Catch was my family's tradition. A bad shoulder got in the way.

With grandkids and an injury, a baseball fan wonders when he'll get that precious game of catch back.
Published November 30

Last year, a surgeon went to work on my bum shoulder. That would be the right one, the one that no longer let me throw a ball.

He got into the joint with his arthroscope and had a look around. Then he fit a patch of cadaver skin into the space where the cartilage was long gone. It was the toughest type of operation he did.

There were no guarantees. When I first consulted with him, he asked, what would I consider success, functionally? What did I want to do again?

Lots, doctor. But I’ll tell you, I’ve got these two grandkids, and two more coming. Someday they may want to have a catch.

• • •

When I was a boy, my father owned and managed furniture stores in rural Pennsylvania. He would leave the house for work not long after eight in the morning and get home not long before ten at night. He took off Thursday evenings and Sundays. On those days, I’d get a chance to put the question.

“Hey, Dad, do you want to have a catch?”

I’d get the glove I kept behind the headboard of my bed, a storage method all my own. Put a baseball in a fresh glove where you want the pocket to form. Then fit the glove with enwrapped ball behind the headboard and push the glove tight to the wall. Soon you’ve got your pocket. Where Dad kept his rag of a glove, I can’t remember.

Our backyard was a fair size. Dad and I could throw short or long. After we warmed up, he’d pull a cloth handkerchief from his pants pocket, spread it out on the grass, and hunch down behind it.

“Now,” he’d say. “See if you can put it over the plate.”

Dad and I would talk sports. He might ask how my day had gone. And there were long stretches of those evenings, cast gold by the lowering sun, when we didn’t say much at all.

Except we did: My pitch hit his glove with that leather-on-leather smack. His pitch hit my glove. Glove-smack.

Dad was great fun, but he kept a lot of stuff inside him. He had been a child of the Great Depression, a South Jersey kid who found recreation in shooting rats along the Delaware River. At age 20, he went onto Omaha Beach the morning of June 6, 1944. Later he suffered a shrapnel wound in the chest. Some nights that winter, on the way to Germany, he thought he’d freeze to death.

He never said much about any of that, and he didn’t have time for men who droned on with their war stories instead of finding a next chapter for their lives. His next was keeping a business afloat and a family of five comfortable. I didn’t shoot rats. I played golf at a country club. Dad paid.

Glove-smack. Glove-smack. It’s a dialogue all its own. It’s how millions of fathers and sons (and, yes, now daughters) have found a way to talk to each other.

• • •

I was in the operating room more than three hours. The surgeon punched portals into my shoulder to introduce his instruments. While viewing his progress on a television screen, he smoothed the clunky, arthritic socket and burred dimple-like holes in it, hoping to spur cell regeneration. Last, he carpeted the socket with the cadaver patch — cut to size, slid into place through a cannula, and sutured to metal anchors sunk into bone. The patch was to serve as scaffolding for the new, cushioning tissue, if any would still grow in that 68-year-old joint.

Afterward, the surgeon told my wife, Lin, that the operation went well. She thought he looked tired. It wasn’t the only surgery he did that day.

His skill and power of sustained concentration fill me with wonder.

• • •

I started throwing a hardball with my son, John, when he was nine. I’d whip out a handkerchief. Home plate again.

I gave catcher’s signals. One finger, fast ball. Two fingers, curve. Three, change-up. John couldn’t throw breaking stuff, not yet. But he played along with the act, waving off signals, nodding when he got the one he wanted.

I umpired with theatrics as if we had a batter at the plate. “Steee-rike threeee! No, batter, that pitch had the corner. Any more lip from you and I’m throwin’ you outa here!”

My daughter, Molly, then five, couldn’t join us. She had just broken an arm hand-springing off a tree stump and, it seemed, away from baseball or softball. Soon she was twirling herself into flips off a high bar. She won medals. It was terrifying. At gymnastics meets, I’d put my head between my knees and say to Lin, “Tell me when she’s done.”

• • •

After surgery, the painkillers were a help, though the bulky arm sling disrupted sleep for weeks. At the first post-op consult, the surgeon made a point of recognizing the woman in the room who was helping me through all this. I bowed to Lin then and there.

I was lucky to get a physical therapist with the healing hands of a gentle giant and no interest in rushing toward the upper limits of pain. He countered my gloom in those early days when my arm hung limp and pathetic.

“I’m hopeless.”

“You’re making progress.”

“You might understand why I’m dubious.”

“Patience.”

“You can take the pain up a notch.”

• • •

John went on to play ball for Dickinson College, mostly pitching. By then Dad had retired to Florida. His health was failing.

Dickinson did its spring training in Cocoa Beach, and one year I flew down from my home in Philadelphia to drive the grandfather cross-state to see the grandson in a pre-season game. Dad was shaky but keen. He had his overnight bag packed weeks before my arrival.

On game day, Dad and I took our spots standing behind a chain-link fence along the right-field line. John was hunched down by the dugout, keeping to himself, getting into his zone. He knew we had come a long way.

Batting practice wasn’t done yet, but a cheering Dickinson fan started to display his organ voice early and often.

Dad muttered, “Who’s the mouth?”

“He’s fine, Dad, a good guy” … No response … “He likes John.”

“Oh. Okay then.”

Dickinson was a Division III team. The other guys were Division II and big and beefy. John was 5 foot 8, 150 pounds, if that.

He pitched a two-hit shut-out.

• • •

Perhaps you’ve seen Field of Dreams, the baseball flick from the 1980s. That scene at the end of the surreal story was moved there by the scriptwriter. It had come earlier in the novel he adapted.

Remember? Kevin Costner is the Iowa farmer who has heard a disembodied voice tell him to cut down part of his corn crop and build a ball field. It is there one evening that he eerily encounters his late father, though the father is now time-warped as a young man, as a catcher for the 1919 White Sox. After he gathers his catcher’s gear, the father, though uncomprehending of any connection with the grown son before him, says thanks for use of the field. Then he turns toward the high corn beyond, where his teammates, done with the day’s practice, have already made their ghostly exit.

But the son calls, his voice catching, and the relationship slips into his words. “Hey.” Halting. “Dad.” Yearning. “Do you want to have a catch?”

The father turns back. “I’d like that.”

Glove-slap. Swelling music. Glove-slap.

A quarter century after the movie came out, Costner was asked about his encounters with men who wanted to talk about that scene. He said, “Those stories are in the thousands now.”

• • •

In the last days of his life, my father was incapable of speech. I tried miserably to find words of my own. I still wonder whether he heard the bit about the catches, the handkerchief on the grass.

• • •

The oldest of the grandkids has turned four. He is Dillon the T-ball terror. Next in birth order is Alice the pirouetting princess. Then the newcomers: laughing Jack, smiling Claire. It’s already clear this group will have a left-hander or two.

Have I mentioned Dad was a lefty?

I want to throw a hardball again, but at first a Wiffle ball would do. Time was when our yard was the neighborhood’s Wiffle-ball stadium. One night Lin and I arrived home to find a game still under way. John and his buddies had pulled light fixtures and extension cords down from the attic and hung them in the trees.

• • •

So, how goes it?

I’ve been a hard case. The shoulder remains a work in progress. But it feels better and works better than it has in years, and the improvement has yet to plateau.

The gentle giant has done all he can, which was a lot. We have said our goodbyes.

I also just saw the surgeon for the last time. He pronounced me a success, said I had made his day.

He made mine, too: He cleared me to take the question.

“Hey, Pop Pop. Do you want to have a catch?”

“I’d like that.”

Indeed I would.

Richard Koenig, a former reporter of the Tampa Bay Times (then the St. Petersburg Times), is the author of No Place To Go, a Kindle Single about the lack of sanitation in the developing world.

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