Patrick’s was a good team that year. Three or four star players. Several more who, like Patrick, were solid, steady and took well to good coaching. The brightest star on the team was Kevin. He could play any position. His glove was a vacuum cleaner on defense. On the mound, he threw nothing but strikes. He was a terrific hitter with a beautiful swing. And on the base paths, he was simply the fastest kid in the city. Kevin won ballgames for us that year. Several, in fact.
Kevin had only one bad game all year. That was the same night Patrick had perhaps his best game ever. Patrick’s stars were aligned that night. The kid was everywhere. He was playing first and there were two on and two out. The batter hit a screaming liner well over his head, but ol’ Patrick’s cleats musta had wings that night. Michael Jordan in his prime may not have been able to get up for that ball, but, somehow, Patrick did. When he came down, he looked in his glove in disbelief. The ball was there. On the way to the dugout, his teammates whacked his butt, punched his shoulder, smacked the back of his head.
Jeez, it must hurt to be a star, I thought.
But it was joy on Patrick’s face, not pain. He had a good night with the bat, too. Scored a couple runs, drove in three more.
But Kevin had not been Kevin that evening. Absent-minded from the start, he’d made two errors at shortstop, had been hitless at the plate and, when called on as a relief pitcher, had given up the go-ahead run. In the end, though, the game was in his hands, and his teammates and all us parents wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Bottom of the last. Down one run. Two out. Runners at second and third. Patrick representing the winning run at second. Kevin at bat, a swing away from redemption.
He struck out on three pitches.
At the end of all games, Coach Phil took his boys down the baseline into the outfield where they all sat in the grass and listened as he nurtured the seeds of their memories. We parents, too, had taken to strolling toward the outfield after games. You didn’t have to be a kid to learn from Coach Phil.
That evening was business as usual. Phil didn’t talk about the game. Didn’t mention the loss.
“Is this a beautiful night or what? Take it in, guys. Look at each other. Remember those faces. Remember those names. Smell the grass. Appreciate the feel of the leather on your hand, the sting in your wrist when you make good bat contact. That’s what this is about, guys. And that’s what you’re going to remember when you’re old like me. Because those are the things that matter. And someday, you’ll know I’m right. I am so proud of all of you.”
As we made the long walk from the fields to the parking lot, Patrick and I talked about the game and his performance that night.
“You played one heckuva game tonight, buddy. That’s the best I’ve ever seen you play,” I told him.
“Thanks,” he said, and smiled.
“But what was with Kevin tonight? He seemed completely out of it.”
“He told me he had a problem with his dad earlier today,” Patrick said.
“A problem with his dad? What do you mean?”
“Kevin’s dad can be mean. Sometimes he can be real mean. I think he was real mean today,” said Patrick.
“Oh.” What the hell could I say? For the first time, it occurred to me I had never seen Kevin’s dad at one of his kid’s ballgames.
We walked in silence for a moment and then Patrick said, “I’m glad I don’t have a dad like that.”
With my right hand, I reached around him and cupped his shoulder. With my left, I lifted my glasses and dabbed the moisture from my eye. And we walked across the parking lot together on a warm South Texas evening. Father and son. A couple of guys. Each an individual – and indispensable – part of us.
And his cleats clashed on the pavement.