Baseball season is about to begin and I confess it leaves me colder than any stone. I spent my childhood cringing from every ball that came my way, hands flying instantly to my face for protection. Later, no amount of cajoling or threatening would induce me to participate in field hockey, the sport du jour at the private girls' school I attended. With its crude sticks, dirt-encrusted pucks and fields of cold, packed mud, the game seemed Neanderthal in spirit and nothing could get me to try it. In college, I was able to avoid sports entirely, and saw no reason I could not cheerfully continue to cultivate my aversion forever.
Fast forward a couple of decades to motherhood, an experience for which no one is ever adequately prepared anyway. In my vast ignorance, I thought I would have a child who was a reader, one who would share my disdain of sports and fill both his mind and time with loftier pursuits. Wrong. Despite the fact that our son James was born into a family where one parent is a writer and the other a photographer and artist, he showed no interest in either. And although he grew up in a house where there are roughly two thousand books, many of which were read to him -- multiple times -- he was just not a reader.
But what he did love from an early age was sports. He was given his first plastic bat at the age of three. It was a fat, garishly yellow affair that was almost as tall as he was. When he gripped it in his small hands and made contact with an oncoming ball, the thrill he experienced was palpable, even to me. He begged to have balls thrown to him constantly, and when my husband was unable to comply, he took to throwing the ball at the side of the house, and catching it patiently with his mitt. When I told him that I had never done such a thing as a child, his look of amazement could not have been greater than if I'd suddenly sprouted wings.
At five, he joined the local little league and played with a seriousness rarely seen in kids his age; even the coach remarked on it. Then there was the morning he came downstairs and asked for The New York Times. From this slender thread, I immediately began weaving elaborate fantasies of his future. After all, if he asked for The Times at seven, what was next? High school valedictorian? Admission to one of the country's most prestigious universities? Career as an award-winning journalist, a diplomat, or even -- gasp -- president? But he quickly flipped to the ball scores and left the rest of the unread pages scattered everywhere, like so many kicked-through autumn leaves.
At the age of 12, James advanced to a travel team; weekends and vacations were entirely devoted to the game. I was troubled by his self-ordained hierarchy that placed sports at its very zenith. How could my son have turned out to be so different from me? Who was this bat-wielding, ball-hurling, stats-spouting kid?
And how could I find a way to relate? I valiantly tried to conjure interest in the televised sports he followed so avidly, only to remain either befuddled, bored or both. It was the same with my attempt to discuss any aspect of those games, though I certainly did make the effort. When the fabled A-Rod had his brief dalliance with Madonna, I was all over it. At last, there was something I could understand, something about which I actually had an opinion. But my son's interest in the love life of his idol was minimal. He was focused on Rodriguez the athlete; the rest was just so much blather. I had a better time of it when it came to James's own performance as a player. I always got a little rush when I saw him step up to the plate or wind up for the pitch.
By his junior year in high school, James was seen as a force with which to reckon; by senior year, he had become the school's star pitcher. His team, led in large part by his strong pitching, came into contention for the state championship. This was the first time in 11 years they had advanced so far, and everyone was suitably pumped. But right before the last three crucial games, we learned that James's name had been left off the roster due to a clerical error. The league rules clearly stated that unless the player's name was submitted on said roster, the player was ineligible to participate, and no amount of begging or campaigning on my part could change that.
My husband and I were furious; our son, deeply disappointed. But he donned his uniform, and went to all three of the games from which he had been excluded on a mere technicality, cheering his team loudly. When they snagged the coveted title, I asked if he felt bitter. "Mom, I don't care whether I got to play or not," he said. "What I care about is whether the team won -- and we did!" Later, the head of school took me aside. "Your son was magnificent," he said. "He could have refused to attend those games. I would have understood that; we all would. Instead, he thought of the team, not himself. The other players were so moved by his support; I know it helped them win." I had to marvel: not only had James's love of the game developed his body and mind, it had developed his moral compass as well.
His baseball prowess helped get James into college, where he joined the team as a freshman only to be cut as a sophomore. By then, the game was such an integral part of his identity that his father and I worried about how he would cope. Turned out he was way ahead of us. "Playing ball was great," he told me. "But that chapter's over and a new chapter's begun." When he saw that I still looked concerned he added, "Don't worry Mom. I'll be able to buckle down and get serious about my schoolwork." Which is exactly what happened: he graduated with a 3.8 average and departmental honors in both History and American Studies; right now he's about to graduate from law school in May, and in September he'll join the prestigious, midtown firm where he's landed a job.
And me? Although I am no more able to tell a pop up from a fly ball, I have a softer, broader view of jocks in general. And when I find myself slipping into my former disdain, I like to remember a particular baseball game, played more than 10 years ago, in Brooklyn's Prospect Park. The afternoon was cloudless and blue, and the green of field was ringed by the deeper green of the encircling trees. Parents lazed on the sidelines, chatting easily as they watched the kids play.
Off in the distance, I watched with idle interest as the batter smacked the ball. The kid had power, and sent it sailing across the expanse of the field. One of the opposing players moved in for the catch, an easy, fluid gesture that for some inexplicable reason brought me to tears. Was it the grace with which the boy had reached for the ball? The confidence with which he had caught it? The perfect synchronization of eye and hand, arm and leg? I was still musing on this when I realized that the catcher was none other than my 10-year-old son James. He had stepped into the ball's oncoming arc -- and into his own young life -- without a second's hesitation. What a gorgeous moment, not only for him, but also for his proud mother as she watched.