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Inside Looking Out: To play catch with my dad

My father died when I was 19 years old.

He never did much with me when I was a kid. He took me fishing a time or two.

He came to just one of my Little League games, and when I made a diving catch of a line drive in right field, I will never forget him shouting, “Atta boy, Rich!”

Besides these few memories, I grew up a fatherless child.

I love baseball and so did he. I had to give up playing the game when I nearly lost some vision after I tripped and hit my head on the bleachers while I was catching a pop fly.

I fractured an orbital bone that pushed less than an eighth of an inch from piercing the back of my eye. So, I became a coach for a good part of 40 years, managing 6-year-old kids, Little League boys and girls, high school varsities, Babe Ruth teens, and elite travel team players. We won some and we lost some and I wouldn’t change a single experience. Every game has helped in some way to build the character of the man I am today.

Because he died too young, my father missed seeing me sending my teams onto baseball diamonds for competition. But a month ago, as I watched my son play third base for Jim Thorpe Area High School, I had this intuition that Dad was standing there alongside him. In his youth, he looked strikingly handsome like my son. I have an old photograph of my father at age 15 posing in a baseball uniform. His resemblance to my boy is extraordinary.

If I could have him back for a little time, I’d ask Dad to have a game of catch with me, something we had never done before. There is no better way for a father to bond with his son than tossing a ball back and forth with him. I can imagine how it would be if we could have this special moment.

The baseball smacks into our gloves, setting the stage for the discovery of his lost fatherhood with me. In between our throws, we stand tall, facing each other, holding our gloves up high with expectation. With each sling of our arms, the spinning hardball carries with it the love we had never shared.

If my son should become a father someday, I hope he will stop whatever he is doing when he hears his little boy or girl ask, “Hey Dad, you wanna play catch?” He will grab his glove and realize that this is a can’t-miss opportunity for him to authenticate his fatherhood in the eyes of his adoring child.

Baseball is a test of humility and courage. You fail a lot in this game. You strike out. You drop a fly ball. You let a ground ball go through your legs. You over run a base and get tagged out.

Everyone on the field and in the bleachers sees you screw up. Sometimes, you feel like quitting. Inside you cry, but you fight back the tears from ever reaching your eyes. You don’t really understand it yet, but the game is helping you grow into a man and preparing you for the difficulties you’ll face in life.

Baseball will forgive you, too. You play another inning and you get a hit or you make a great catch. You get chances to make things right.

I remember the exact moment that I got the chance to make things right with my dad. Many years after he had died, I stood at his grave and I asked him to forgive me for the anger I held toward him that had lasted long after he had taken his last breath. I never allowed myself to understand why he wasn’t there for me when I wanted him to be my father. He had been racked with stomach ulcers and advanced emphysema from his struggles and failures to make a good life for our family. He lived every minute with pain. I remember him coming home from work, leaning over the kitchen counter, trying to catch his breath and fight off the Grim Reaper just to live another day. How could he have had time for me?

I love the baseball photograph of him looking so young and healthy. I’m reminded of a scene from my favorite movie when a man named Ray is about to step onto his “Field of Dreams” to play catch with his dad who had died a long time ago.

“Oh my God! That’s my father!” Ray says to his wife. “I only saw him years later when he was worn down by life. Look at him! He has his whole life in front of him and I’m not even a glint in his eye.”

Ray then hears a voice. “Go the distance. Ease his pain. If you build it, he will come.”

I have gone the distance and I have found love for my dad that had been missing in my heart for most of my life. I hope that by asking him to forgive me, I have helped ease his pain, too.

Someday we will stand on our own field of dreams that I have been building inside my mind. He’ll be that man in the photograph, looking virile and vibrant and he’ll be waiting for me with his baseball glove on his hand.

“Is this really heaven, Dad?” I ask him when we meet again.

“Oh, yeah, it’s a place where dreams come true,” he says while pounding his fist into his glove with a brand-new ball.

I feel the excitement build inside me. I know what’s going to come next. “Hey son!” he shouts, shooting me a smile. “You wanna play catch?”

P.S. - Happy Father’s Day, especially to dads who hold wonderful memories of playing catch with their kids.

Rich Strack can be reached at richiesadie11@gmail.com.