A Nose for Baseball

The bat hit the ball with the crunching sound of an axe splitting wood. I couldn’t really see it, but everyone’s head swiveled in my direction, so I knew that in spite of the odds, a right-handed batter had just hit a ball to my position in right field.

“Catch it!” people started yelling, more out of prayer than belief. The odds of me catching a fly ball were far worse than that of a batter smacking an opposite field hit. I looked up and saw nothing but sun so I put up my glove to try and shield my eyes. Usually, I could gauge where to hide from a fly ball. I’d run backwards if it was hit shallow so that the ball landed in front of me. I was pretty good at catching it on the first or second bounce. If it was hit deep, I would run forward so that the ball landed behind me, and then I would turn and chase it. I was good at catching up to it, but my throwing ability was limited. From the fence I could throw to within ten yards of the infield dirt. On two bounces. If I was lucky.

But I couldn’t see this ball to know which way to run. So I held my glove up high above my head hoping the ball would either land in the glove or bounce off, thereby protecting my face. Now, it is at this point the reader should be aware of a couple of important facts. First, I was an only child whose father wanted him to be a baseball star. Not necessarily the next Phil Rizzuto, but someone my dad could brag about to his friends in the Officer’s Club during Happy Hour on Friday nights. Second, I am incredibly nearsighted. The letters you can read from the back of one end zone to the other backside of the end zone are what I can see at 20 feet.

This is an important fact because I didn’t get glasses until I had been playing Little League for three years. Which brings us to the third important piece of information: how many times I caught a ball with my face. I really don’t know the answer to that except that it was a lot. Exhibit A is how homely I am without facial hair. But I do know I was taken to the emergency room for a broken nose three or four times. Even a highly trained athlete has trouble reacting to something they can’t see until it is eighteen inches away from their face. When you have the hand-eye coordination of a newborn giraffe like I had, you take a lot of blows to the face. By the end of baseball season, I looked like I had gone ten rounds with Mike Tyson.

By the time I saw the ball, it was too late to do anything. Even with glasses, the sun had prevented me from tracking the ball. I don’t know what the odds are of a right-handed little leaguer hitting an opposite field fly ball that could travel one hundred and sixty feet, miss my glove, and hit me smack in the nose. It’s got to be at least as high as hitting a hole-in-one on a par three. But I bet he couldn’t do it again. When I came to, there was a crowd of people around me. A coach pulled a white t-shirt away from my face. It was soaked in blood, and I had a familiar salty metal taste in my mouth. I also couldn’t breathe through my nose. I remember being asked some questions and mumbling answers. The t-shirt was replaced with a towel. Soon, I was in the ER with an hysterical mother. As I said, it wasn’t my first broken nose. But it was the worst. It reduced my air flow by 90%. I know that because many years later, I had to pay $1,500 to a doctor to rebreak my nose, with a brass hammer, so I could breathe properly.

That was the end of my Little League career. My mother had had enough of taking me to the emergency room. I was greatly relieved. Not so much about not playing, I actually enjoyed the game when I wasn’t dodging fly balls. I was good at stopping grounders, and being so small made it impossible for any kid to pitch strikes to me. I always got a walk and was quick enough to steal often. My ability to get on base and score runs mitigated my nonexistent fielding skills as far as my teammates were concerned. What I was really grateful for was abandoning the games of catch my father forced me to play on Saturdays. I hated them and deliberately let the ball go by me so that I spent more time chasing it down the street than trying to catch it. My father’s disgust at my ineptitude was increasingly apparent after each muffed ball. It was one or two hours of pure torture as far as I was concerned. Every Saturday, I wished and prayed for a respite.

All of these memories came flooding back recently when I picked up a well-used glove at a thrift store. It was just two dollars, 100% leather, and in great shape. I almost bought it. It was perfectly broken in and had the names of several previous owners written in black marker on the last finger. I wondered about the stories behind the names. My own glove got lost years ago when I was using it to play softball with my sixth graders. I developed enough hand-eye coordination to play catch while in the Army. Long periods of idleness gave me the time, ambition, and a nonjudgmental atmosphere, which allowed me to acquire the skill to play a friendly game of catch.

Naturally, my youngest son Brad loved playing with balls of all sorts. Soccer, football, and especially baseball were part of his daily pursuits. After supper, during summer vacation, he asked me to play catch with him. And every day, in spite of the anxiety I felt at putting on a glove, we played. We used the softer, less dense baseball for kids. His favorite part was batting, and he was a very good hitter. He didn’t like the ultra-competitive nature of organized youth sports. I’m not sure whether that was a good or bad thing for me as a parent. He did play organized soccer for a few years. He was very talented, athletically, but preferred wrestling and karate to team sports.

However, he loved playing catch with me. We did it often, using the garden fence as a backstop. I enjoyed the time we spent playing together even if he did occasionally nail me with a line drive. The last time we played was when he was nineteen and out of school. We went over to the playground where we threw and hit until near dark. Our game was ended when a fox stole our ball and ran away with it. One of the hazards of living in the mountains.

I thought about all of these things as I pondered buying the glove. But who would I play catch with? Adult men don’t play catch. I’d have to join a softball league to get a partner and competitive play is not what I want. And imagine if I went to schools or parks and asked kids if they wanted to play catch with me? No thanks. It seemed silly to buy something that would sit in a box waiting to be used. My wife and I are trying to simplify our lives, not gather more stuff. I put the glove back down. I’d just have to be satisfied that the time I spent with Brad was focused on doing what he wanted rather than what I wanted. The memory of that will have to suffice.