Catch: An essential parenting tool

How does a man of letters and words connect with his children? With a baseball, of course.

Since I got my girls their first baseball gloves–and the day I wanted to be so special didn’t turn out exactly as planned–we’ve been spending not insignificant time in the yard, learning how to catch and throw. For all they know, this is the whole of baseball. For now, it’s all they need to know.

When we first found out we were expecting, I wondered how in the world I would ever build a relationship with my children. I studied philosophy and theology and enjoy literature, writing, pre-war blues and baseball, none of which would mean much of anything to a child (unless by blues, of course, we mean Blue’s Clues). I’m not discussing BABIP with my kids or the overshadowed merits of Sidney Bechet or how Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be has tremendous resonance and value for religious types even today.

So, we reduce to the one thing that might capture their interest: Hegelian dialectic Baseball.

‘Dada, can we go outside and play baseball?’

If there is any proof for Locke’s tabula rasa, it is in children trying to put a baseball glove on the wrong hand.

They’re four, so it’s not like they have their lefts and rights down yet, but one might think that it’s not such a complicated matter when it’s not something like shoes. One glove, so one time on one hand should do it, right?

Wrong.

The idea of playing catch is not the same as, say, throwing a frisbee or a football. For both of those things–for most of us, at least–it is essentially a one-handed operation and two-handed reception. We catch with one hand and throw with the other (except Jim Abbott, of course). I had the hardest time thinking that I was on the left side of the plate and bat right-handed. Home plate is, really, the back of the playing field, not the front. Baseball itself exists in abstraction, as David Bentley Hart so majestically described in First Things in 2010. I can let the wrong hand for the glove thing slide, I guess.

I learned to play catch with a tennis ball and my mother on the receiving end. Tennis balls weren’t as unforgiving as a regulation ball and they could be more easily thrown by someone with the arm-strength of an uncooked strand of pasta. I remember the first time I actually caught the ball: I finally learned to not be afraid of it, to follow its path and close the glove around it. It was like Edison and the light bulb, or the phonograph. The abstract became real, two people joined in the holy act of playing catch.

I’d like to think the Trinity is a well-turned double play, that is if I believed in the Trinity. (I’m a modalist: God is an unassisted triple play. I digress.)

I remember the one time my father tried playing catch with me in my inaugural Little League practice. He was not yet fully rehabilitated from car collision-induced surgery and could neither throw nor catch. He had to sit on the sidelines–at the risk of mixing metaphors with a game which has none–and watch his son try to figure the game out.

And, since I’m down filial memory lane, my grandmother’s offensive exploits in outstate Minnesota church picnic softball games is the stuff of legend. She couldn’t run for anything, but could she rake! My fondest memory: her, at her kitchen table in the summer, with WCCO’s booming signal and Herb Carneal on the air calling Twins games. Later, when she and my grandfather moved closer to my family in Wisconsin, she would still sit at the kitchen table in the summer with the radio, trying to pull CCO in from 200 miles away. I’d like to think she’d be proud of my choice of semi-serious hobby.

I’d like to think she’d be sitting on my deck, smiling as her grandson struggled mightily to get her great-granddaughters to figure out how to catch a ball.

The faux baseballs that came with the girls’ first gloves are essentially foam. Throwing one is not that far off from throwing a wad of toilet paper. The slightest wind sends it off course, every toss straight out of the hand of Hoyt Wilhelm or Tim Wakefield. How is anybody going to learn from that?

I floated the idea of using a real ball. My wife barely let the words float in the air before she shot that down.

‘FULL ARM-O-TATION!’

E took to throwing pretty well. I, not so much. E‘s throws are straight and generally on the mark, with the requisite few throws directly into the ground or off about 30 degrees from her intended target. I, being the father par excellence that I am, try to coach them as best I can, reaching my kids where they are in terms they’ll understand.

“Look the ball into the glove!” “Don’t be afraid of the ball!” “Remember, full arm rotation!”

None of that has sunk in. They’re four. But they love shouting ‘FULL ARM-O-TATION!’ when they throw. It’s their ‘Remember the Alamo!’, without Bowie knives and the like.

I struggles with throwing the ball. She doesn’t use her whole arm, so the ball typically flops to the ground or flies wildly elsewhere. She gets easily discouraged, especially when we’re alternating turns and E pretty much has throwing the ball figured out. The last few times we’ve gone out to the yard for a catch, she would rip off her glove and walk away defeated, opting for her bike instead. If she can’t do this, she will do something she knows she can.

This is familiar to me because it is me in a nutshell.

The challenge isn’t how to teach my child how to throw and catch a baseball. The challenge is how to communicate with my daughter and figure out how to overcome the obstacles that have become impassable in my own life. How do I accentuate the best parts of myself in her (baseball being chief amongst what scant few there are) while mitigating the weed corn already present in kernel form? How do I teach her the value of persistence–even of throwing this stupid excuse for a baseball–without becoming a drill sergeant?

It’s easier for me to play catch with E, so I tend to play catch with her. It’s not easy to play catch with I, so I am reticent to.

This is familiar to me because it is me.

None of this is really about learning to play baseball. None of the things we did as children with our parents have much to do with the things themselves. None of the things we do now have much of anything to do with the things themselves, lest we be social solipsists or lack that much in basic humanity. We crave community in whatever form it takes: healthy or unhealthy, productive or destructive, better or worse.

I remember playing catch with my mother because it was with my mother. I remember the road trip with my brother to Florida because Carlos Lee and Nelson Cruz were traded for a bag of used batting gloves and some leftover Texas Rangers game programs from 1998 somewhere near Paducah because it was with my brother. I remember watching my dad work in his workshop in the basement, playing with a tape measure to see how far it could extend before bending, because I was with him. I remember going through the backroads of Alabama with my wife shortly after we were married.

I remember my little girls being born, one facing death straight in the eyes. I remember looking at my son for the first time, wondering how my dad’s face was on such a tiny body.

I persist in teaching them how to catch a baseball because I want them to know that, more than anything, I wanted to be in their lives, in the most important community of all.

And the looks on their faces when they first caught the ball–E a few weeks ago, I just last week–are secondary.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

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