A bad day at the ballpark.

After shakily grabbing my hand as we walked out of the ball park, my son looked up at me – tears building in his baby blues – and said, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

*****

The line-up was set. As he saw his name as the third batter in the order, he gave a confident grin and held up three fingers to tell me where he’d hit. He would have to wait 6 batters before it was his turn, because the Wildcats were the Home team, but he was ready. Pregame practice promised great things.

The first batter for the opposing team stroked an inside pitch down the left field line. Ben – almost catlike – reached across his body at Third Base, snagged the ball and made a laser-throw to First, retiring the sneaky left-hander for out number one. The next batter was walked and then two quick strikeouts meant it was “our turn” to pick up the sticks.

Single! Great start for the Home team. Single! Now there were two ducks on the pond – runners at First and Third.

“You got this, 4! Let’s Go! Pick one out and give it a ride, big boy!”

He held the bat in his left hand, signified “Time Out” with his right, and dug in – slightly up in the batter’s box. He was ready.

“Play ball!”

The first pitch was served up perfectly: belt high, right down the middle. “Strike One!” Stepping out of the box, he nodded confidently, affirming the call.

“That’s not you ‘4.’ Now you’re ready! Stroke the next one!”

He readied again and then watched pitch number 2 catch the outside corner. “Hey! That’s OK! Now you’re ready! You’ve got to protect here, ‘4.’ Anything close! Watch that corner and do what you do. You’re a hitter, Ben. Let’s get ‘em home!”

Strike Three came on a change up just below the numbers. After watching it hit the catcher’s mitt, he looked instinctively at me in the stands as if to say, “I know, I know. I should have swung.” I met him at the dugout, eyes widened: “What are you doing?” I asked. “You’ve got to want to hit the ball. How many times do you have to be told to ‘protect the plate’ with 2 strikes? Come on, Ben!”

In the third inning, he flew out to Left Field. Not a bad at-bat, but after reaching for the first 2 outside pitches, he got pinned in by a fastball, high and popped it up. On the way back to the dugout, I shook my head, held up my hands and shrugged – frustrated that he swung at three straight pitches that would have no doubt been called “balls.”

Inning four, he struck out swinging.

Being that they were playing a double header, it would be about three hours before his next attempt. Surprised to find himself still in the third spot, he took a deep breath, looked over and held up three fingers again. I furrowed my brow, nodded slightly and then held up a fist as if to say, “Be strong. You got this.”

Exact same scenario, except this time the Wildcats were the visiting team.

Two runners on. First and Third, ready to be driven home.

“You got this, 4! Let’s Go! Pick you one out and give it a ride, big boy!”

Three quick pitches later and Ben was sitting in the dugout with his head in his hands. I stayed quiet this time. He knew what I was thinking. He knew what he’d done.

Next time up, four pitches, two swings and a frozen “strike three!” produced a gruff, “Dadgummit!” from me and sent him back to his lonely perch atop the dugout bench.

In the field, he was visibly shaken. Unable to throw the ball straight from Third to First in pre-inning warm ups. Two throws reached the fence and a third rolled and stopped short before reaching its target.

Two quick errors – a missed pop up and a bobbled grounder – brought forth tears and several short kicks at the dirt. The opposing team scored four runs in the Fourth making the game somewhat out of reach: 13-4.

The Wildcats were at the top of their order in the Fifth. He was due.

“Son, you’ve got to let all that go! Get over it! Be a hero now. Let me see you stroke one, ‘4’.”

Foul ball. Foul ball. Foul ball. Strike. The game was over.

After shakily grabbing my hand as we walked out of the ball park, my son looked up at me – tears building in his baby blues – and said, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”

I stopped in my tracks, got on a knee, returned the teary stare, and hugged my baby boy as tightly as I could. It was a heartbreaking moment that I hope to never forget. Still holding him to me, I whispered over and over again, “No, no, no. Don’t you dare be sorry. No, no, no.”

We stayed just inside the gates of the ballpark for what seemed like an hour, and I was able to tell Ben how proud I am of him. How much I love him. How very thankful we should both be watching and playing the greatest game in the world. “Everyone has bad days, buddy. And a bad day at the ballpark is better than a good day anywhere else. The Hall of Fame is full of guys who struck out 5 times in one day… You are a great baseball player and my favorite player of all time. Don’t you dare be sorry. I love you no matter what. No matter what. Do you believe that?”

Of course he did. Right? Of course he believed that there was nothing he could ever do to make me love him less. Nothing he could ever do to make me love him more.

He believed that. Right?

“I was talking about spilling your Diet Coke,” he said. “I accidentally knocked it over when I was getting my bat bag.”

The next day Ben batted seventh in the order and went two for three with a double and a walk. He pitched a near flawless 4 and two-thirds innings and then became a vacuum at Second base where he was responsible for 4 of the next 7 outs.

Whatever.

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