My wife and I played a game of catch today. We were supposed to be packing because we are in the middle of moving houses. But there we were, lobbing a cowhide ball back and forth in the driveway.
The oldest game known to humankind is the game of catch. Eons ago, Eve took a bite of her apple, tossed it to Adam and said, “Hey, Adam! Catch!” And just like that, the Atlanta Braves were born.
I learned how to catch a baseball when I was 2 years old, sitting on the porch swing with my father. It was summer. I was eating a patriotic-colored popsicle. Witnesses remember my father underhanding the ball to me and saying, “Look alive, son!”
At age 2, I was not known for having feline-like reflexes. In fact, my greatest display of hand-eye coordination was applauding myself for peeing in my own bathwater.
So when the baseball arced through the air I merely drooled at it. The ball hit me squarely in the forehead. I fell off the swing. My mother heard the thud and tore out of the house in a fury. And that’s how my father lost his front incisors.
Over the years, I studied the basics of my father’s cherished game. Not just the big stuff. I learned little stuff, too.
I learned how to spit sunflower seeds correctly, how to insult the batter’s mother, and how to get pine tar all over our family station-wagon interior.
I learned to keep my eye on the ball, to lift my fingers during a headfirst slide, to crowd the plate, and how to adjust my private regions mid-game for hundreds of spectators, like a professional.
But my most vivid memories are the ones where I’m playing catch.
Catch is its own game. It has its own cadence. There is no scorekeeping. No time limit. No rules. If you close your eyes and listen to a couple of people playing catch, you will only hear gentle conversation, punctuated by loud slaps.
I played catch with my father nearly every evening of his adult life. We played devoutly, and we pitched fast. At times, my father slung the ball so hard I had to tuck a sponge into my glove to prevent permanent nerve damage.
Daddy always carried our gloves in his truck so that we could play catch whenever the mood hit. We played in some odd places.
I remember one time when my family was shopping at JCPenney, my father and I snuck into the parking lot for a quick game of horse. When my mother exited the department store, she found two idiots hurling four-seamers past BMWs and Benzes.
“I married a mouth breather,” I recall my mother saying.
We played catch in public parks, churchyards, front lawns, back lots, and on the side of the highway while waiting for the tow truck.
Once, my father and I even played catch at 14,439 above sea level, atop Mount Elbert, the tallest mountain in Colorado, just to say we had done it.
My father’s glove was a 1962 MacGregor, Willie Mays model. He kept it conditioned with axle grease. As a boy, he had saved up his money for two summers to buy the mitt from a general store in Iola. He paid a grand total of $16.00, which only shows you the rate of inflation.
Today, a decent glove will run you upwards of $300.
The afternoon before my father died, we played catch. If I’d known he was going to die, I would have thrown the ball harder.
The morning after his funeral, I went to his truck and retrieved his orphaned MacGregor. I smelled it. I cried upon the webbing. And I slept with the glove beside my bed for years.
But over the decades something happened to me. I grew up I guess. Life got busy. I got busy. I don’t remember how it happened, but I lost his glove.
This wasn’t unusual for me, of course. I lost a lot of his stuff. Eventually, a dead man’s belongings will sprout legs and walk away from you if you’re not careful. I lost his tools, his book collection, the F-14 Tomcat models he built, his eyeglasses, and his antiquated Remington Rollectric razor.
I once tore my house apart, looking for his mitt to no avail. I spent half the day emptying boxes, ripping apart closets, and crawling under beds.
When it finally dawned on me that I’d actually lost the glove he’d owned since middle school, I gave up the hunt and wept. Because, you see, this meant he was really gone.
At long last, my father was officially silt. All the inert objects he loved had vanished. All his kickknacks were vapor. All I had left of him were dim memories, and even those were disappearing.
Time went on, I didn’t think much about the glove again until this morning.
This morning I was going through boxes in the attic. I wasn’t really paying attention, I was just sifting. At the bottom of a box marked MISCELLANEOUS I found a dark leather MacGregor glove. I brought the 60-year-old mitt to my nose and pulled a breath inward—axle grease. Then I polished the leather liberally with my own saltwater.
So that’s why I played catch today.