The story about my new baseball glove, bought shortly after my 42nd birthday, starts with a line drive hit straight at me from 30 feet away by my son, Ben, who was then seven years old. I wasn't wearing a glove, and the ball nearly tore my hand off. I immediately rolled around on the ground, yowling and cussing.
Ben dropped his bat and came running over. His lower lip was trembling and his eyes were filled with tears. "I'm sorry," he said. "Are you hurt bad?" "Not that bad," I said, though in truth my hand felt as though it had been run over by a truck. "The yowling and cussing help considerably. No need to be sorry. That was one wicked hit, partner." His lip stopped trembling then, and he grinned. "Yeah, it was," he said. We looked at each other for a minute, neither of us saying a thing. A change had taken place, and we both knew it. Ben folded his arms, narrowed his eyes and kicked the dirt a couple of times. "Maybe you ought to get a glove," he said. "I guess I better had," I told him.
The two of us had been working out behind the house for more than a year, since the night Ben announced he wanted to learn to hit a baseball. He wasn't quite six and could barely swing the lightest bat I could find, but he was determined to become a hitter. Night after steaming-hot Florida night, Ben stood beside the plate we had made out of plywood; I faced him on the mound—on more of a swelling, actually, that had formerly been inhabited by fire ants.
"Hold the bat up," I would say. "Keep your eye on the ball." We had picked a spot just in front of our neighbor's chain link fence, which served as a backstop. When the ball struck the fence it made a clanging sound, and for the longest time the backyard litany was, "Hold the bat up. Keep your eye on the ball." Clang. When Ben did make contact, the results were 10-foot dribblers, foul tips and the occasional five-foot pop-up; but he refused to quit. Neither rain nor attacks of no-see-ums could move him inside. Some nights we played until it was so dark I could barely see him, and he could hardly see the ball. I could hear him inhale as the pitch neared him and exhale when he swung, often sending drops of perspiration farther than the ball. "One more pitch," he'd say. "I can't go in until I hit a good one."
Time passed. The dribblers became slow rollers, the dinky pop-ups became short fly balls, and the prospect of eventually smacking one over the six-foot wooden fence at the far end of the yard—of hitting a "real home run," as Ben put it—loomed as a distinct possibility. Still, there was nothing to suggest I needed a glove, although Ben brought the subject up a number of times, particularly when we weren't pitching and hitting but simply having a good old catch. He had a glove. It seemed only right that I have one, too. He even organized a futile search through a garageful of old cartons and trunks for the glove that got me through Babe Ruth League and high school before disappearing during one of a multitude of house moves.
"Listen," I told him. "I'll be fine without a glove. Just worry about your hitting and catching." The fact that I might be insulting my son, or at least violating his sense of correctness, was somehow overshadowed by the notion that buying a baseball glove in middle age was more frivolous than necessary. The line drive, however, clearly set me straight.
My hand had swollen up to the size of a cow's udder, so it was several days before I made the trip to the baseball section of a sporting goods supermarket. There I was surrounded by a profusion of gloves and enveloped in a rich, intoxicating smell of new leather that instantly took me back to the hot summer afternoon in 1957 when I walked into Wood's Sporting Goods in Burlington, Vt., and plunked down every penny of the $35 I'd made in a week of caddying to buy a Warren Spahn personal model, the last glove I had owned.
Now, in addition to various shades of brown, you can buy black, blue or even red gloves. You can get them with all sorts of interesting buckles and straps and intricately designed webbing. These gloves were a good deal larger than I remembered them, too. They cost a whole lot more, as well, with the best of them up around $150, but they still creaked when you first tried them on, and the familiar feeling of confidence, agility and grace produced by merely smacking a fist into the pocket made time stand still and the price irrelevant.
I was about to forgo dining out for two months and buy a $140 beauty, when the store manager came over with a glove almost as nice. "Gonna surprise your kid with a new glove, huh?" he said. "Well, you're lucky he's lefthanded. We got four of these from a place in Tampa that went out of business, and this is the only one left. Cost over $100 originally. You can have it for 35 bucks."
"My kid isn't lefthanded," I told him. "I am, and I'll take it."