During our second practice of the season I realized I could not hit controlled fly balls worth a damn. My nine-year-old son, Alex, and his teammates were scattered around the baseball diamond behind the Mount Vernon Baptist church on a raw Tuesday night in Boone waiting for their chance to heroically snag a pop-up. Instead they got worm-burners, one after another. And I could hear the players groan in frustration as they dutifully chased every grounder down, some finding the gap and going all the way back to the chain-link fence, others were little dribblers which didn’t even make it out of the infield. One kid took a bad hop off the chest and sprinted to the dugout to hide his tears.
Later that night on the way home from practice Bob Seger’s “Still the Same” would come on in the car and I would cry without sound, without understanding, in front of Alex. He’d pretend not to notice and look out his window at the deer and trees passing by on the darkened parkway. He would carry the moment around with him for years and eventually compare me to the kind of dads his friends had and think maybe I fell short. The other dads, the ones we would see at the games all season long. Beneath their straight-brimmed ball caps they wore Ray Bans and perpetual five o’clock shadows, hoodies emblazoned with distressed American flags in the shape of the Punisher, Carhartt pants with dip-can circles in the back pocket, dark boots. These were the men I saw featured in Prepper or Personal Defense Magazine, magazines my brother-in-law had tried to get me to read over Christmas a few years back. Where did these men come from?
Like my own father, they felt menacing and reassuring all at once. Though I know they weren’t Vietnam veterans who attended Gambler’s Anonymous in the 70’s and took their future wives to see JAWS the second day it was in the theater and decided to role-model Quint. Who ironically bet on the Reds in ‘75 when Pete Rose won MVP. Who never taught me a thing about baseball.
Many of the baseball dads worked construction, many in tree services and landscaping companies. But I would bet some of them worked in the offices at Samaritan’s Purse. They all drove trucks, diesel trucks, extended cabs with tool boxes. When we stood for the national anthem before each game they planted their hats firmly against their chests, revealing a train of receding hairlines and male-pattern baldness. What did these dads do on the way home from practice? What did they do in front of their sons who looked like third grade Billy Butlers and had names like Aiden, Eli, and Jackson? Their sons could hit the hell out of the ball and they chatted excitedly in the dugout about taking a first pitch, sac flies, turning two on a ground ball, bench-clearing brawls. So when Alex would go up for his first at bat of the season and stand directly on home plate, I would feel the pairs of Ray Bans slowly turn in my direction. Alex could probably blame me for this too. But he would never tell me. Instead he’d share it with his wife years later upon her insistence that he join the newest generation of males who actually shared their past traumas and feelings with spouses. Maybe he’d even tell his own son one day about grandpa crying in the car listening to Bob Seger during Two for Tuesday on the radio and how he’d spent years trying to figure out why. And would he ever come close to an answer?
My hands ached from the cold and too many balls stinging off the lower handle. The head coach, who had been working with the pitchers nearby, came over visibly annoyed, and told me to stand on the pitcher’s mound and throw the balls myself. The players seemed pleased they could finally position themselves beneath the pop-ups like they had been taught to for years. And so Alex stood in shallow center field and watched his old man churn out artificial fungoes in the spring twilight.
Ben has had work appear in North Dakota Quarterly, Lake Effect, Cleaver Magazine, and others. He lives with Beverly and their two children in Boone, North Carolina.