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 thoughtlet
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 traitsmy desire to play baseball every day, if I
could, and my inability to play it wellbut 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 linethe
one that divides fantasies about potential heroism and the
reality of athletic limitationscreates its own strong
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.