“Joey, two steps to the left.” Cupping both hands around his mouth, Aaron bellowed to his right fielder, “Jack, take a few steps back.” Like pawns on a chess board, Aaron directed players to different positions on the baseball diamond. The left handed batter stepping up to the plate had not hit a ball to the left side all day. It was all about probabilities and percentages. The group of nine and ten year old boys kicking dirt and smacking fists into their gloves had overcome extreme odds to arrive in the little league championship game. Aaron wanted to do everything in his power to lead the team on the final step of their journey.
With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and up by one run, there were runners on second and third base. The batter at the plate was not the most fearsome hitter on the opposing team, but he was not to be taken lightly, and Aaron knew that.
As the batter stepped into the box, waggling his bat in the area of the strike zone he envisioned the ball arriving, the umpire behind the plate pointed towards the pitcher’s mound as if to say, “Your move.”
Aaron was never a chess player, but he couldn’t help but feel there were so many parallels between it and the game of baseball. He suspected that these conclusions could probably be drawn between many seemingly unrelated things in life when we chose to scrutinize them a bit more closely.
“Strike two!” Aaron had a way of slipping into a daydream state from time to time. It was both a blessing and curse, depending upon the situation. Coming back to the present situation on the field, he realized that the umpire’s call meant that his team was one strike away from hoisting the trophy sitting behind home plate. It was a little league championship game comprised of just eight teams, all playing within a ten mile radius of each other. To these boys, however, this game may as well have been the World Series.
A nervous habit adopted from his childhood days, Aaron adjusted the position of his cap and called out some final words of encouragement to his pitcher, “Here we go Jimmy, straight and true.” It was a mental reminder he had established with the ten year old over the course of the season – to empty his mind and let his arm release the ball straight and true, like an arrow.
Jimmy’s abbreviated windup had the ball traveling forward, four seams spinning in slow motion as the ball approached home plate. Desiring to hear a thump in the back of the catcher’s mitt, everyone in the stands instead heard the distinctive ping of aluminum bat meeting ball. The backspin imparted on the ball launched it airborne in the direction of right field.
Aaron could tell immediately that his decision to move Jack, his right fielder, back a few paces was the right decision. He didn’t need to move an inch. He was positioned in the perfect location to record the final out. He was one catch away from being the hero. He had shagged fly balls much more difficult than this countless times before. As the ball hit the leather in his glove, Jack squeezed tight feeling the security of the baseball in the back of his glove.
The feeling of triumph was overwhelming. They had done it. They were victorious. They were champions. And as though some surreal and cruel warping of time had occurred, Jack realized that the final words of this heroic ending had not yet been written. The ball, hitting the fleshy part of his palm ricocheted into the webbing and out of the top of his glove. As he watched the ball, almost in slow motion, fall to the ground, he could simultaneously see the runner from second base cross home plate.
The celebration Jack had envisioned was taking place right before his eyes – for the opposing team. Staring at the ball laying on the ground, Jack pulled his cap over his eyes and hung his head. He wanted to climb into the gopher hole on the other side of the right field fence and disappear. With the rest of the team dejectedly trudging back to the dugout, Jack remained in right field, embarrassed and heartbroken.
Aaron had both hands gripped around the fence in the dugout. Even though every member of his team save one was now gathering around him, his eyes were focused on the right fielder who had his chin buried in his chest. Aaron could feel the anguish in this kid’s heart. Jack was not only Aaron’s right fielder. He was also his son.
Aaron realized that Jack would not make the walk back to the dugout on his own. The remainder of his team was coping with the loss in their own way – some cried with sadness, some threw their gloves against the dugout wall in frustration, and some handled it with grace uncharacteristic of a disappointed ten year old boy. Coming around the fence, Aaron began the walk out to Jack, trying to figure out with each step what he would say and how he would say it.
As the distance closed between father and son, Jack raised his head to greet his dad’s gaze some twenty feet away. Aaron could see the tears streaming down Jack’s cheek. Reflected in those tears was the memory of a time twenty-five years ago when Aaron felt exactly the same way.
The echo of sneers from the auditorium injected more pressure on the eleven year old Aaron than he felt he could handle. “Air ball, air ball,” came the pleas from fans of the opposing team. Standing on the foul line, the scoreboard behind the backboard showed their team down by one point with two seconds left in the final quarter.
He had just been fouled driving to the basket for a layup that would have put his team in the lead, surely securing a win in the semi-final game of the youth league tournament. He now stood, looking up at the hoop fifteen feet away. “One bucket to tie, two to win,” Aaron whispered to himself. Following through on the routine he had practiced so many times before, he took a breath, dribbled, looked up, and let the ball fly.
The arc of the ball looked perfect in Aaron’s eyes. Surely, the signature swish of ball meeting nylon net would be the next sound greeting his ears. Instead, the clang of ball meeting the back of the rim had the basketball flying back right at him. If his heartbeat wasn’t racing before, it was now. Aaron realized that he had just missed out on an opportunity to win the game for his team. But, he still could tie it up and force overtime. That wasn’t such a bad alternative given the circumstances.
Going through his routine again, Aaron hurried through the process so as to reach the desired outcome expeditiously. As if the pleas from the crowd had some tangible influence on the result of this free throw attempt, the basketball missed everything – no rim, no net, no nothing. As the clock resumed, one final second elapsed before the buzzer sounded. Aaron’s team had been eliminated because he couldn’t make one lousy free throw. Wanting so desperately to handle the situation with grace, Aaron couldn’t stop the tear from forming in his eye and trickling down his cheek.
The thirty-six year old Aaron realized that he was now face to face with his son in right field. As disappointing as that memory from his childhood was, he now had a smile on his face. Draping his right arm around Jack’s shoulder, dad squeezed and said, “I’m proud of you.”
“Did you try your best?” asked dad.
“Yeah, but we lost,” replied Jack.
“Sometimes we win, and sometimes we learn,” replied dad.
“What did I learn? I learned I can’t catch a fly ball to save my life,” whimpered Jack.
The smile on Aaron’s face was a knowing one. As much as his statement about winning and learning was directed towards his son, it was the memory of what happened after the missed free throw twenty-five years in the past that left him with a smile on his face.
As he coaxed his son back towards the dugout, Aaron kept a hand on his shoulder as if to convey that everything would be okay. “How about we stop and get some ice cream on the way home?”
“But … we lost,” questioned Jack as he looked up at his dad.
“Yeah, well ice cream always helped me after a tough loss. How about it?”
“Okay, sure, I guess so,” replied Jack not really understanding how ice cream helped to get rid of his guilt, disappointment, and embarrassment. Aaron thought to himself, dad knows best.
As they pulled into the parking lot of the old style ice cream parlor, dad and son approached the counter side by side. “Two vanilla cones with rainbow sprinkles please,” requested Aaron from the worker behind the sliding glass door. The smell of chocolate chips, strawberries, and fresh whipped cream escaped through the portal to the magical world of ice cream on the other side of the glass. As if the intoxicating scent of these ingredients was indeed medicine for an aching heart, Jack’s shoulders seemed to droop a little less. The frown on his face became a little less pronounced.
Handing one cone to his son, Aaron led the way to a picnic table around the corner. The creamy vanilla ice cream seemed to be a type of magic elixir, removing disappointment and replacing it with contentment, one lick at a time. Looking across the table, Aaron didn’t initially see his son. Instead, he saw a vision of himself from the past, sitting across from his own dad, sharing the same ice cream treat after facing his own disappointment on a basketball court.
As minutes passed, the conversation between Aaron and Jack slowly migrated from talk of the game to other topics, things ultimately more important than the result of some seemingly monumental baseball game. Looking across the table, Aaron started to chuckle as the ice cream mustache on his son had matured into a full-fledged beard.
Jack looked over at his dad and asked, “What?”
Aaron picked up the remnants of his cone and smashed it on to his face creating a matching ice cream mustache and goatee. “I think we could both use a shave,” chortled dad to son. Jack let out one of those unbridled authentic giggles turned into uncontrollable laughter – the kind that makes your stomach hurt in the best way possible.
The vision of his son covered in ice cream – and more importantly – a genuine smile on his face was more gratifying than any image involving him and a league championship trophy. More than any life lesson he hoped to share with his son, Aaron wanted Jack to know that little things become the big things – like the unforgettable memory of an ice cream cone and giggle with your dad. It took Aaron twenty-five years to grasp this truth. Better late than never, he thought. And if he could help one young boy discover this nugget of wisdom sooner, then it was definitely worth the wait.