Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Little Leaguers: First Catch

My 4-year-old nephew Jack posed a question as soon as I opened the car door.

“Uncle Daniel, can you play baseball with me when we get home?”

A younger Jack ready to play ball

I collapsed into the passenger seat. I craned my body around to answer and say hello to him and my nieces Katie and Madeline (2 years old and 7 months, respectively), all of whom had made the trip with my older brother Tom to pick me up from the New Haven train station.

I winced immediately.

My neck was sore. My back was sore. My legs were cramped. My skin was pink. I could barely lift my arm. I had played two softball games with the Noreasters in the wretched humidity oven that is Hudson River Park. I had moved to shortstop earlier in the season, so I was constantly moving on every play. I was cranky, hungry, and pissed we’d badly lost two games. Two hours on a Metro North train hadn’t helped.

All that faded when I saw Jack’s eager brown eyes looking back at me from the far backseat of Tom’s minivan.

“Sure, Jack!”

He wasn’t done asking questions. He never is. Jack’s mind works in such a constant state of overdrive that his parents worry they are raising a future insomniac. He asks questions so fast that you think he’s not processing your answers before he asks another (but he is because he’ll be quick to correct you if you later change your story).

“Did you ride on a high-speed train? Did your train have a lot of cars? Where are you going to sleep tonight? Do you like playing baseball? Can I have some chips?”

His normal interrogation was thrown off when I started devouring the potato chips Tom had brought me.

Tom explained to Jack that he could have some when we got home since we couldn’t reach him, but sneaked several to Katie. She was closer and started wearing him down as soon as she caught on there was food to be had (like any true Ford).

“I wanna ‘nother one,” Katie said.

“We’re almost home. The bag is empty anyway,” Tom said.

“I wanna feel the bag,” Katie demanded.

She was yelling that at Tom when I hopped out of the car to pick up Coronas and limes (essential all-night videogame-playing groceries). She was still yelling at him when I came back in. She continued the entire two-minute drive home. We pulled into the garage right just as Tom was about to blow his brains out. He had barely put the minivan in park before handing Katie the obviously full bag. I’m not sure if her wide smile indicated she was happier that she had (yet again) caught her dad in a lie or that she now had all the chips in her grasp.

Jack, on the other hand, was out of the car in a flash. He quickly collected his soft bat and a bag of tennis balls. He plopped a plastic home plate on the driveway. He raised the bat up to his shoulders and got into his stance.

I was still in the minivan.

And I was slow in moving out of it. This was much too slow for Jack.

“I’m wearing a bathing suit, so I’m going to play in the water while you get ready Uncle Daniel!”

Jack tossed off his t-shirt and proceeded to splash around in the kiddies’ pool.

“Jack, can I use my glove to pitch to you?” I asked.

He thought for a minute and happily nodded his approval.

I took a deep breath. The inside of my glove was still damp with sweat as I slid my hand in. I smacked my fist into the palm.

It was like the previous eight hours had never happened.

I wasn’t tired anymore. I could feel the adrenaline wiping away every sore joint and muscle. I didn’t feel cranky, hungry, or pissed. I felt ready.

I was fired up…to pitch to a 4-year-old.

He was ready too. He smiled as he swung and missed at my first couple of underhand tosses. He didn’t complain and he bounded after each stray ball. He finally connected on one and my instincts prompted my once tired legs to hustle after it.

“Wow!” Jack yelled. “Daddy can’t run that fast.”

“He sure can’t, buddy,” I said.

“Well, only if it’s downhill,” he added.

Jack took a few more swings before he changed his mind about what we were doing.

“Can you help me put on my cool baseball glove?” He asked.

He gave the pool a splash as he made his way over to me. I undid the Velcro on his glove and he smushed his hand in. After I tightened the strap, he slapped his hand in the palm like he had seen me do and rushed to the other end of the driveway.

My first throw missed his outreached glove and hit him gently in the chest. Jack giggled as he tore after the ball. It landed in the grass and he bent down to pick it up with his glove. The grass was long, so he tried and failed a few times.

What a difference a year makes...

“Hey Jack, when the ball’s on the ground, you can pick it up with your bare hand,” I said. “That way you’re in a better position to throw the ball after making an error.”

It just kind of popped out. I realized I was trying to give baseball advice to a 4-year-old who would take a 10-minute break to carefully inspect a worm that had wandered into our game. Besides, he ended up catching only a few of my throws, so he had to get some use out of his glove somehow.

However, he threw the ball pretty damn hard and accurately for his age. He laughed out loud every time the ball skipped by him. He beamed excitedly every time the tennis ball would hop right into his glove. I would pump my fist in the air each time it happened, making him smile even more broadly.

“Uncle Daniel, you can sleep in my room tonight,” he said as we wound down our first catch together.

“Thanks, Jack, that’s very nice of you,” I said.

He dropped everything where he stood and rushed into the house to get ready for dinner. I cleaned up everything for him, still high from ending the day on a good note.

After putting on an eating display (as Tom said, Pépère would have been proud of that fact that I took down a sausage and two hot dogs), Jack dutifully provided me with a pillow and blanket to put on the air mattress that was now blown up at the foot of his bed.

“Jack, are you excited to have a roommate?” Tom asked.

“Yes!” Jack yelled exuberantly.

He celebrated by jumping up and down on the air mattress as Madeline clapped excitedly from her perch on his bed.

“You can have this to sleep with,” Jack said. He handed me his Lighting McQueen stuffed animal. I knew how much the movie Cars meant to him, so I was very honored.

Although he wasn’t thrilled that I wasn’t going to bed at the same time as he was (Madden 2010 and Lego Star Wars weren’t going to play themselves into the wee hours of the morning), he let me go without complaint after I read two books to him.

“Uncle Daniel?” Jack asked as I was leaving his room.


“Did you miss us?”

I smiled.

“Yes, Jack,” I said. “Did you miss me?”

“Yes!” He replied. “I’m going to wake you up tomorrow and we can finish our puzzle!”

I didn’t cringe at the thought of Jack stomping all over me at an ungodly hour of the morning. I knew that even though I’d be cranky, sore, and sleepy, that Jack would make it all go away with his first questions of the day.

And like the day before, I’d be ready with answers.

Playing baseball with Pépère