Expressway: A father-son baseball ritual to last a lifetime
It's the start of the baseball season, and that always makes me think of my rare triumphs on the lumpy field behind Central Boulevard School in Bethpage, and of my dad.
I can't remember the first time I played catch with Dad. A real catch, I mean, not one with a red plastic ball gently lobbed to a toddler in diapers. Dad says I was probably 5 years old when that first real catch happened. That seems to make sense, because by age 7, I was in Little League in Bethpage and he was the manager. The front of our yellow uniforms said Buddy Mazzara Insurance.
How many times did we play catch? Three hundred? Five hundred?
Work it out: Say, playing catch three times a week, from May to September, from kindergarten until my only year on varsity, as a junior at Bethpage High School (I was hurt my senior year). That's more than 600.
Throw in 20 games of organized baseball a year -- junior high, summer league, high school -- and figure we had a catch at half of them; that's at least another 100. Plus neighborhood games, barbecues, firefighter picnics at Teddy Roosevelt Park in Oyster Bay and times I watched Dad play softball for the old Grumman Aircraft Co., where he worked on the assembly line, and it comes to, maybe, 1,000 catches.
This all went through my mind as he and I stood in T-shirts and shorts on a ballfield in Florida, in a gray dusk, having a catch.
I had gone to New Port Richey, a hodgepodge of strip malls, gun emporiums, pawnshops and bowling alleys on the West Coast of Florida, to visit my parents in their retirement community. They moved there from their Cape Cod-style home in Bethpage almost 20 years ago, settling into a comfortable routine of daily walks, my father's carpentry, and his battles against armadillos and other backyard creatures.
One steamy summer evening, Dad guessed there might be a ballgame under the lights at a park nearby. We might see the superior high school-aged players he had told me about in our weekly phone calls.
"You should see these kids hit," he said. "And the field they play on, it's big-league size. Like, 320 down the lines. Four hundred in center."
"Yeah, but they use aluminum bats and they're going against high school pitching."
Pasquale Calabria was having none of it. "Come with me. You'll see."
We climbed into his silver Buick and drove a few minutes. At the park, we saw a well-groomed diamond rimmed by a cyclone fence, but no game and no players. Dad nosed the car into a parking stall anyway.
I heard the clack of the trunk lid. My father fished out two worn, brown baseball gloves and a yellowish ball. He flipped one of the gloves into my chest.
'Wanna have a catch?" he asked.
Dad tossed the ball to me, and I tossed it back, and soon we were standing 20 yards apart.
Slap. Slap. Slap. In the gathering darkness, the sound of the ball echoed each time it nestled into a glove. We smiled a lot, grunted a little, and worked up trickles of perspiration in the heat.
Dad was 77 and I was 55, and I thought: "I was 5 the first time we did this. Now 50 years later, we're still doing it. Cool."
Patrick Calabria, a former Newsday staff writer, lives in Seaford.