The first time I threw a softball was on an unusually warm Easter Sunday. I was 10 and on my grandparents’ farm near Johnstown, Pa., 100 rolling acres of cornfields and cow pasture. I had been watching my cousins from the dining-room window tossing a softball back and forth. I asked if I could join, and they handed me a mitt so large that it nearly fell off my hand with each catch.
“I want to play softball,” I said to my dad. He had never pressured me to play, but I felt his enthusiasm, as if a moment he’d always wanted but never expected to happen had happened.
“We’ll sign you up,” my dad said. “But you can’t quit.”
Like many American boys, my father loves baseball. He had been a baseball player, as had his father. In my dad’s living room are two pictures taken probably 40 years apart — a color shot of my father on the field in his uniform, hands on hips. Next to it is a black-and-white photo of his father striking the exact same pose in his uniform. The two never met — my grandfather died of a heart attack just four days before my father was born. But those photos seem to testify that some things are truly genetic.
When you are raised by a single dad, you learn a lot about sports. But when you are raised by a baseball dad? That’s when you fall in love with the game.
That next summer, I was on my first team, and my dad was my coach. As with most things in my life, he never cut me slack for being his daughter. My dad grew up on the working farm of his stepfather, a kind but quiet man who worked the land all day and expected — needed — everyone in the household to do the same.
For a while, life with Coach Dad looked like this: Games several nights a week. Batting practice after the games to work on my form. Catch anywhere at any time. Scraped knees, stitches, and broken windows.
We’d go to Pittsburgh Pirates games no matter how bad they were — and they had 20 losing seasons in a row, a major-league record. We’d sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and watch people dressed as pierogies run the bases.
There were night games, too, but those were for my dad. Under the bright lights at Falcon Field, I would huddle in the dugout keeping score for his softball team. I grew to love the uniformity of keeping book. I’d fill the diamond with runs scored, my perfect pencil strokes. I always drew an arrow over to the next inning, a trick my dad taught me so you never lose track.
The guys on my dad’s team in the Johnstown area could be a bit rough. That’s not unusual in an area defined by industrial and agricultural labor, but my dad stood out. He’s talkative and jovial, always laughing and telling stories. He’s a clean-cut guy who always goes to church. He enjoys a beer now and then, but never to excess. In other words, he’s not super macho. He has a natural confidence — he knows who he is — and that extended to the field. Buildwise, you’d think he’d be an average kind of player, but he had this way of running the bases with grace. He stood behind the plate with a kind of elegance, hands choked up on the bat and a “5” emblazoned on his back. He was the player I wanted to be.
Like him, I’ve never been a natural athlete. But my dad taught me how to make up for what I lacked physically by knowing the rules, learning the tricks and working harder than anyone else. “That’s what grinders do,” he’d say. This applied both on and off the field.
I didn’t realize until much later that my dad had a baseball life before me. But his was entirely self-made. He never experienced playing catch with a baseball dad. His stepfather, Pap, as he came to be called by everyone, had little appreciation for sports. “You can try out for baseball when the farm work is finished,” he told my dad. If you’ve ever lived on a farm, you know the job is never done.
When my dad was a teenager, Pap allowed him to play pony league softball, but only if he could transport himself to and from the field. Good thing he had a bicycle. Since he was underdeveloped — like me, when I started — he sat on the bench, living for the practices. His coach would ask if anyone wanted to stay late, and my dad’s hand always shot up. Many times it was the only one.
As my dad grew older, he collected baseball dads. There was Uncle Herbie, who took my dad to games and always had a cigar hanging out of the side of his mouth. There was Gary, my dad’s fast-pitch softball coach, a heavy smoker with a gray mustache who batted my dad second in the lineup because of his dependability.
After my dad stopped playing, he paid it forward by taking his godson Ely to games. Of course, he got to be my baseball dad.
Today, we might not play catch as much and the Pirates games are less frequent, but we still play the game and revel in it together. In New Jersey, I play summer-league softball for Princeton University’s Ice Cold Pitchers. Down south, my father’s career has experienced a revival since he retired to Florida, and now we get to go to spring- training games together when I visit.
And I never did quit, just as he said I couldn’t. When I take the field, a 5 on my back, my mind is flooded with his teachings. Miles apart, we run the bases with the same swift strides. We cover our gloves with the other hand, just in case. We lean back and wait for the perfect pitch.
Years ago, a third photo was put next to those of my dad and grandfather. It’s of me in high school, and I’m standing in my uniform, smiling with my hands on my hips. As if it’s the most natural thing in the world.
B. Rose Huber is the communications manager and senior writer at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She’s also a fiction writer, serving as coeditor of Pretty Owl Poetry. When not writing, she can be found covering first or second base on a softball field in central Jersey. email@example.com