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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Put-Out at Home Plate

As a young man my father was headed for a career as a professional baseball player (he was a catcher) until he threw his arm out while in college. As I discussed in a prior post [“My Competitive Parents”], both of my parents were athletes all their lives. In that department, I was a disappointment to Dad, who always assumed I would share their enthusiasm for sports, but, for reasons I will discuss someday, that was more or less impossible. I was a bowler in two leagues in 1968-69 when I moved to Chicago to practice law, and, when in Bermuda [see “My Year in Bermuda”], I was the catcher for my Navy Supply Department team. I was an okay catcher, and I could bat, but I couldn’t run very fast and that made me an easy out.

During that year I spent in Bermuda, I mostly lived on the Air Force Base with my parents and sister, Mary Beth (who is two years younger than me). Dad’s plane-refueling squadron fielded a softball team in the base’s slowpitch league. In this form of softball there are ten players, and the pitcher (always Dad when his squadron played) must pitch the ball up in an arc so that it comes down over the plate. Although Dad’s squadron was small compared with the others on the base, his team, which he also coached, did quite well. Those eligible to play for any team in the league had to be a man assigned to the squadron (they were all men in those days) or members of his immediate family.

I am a great sports fan, and can get into watching any sporting event as long as I care who wins. I assiduously follow college football and basketball, and, alas, due to my Chicago days when I used to go out to Wrigley Field often, the Chicago Cubs (sigh). When it comes to the Olympics, which are currently all over TV, I am quite the chauvinist, rooting like crazy if the USA is involved in the competition at issue. I don’t even have to understand the rules—I’m cheering like a loon. As a consequence, whenever possible I went along with my mother and sister to watch Dad’s squadron’s softball games, and we three joined the other families in cheering them on to victory (which was the rule rather than the exception).

As the squadron team advanced to the point where they might actually win the base tournament there came a bad day. We were all sitting in the stands waiting for the game to start, but there was confusion on the field of play. The problem was that Dad’s squadron could only come up with nine players, and without another they would have to forfeit the game. Dad looked depressed until he scanned the crowd and came to me. Our eyes met, and I knew at once what he was thinking. I was eligible! There was a certain horror in my mind about this, since I was nowhere near the caliber of the other squadron players. But Dad came up to me and said, “Doug, I hate to ask, but would you play?” I replied that I would, but only if I could catch. So he moved their regular catcher to some other position, and, with massive butterflies knocking around in my stomach, I took my place behind home plate, where I did struggle to hold my own, but committed no serious mistakes.

Towards the end of the game there was a moment of great excitement when the opposing team hit a ball fairly into center field, and the runner on second decided he could score (and win the game) by rounding third base and sliding across home plate. Our centerfielder was well known for his throwing arm, and that ball came zinging in at considerable speed from him directly to me. I caught it, swung my arm down with it, and the runner slid right into me. He was out and we won the game. Dad later told me that it was the only put-out at home plate his team had had all season.

Though Dad died years later at age 61, he got to see me do many things of which he was pleased and thrilled (winning high school debating competitions, graduating with honors from law school, conducting a trial with him (there’s a good story there), and teaching law (he and Mom came to class together at one point). But—truth be told—there was no moment in his life when he was prouder of me than that put-out at home plate.

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“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013

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