It was a Wilson, George Brett MVP model, with snap action. Buying it brought back memories I'd kept locked away for nearly 30 years, not because it cost the same as my old Warren Spahn, but because of a question from my son. The two of us were sitting on the floor in my study that night rubbing neat's-foot oil into our gloves, folding and bending them every which way, spitting now and then into the pockets and generally getting ready to resume playing serious backyard ball, when suddenly Ben looked up at me. "Did your father have a glove?" he asked. Ben never knew my father, but he'd been named after him, and from an early age he'd wanted to know everything he could about the man. "As a matter of fact, he did have a glove," I answered, and I told him a story I'd forgotten until just then.
My father was a country doctor, the kind who made house calls late on cold winter nights and sometimes came home with a basket of vegetables from a farmer who had no money to pay him. He had little free time, but one day, when he was leaving the house after dinner to make his rounds at the hospital and he saw me chucking a baseball up against the side of the garage, he stopped, came over and put his arm around me. "You want to throw a few?" he asked me. "Yeah," I answered.
I was 11, an outfielder on a Little League team, and had a burning desire to be a pitcher. We went around behind the house, paced off the appropriate distance, cut a plate and a rubber from an old hunk of linoleum and began. He had been a pitcher once, in high school and on a semipro team, but he quit to work his way through college and medical school. He still had his old glove, torn, floppy-fingered, without an ounce of padding in it. He might as well have been catching me with a wet napkin stuck to his palm. "You ought to get a catcher's mitt," I told him. "Don't worry about me," he said. "Just get the ball over the plate."
We played almost every night after that. He'd come home with his stethoscope sticking out of his pocket. He would take off his suit jacket and lay it over the back-porch railing. I'd already have the ball and gloves ready. He'd loosen his tie, roll up the sleeves of his starched white shirt and squat down behind the square of linoleum. I was wild at first, as lefthanders are supposed to be. "Throw smooth and easy," he'd tell me. "And get the ball over the plate." That was his litany.
My control improved. My speed increased too. I was sure I was hurting his hand, but he never said a word. Complaining wasn't something he ever did. Then one day he came home with his medical bag in one hand and a paper sack in the other. He lay his jacket over the railing and pulled a brand-new catcher's mitt out of the sack. It was a very cold spring evening, but I remember we were both in our shirtsleeves. As I sat there on the floor with my son, I could hear the sharp pop my pitches made in the clear, still night air when they hit that mitt's pocket. I remember I was grinning so much I could hardly throw, but when I did, the ball seemed to move faster and with more authority. I remember how close I felt to my dad.
A week later, I pitched my first game for my team, the Tigers. We won 4-3, but my father had to deliver a baby at the time, and he missed all but the last inning. I didn't know he was there at all until I heard him honking his car horn from way back behind the rightfield fence. As I was walking off the field from the pitcher's mound, I turned around and saw him waving with his new glove.
My father taught me to throw a curve, a screwball and a changeup, and though I never amounted to very much as a pitcher, the two of us kept on playing out back of the house from mud season in spring until it began to snow. Then one day, with no warning, my father died. I stopped playing baseball and instead spent my free time backpacking.
My son didn't say a thing to me after my story. He just gave me a big hug and went off to bed. The next night he hit another line drive that caromed off the wooden fence. A week later he drove one over the fence and then began doing that so regularly we decided we had to move to a large field down by the lake near our home.
We were playing there one night when, just as I was about to throw a pitch, he stepped away from the plate and leaned on his bat. "What happened to your father's glove?" he asked. "It got lost along with my Warren Spahn," I told him. "It's too bad he died," he said. "It would've been fun to have him in our game. But I guess in a way we do. I'm real glad you finally bought a glove. Even if I lose it, I've got the story. I'll never forget that."