By Ben Belth
“Bring the wiffle-ball bat,” I say to my son, Luke, but he wants the aluminum one. “Let’s bring a few tennis balls,” I say. He shakes his head. He wants the hard balls. I admire his courage, but I take a few tennis balls anyway.
When we lived in the city, we would walk a block to the park, find a quiet corner and take BP. He always insisted on running bases, a tree for first, a hat for second and his mitt for third. “He’s like a Boarder Collie, run him out,” our family counselor Ronda tells me. “He needs it to regulate his emotions.”
We live in the country now, and there’s no park down the block. Our yard is too small, so we get in the car and drive to the school field. But it’s Sunday and the soccer leagues are in full blossom. Kids in orange or green jerseys swarm on the field. The parking lots are crowded with parents and expensive cars. We don’t know any of them yet. There’s no room for us.
We go to each ball field in town and find the same scene. Luke’s getting sleepy in the backseat (when he feels out of place: he dozes). So I take him down to the park by the river – a long stretch of landfill on the other side of the Metro North tracks. It’s dotted with families, mostly Latino. There’s plenty of room for us.
“What if I hit the ball in the river?” Luke asks. I give him a wink. He’s good, got a natural lefty swing, but he’s not that good. He slashes the ball to all fields but rarely hits it in the air. I’m not worried about the river.
We start in with the hardballs. “Baseball is a hard game,” I say. He tips the ball, fouls another, and misses a lot. “Underhand,” he says. He gets into one but it’s off the end of the bat and the vibrations unnerve him. He drops the bat and runs to me in a sobby bundle. His hands hurt but it’s more than that.
“I quit. I wanna go home.” he tells me. I repeat it, like Ronda taught me, “You wanna go home.” He looks directly at me. “No I wanna go home. Where my friends are. Where we can walk to the park and where I used to hit home runs.” I nod. “You miss the city,” I say. He falls into my chest, letting it all out.
I want to tell him everything will get better, that he’ll meet new friends, and that next year, he’ll be playing soccer with all the other kids. He’ll find his spot and this will start to feel like home soon enough. But he’s only seven-years-old. So instead I bring out the tennis ball and urge him back to the bat, which is not easy because I just want to keep hugging him. “That’s coddling”, Ronda says, “It makes you feel better, not him.”
“Bat up,” I say. “Plant that back leg.” He follows the directions.
“Coming overhand,” I say and let one go. He drills it, right back to me. A smile breaks across his face. I take a few steps back and throw another pitch, this one with a little more heat. He fouls it straight back. “Got another one,” I say, holding up the hardball. I let it go and he pounds it into the ground, the foul side of first base, but nice. It hits a stone, veers right, pops over a rock, and disappears into the Hudson.
I look back at him, my eyes wide. I’m silly happy but he doesn’t notice. He’s too busy running the bases.