Both my boys have found sports. We’re not sure where they get it. Jill skates. When I was 12 I played defensive end in Pop Warner. Earlier I’d played Farm League baseball; I sat on the bench all through our one playoff game and when I got up late in the game to ask the coach why I wasn’t playing, he snapped, “Because we’re trying to win, Jeff!” I gave up baseball.
In adulthood, at least until this summer, athletics mostly meant I understood fewer sentences from Ned, who lives for high school JV football. “In practice today,” he said last fall, “I was playing shallow corner and they flooded the zone, so I grabbed a pick and took it to the house.”
You what, Ned? What are you, in The Sting?
He does have an eye for the game. Ned and were watching a Redskins game in a bar when a guy tapped me on the shoulder. “If I ever can’t find where the ball is on the screen,” he said, “I watch your son.” Other times we’ll be home watching a game and, before the snap, he’ll describe what players on both sides of the ball will do in the coming play. He’s usually right. They say Emmitt Smith did that when he was 2.
Ned’s taken QB reps (...you go flood the zone ...) in off-season practice, which I felt fine about until his team hosted a recent benefit pancake breakfast and I got reminded of how many guys on his team look like just plain big. The first time I watched Ned walk onto a field in a football uniform, at a scrimmage 10 months ago, I called out “Roll Tech!” from the sideline. Ned glanced and nodded toward me, slight and curt like Boba Fett in Jabba’s castle. My son was gone a little bit.
Later in that game he lined up at cornerback, and before the snap of his first play Ned eagled-eyed the other team’s quarterback like a hawk. Too bad: The offensive receiver, a vet (much as 10th grade has veterans), noticed that he didn’t have Ned’s attention and, at the snap, rammed the heels of his palms into Ned’s shoulder pads.
A good clean hit, it sent Ned on his back and got his head into the game, where it remains today (sometimes to the exclusion of Spanish and algebra). I tell Ned to go into coaching: all the free tickets and none of the concussions.
Alex likes baseball. His residence school put him on their team and he plays every Saturday. All week, they tell us, he says “baseball” and asks for “Coach Mike.”
Sports in Alex’s world are both different yet remarkably similar to sports in Ned’s. Years ago, for example, I covered a Special Olympics ballgame in Brooklyn. They used a T ball stand, sort of a tall golf tee for a baseball. There were cheers and medals aplenty – the introductory levels of Special Olympics stress enjoyment and achievement above all – but when the kid sliding into second tried to spike the baseman’s ankles, the two players went nose to nose just like in the majors.
Jill phoned me a few mornings ago. “Alex’s teacher just called,” she said. “They’ve got a field trip today. They’re going to a minor league baseball game. Guess who’s throwing out the first pitch? It’s somebody you know.”
Chris Fleming? He’s a rising comedian (“Gayle” is the best thing on YouTube) and he had a Super Bowl commercial, so it’s possible. “No, it’s somebody you know personally.”
I find out too late to blow off work and go – Alex’s teacher promises videos and photos, and says Alex will meet a Yankees pitcher recovering in the minors as well as the most likely prospect to move up to the Bombers this season, infielder Rob Refsnyder. (I ask my friend Jon, who bleeds Bosox red, if he’d like an autograph. No reply yet.)
I feel sad and then decide that I want Alex to have this for himself. If we showed up he’d might want to leave the stadium and get some chicken fingers in a coffee shop. “I’m very excited for Alex,” his teacher emails, “and his new-found love for baseball.” I’m proud of Alex, pride with a seedling of relief; I had nothing to do with him getting a ball in his hand in that stadium.
I’m not sure who his team (“Dodgers”) plays, but from where I stood behind first base at the last game I saw him on his team’s bench, rocking on his feet and just another of the guys in supernaturally bright blue sports jersey. Alex didn’t watch the game while his team batted. He didn’t wear a cap.
Then I watched Alex bat. He held the wood out as if holding a flag at an assmbly; the thick plastic batting helmet slid over his eyes. This was one of the first times I ever saw him when he needed armor. His para guided his arms and whispered to him when to swing, but still Alex didn’t even turn his head as the slow pitch floated past – something he didn’t quite comprehend. The infield was quiet; some of the other players were watching him bat.
Soon the other team came to bat and Alex and his para took third. He looked good in a glove, and when giggling he tossed a grounder back to the pitcher what he lacked in power and direction he made up for in a love of throwing. He also seemed to love running the bases. (No surprise: Not long ago he was six years old and I was trying to catch him in Central Park. It was like trying to catch a dragonfly.)
I help him his next time up; I put my hands over his on the bat. “Okay, Alex, hold it like this, right here… Watch the pitcher.” We whiff one slow ball, chip the second, then on the third pitch Alex’s hands on the wood arch the lumber across his waist and connect with a tonk. “Run to first, Alex!” He does. A good clean hit to get him into the game.