BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer
It came streaking out of the sky like a small white meteor with the sole mission of smashing my head in. At least that’s how it seemed to me when I glanced up from my place in the outfield lawn.
It was at a Phillies spring training game last year, and I was standing and chatting with my friends–not really paying attention to the game because, well, it was a spring training game–when the missile came hurtling toward me like it’d been fired from a Roman catapult. My muscle memory from Little League kicked in and I put my hands up to make a play, but then my adult survival instinct took over, so I sidestepped the oncoming missile to avoid any broken fingers, face or other favorite body parts.
When it thumped to the soft ground behind me I spun around to throw my body on the prize–a Chase Utley home run ball–when two or three other people had the same exact goal, and a rugby scrum broke out. On the damp grass at this point, I felt another body bang into mine and I was just about to throw an elbow to back him off and reach for the ball when I realized what I was doing. I was convinced this was just a lad I was grappling with to get a baseball. Wouldn’t he cherish this thing more than I would? Of course, he would. So I drew my hands back and gave it up. Turned out the ‘lad’ that had snagged the ball from me was some punk high school kid that was whooping over his trophy, but that’s neither here nor there.
Once again, I’d missed the ball. And not for the first time.
* * *
This time of year would always get me excited because it meant baseball was just around the bend, but as a little kid I was indifferent to sports in general. Then one October day when I was nine I happened to see part of a playoff game between the Royals and Yankees on TV. Though I didn’t know the rules, I was immediately drawn to this world of grown men hurling a ball and whacking it, running and sliding all over the place and even diving to snag this sacred ball–all while sporting cool uniforms that made them look like a team of superheroes.
I was instantly struck by the whole thing and asked my parents to buy me a bat and ball. But with only one sibling I sometimes had to force my kid sister to play against her will. One day I insisted she pitch to me, and promptly knocked a line drive right back at her 8-year-old teeth. That hit wasn’t the only thing I knocked out that afternoon. My parents couldn’t really get too mad at me because they knew it was an unpremeditated fluke (though they also knew the ‘tooth fairy’ would have to write some checks that night, boy). “She should have caught the ball!” I insisted stoutly, after the kerfuffle. And still do, if anyone bothers asks me even now.
I’d go from backyard baseball to joining the ranks of Little League within a couple years, where I donned various uniforms from the ages of 11-14. I was actually one of the standouts of the team my first year, but as the uniforms became nicer and the kids became bigger, I steadily went from being a star (pitcher, shortstop) to a capable player (first baseman, third baseman) to basically a warm body (right fielder, benchwarmer).
I do remember one game where we were in the late innings and I looked up from my spot at third base to see my mom and dad standing along the fence near the opposite dugout, watching. And it happened to be a game where I let my teammates down in a big way. See, I had a tear in the pocket of my glove and didn’t mention it to my coach or anyone. And the biggest, brashest, loudest kid in the league was at the plate telling me I’d better get ready at third base, because it’d be coming my way, hard. Now this kid was as big as a Sasquatch and could definitely crush the ball down the line, so yelling this to me across the diamond was no empty threat. And sure enough, as though it were scripted, he swung the aluminum bat and scorched a blazing drive right at me, right at my outstretched glove, and right through the hole in the webbing and into the outfield for a double. I’d missed the ball, and precious runs scored. I tried to pretend that I didn’t see my parents but I caught my dad smiling, the way only parents can smile when their kid goofs.
* * *
My dad and I would spent some afternoons in our backyard throwing around the ball, though the man never put a baseball glove on in his life. He’d mostly just throw it low and fast and I’d try to catch it before lobbing it back. That’s it. No work on grounders or other pointers. But I felt lucky to have these afternoons at all, as my dad routinely put in twelve-hour days in our restaurant as I grew up–I still have a vision of him in his white chef’s shirt and clunky kitchen shoes zipping the pill at me from across the yard.
See, for a Greek immigrant the language of baseball was as much a foreign tongue as English. On the surface, it was an incomprehensible game and it was up to me to explain it to him, from basics like ball-strike counts to rudimentary plays like base stealing and double plays to more complicated stuff, like balks and interference calls. He wasn’t a stupid man but for some reason he had the most trouble fully absorbing the infield fly rule. At one exasperating point, I broke out sock puppets to explain that one to him.
But through watching so many games together over the years, it became impossible for me to separate the game from my dad. We built upon the typical father-son bond as baseball became a cornerstone base in our relationship. As he eventually started shuffling down his golden years, an auto-immune disease gripped him hard, along with a variety of old age infirmities and he spent his retired days mostly either tending his garden or watching ballgames on TV. As his laundry list of ailments grew and his movements became limited, he needed a cane and ultimately a walker to get around. He had to abandon his garden but he still tuned in for the games. And when I visited on the weekends, we’d watch them together.
In time, a few months shy of his 80th birthday, all his afflictions seemed to gang tackle him and he became hospitalized from the severity of them. I visited him and tried to cheer him up, one time bringing along the sports page to point out a photo of spring training pitchers getting warmed up. “It’s almost time, Dad,” I said enthusiastically. Springtime always made us both happy because baseball, like nature, was getting ready to bloom.
It made me think back to my first ever spring training game, when I was a teen. My older cousin had decided on the spur of the moment to take me to a game, and whisked me off from Sunday church service to Al Lang Field. I sat with my untucked pink Oxford shirt and nice loafers, surrounded by pasty snowbirds in shorts and sandals that smelled of beer, sweat and suntan lotion. St. Pete still had spring training games back then and the Mets were playing the Reds–it was Pete Rose’s final year. But what I remember most about that outing was the barrage of balls pelted toward where we sat, one by one, by one of the Mets’ pitchers, of all people. As foul ball after foul ball came whoosing at us like oversized bullets, I made some attempts at the first two or so then just wished the dangerous volley would end. At last it did, when the reliever lined a single. All of us that were on the receiving end of the foul ball attack stood up, laughing and applauding, but I had secretly wished I could have snagged a ball for a prize to show my old man.
After a week in the hospital my father was moved to a rehab center room, where we hoped he’d become somewhat mobile again. But his movements became even more restricted as he could barely stand, and it was clear that his overall health was tragically deteriorating. During my dad’s confined stay there I wished the spring training games would start already so he’d have something to put him in better spirits. The February weather had been balmy and beautiful, and the last night I saw him I reminded him that the games would be starting in no time.
But only a few days after my last visit the weather was dismal, gloomy and rainy. It was as though springtime went back into hiding and a cold, wet winter returned, even if for just a day. And it was on this day that my father Michael, a quiet, kind man who had been a soldier and fisherman in the Old Country, who had emigrated to America almost 45 years ago with his young wife to seek a better life, who had toiled inhuman hours in hot restaurant kitchens to provide for his children the best way he could, passed away.
The very next day my sister flew down from New York with her husband and two boys and we all spent the mournful afternoon consoling my mom and each other. At one point I stepped out back of my parents’ house to be alone and meditate on life without a dad. I walked around the yard where my father had tossed the ball to me so many years ago. How can I ever watch a game again? I remember thinking, among so many other things.
As I trudged up to where his garden used to be–the sun now shining again on the dead grass and weeds–I froze in my tracks. Just lying there right in my path where I couldn’t possibly miss it, was a baseball. No earthly idea where it had come from, but there it was. After being sufficiently stupefied, I wanted to laugh. And weep. Or maybe both. I decided to just pick it up. Then I simply tossed it in the air and caught it. I noticed the yard was full of birds fluttering, squirrels scurrying and insects buzzing as I smiled a teary-eyed smile and kept throwing the baseball up in the air, catching it every time.
This was one ball I was going to hold on to.