Baseball may be America's favorite pastime, but it was never mine. As a kid, I would stand as deep in the outfield as I could, praying all the while, Don't let the ball come to me. Once, after I failed to swing at an easy pitch, a gym coach rolled the ball on the ground toward me, asking if I wanted to play golf.
Still, as an adult I learned to enjoy going to baseball games and even became a Texas Rangers fan. Of course, I avoided playing. But I wanted my eight-year-old son, Ryan, to give the game a try so I signed him up for a machine-pitch baseball league. I hoped my son would not be as bad at baseball as I was.
At Ryan's first game I shifted nervously on the bleachers. Dear Lord, please let baseball be different for Ryan than it was for me. "Come on, son!" I called out, trying to echo the other dads. The arm of the pitching machine wound up and tossed the ball. Ryan took a mighty swing at it . . . and missed. The machine hurled the next pitch. Another swing and a miss. Swing. Miss. Again and again. The only thing different from my experience was that Ryan had a machine throwing to him instead of a pitcher who would crack jokes at his expense.
Ryan hadn't connected with the ball even once. As he came up to me later, I braced myself to see a frustrated little boy. He was all smiles.
"Daddy," he said, "can I have a sno-cone?"
"Sure," I replied as we walked to the car. He's taking this awfully well, I thought. Maybe he'll do better the next time. After all, there was a whole season ahead.
But no, Ryan was a chip off the old block. Game after game it was one strikeout after another, like clockwork. At Ryan's level of machine-pitch baseball the kids were allowed five strikes. Five chances to hit the ball and every time Ryan missed. I tried to encourage him. But it hurt to watch the strikeouts. Some swings looked oh-so-close-but they were still strikes.
I began to pace the sidelines whenever Ryan batted. With each failed swing, I felt like it was me who had missed the pitch. But Ryan would return to the dugout after each strikeout and slap high fives with his buddies. Wasn't he afraid they would start laughing at him? I kept expecting him to say he didn't want to play anymore. But he never gave up.
One spring day after Ryan struck out as usual, he came over to us for a drink out of the water jug my wife, Mareska, had brought along. "Those were some great swings!" his mom said, ruffling his hair.
"Good job, son!" I said mechanically. He flashed me his usual incongruous grin of triumph. As he walked back to the dugout I shook my head. I just didn't get it. How could he be so cheerful when he was the only one who'd never hit the ball?
"Loosen up," Mareska said to me. "If Ryan's not worried about striking out, you shouldn't be either. He's having fun. That's the point, you know."
But how can he be? Whenever I'd struck out, my face burned in shame. Every time I missed catching a fly ball I wanted to crawl into a hole. This must be hard on Ryan too, I thought. His next at bat, I returned to the sidelines.
Ryan marched up to the plate, eager as ever. Couldn't he just get one hit? I thought. The machine cranked out the first two pitches. Both strikes.
"Keep your eye on the ball," said the coach. "This one is yours."
Strike three. I closed my eyes.
Strike four. "Go, Ryan!" his teammates called.
I opened my eyes and stared down at the dirt helplessly. When I glanced up, Ryan was in the stands next to his mom. He took a big swig from the water jug, then smiled as if he'd just hit the game-winning home run.
The season scrolled through my mind-all of Ryan's strikeouts. He'd just shrugged each one off, and kept on trying.
Ryan looked over at me and gave me a thumbs-up. A thumbs-up! All at once I knew. God had heard my prayer after all. Baseball was different for Ryan than it had been for me. No matter how he did, he always found a way to have fun. And, yes, that was the point.
I grinned at Ryan and returned the thumbs-up. As he walked back to the dugout, I returned to the stands. After the game, we went to get a sno-cone. I reached down to pat Ryan on the back. "Hey, Sport, I'm really proud of you," I said. "I like the way you play the game."