Jock Shock

Top of the ninth, bases loaded, and . . . game over. What is it like to love a sport but not be so great at it? Just ask Dad.

My son's not all that hot at sports. I know, I know: Now you think I must be a bad parent. What kid of person ever thinks such a thought—let alone voices it, let alone writes it in a magazine that his son's peers, or at least his son's peers' parents, will read? A bad parent, that's who. Just ask my dad. I recently made the mistake of mentioning to him over the phone that his grandson's all-consuming enthusiasm for baseball isn't quite matched by actual prowess. Long silence. "You," my father finally bristled, summoning his best now-it-can-be-told tone, "were not exactly Ron Santo"—the All-Star third baseman for the Chicago Cubs when I was growing up in the late sixties, and my boyhood idol.

"I know," I sighed. "But the thing is," I added, in my own best now-it-can-be-told tone, "I knew it then."

Really, I did. I knew it when I hit my first home run in my first at-bat of a new sandlot season, and my friends immediately interpreted this momentous development as evidence not that I'd grown stronger during the long Chicago winter but that it was time to find a bigger ball field. I knew it when I shagged fly balls for a friend and I couldn't make the throw all the way back to him from the outfield, and I had to keep saying, "Sorry . . . Sorry . . . Sorry," until finally he shouted to me, his voice bouncing off the bungalows across the street, "Stop saying you're sorry!" I knew it after a weekend of Little League tryouts, when all my friends got phone calls from their new coaches on Monday evening, letting them know what team they'd be playing on, and I didn't get my call until Tuesday evening, and even then it was to tell me what minor-league team I'd be playing on. I hung up the phone, stunned. Who knew that Little League had minors?

I'm sorry to say that my son Gabriel has inherited those twin traits—my desire to play baseball every day, if I could, and my inability to play it well—but say it I must. And not just because it's true.

There's a fine line, of couse, between helpful criticism and crushing cruelty, and as an adult you learn how not to cross it when assessing your child's athletic performance. You pace the sidelines at the soccer match, you sit in the bleachers at the baseball game, you toss the football back and fourth at the local playground on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and all the while you call out encouragement. At a certain point, though, you know.

But at a certain point, the child knows, too. Five years ago, Gabriel was telling me about how as a major-league pitcher he was going to win 700 games. (Um, okay, but first you need to learn a proper pitching motion, I suggested.) Three years ago, he was telling me about how as a major-league batter he was going to hit 700 home runs. (Um, okay, but first you need to learn a proper batting stance.) Just last year, he was telling me how that very afternoon, when he was scheduled to pitch for his school team for one inning, he was going to strike out the side. (Um, okay, but first you need to get the ball over the plate.)

Now, though, at 13, Gabriel laughs at those earlier fantasies. We shake our heads together, and I would argue that this mutual acknowledgement that he's crossed his own fine line—the one that divides fantasies about potential heroism and the reality of athletic limitations—creates its own strong father-son bond.

I still sit in the bleachers and call out encouragement, of course, and he's certainly improved over the years. But i also can't help noticing that in recent months Gabriel's interests have shifted. Oh, he would still play baseball every day if he could, and he religiously follows the standings and statistics in the newspapers and online, and he and his friends love nothing better than to have all-day tournaments of Major League Baseball 2004, either on the PC or the GameCube. But Gabriel and his friend Scott have also joined an online fantasy league, choosing and trading players based on their best estimates of future performance. And their team has been in first place almost nonstop throughout the season.

We recently ran into Scott's father at a school science fair. He happens to be a financial manager for professional athletes, including numerous baseball stars. He knows his stuff. And when he saw my son, he clapped Gabriel on the shoulder. "You," he pronounced, "are going to make a great major-league general manager some day."

"Did you hear what he said?" Gabriel whispered to me later, as we left the school building. "He said I'd make a great major-league general manager some day."

Um, okay, but first you need to . . . oh, never mind.

"That," Gabriel went on, "really made my day."

"Mine, too," I said, and then Gabriel took me by the hand and led me home.

Richard Panek is the author of The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes.

From the Fall 2004 edition of the New York Family Guide