There is perhaps a better time in fatherhood than putting a baseball in their little hand. Better even than writing their name into a lineup, than sending their churning legs and jangling arms around third base, than throwing batting practice underhanded, then overhanded, then with all the pace an old shoulder can summon.
There is perhaps better than even the sunniest early days of fatherhood, when they were drunk on pancake syrup and trying to remember to keep their back elbow up and stride short just like they were told and their appetite for the high ones low, like they were told in the car ride over.
There isn’t much better than the look on their sleepy face when it all worked that day, when that stiff new glove was loyal and that stringy arm true and that top-heavy bat got around just in time, when the infield dirt behind their ears can be left until tomorrow. Or much better than the crummy days, when none of it worked, because that’s how it goes sometimes, and it was fun anyway.
But, there could be better.
That’s when their hand is strong and confident, when they swing the bat rather than it swinging them, when they’re learning the game somewhere else, and it’s growing on them, and they’re growing on it. When all those conversations over pizza are getting harder to see in that swing and it’s for the best. When they have become a ballplayer.
When they become gifted in the eyes of others too, when it’s the arm or the legs or the bat or the little something special and not just the dad goggles anymore, that is the day. The day when it is better. And the day to go back to being a full-time engineer. Or cop. Or salesman. Or realtor.
“I think,” David Freese’s father, Guy, told him on that day, “it’s time to be your dad and not your coach.”
The day to go back to being less of a swing instructor, less of a pitching guru, and instead be the man in the bleachers whose orders that day are to remember what the game should be. What it started out being. How it assisted in the lessons of humility and accountability and showing up. How we love it. That’s a damned fine day, when they go off to do it — or not — on their own, to check in every once in a while with news on the details, to say thanks every once in a while for getting it all started. Like on Father’s Day.
So, the day comes to say goodbye on a college campus or an airport curb, to hold them close outside a locker room door, to remind them that mom and dad are near no matter where they are, to take a step back and know that back elbow may droop a little and that’s now theirs to fix or not.
Greg Schwarber is in Los Angeles this weekend, from Ohio. He’s watching baseball near downtown, playing some golf near the coast, visiting his boy, the ballplayer. He was Kyle’s coach once and for a long time. There does come a day when the mechanics are too complex, the strategies too fluid, the information proprietary. That’s still his boy down there.
“He tells me to be aggressive,” Kyle said with a grin. “Obviously, still, have fun. And, ‘Be you.’ That’s his thing. ‘Be you.’”
“My dad always has good points in what he’s trying to get across,” Kyle said. “Sometimes you gotta be able to listen and try to pick apart what he’s trying to get across. They’re good reminders. They put me back in the batting cages with him or on the old football field, when he’s throwing me pitches and I’m hitting ‘em off his knee cap.
“There’s times I have to laugh and tell him, ‘Dad, I know you really want me to succeed. But I don’t think anybody wants me to succeed more than myself.’”
Caleb Ferguson, Dodgers reliever, thought it’d been two or three years back, when he was pitching in Class A, when he told his dad, Pat, “I really don’t want to talk pitching.” So, his dad calls, or his mom calls, and they talk about what he’s doing that day.
“Which,” Ferguson said, smiling, “is the same thing every day.”
And David Freese hits off a tee about every day, because his father believed in hitting off the tee, and tries to hit to right-center field every night, because his father believed in that too. And they haven’t talked about those sorts of things in years.
And Max Muncy gets the same advice from his father, Lee, about every day, and that is, “Have fun,” which is precisely what he wants to hear.
“Nobody knows me better than he does,” said Max and, “and it’ll always be that way.”
And Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, the son of a Little League coach, the father of a young ballplayer, stands between those two generations, sorting it out himself. Waymon Roberts died two years ago. Cole, Dave’s son, is an infielder headed to Loyola Marymount. So, when Cole has heard enough about the game and Dave can’t find the words, what comes to the father is an evening with his own father, one of those good days, one of those days when the last thing Dave needed was another coach.
“I think,” Dave said, “he was understanding he couldn’t teach me anymore. But I do recall a moment my junior year, which was my big draft year, where I had a series against Arizona at home at Jackie Robinson Stadium. I didn’t play well. I just hit a wall and I was really emotional and down. My dad took me for a drive, literally right after the game. And it was interesting in that he was there more as a dad than as a coach. He was just there to pick me up. Mentally. Emotionally. That’s something I will always remember.”
There is a day better than the one in which a father offers an opportunity. Extends a hand. Takes an interest. Asks to walk part of that journey too. Maybe there’s a baseball in that hand. Maybe not. But that better day is out there because of it.
That is the day they take it. And then makes it their own.
“All of a sudden,” Freese said, “it’s time to be you.”
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