The story about my new baseball glove, bought shortly after my 42nd birthday, starts with a line drive hit straight at me from 30 feet away by my son, Ben, who was then seven years old. I wasn't wearing a glove, and the ball nearly tore my hand off. I immediately rolled around on the ground, yowling and cussing.
Ben dropped his bat and came running over. His lower lip was trembling and his eyes were filled with tears. "I'm sorry," he said. "Are you hurt bad?" "Not that bad," I said, though in truth my hand felt as though it had been run over by a truck. "The yowling and cussing help considerably. No need to be sorry. That was one wicked hit, partner." His lip stopped trembling then, and he grinned. "Yeah, it was," he said. We looked at each other for a minute, neither of us saying a thing. A change had taken place, and we both knew it. Ben folded his arms, narrowed his eyes and kicked the dirt a couple of times. "Maybe you ought to get a glove," he said. "I guess I better had," I told him.
The two of us had been working out behind the house for more than a year, since the night Ben announced he wanted to learn to hit a baseball. He wasn't quite six and could barely swing the lightest bat I could find, but he was determined to become a hitter. Night after steaming-hot Florida night, Ben stood beside the plate we had made out of plywood; I faced him on the mound—on more of a swelling, actually, that had formerly been inhabited by fire ants.
"Hold the bat up," I would say. "Keep your eye on the ball." We had picked a spot just in front of our neighbor's chain link fence, which served as a backstop. When the ball struck the fence it made a clanging sound, and for the longest time the backyard litany was, "Hold the bat up. Keep your eye on the ball." Clang. When Ben did make contact, the results were 10-foot dribblers, foul tips and the occasional five-foot pop-up; but he refused to quit. Neither rain nor attacks of no-see-ums could move him inside. Some nights we played until it was so dark I could barely see him, and he could hardly see the ball. I could hear him inhale as the pitch neared him and exhale when he swung, often sending drops of perspiration farther than the ball. "One more pitch," he'd say. "I can't go in until I hit a good one."
Time passed. The dribblers became slow rollers, the dinky pop-ups became short fly balls, and the prospect of eventually smacking one over the six-foot wooden fence at the far end of the yard—of hitting a "real home run," as Ben put it—loomed as a distinct possibility. Still, there was nothing to suggest I needed a glove, although Ben brought the subject up a number of times, particularly when we weren't pitching and hitting but simply having a good old catch. He had a glove. It seemed only right that I have one, too. He even organized a futile search through a garageful of old cartons and trunks for the glove that got me through Babe Ruth League and high school before disappearing during one of a multitude of house moves.
"Listen," I told him. "I'll be fine without a glove. Just worry about your hitting and catching." The fact that I might be insulting my son, or at least violating his sense of correctness, was somehow overshadowed by the notion that buying a baseball glove in middle age was more frivolous than necessary. The line drive, however, clearly set me straight.
My hand had swollen up to the size of a cow's udder, so it was several days before I made the trip to the baseball section of a sporting goods supermarket. There I was surrounded by a profusion of gloves and enveloped in a rich, intoxicating smell of new leather that instantly took me back to the hot summer afternoon in 1957 when I walked into Wood's Sporting Goods in Burlington, Vt., and plunked down every penny of the $35 I'd made in a week of caddying to buy a Warren Spahn personal model, the last glove I had owned.
Now, in addition to various shades of brown, you can buy black, blue or even red gloves. You can get them with all sorts of interesting buckles and straps and intricately designed webbing. These gloves were a good deal larger than I remembered them, too. They cost a whole lot more, as well, with the best of them up around $150, but they still creaked when you first tried them on, and the familiar feeling of confidence, agility and grace produced by merely smacking a fist into the pocket made time stand still and the price irrelevant.
I was about to forgo dining out for two months and buy a $140 beauty, when the store manager came over with a glove almost as nice. "Gonna surprise your kid with a new glove, huh?" he said. "Well, you're lucky he's lefthanded. We got four of these from a place in Tampa that went out of business, and this is the only one left. Cost over $100 originally. You can have it for 35 bucks."
"My kid isn't lefthanded," I told him. "I am, and I'll take it."
It was a Wilson, George Brett MVP model, with snap action. Buying it brought back memories I'd kept locked away for nearly 30 years, not because it cost the same as my old Warren Spahn, but because of a question from my son. The two of us were sitting on the floor in my study that night rubbing neat's-foot oil into our gloves, folding and bending them every which way, spitting now and then into the pockets and generally getting ready to resume playing serious backyard ball, when suddenly Ben looked up at me. "Did your father have a glove?" he asked. Ben never knew my father, but he'd been named after him, and from an early age he'd wanted to know everything he could about the man. "As a matter of fact, he did have a glove," I answered, and I told him a story I'd forgotten until just then.
My father was a country doctor, the kind who made house calls late on cold winter nights and sometimes came home with a basket of vegetables from a farmer who had no money to pay him. He had little free time, but one day, when he was leaving the house after dinner to make his rounds at the hospital and he saw me chucking a baseball up against the side of the garage, he stopped, came over and put his arm around me. "You want to throw a few?" he asked me. "Yeah," I answered.
I was 11, an outfielder on a Little League team, and had a burning desire to be a pitcher. We went around behind the house, paced off the appropriate distance, cut a plate and a rubber from an old hunk of linoleum and began. He had been a pitcher once, in high school and on a semipro team, but he quit to work his way through college and medical school. He still had his old glove, torn, floppy-fingered, without an ounce of padding in it. He might as well have been catching me with a wet napkin stuck to his palm. "You ought to get a catcher's mitt," I told him. "Don't worry about me," he said. "Just get the ball over the plate."
We played almost every night after that. He'd come home with his stethoscope sticking out of his pocket. He would take off his suit jacket and lay it over the back-porch railing. I'd already have the ball and gloves ready. He'd loosen his tie, roll up the sleeves of his starched white shirt and squat down behind the square of linoleum. I was wild at first, as lefthanders are supposed to be. "Throw smooth and easy," he'd tell me. "And get the ball over the plate." That was his litany.
My control improved. My speed increased too. I was sure I was hurting his hand, but he never said a word. Complaining wasn't something he ever did. Then one day he came home with his medical bag in one hand and a paper sack in the other. He lay his jacket over the railing and pulled a brand-new catcher's mitt out of the sack. It was a very cold spring evening, but I remember we were both in our shirtsleeves. As I sat there on the floor with my son, I could hear the sharp pop my pitches made in the clear, still night air when they hit that mitt's pocket. I remember I was grinning so much I could hardly throw, but when I did, the ball seemed to move faster and with more authority. I remember how close I felt to my dad.
A week later, I pitched my first game for my team, the Tigers. We won 4-3, but my father had to deliver a baby at the time, and he missed all but the last inning. I didn't know he was there at all until I heard him honking his car horn from way back behind the rightfield fence. As I was walking off the field from the pitcher's mound, I turned around and saw him waving with his new glove.
My father taught me to throw a curve, a screwball and a changeup, and though I never amounted to very much as a pitcher, the two of us kept on playing out back of the house from mud season in spring until it began to snow. Then one day, with no warning, my father died. I stopped playing baseball and instead spent my free time backpacking.
My son didn't say a thing to me after my story. He just gave me a big hug and went off to bed. The next night he hit another line drive that caromed off the wooden fence. A week later he drove one over the fence and then began doing that so regularly we decided we had to move to a large field down by the lake near our home.
We were playing there one night when, just as I was about to throw a pitch, he stepped away from the plate and leaned on his bat. "What happened to your father's glove?" he asked. "It got lost along with my Warren Spahn," I told him. "It's too bad he died," he said. "It would've been fun to have him in our game. But I guess in a way we do. I'm real glad you finally bought a glove. Even if I lose it, I've got the story. I'll never forget that."
Philip Singerman's book, to be published by Little, Brown, is about firefighter Red Adair.