Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Call


It all started innocently enough, but then again, so did the Creation. On a humid summer night on Cape Cod in 1995, I brought my four-year old to his first baseball game. For Ethan, it was to be an initiation into the boyhood passions of his Dad. For me, it was the chance to rediscover a love that had begun to slip through my fingers nearly a decade earlier, when Mookie Wilson's fateful squibber slid under Bill Buckner's glove and the Red Sox blew the '86 Series.

The Orleans Cardinals took the field against the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox and as I started to describe the action in explicit detail, pitch by pitch, I heard echoes of contests I had announced before.

No, I was never a real broadcaster, but as a youngster, I spent many evenings in front of the TV, tuning out Curt Gowdy and tuning in to my own call of the action, whatever the sport. More thrilling yet were the games that took place in the arena of my mind, for those were the ones over which I had complete control. A two-mile walk from school would be just enough time to fit in the final few innings of a World Series duel between the Sox and Cardinals, or a championship tilt between the Celts and Lakers. I could do Gowdy or Johnny Most with the best of them, or Marv Albert, or Ken Coleman. Invariably, some two-out Yastrzemski homer or last-second Havlicek swish would clinch it for the home team. As I grew to early teenhood, my athletic skills developed to the point where I could make guest appearances on the court or at the plate -- precisely at the right moment to be the hero.

By the time I hit my 30's and even retired athletes were younger than me, I had long since abandoned dreams of personal glory; but the call of the game remained vivid, the possibility of redemption through incantation. The call, like all other forms of prayer, was most soothing in its promise that our words can, ultimately, affect destiny -- until that most terrible of October nights at Shea dissolved my dreams abruptly.

But on Cape Cod, for a single evening at least, paradise was regained. Ethan and I both wore our mitts as we settled in on the grassy hill behind first base. His glove was spanking new; and on my tattered old horse, its webbing held together by fading string, my father had inscribed my name and boyhood address a quarter of a century before. We caught no foul balls, but my glove served to punctuate each crack of the bat with a note of history. "Swinnng and a miss!" I exclaimed at an Orleans batter's futile try, and then I proceeded to tell Ethan about another of my mitt's epic outfield grabs at camp; "Grounder to second -- over to first -- he's out!" I bellowed, and then added a word about the autographed ball his late grandpa had handed down, covered with the names of his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers; "That's deep to left..." I cried, and then told him some stories about Opening Day at Fenway and the hometown team I had come to love -- nothing, of course, about Buckner.

As the innings rolled by and the fog from Nauset Beach crept over the left field fence, my rapt son spewed forth the most natural questions, keeping to the rhythm of my call. By the third frame, he had become the color commentator, interviewing me between pitches: "Why, when the pitcher is always throwing a ball, is it not always called a ball?" "Why are there no girls playing?" "Why are the Red Sox losing?" While I knew that each answer would peel away another layer of innocence, his growing curiosity only fueled my passion; for with each question I regained an additional vestige of my youth -- only better this time, without the pimples, the rejection, the pain. My play by play had finally orchestrated a real-life happy ending.

Six months later, and things have gone awry. Ethan now refuses to watch Sesame Street -- only Sportscenter will do, or whatever else happens to be on ESPN. When the morning paper arrives, he grabs the sports section and sizes up all the scores, and at bedtime he prefers his sports calendar to Babar. When we allow him, he will watch anything that has uniforms and moves, even the Jets and Saints recently, for three quarters. When he isn't watching, we're playing: bedroom sock football, laundry basket basketball, hall hockey. Our house has become a Superdome, each room an arena.

And just recently, he has taken to broadcasting imaginary games. In the bathtub, Disney shampoo containers are squared off in titanic battles. Goofy becomes Michael Jordan, slam dunking into the soap dish. Winnie the Pooh belts a tape-measure job into the sink across the way.

Ethan recently came into the room and declared, "I like Coor's Light best but I also like Bud." Indeed, I explain gingerly to my wife, the commercials for Coor's and Bud Light are the most entertaining but, I assure her, he knows nothing of beer. We tune in ESPN. A Spandexed young California lass stands before the smooth Pacific informing us about the fastest way to flatter stomachs.

Mara is not amused.

But she's as culpable as I am. She was the one who pitched to him daily in our driveway last summer; who encouraged him to select both the Dan Marino and Emmett Smith T-shirts at the mall; who told about her father's love for the Red Sox and how Yaz's daughter was her campmate; who worked with him on passing, pitching, kicking, shooting and putting while I was adrift at the office. She wanted him to love it too, for social purposes. My aims were more transcendent and ultimately, more foolhardy.

Last week, Ethan pulled the big one. "Dad, I don't like the Red Sox," he said. "I like the Yankees."

Since the Garden of Eden, parents have known that children cannot truly be molded in our own image, nor can we create happy endings for them. But as I drive home listening to my boy calling an illusory match between the Bears and Eagles from his back seat press box, I clutch the wheel in tearful wonderment. I realize that I'll never again be able to traverse the turf through which he now scampers so effortlessly, and that he too will someday confront the limitations of imagination. But for now I marvel at his ecstatic discovery of his own capacity to create order in this chaotic world.

Then I overhear him interrupting his call, saying, "We now pause for this message from Mastercard. It's more than a card. It's smart money."

The kid is watching entirely too much TV.

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