A Baseball to the Head

My father once took on the thankless task of being our baseball coach. It was my first year out of tee ball, which meant the big leagues for us. We needed no assistance to make contact with the ball. Now, my father, at this time, played slow pitch softball with his friends on the weekend. He would practice with his team, and sometimes I’d go with them while they worked on their skills. Slow pitch is all about hitting the ball as hard as you can out of the field. When I was young, it seemed like the field was full of impossibly old men who had to hit the ball far in order to have time to run to first base. If the ball was hit on the infield, no one ever out ran the throw. The men on the field played simply for the game itself, and my dad was no different. He loved competition, and he loved that I was interested in sports. So when no one would coach the kids, he stepped up.

Dad ran practice similar to how the adults ran practice. This probably wasn’t the best method of imparting skills on young boys. But, to be fair, most of the other kids were super excited and paid attention. I, in a trait that has never left, preferred to talk rather than watch or, even, play baseball. While in the outfield, I was talking with someone; I can’t remember who. I must have acting up that day because I remember my father being frustrated with me. I stood in the outfield with my glove held in front of my face. Later, I would find out that he had yelled my name, but all I heard was the tink of the ball coming off the aluminum bat followed very closely by the smack of the ball in my glove. On pure reaction, I closed the glove and yelled, “You’re out!” My father, in an attempt to get me to pay attention, had hit the ball to me, but rather than an easy ground ball or even an arcing pop fly into the outfield, my father had hit a rocket straight on a line at my head. I looked at him, and he was clearly shocked. At the time, I thought it was because of my superhero-esque reaction to catch the ball. He recovered quickly and yelled at me to pay attention. I was a bit shaken because if my glove had not been in the way, that line drive would have taken my head off.

Over the course of the following week, my little imagination would cycle through the possible outcomes that I had avoided. I would see my little nose crushed, bloody, and bruised with me crying like a newborn; then, the next day in an out of body experience, I’d see my little body lying unconscious in the field, limbs all askew, my hat next to my head, glove still on my hand. The day after that, I’d use my tongue to probe the teeth that I’m sure would have been knocked free had the ball hit my jaw. Despite all this morbid imagination, not once did I get mad at my father for trying to kill me. It didn’t occur to me that Dad would try to purposely hurt me. I knew without a doubt that my father would never deliberately and consciously injure me. Sure, if he were punishing me, he’d spank me. That would cause pain but not harm, and I knew that he hated to spank me. Honestly, I had to be really bad to get that. Often just the promise of a spanking was enough to get me to mind, and at that point in my life, they’d switched their punishment strategy to grounding and timeouts. So even though he’d hit a ball straight at my head, it never occurred to me that it’d been done purposefully or maliciously.

Years later, probably a decade gone by, I asked Dad about that. I wondered if he even remembered, and it turned out that he had a better memory of it than I did. It had been one of the scarier moments of parenthood for him because if harm had come to me, it would be directly his fault. He confirmed that he had called out my name before hitting the ball. Apparently, he decided to hit a ground ball at me, but at the last moment changed his mind to hit a fly ball to me since I was in the outfield. In that instant of lost focus, he ended up hitting something in between the two that was a straight line at my head. He said that there was nothing he could do once it left his bat, and that when I caught it, he didn’t know how to react. “I tried to act like it was all my plan.” Those weren’t his exact words but they’re close enough based on my bad memory. Asthma ruled my young life, and he spent too much time watching his son struggle at something so natural and easy. Most people don’t pay attention to their breathing, but I’ve had to be mindful of it my whole life. My father also spent time in the hospital with his wife as multiple sclerosis did its damage to her. Those times were out of his control, though. He was never the cause just the innocent bystander. When he hit that ball at me, he was the cause. By pure luck, I wasn’t injured, but that moment had been imprinted upon him. What if he had knocked his son unconscious by accident?

I think of my father everyday. Different memories at different times, of course, and this morning, this memory came to me. I guess because baseball season is starting. This scene makes me smile in a strange way. Since I was little, I have titled this memory as “the time my father nearly killed me by accident.” It’s the only one in that file folder, and strangely it’s one that I really like. It would be easy to tint the memory as my father being cruel to me. I could be angry at him because who hits a line drive at their son’s head? I was lucky enough to know my father, though. That was a unique moment in our relationship that was never repeated in any other form. Did I learn a lesson from it? No, I didn’t. I still talk at baseball games; so much so that I rarely pay attention to any of the action. Why is that memory still so vivid for me? I understand why it mattered to my father; the potential outcomes scared him. That fear imprinted the memory on him, but I wasn’t afraid. I was shocked that I caught the ball, shocked that it worked out that well for me. There are no negative emotions tied to the memory at all; I don’t even feel like I let my father down by not paying attention. It simply is what it is.

That was the last season that he coached baseball for me as far as I remember. While I know this incident didn’t change his mind there, I wonder how it changed him as a father. Did he see the differences in us at that moment? He could focus during sport, but my mind wandered. Or is just a moment that luckily went the right way for him and me? It’s a mystery that is better left unsolved, I think. The questions are more interesting than the answer ever would be.

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