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The Boy Asked His Father: ‘What’s Catch? Was It Fun?’

TIME: The Year 2009

PLACE: Anywhere in Orange County

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A father and son are in the back yard of their home, playing badminton. The boy, 7, runs deep into the corner, almost into the bushes, but makes a successful backhand swat of the birdie over the net. “Good return, son!” his father says. “You’re getting better every day.”

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The son beams. “I want to play for the Hummingbirds when I grow up. Most of the guys at school want to play pro horseshoes, but I told ‘em I’m going to play badminton.”

“You keep this up, and you might make it,” his father replies.

“Dad, when you were a kid, did you and Grandpa play badminton?”

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His father grew silent and looked away. Several seconds passed before he spoke.

“No, son, we used to play catch.”

“What’s catch?” his son asked.

“Well,” his father said, “catch was part of a game called baseball. You’d stand maybe 20 or 30 feet apart and toss a ball back and forth and catch it in a leather glove so you wouldn’t hurt your hand.”

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“Was it fun?”

The father brought his son over to the porch and they sat down together.

“It was the greatest, son. When I’d play catch with your grandpa, even if we didn’t talk we were connected because we each had an unspoken responsibility to the other to throw and catch. Just the two of us, nobody else around, and you both had to depend on the other. Just having your dad play catch with you meant he trusted you. At least that’s how I looked at it. I’m not sure I can explain it to you, but just catching a ball thrown to you by your father was an experience that’s hard to put into words. Every time I’d catch and throw the ball back, I knew I had done good, even if he didn’t say anything.”

“It’s kinda hard to talk during badminton, isn’t it, Dad?”

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“Yeah,” the father said, smiling. “It’s not quite the same.”

“You said there was a game called baseball? What happened to it?”

“That’s a long story. I hate to even think about it. It was the greatest game ever invented. It was one of the greatest things ever invented. They played it for more than 100 years and then one summer the players quit playing because they wanted more money. And they never started up again because the people who hired them wouldn’t give it to them. It made the public mad, because the players were making a million dollars to play.”

“Players made a million dollars?” the boy asked. “And they quit playing? They must have really been greedy. My friend says the Hummingbirds’ best player only gets $50 a game.”

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“They were greedy back then, but it was more complicated than that. It’s not like today, where sports aren’t that important. Players then made more money than they could ever spend in their lifetimes, but they convinced themselves there was a principle involved.”

“Aren’t principles about right and wrong?”

“Right. Believe me, son, principle had nothing to do with killing baseball. But the other part I didn’t tell you is that the people who hired the players were greedy, too. They started paying players a lot of money, because they wanted to win more games, and pretty soon things got out of control. I’ve talked to you before about how too much money can make people do bad things.”

The father could tell his son was perplexed.

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“It was confusing to people at the time, too, son. The players blamed the owners for ruining baseball, and the owners blamed the players. Pretty soon, the public just got sick of the whole thing. It didn’t really matter who was right or wrong, because with so much money involved, ordinary people didn’t like either side. They loved baseball for entertainment and relaxation. The players and owners took that away from them, and the public didn’t forgive them because they realized that neither side cared about them. After a year or so, everybody just quit talking about baseball and it died.”

“Where did the owners get all their money to pay the players?”

“TV networks paid them, and millions of people would go watch games in person. It’s hard to explain to you, son, how much people loved baseball. It’s not like the Hummingbirds. People loved sports back in those days, and they talked about baseball year-round. That’s why everybody was so mad when they quit playing.”

“Do you miss baseball, Dad?”

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“I used to. But not anymore. I just don’t think about it anymore.”

The boy sat quietly, sensing that he had made his father unhappy.

“We better get back to playing, son. It’s getting dark.”

“OK, Dad,” the boy said, resuming his position across the net. He whacked the birdie to his father.

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The sound of the birdie on the racket made a weak “pfft” sound. The boy’s father closed his eyes and tried to remember a sweeter sound--no, the sweetest sound--the sound of the crack of a bat on a baseball.

But try as he might, he could summon only a distant echo from the recesses of his memory, from a time long ago when people used to play a game called baseball.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.


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