It’s a nightly ritual. After we’ve dog-eared the page on the book we’re reading, and my son has put on his PJs and brushed his teeth, he stands in front of his bedroom mirror with a toy bat and takes a few swings. Some nights he’s Buster Posey, the San Francisco Giants’ all-star catcher. Other nights he’s Seattle Mariners’ second baseman Robinson Cano, who smashed a line-drive two-run homer at a game we saw in Seattle last year. Most often, though, he’s just him, Luke Bourne, coming to bat in game seven of the World Series, bases loaded, game on the line.
As he takes his swings, I remind him to bend his knees. I explain again where to set his feet, how to step into the pitch and turn his hips. “The power’s in your legs, not your arms,” I tell him, hearing the voice of my Little League coach explaining this to me more than 30 years ago. When Luke doesn’t understand what I mean, I do what my coach used to do: I take the bat from his hand and show him, digging my imaginary cleats into the imaginary brick dust, knees bent, bat back, my muscles easing into place as if I’d last picked up a bat a week ago and not sometime in the early 1980s.
In his eight years, Luke has galloped through his share of childhood passions: Thomas the Tank Engine, various Pixar movie franchises, Pokémon, Power Rangers, Angry Birds, on and on. For me, the common thread in these obsessions has been that before they entered our lives I knew nothing about them. I had never heard of Thomas the Tank Engine, and then one day our living room was overrun with little wooden tracks and talking toy train engines. Baseball is different. It stands alone among my son’s boyhood obsessions in that the game I played and obsessed over when I was his age is in every essential respect the same game he plays and is obsessed about now.
This week, as the Major League Baseball season kicks off, I am reminded again why the game of baseball speaks to parents like me who stand across the digital divide from their kids. When I was a kid, there was no Internet and a phone was a thing you dialed. There were just three major TV channels and if you wanted to play a video game you went to an arcade and fed quarters into a machine. The shows we watched, the music we listened to, even the costumes we wore on Halloween — so much of it is foreign to my son now. The baseball diamond is that rare place where my knowledge overlaps with my son’s passions. When I take Luke to a game or we play catch in the backyard, the conversations we have and the lessons I impart to him about how to swing the bat or field a ground ball are the same ones my father shared with me when I was a kid. What else in modern life is like that?
My son’s cultural universe is a rich overlay of the deeply familiar and the seriously odd. When I was his age, every Saturday morning my brother and sister piled into my room, where the TV was, to watch Bugs Bunny and Scooby Doo while my parents slept upstairs. Luke does much the same thing, except that when I venture into his room after I’ve had my coffee and read the paper, he is sitting in bed, an iPad in his lap, watching not Bugs Bunny or Scooby Doo, but uploaded video clips of Chinese kids playing Angry Birds on their tablets, doing the play-by-play on their games — in Chinese.
There is, I admit, a charmingly DIY element to this. I grew up on Gilligan’s Island and the Super Friends, televised pap produced by large corporations to sell cheap toys and food produced by other, still-larger corporations. I love that thanks to technology children’s TV now enables kids to communicate with other kids from around the world, even if all they’re talking about is video games. But where exactly do I fit into this conversation? I’ve played Angry Birds and found it dull beyond description, an endless, digitized version of throwing a ball at cans on a fence. I can’t imagine watching other kids brag in Chinese about their prowess at slinging cartoon birds at cartoon pigs, and even if I could stand it, what would Luke and I have to talk about afterward?
My yearning for a point of connection with my son is, of course, prelude to a more profound cultural disconnect I know is coming. Eight years old is a golden age when playing Monopoly with your dad still seems a fine way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon, when “Oh, fudge!” is still a perfectly functional, non-ironic thing to say when your dad lands on Boardwalk before you do. This will change. Before long, Luke will be listening to music that makes my teeth ache, hanging out with kids I don’t approve of, and making choices I know he will regret. I will do my best. I will parent. But even if he lands on the far shores of adulthood safe and sound, at some essential level I will lose him. I know this. Every parent with any sense does.
This is why baseball matters so much to me. In an era of relentless change, when to be a parent is to spend one’s life looking at a device in a child’s hand and ask “So, what does that do?” – here is one thing that has remained constant without losing its capacity to dazzle. Here is one thing a dad and an eight-year-old can talk about without either one having to pretend to be interested.
I was a serious, if not particularly gifted ballplayer, but I quit playing in high school, and by the time Luke came along, I’d more or less forgotten about baseball. But a couple years ago when, on a whim, I bought us tickets to see a minor-league team here in Vancouver, I was stunned to find the game still there, just as I had left it. Thirty years later, baseball players still run the way I ran when I played baseball, head high, butt out, gum popping in the jaw. Everyone on the field is chewing something: gum, sunflower seeds, tobacco. And then there is that peculiarly male obsession with costume. Caps that sit just so. Eye-black. Flip-up shades. One kind of glove for batting, another for running the bases, another still for playing the field. Watching the game was like walking into a house where I’d lived as a child and finding it not sadly shrunken or dusty with age, but exactly as I remembered it, except with better food.
At the start of the game, as the home team pitcher, a lanky 20-year-old flamethrower from the Dominican Republic, trotted onto the field, he paused a split-second at the foul line and hopped neatly onto the infield grass. I understood instantly. For generations, pitchers have observed a superstition against touching the chalk line while running on and off the field. Here I was at a minor-league ballpark in Canada watching a player from the Caribbean who wasn’t even alive when I stopped playing obey an arbitrary tradition that I’d picked up in my suburban California childhood.
“Hey, did you see what the pitcher just did,” I said to Luke, and in doing so, passed the tradition on to him.
Baseball is criticized for being stodgy and slow, a vestige of a bygone age. There is some truth to this. The game can be painfully languid. Three minutes of talking and scratching and chewing passes for every five seconds of action. And for all the talk of Sabermetrics and the scandals over performance-enhancing drugs, baseball remains spectacularly hidebound. The players change from year to year, but the game they’re playing hasn’t changed since the designated hitter rule came in more than 40 years ago. The bases are still 90 feet apart. It’s still 60 feet six inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. A ball caught high in the webbing of the glove is still a “snow cone.” A home run is still a “dinger” or “going yard.” No batter in the history of the game has ever stepped into the batter’s box and not spit at least once before the pitcher threw the ball.
But for me, this continuity is the game’s charm, a source of its enduring attraction. We live in a forward-looking culture that prizes newness above all else. Every technology must be disruptive. Every pop star must shock us. Every novel must seek to somehow reinvent literature. We’re so busy chasing the new, we can forget the purpose of tradition, which is to provide a safe, circumscribed space for people of different ages and cultures to find connection.
This is how it has worked for Luke and me. I now help coach his Little League team, and every time we drive by a game, whether it’s Little League, high school, or a grown-man’s beer league, we stop to watch an inning or two. He loves it, watching batters work the count, predicting whether a baserunner will try to steal, rhythmically stomping his feet on the metal grandstands to cheer on the home team — even if we have no idea who the home team is.
I like all this, too, but what I like most is the unguardedness of the conversations we have at ballparks. Maybe you have to be a man to know how hard it is for two men to talk openly, even if one of you is only eight years old. But all that falls away at a ballpark or in the backyard playing catch. There, Luke wants to know everything. Does the catcher flash one finger or two to signal for the fastball? What’s a pick-off man? Daddy, show me again how to throw a curveball. No kid should throw a curveball till he’s in high school, but I’m happy to explain it again, moving his tiny fingers over the seams of the ball, showing him the flick of the wrist that makes the ball spin, because in that moment he’s present, he’s listening to me, in ways he will at almost no other time.
Tonight, after Luke has brushed his teeth and put on his PJs, and we’ve checked whether his beloved San Francisco Giants won their season opener against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Luke will get out his toy bat and take his swings. I’ll remind him to bend his knees and keep his bat back, and he’ll watch himself in the mirror, smiling as he swings. He’ll never be a Buster Posey or a Robinson Cano, but that isn’t the point. The point is that night after night he’s letting me teach him how to be him. Someday, I know, he will face his own version of game seven of the World Series. Maybe it will be a major deadline at work. Maybe it will a personal choice, a split-second decision that will shape a lifetime. Whatever it is, I want him to be ready. I want my boy to know how to be Luke Bourne.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.