Monday, September 12, 2016

The Art of Taking a Pitch

It was the only thing I insisted go on display at the memorial, knowing that its significance would largely go overlooked.  The leather is worn from years of use, even cracked in many places. The lacing stands out drastically in comparison to the rest of the leather; nearly all of the original lacing was replaced long ago.  The palm is dark with patina from countless catches, the webbing deep and relaxed from repeated battering by baseballs.  It was his glove.

As people passed by they were reminded of his love of baseball, his years playing, and as many years coaching.  But all they saw was a glove. Me? I saw my childhood and adolescence, the love and passions of a father passed down. I saw countless work nights spent practicing until we couldn't see the ball anymore.  But mostly I saw an allegory for his life.

I used to hate that glove.  Every time we went out to play catch, he would pick it up and slide it over his hand, and I would burn up a little bit inside.  A new glove will let you know when you're putting some heat on the ball.  The webbing is tight, and when it catches a hard thrown ball it will sound out with a loud "pop"-- a cry of pain that assures the thrower.  Not this glove.  Its years of experience were never impressed by my arm.  Try as I might, I could never get that satisfactory pop. From a mere sixty feet away, I would let it fly with all that I had, nearly throwing my arm out I'm sure, trying to get it to cry out in surrender.  All that I got on the other side was a soft reception, barely even acknowledging that I had thrown the ball at all. I wanted so badly to get the 'pop', I remember on occasion trying to catch my dad off guard with a throw at the belt, getting him to turn the glove over and catch it in the palm.  I don't think he cared for that too much.

This is the last time we got to play catch.

I remember shortly after starting select team baseball, when young kids finally replaced dads and machines as the pitchers, my dad taught me something most coaches ignore.  He took me to the batting cage at the church, where he always threw batting practice for me, but this time he did something different.  We didn't work on hitting the ball to the opposite field, or anything like that. The throw came tight and inside, really inside, and I jumped out of the way.  And that's when he stopped and taught me something I'll never forget. He walked over to me and showed me how to stand my ground, turn on my front foot, and get hit right in the back.  Then and there, he had me practice getting hit! He moved close and underhand lobbed the ball so I could get used to seeing the ball come in and react in time. He taught me that by recognizing the inevitable and turning, I could protect my vulnerable ribs and knees, and catch the ball in the back, or butt if if I was lucky, where the muscle would soften the blow.

As a left-handed hitter going up against a lot of young pitchers, I could expect a lot of wild throws. Being in the minority, most pitchers were unused to throwing to a batter on the left side of the plate.  The strike zone was the same, but visually I really threw them off.  Because of that, I got hit...a lot.  Enough to earn the nickname "Magnet," and have a running bet with the coach of $1 per hit-by-pitch walk, to be paid at the end of the season. Thanks to my dad, I got a lot of free bases with little more than a sore spot, maybe a bruise a few days later. I remember so many times seeing the pitch coming in tight and simply turning, taking it, and jogging right down the line to first base where my dad was waiting to give me a proud little pat on the rear. The umpires always wanted to give me some time to walk it off, but I never needed it.  Never even reacted.  It was my way of telling the pitcher he was nothing to be afraid of anyways.

Shortly before coming home from Mexico, as my dad's fight with cancer came to an end, these memories came back to me. I remember the painful, emotional vision I had of these being replayed in my mind, only this time my dad was in the batter's box, and his life was the glove. I remember this picture of him standing by the plate, getting hit by fastball after fastball, never flinching and never complaining.  Life hit him hard with cancer, over and over again, but like his glove catching one of my throws, he just let it happen never giving it the satisfaction of a cry of pain.  Radiation, extreme weight loss, side effects, loss of livelihood-- they all showed themselves by the obvious wear and tear on his body.  But he kept being himself, as best he could.

After watching my dad fight cancer for six years, I've now seen these baseball lessons come to life.  The glove that was his earthly body, showed the abuse he took from years of treatment. His chest, a new permanently flushed red from the radiation. His walk, marked by a lilt in the right shoulder, having sunken lower because of his collapsed lung. His cough, a constant reminder of the battle within.  Yet he lived on to keep playing.  Even when things got too tough, and the lacing broke, he let God come and fix his brokenness with new, stronger lacing to hold him together.  He endured enough hit-by-pitches to round the bases, and eventually make it home, where his Father was waiting with a congratulatory "well-done" pat.

Such is life.  Things happen that can catch us off guard.  They can leave us in pain, bruised and battered, but if we're willing to endure suffering for the moment, there is a reward waiting for us.

In May of 2012, my dad wrote this blog,and it wasn't until I held his hand as he laid on his deathbed that I realized I was one of the ones watching.  It pains me to think that I might have been one of the reasons he had to endure so much suffering, but because of his example I have come to learn so much about faith, suffering, and endurance.  I've learned about sacrificial love, and trust in God.  My dad was a true example of Jesus to me-- Jesus who endured suffering beyond my imagination, bearing my sins and shame on his shoulders, hanging on a tree until his life left him, never raising his voice until justice was established.

Sometimes in life, you have to take one square in the back.  Sometimes you will have so much thrown at you that you break. But when you surrender to God, He can put you back together, make you stronger than before, and useful for your purpose once more.  The hardships of life can leave us bruised and beaten, but as surely as getting hit by a pitch leads to a walk, enduring in this life leads to the realization of God's promises and eternal rewards.

To many, it was just a glove on a table, but to me it was the representation of a life well lived.  It was encouragement and hope.  Lately I have felt like I'm going through the re-lacing process, but I'm doing my best to trust God that eventually, I'll be ready to play again.