It was a baseball kind of day, a Saturday in midsummer, a scorcher, the air wrapped around you thick as a coat.
The Yankees were playing the Blue Jays in a playoff game. It was the Yanks’ last time up at bat. There were two on, two out. The game, the playoffs, the season, were on the line. The Yankees’ final hope, a rail-thin left fielder, stepped into the batter’s box. He squinted at the pitcher from beneath a batting helmet that hung down over his forehead like a bowl.
Yes, this was Little League and the batter was my son, Jonah, 8. I had the best view on the field.
I was the umpire.
It had been an interesting season. After the second practice, Jonah had confided that he preferred playing the outfield. He was nervous about hot shots coming to him in the infield and annoyed by teammates shouting instructions once he gloved the ball. The infield wasn’t for him. Too much pressure. Too much responsibility. In the outfield he could relax, daydream, chew his glove, not get into much trouble.
He liked batting and loved the mental aspect of the game. He had calculated before his first at-bat of the season that a walk was as good as a hit, especially against these 9-year-old fireballers, many of whom had control problems. So, pretty much without lifting the bat off his shoulders, he led the team in on-base percentage and runs scored.
With Coach Todd’s encouragement, I had taken Jonah to a batting cage and almost immediately he had taken a few good rips, making solid contact. The next game, the fourth of the season, he had swung, connected, singled. A big moment.
Meanwhile, my reputation as an umpire had grown. I was told before the sixth game by the rival coach that I was the best umpire in the league. It wasn’t that I had a particularly keen eye for the strike zone or that I seemed to make the right call on close plays. It was that I was consistent, fair, decisive and, most of all, loud.
The season consisted of 12 games. The Yankees won five of the first six but their big hitter had begun to chase balls in the dirt and was mired in a miserable slump. He was also the team’s best pitcher, but his poor hitting affected his pitching. As a result, the team had limped into the playoffs, losing four of the last six regular games.
Despite the Yanks’ collapse, Jonah had remained optimistic and involved in every game. Coach Todd, recognizing his knowledge of baseball, often would plop a batting helmet onto Jonah’s head and trot him out to the third base coach’s box. From my position behind the pitcher’s mound, I would see Jonah, his right arm whirling like a windmill, sending a runner home, shouting encouragement, a budding Tommy Lasorda.
After each game, Coach Todd would give the game ball to the team’s most deserving player--not necessarily the player who played the best game, but the one who gave the most effort. As Todd presented the ball, Jonah’s face would light up in anticipation, then drop in disappointment as, so far, the prize had eluded him. This, potentially the Yankees’ last game, was his last chance.
So . . . two on, two out. Bottom of the last inning. The Yankees trailed the Blue Jays, 3-2. Jonah stepped to the plate, the Little League year on the line.
First, let it be said that he had played the game of his life. In the first inning, he had walked and eventually scored the team’s first run. In his next at-bat, he had singled sharply to left and knocked in the team’s second run. In the field, though, he had made history:
A runner was on second. The batter laced one to left. Jonah backed up as the liner sank in front of him. The ball caromed on one hop into Jonah’s glove. He swept it into his throwing hand and gunned it to the third baseman, who spun and threw it home. The runner at second had taken off the moment the bat hit the ball, and as I raced toward home to cover the play, I saw nothing but astonishment on both the baserunner’s and the catcher’s faces. The ball landed in the catcher’s mitt a moment before the baserunner slid into the bag. Wham! The catcher and runner exploded in a cloud of dust. I jerked my thumb into the air. OUT! Jonah lifted both arms in triumph and jogged in from left. Tears mixed with dirt streaked down the baserunner’s face. I patted him on the back sympathetically. Around me I saw parents and coaches nodding. It was close. But he was out.
To pitch the last inning, the Blue Jays sent in their closer, a tiny freckled redhead with a big, jerky motion and an overhand whipsaw delivery. Despite his size, this kid could bring it. He struck out the first Yankee on three strikes right down the middle. The second Yankee pool-cued the first pitch to third. The third baseman knocked it down, picked it up, dropped it and watched helplessly as the little Yankee slid into first. One on, one out. The next Yankee came to the plate. He swung at a pitch in the dirt, then watched a fastball right down the middle. “Strike two!” I shouted. The Yankee shook his head, clearly unhappy with the call. The redhead, ignoring the runner, corkscrewed his body and dealt--another rocket right down the pipe. The batter swung and missed. Two away.
A queasy feeling came over me. I realized that Jonah was coming out on deck. If somehow the next Yankee got on, Jonah would hit against this flame-thrower with excellent control. I heard myself murmur, and I’m not proud of it, “Please, let this kid make an out.”
No such luck. The kid swung late and squibbed one between the mound and first. Confusion reigned. The first baseman charged. The pitcher dived. The second baseman ran to cover second, saw the shortstop there and ran back to cover first. Too late. The runner crossed the bag. Two on, two out, and Jonah, looking scared and small, stepped into the batter’s box.
He tapped the plate with his bat, adjusted his gloves and peered out from beneath his helmet. I could hear him swallow and I could feel his sweat. Or was it mine?
The redhead dug in. He wound up and threw. A nasty heater. Jonah stood frozen, his bat glued to his shoulder. I felt my insides shift. But, truly, there was no doubt about the pitch. “Strike one!” I shouted.
Jonah fidgeted in the batter’s box. He was used to pitchers who threw heat but who had no idea where the pitch was going. This miniature Ron Howard, this Opie wannabe, was different. He leaned in, went into his windup and threw. Jonah swung. And missed. By a lot.
The Yankees’ bench screamed encouragement to Jonah. The Blue Jays’ bench shouted praise to the redhead. The parents in the stands were watching the drama. A few of them looked directly at me, the few who knew the batter was my son.
The redhead nodded once at his catcher and came over the top with his third pitch. Jonah dug in, his eyes riveted on the ball.
And then time stood still and life stopped.
Because baseball is life. Through baseball, through Little League, Jonah, my 8-year-old son, was about to teach me a life lesson.
The ball shot out of the redhead’s hand and streaked like a bullet over the heart of the plate. Jonah could do nothing but stand there and watch.
The little redhead looked up at me, his eyes wide in expectation. He knew it was a strike. The Yankees all knew it was a strike. The Blue Jays knew it was a strike. The parents, relatives, friends and commissioner knew it was a strike.
But the batter was my son.
Suddenly I saw the scene with a caption below it. It read: “Unconditional love versus unwavering integrity. What’s it going to be?”
For the first time all season, I whispered. I lowered my head and said almost inaudibly, “Strike three.”
I was marginally aware of simultaneous celebration and heartbreak. I heard the shouts of victory and the silence of loss. I was aware of a voice speaking to me, “Wow. I could never do that to my kid. I don’t envy your ride home.”
I saw Jonah being hustled off toward the Yankees’ bench by Coach Todd. I saw through a haze of dust and my own tears two lines of players congratulating each other. Then somewhere in the distance, as Gatorade was poured and snacks devoured, I saw Coach Todd present Jonah with the game ball and I saw his face become one big smile.
In the car on the way home, neither of us said much. Jonah reached over, fiddled with the radio, found an oldies station, settled back and opened a book. I smiled at him.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
“Fine,” he said.
“Yeah,” he nodded. Then, again, that big wide grin. “I got the game ball,” he said.
“Yeah, you sure did.”
Then, dreading his reaction, I thought I should mention how I had to punch him out.
This is when Jonah taught me in five words that life is not about hitting the game-winning homer or making the game-saving catch.
Life is learning how to accept the breaks of the game.
“About that last pitch,” I said. “It was a strike. You know that, right?”
He shrugged. “I thought it was high.”