’s World War Three,” my coach said, “you’re not a doctor.”
“You’re right, but that’s my grandson” Grandpa said, “I stormed fourteen islands in service to my country and if there is one thing that I know how to do it is how to take care of a wounded man before a doctor arrives.”
The coaches didn’t have much to say after that. As an ambulance finally arrived on the scene and they asked me if I could speak I did my best to nod my head. When pressed to say something, I said: “that’s my Grandpa.”