Play Ball

Before too many leaves fall and I get far into fantasy football (which means I'm walking past multi-TV bars with Jill on Sunday afternoons and fantasizing about vanishing into one for about six hours), I must remember to say that this past summer somebody taught Alex about baseball.

When we visited his daycamp in August, he took me by the hand to what appeared to be the Sports Shed, where he rooted through net bags until he game up with a fielder's glove. He wiggled his hand into it "He a lefty?" the sports counselor asked. Who knows? He hasn't thrown a ball yet. What hand does he write with? Oh yeah. Another day he came home from camp with a plastic bat, with which he tried to hit a hard ball (swing and a miss) just inches from our plate-glass window. Many times through late summer I found him looking at the color layouts of the Mets and the Yankees in the sports pages.

"Bat?" Alex would say. "Bat?"

So one evening when Ned was an overnight at his camp, I got Alex a Wiffle ball and a plastic bat and sprang for a $20 glove for a right-handed thrower. The glove came off the shelf supple, not like the cast-iron frying pan they made me wear in Junior Little League that I had to soften with 3-In-1 Oil and a rock. My whole baseball period (age 8) was a mess: the only way I ever got to base was on walks, and toward the end of our one playoff game I asked the coach why I couldn't play and he spun on me with an expression like Willem Dafoe turning into the Green Goblin in Spiderman and snarled, "Because we're trying to win, Jeff!"

My only experience with the autistic and baseball was a crystalline May day in 1987, when I covered a Special Olympics. I didn't know autism at all then - Rain Man hadn't even come out yet - and I watched a young man bat a ball off a tee (Alex played T ball last summer). I got teary, which at the time I thought was sensitive of me. Then came a tight out at second base. The runner slid into the ankles of the baseman, a tactic known as spiking and designed to force the baseman to hop off the base when he catches the ball, therefore allowing the runner to slide in safe. It's a common tactic in the majors. After the play, these two autistic players engaged in another activity common to the majors: They stood nose-to-nose and screamed at each other until one shoved the other and both benches emptied to break it up. My tears dried, thinking how good it was that they were thinking of tearing each other's heads off, just like typically-developing baseball players.

"That's a big moment," says Jill, "a dad buying his son a glove and bat."

Jill and Alex and I head to the park. I envision Jill will stand about 10 feet away and toss the ball, and I'll use hand-over-hand to help Alex grip the bat and swing. But when we get there he just wants to hold the bat and the ball and the glove. They do constitute, after all, a complete set. Then he wants to run with all three of them to the playground. And before you say anything, I don't think it's because he wants to find 17 other kids and pick up teams.

He swings once or twice with my help while Jill lobs, but soon just runs up to Jill and wants the glove. I end up tonking a few around the grass while Jill and Alex sit in the shade. She reads; he eats a tube of Saltines. Then we walk home.

On the way, the ball keeps slipping out of his glove, and when he tries to pick it up he keeps dropping the bat. He wears my baseball cap low over his eyes. Ball, bat, ball, bat. Thing is, Alex doesn't run ahead of us up the sidewalk on the way home, like he normally does, but walks slowly right with us, often behind, looking down all the while at his equipment. (October 2008)


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