In the ninth inning of a joyful baseball season
Hanging out again with the lunatic fringe, a.k.a. the other baseball parents, talking about the brownies Marija donated to the snack stand — an ancient Croatian recipe, she says, handed down from generations of Balkan mamas and now the biggest hit at a busy little snack stand in suburban Los Angeles.
Still relevant, these brownies. Still classic. I mention how lucky her three children are to grow up in a house that smells of Croatian brownies, the musk getting into the walls, the couch, the carpets. Her husband notes that when Marija carves the brownies out of the baking pan, there remains a crisp around the edge that reminds him of a great biscotti.
Like I said, the lunatic fringe. With a crisp around their edges.
Still, you have no idea how much I will miss youth baseball when it ends very soon: the conversations, the spring grass as soft as cilantro, the siblings flitting about like sparrows. Mostly the conversations.
Did I mention the conversations? Better — and more real — than at most dinner parties.
Believe it or not, I’ll even miss the opposing coaches, who try to bash my brains out in youth baseball games each week, yelling like madmen during games featuring children. “BACK!!!” they scream when a pitcher tries to pick off one of their base runners.
In that one word, you hear a whole week’s worth of desperation and frustration over clients, bosses, spouses and thankless fatherly obligations. It all comes to a head in that one firecracker gasp. You can almost hear their hearts thud.
“BAAAAAACK!!!” they bark, as if aliens just landed on their foreheads.
Now you see why I will miss this?
Crusted under my fingernails is the raw meat of a pitching mound I tried to repair before the game. Gets under your nails, this damp clay mixed with little kernels of decomposing granite from the surrounding hillsides. Only the tip of a knife can get it out.
What I was doing repairing a mound with my bare hands eludes me now. Perhaps I was picking out rocks or raking the pitching plate with my fingers. More likely, I was caressing a few favorable strike calls from it. Patting the mound like a Bible or the flanks of a favorite gelding. Wishful. Prayerful. Psychotic.
Speaking of which, the little guy pitched the other day for the first time in a while, and I’d forgotten how excruciating it can be to watch your own kid out there alone. First experienced it with his older brother, then his sister, now with him some 20 years later. Won’t I ever learn?
Watching a kid pitch is like watching him go off to his first little Waterloo. “Bye, Dad. Gotta go make history now.”
Anyway, he did fine. Three batters, three outs. Whew. Game over? Bartender, Croatian brownies for everyone!
The little guy is part of an American archetype, the nascent boy who might do anything at any time, an OK quality in a puppy but not a man. Pitching is a good way to harness that extra energy. Better than beating up your sister. Better than playing the clarinet. Pitching is a character-building agony that cannot be replicated, nor should it be.
I like that he wants the responsibility. I like that, no matter what happens out there on the mound, there is nothing his devoted mother can do to make it all better.
Such is pitching.
As a father, it warms me to watch these fleeting moments of his boyhood, warms me like old folk songs about dragons or the way a bookstore smells during a rain, a certain moldy richness.
At 12, he’s still at an age when you touch him wrong and a cowlick springs up, sharply and with malice. He’s at that age when he sometimes pushes away from hugs, other times leans into them, like he did when he was 4. It’s as if he’s on a wobbly little footbridge and isn’t sure which way he should fall.
For a dad, it’s like saying goodbye to Tom Sawyer. In its waning days, I have no doubts I will miss his childhood more than he will.
That’s OK. When it all winds down, I will find other worthy ways to occupy a perfect spring day — gutters to repair, old Mustangs to refurbish, elusive rainbow trout to chase.
But I will never find anything remotely like this again. Gets right under your nails.