June 11, 2021

Reflection / John Shaughnessy

A special Father’s Day gift comes with a catch—from God

John ShaughnessySometimes a gift reminds you of the great blessings that God has showered on your life—the people he has given you as family, the people who come into your life briefly and touch it forever, the unexpected moments that show you God’s grace and his care.

I received one of those special gifts on Father’s Day a year ago.

The gift came from my three grown children. After I pulled tissue paper after tissue paper from the large gift bag, the present appeared: a chocolate-colored Rawlings baseball glove. As I slipped my left hand inside the glove and pounded its pocket with my right, it felt perfect.

“This is the best gift,” I said truthfully about the glove, which replaced one that had been lost years ago. Still, as I’m in my mid-60s, some people wondered, “What’s he going to do with that?!”

But here’s what I know from the two times in my life when I have been given a new baseball glove. When I got a new glove as a child, it came with the extra gift of dreams—dreams of making spectacular, game-saving catches, dreams of even playing in the major leagues someday. When I was given a new glove at this point in my life, it came with the extra gift of memories—memories of so many people who have shared and nurtured my love for baseball, memories of so many people who have shared and nurtured my life. Putting on this new baseball glove was like having my own time machine, my own Field of Dreams.

It led me to recall my first heroes of the sport. They weren’t pro players mysteriously emerging from a cornfield in Iowa. Instead, they were older boys who grew up amid the cornfields of Maryland. They let a little kid from the city—me visiting my great aunt on her nearby farm during the summer—play in their pickup games, generously introducing me to two of the great joys of the sport: the cheers and acceptance of teammates.

A man named Sam also came out of the mist of my memory, the first Black person I ever met. On that summer evening when I was 10, I picked up my baseball glove and a rubber ball and headed toward the parking lot of a nearby office building in an all-white suburb. There, I whipped the ball high against the building’s back wall, turning a split second later to rush back to the parking lot’s wooden fence to make dramatic, game-saving catches.

For the next 15 minutes, I must have thrown the ball hard against that wall and raced after it about 30 times. And I would have done it at least 100 more times if the back door of the two-story office building hadn’t opened with a fury, leaving a huge man standing there before me.

My instincts told me to run, but I was like a deer that freezes in a car’s headlights. So I stood there as he walked toward me. And when he asked for the ball, I flipped it to him immediately. He said he had heard the repeated thuds against the wall as he was cleaning offices, so he wanted to check what was making the noise. Then he said he had looked out the window and saw me throwing and running, throwing and running.

“You looked like Willie Mays,” he said with a smile, mentioning the greatest centerfielder to ever play the game. I beamed back at him. Then he flipped the ball back, told me to avoid the windows and went inside to work. I saw Sam often that summer. Sometimes, he showed up with two glass bottles of Pepsi, and we talked baseball between sips. More than 55 years later, I still smile at the common ground that baseball created between us.

Indeed, I marvel at all the relationships and opportunities that have opened up from knowing how to use a baseball glove or even just having one.

A glove became my introduction to two of the best people I knew as a youth—Mr. Chambers and Mr. Jackson—an insurance agent and long-distance truck driver respectively who made lasting impacts as coaches who offered unwavering support to their players. And my smoothness with a glove turned strangers into friends through the years, being my ticket to join teams as I started school, as I went away to college, as I moved to a new city, as I began a new job.

A glove is also at the heart of my earliest and best moments between my father and me, and me and my three children. And right on cue, here’s Izzy Alcantara emerging from the mist of my Field of Dreams. Alcantara was a minor league baseball player at the time he played a dramatic part in my favorite moment involving a baseball glove.

It happened on a cloudless summer evening years ago when my daughter was 10 and playing softball. Wearing her team’s hat, she bounced into the living room with her baseball glove on her left hand. My daughter, my wife and I were headed to watch the Indianapolis Indians play at Victory Field. When my daughter was there a few weeks earlier with the family of a friend, a foul ball dropped from the sky, landed near her and bounced away, leading her to the firm belief that she shared with us in the living room. This time, with a glove on her hand, she was coming home with a souvenir baseball from the game.

Her faith has been shared by millions of baseball fans from different generations. Yet instead of sharing her belief, I tried to lower her expectations. I told her that in all my years of attending professional baseball games, I had never come home with a souvenir game ball.

“Don’t get your hopes too high,” I said.

At 10, she looked at me like I was someone who had lost his sense of faith, his belief in the wonderful possibilities of life. And she was right. That summer, for reasons not related to her, I felt pain and loss where I once believed in hope and magic. Maybe she even sensed that change in me. Yet instead of giving into my doubt, she trumped it with a smile. So I headed to the closet where I kept my baseball glove and pulled it down from a shelf. Even if my belief in hope and magic had been shaken, there was no reason to rob my daughter of those gifts.

We watched most of the game in the grassy section that rims the outfield walls of Victory Field. There, in a scene dripping with Americana, families and couples spread blankets, bring coolers and watch the game from gently sloping hills that overlook the field. We had claimed a spot of grass beyond the left field fence, father and daughter still wearing their baseball gloves yet only one of us believing. Then, in the midst of a scoreless pitchers’ duel, came a series of events that would change one of our views.

When the Indians took the field late in the game, my wife suggested we should cheer and wave to the leftfielder as he headed to his position. So we did, getting a return wave from Alcantara, a Dominican-born baseball player who was in his fifth year of following his American dream of becoming a major league baseball player. When the Indians came to bat later that inning, Izzy strolled to the plate.

By then, I was routinely checking the electronic scoreboard in right-center field, noting the hitting statistics of each of the players at bat. Izzy’s stats sent a wave of possibility and, inexplicably, hope through my mind. As I watched one of the team’s leading home run hitters settle into the batter’s box, I found myself rising from my sitting position and telling my daughter, “Get ready.”

Seconds later, the ball rocketed off Izzy’s bat in a high arc toward left field, drifting closer and closer to the fence. My daughter and I were both on our feet by then, drawn to the ball, focused solely on its flight against the backdrop of the stadium’s glowing lights, unaware of anything or anyone else around us. It was a moment when part of your mind tells you this can’t be happening, and another part wants to believe so much that it is.

Izzy’s shot carried over the left field wall. Even better, his game-winning home run landed in my glove.

As the stadium erupted in cheers and fireworks, Izzy trotted toward home plate while I immediately handed the ball to my daughter.

“Thank you,” she said.

I put my arm around her shoulder.

“Thank you,” I told her.

Fast forward to the present. With my new glove, I’ve had a catch with my now-29-year-old daughter when she returned home from South Carolina for a wedding.

I’ve also slipped on the new glove to pitch balls to my 6-year-old granddaughter and to have a catch with her dad, one of my sons. Then there are the times when I’m in our backyard, tossing up a ball toward the heavens—a catch with God—circling under it and making the catch on a field filled with memorable people and moments.

I consider it all a gift from God.

(John Shaughnessy is assistant editor of The Criterion.)

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