The other dads in the street would occasionally lumber off their porches and trot heavily into the street and toss baseballs and footballs, wearing ragged sweatshirts and Old Man Pants and second-best shoes, but our dad had never set foot in the middle of the street between the tight rows of cars, and the very idea of him jumping off the porch and trotting into the street was beyond the reach of human imagination…”
by brian doyle
One time when I was young, a thousand years ago, I decided to play baseball for the Catholic league team, even though I was terrified of the tiny rocky ball and did not at all understand the supposedly pastoral allure of the sport, which seemed painfully slow and jerky to me, and rather selfish to boot; as far as I could tell the pitcher surrendered the ball only with the greatest reluctance, after pondering the matter grimly for a long time and shaking his head testily at the catcher; and then when he did finally take leave of the ball he did so with unseemly petulance, flinging it angrily at the batter or the catcher or the umpire, hitting one or another of these poor unfortunates at every turn. Meanwhile the fielders fiddled with their private parts, or shouted fervid nonsensical things, or spat copiously into the dust, or pounded their mitts angrily, as if their poor cowhide gloves had done anything but idly gape as the pitcher simmered on the mound and the fielders scratched their private parts and the umpire made loud inarticulate hooting sounds when the ball hit the backstop or the batter or the catcher or even the umpire, who hid behind the catcher to provide a smaller target for the furious pitcher.
All in all the game seemed peculiar to me, but several of my friends suddenly had decided to play, so I did so too, of course, even though I had never played before. My father, who was and is a wry soul, pointed out to me that being generally unsure of baseball’s regulations and what he called the rhythm and geometry of the game were substantive drawbacks, and he offered to have a catch, so that I could understand the basic transaction of the sport, as he said, which is the exchange of the ball; everyone talks about hitting, he said, but hitters do not actually hit much or effectively, and even when they do manage to interrupt the ball before it hits the backstop or the umpire, often it goes awry, which is called a fouled or vulgar ball, or it is hit directly at the fielders, who are expected to promptly defend themselves; so that learning to snare and share the ball is crucial, just as in your beloved basketball, although in baseball the actual ball is tiny and granitic, because the game is descended from cricket, which also has a tiny hard ball, probably because the English are a parsimonious and masochistic race, and actually enjoy affliction, which is a sin, and one reason their savage empire collapsed.
This was and is how my dad talks, which has provided an endless source of education and entertainment over the years; it was a great shock for us to discover, in late childhood, that other dads did not talk this way, with this bemused sidelong imaginative twist, so that you would be educated and entertained and epiphanated, as my sister once said, all at once, on any subject whatsoever, from empires to umpires and back again.
So out we went in the street for a catch. This is a remarkable sentence for any number of reasons: my dad and I had never had a catch, neither of us had ever held or thrown a baseball before, and neither of us had ever worn cattle-skin hand guards. The whole thing was so amazing that all my brothers came out in the street also, to see this incredible moment, and this flood of brothers was savory bait for the rest of the kids on the block, of which there were many; so very soon there were dozens of children in the street, gaping at the sight of Mister Doyle! with a baseball glove! on one hand and a baseball! in the other.
I should pause here to explain again how unthinkable this was at that time on that street. The other dads in the street would occasionally lumber off their porches and trot heavily into the street and toss baseballs and footballs, wearing ragged sweatshirts and Old Man Pants and second-best shoes, but our dad had never set foot in the middle of the street between the tight rows of cars, and the very idea of him jumping off the porch and trotting into the street was beyond the reach of human imagination. Our dad was a tall burly dignified man of fifty who wore a fedora hat and an excellent topcoat when he strode briskly to the train along the sidewalk every morning on his way into the city to work as a journalist. He was erudite and witty and literary. He had read everything and wrote for magazines and was avuncular and wise and the kind of dad you turned to for quiet advice, the kind of dad whose most terrifying remark to his children was Could I have a word with you? He was not at all the kind of dad who leapt off the porch and trotted out into the street wearing a ragged sweatshirt. I think if we had ever seen him emerge from the house in a ragged sweatshirt our heads would have exploded right there by the azalea bushes and Mom would have been annoyed that we splattered her beloved bushes.
This is not to say that our dad was unathletic, or unfamiliar with brawn and sport and violence; he had been a college tennis player, and then a sergeant and then lieutenant in the United States Army in not one but two wars, and he had at least once used his fists in anger, that we knew of, and he was well over six feet tall, and in the rare moments he was furious he had a grim glare that could peel paint. But those moments were rare, in our experience; indeed so rare that they had become faint legend, things that had happened long ago and now were imperfectly remembered.
But that one spring afternoon he did step into the street, wearing a baseball glove he had found somewhere, and he did rear back and throw a baseball to me, and this is still, forty years later, a stunning thing to contemplate, for I can still see him, as clear as if it was yesterday, standing tall and relaxed in the street, with his shirt sleeves rolled up, and his burly arm cocked to throw me the ball, and dozens of children standing on the curbs, crowding as close as they could get to the street without actually being in it, to see no kidding Mister Doyle! throwing a baseball to Brian, it was a wonder that no enterprising child sold tickets to the event, which I would not have put past the children at the northwest end of the street, two of whom are now lifelong guests of the City of New York; the family was of English ancestry, I probably do not need to note.
My memory is imperfect now, so I cannot remember the number of successful exchanges of the tiny and granitic ball, signed by Ed Kranepool of the New York Mets; I believe it passed between us three or four times; let us say three, a holy number, the number of aspects of God in the ancient religious tradition of our family; but on the fourth attempt, as the ball left my father’s hand, I lost track of it, being a boy with dense spectacles, and perhaps awed by the weight of the unthinkable moment and the murmuring crowd, and the ball hit me, at what I remember as terrific velocity, in the right eye, and down I went, gibbering.
Sometimes when my brothers and I tell this story now we concentrate on my subsequent incredible black eye (something of a misnomer, for blue and green and yellow were also involved), or the miraculous fact that shards of glass did not pierce my eye and turn me into a larval cyclopean essayist, or the way that our dad went from a standing start thirty feet away to my side in about an eighth of a second, or how that early mishap proved all too predictive of my later misadventures in baseball, in which I ended up being a pitcher who hit the backstop or the batter or the umpire more than the catcher; but I have always preferred to celebrate the moment before the mishap, not the mishap itself. Mishaps are normal, but extraordinary moments are quiet miracles, I think, especially when accompanied by many children pouring out of their houses and crowding together along the curb to witness something they had never seen before and would never see again. A moment like that ought to be resurrected and celebrated regularly, sung for the gift it is; and when I do so, I have discovered, time dissolves, and the past is present, and my dad is fifty again, and tall and bemused in the middle of the street between the tight rows of cars, and he rears back to whip the ball to me, and it’s always hanging there, fresh from his hand, stunning.
(illustrations: brian doyle)
Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall. He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved. Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017. Faced with the prospect that Brian will not be here to support his family, there is an effort underway to pay off the mortgage to sustain Mary and their children: https://www.gofundme.com/doylefamilyfund
More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.