The Greatest Catch

Dad’s truck wasn’t in the driveway, so I knew he had already left for work. I wheeled my second-hand Schwinn out of the garage and shut the big overhead door behind me.

My siblings and the neighborhood kids laughed and played in our pool, staying cool in the steamy northern Illinois summer heat. I was not allowed in the pool on game days. Coach’s rule. Spending the day swimming out in the hot sun, he believed, exhausted us come game time.

I was disappointed that Dad wasn’t there to take me to the game, but I wasn’t surprised. He was becoming less and less of a presence in my life, rarely making it to my practices or games because he was busy working or asleep on the living room couch with another one of his headaches. He took several different pills for several different ailments. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with him, just that the pills made him generally unavailable.

I was already sweating as I climbed aboard my bike and rode the mile-and-a-half to Coach’s Frantzen’s house. Coach had chosen me for his baseball team the previous two years, and now, in this new league for fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds, he chose me again. Coach was always willing to fit me into his overstuffed car, along with his son and a couple of other players. I apologized for relying so heavily on him to take me to games. I was embarrassed that my dad was so often unable to.

“It’s no big deal,” Coach said. “I’m going anyway.”

Dad’s shift at the city water department changed every month. Occasionally, when he was working, he would secretly take me to the game in his work truck, something he wasn’t supposed to do. More often, he begged off, saying that he’d try to stop by later.

Coach drove a big white station wagon that didn’t have air conditioning. His son, Mike, always sat in the front passenger seat, his window down and his arm hanging out. The other players who were bumming a ride, including me, sat in the back seat. All of our bats and balls and gloves and other equipment took up the space at the back of the car, giving the station wagon a unique aroma of leather, wood, and sweat.

At Copley Park, we were leading 4-2 against, Lyon Metal, the team we were battling for a spot in the playoffs. With a man on second, their best hitter came to the plate. He was a big, powerful kid, and Coach yelled at the outfielders to move back.

I was in center field and backed up a few steps. Our left fielder, who everyone called “Spud,” didn’t move. I yelled at him, but he stood his ground, peering in toward the batter. I yelled again. He was oblivious.

Spud was not our regular left fielder. I never knew why, but Coach changed some players around that night. He moved Spud from third base to left field. Spud was a good hitter and a decent fielder, but he had trouble with fly balls. Coach went back into the dugout and left Spud where he was.

I leaned over, pulled up a few blades of grass, and threw them into the air so I could tell which way the wind was blowing. I had seen one of the outfielders for the Cubs do it, so I did it too.

On the first pitch, the batter hit the ball foul down the left field line. It drifted far out of play, but Spud still gave futile chase. When he ran back into position, he was playing even more shallow than before. I yelled over at him to move back. He took one step back, not nearly enough. I looked in at Coach hoping he would reposition Spud, but he was too busy giving instructions to our pitcher. I wanted to yell again, but felt self-conscious being too aggressive about telling other players what to do.

From center field, I saw our pitcher struggling. He stood listlessly on the mound, his shoulders slumped forward. I wondered if he had gone swimming earlier in the day.

The players’ parents cheered. “One more out.”

“Strike him out, Brian.”

“Let’s go.”

It seemed winning the game meant as much to them as it did to us. Some of the parents were standing in the bleachers. Others had come up closer to the backstop. I was keenly aware my dad was not among them. Even so, I looked for him from my perch in the outfield.

The next pitch, the batter swung hard and hit a deep fly ball into left field. At the crack of the bat, I took off in case I had to backup Spud. When I looked over at him, I saw him standing flat-footed in the exact spot he had been before the pitch.

The arc of the ball told me Spud had no chance of catching it. I ran toward left field, hearing nothing but my own breathing. I saw the ball falling out of the sky and Spud feebly trying to get back to catch it. The stands, the parents, the cheers all faded.

Even though I was too far away, I dove for the ball. To this day, I don’t know what prompted me to leave my feet. As I did, an unnatural force took hold of me. My body should have fallen to the ground. Instead, I kept going, faster and farther. As God as my witness, I was flying.

My left arm was extended as far in front of me as it could go. My glove open, waiting. The falling ball, a matter of inches from the ground now. I slid my glove under it, cradled it in the webbing, and held on tight.

Once again subject to the law of gravity, I slid across the grass behind Spud, who tripped and fell as he backpedaled toward the ball. I came to a stop and raised my glove to show the umpire I had made the catch.

Cheers erupted from the stands. As I ran toward the dugout, my teammates mobbed me. Someone jumped on my back and screamed. Our shortstop pulled my hat down over my eyes as he rubbed my head and said, “Great catch!” Spud ran alongside me from the outfield, shaking his head and asking, “How did you do that?” I was unable to answer or explain what had happened.

Coach met me at the dugout and hugged me with one arm, an unusual gesture from a man who was normally quiet and understated. “That’s the greatest catch I’ve ever seen.”

I looked up on the hill behind the backstop. I looked toward the bleachers. I looked for Dad’s truck in the parking lot. There was no sign of him.

When we got back to Coach’s house after the game, he congratulated me again. “Good game tonight. That was a heck of a catch.” I thanked him, then jumped on my bike and rode home in the dark, imagining my parent’s excitement about my catch. But when I got home, I realized my mom knew nothing of baseball. She might be happy for me, but she wouldn’t truly understand what I had done. Only Dad would, and he was still at work. I changed out of my uniform and sat down to watch TV.

The next morning, I found Dad in the kitchen. He popped a couple pills into his mouth, and washed them down with a glass of milk.

“Good morning,” I said, wanting to say more.

Dad returned the greeting and rinsed his glass. He went into the living room, and I knew my window of opportunity was closing. I wanted to tell him about my miraculous catch, but couldn’t find the words. Dad paid me no mind. He lay on the couch, pulling a blanket over his head. He was in his cocoon, and I was stuck outside.

I didn’t understand what was going on with Dad. I knew he took a lot of medicine and he slept a lot, but I couldn’t put a name to what he was going through. All I knew was that he was a lot less involved in my life than he had been. When I was younger, he’d attend my games and occasionally played catch with me, but that didn’t happen anymore. Whatever he was going through, it was clear it was taking him away from me, and I blamed him for it.

*

Dad eventually went through drug rehab, and for the next forty years, he was a different person. The farther he got away from the pain pills and the addiction, the happier, more talkative, and more outgoing he became.

Many years later, after Mom died, Dad moved into an assisted living facility. I visited him frequently in his final years. He’d often suggest that we watch a baseball game together, even though he never watched baseball alone. When one of the players made a nice catch, he’d often say, “You could have made that catch. You weren’t much of a hitter, but you could really field.”

I often thought about telling him the story of the catch I made that summer night so many years earlier, but I could never find the right words to make him understand. I wasn’t even sure I understood what had happened that night at Copley Park. It was a miracle, I knew that much. And I’ve been searching for another one ever since.

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