Playoff game, two outs, I’m in left field. The best player in the whole Midget League is at the plate. Runners on second and third. If we get him out, we win. If he gets a hit, we lose. He swings and hits the ball so high it looks like a star. It starts coming down. Right at me.
One of my earliest memories of my dad is him throwing me a baseball. We weren’t having a catch, exactly. I could catch the ball on my glove side, but not backhanded. There was a chain-link fence between our front yard and the kindergarten next door. My dad would throw again and again to my backhand side. I’d miss it, and it would roll to the fence. I’d go get it and throw it back. He’d throw it again. It would roll to the fence.
A lot of times he would still be in his work clothes. He ran the machinery at a seafood processing plant, and he would come home with grease on his pants and scabs on his knuckles. He must have been tired. Of course, I didn’t know and didn’t care. My daddy was home and I wanted to play ball.
He wasn’t a ballplayer, really. More of a sportsman. His friends told stories about turkey shoots at Thanksgiving. This was target shooting — a bunch of guys paid a couple bucks apiece, fired at the bullseye, and the best shot got a frozen turkey. My dad always shot last, for dramatic effect. He won armloads of turkeys.
By the time I came along he had stopped hunting, but he still loved to fish. We lived on the Georgia coast and sometimes we’d catch grouper in the saltwater creeks or sheepshead off the bridges. But mostly we fished freshwater in the Altamaha River. My dad knew where to tie up in the swift water to catch channel cats (the tastiest catfish, much better than blue cats or yellow cats or mud cats). He knew the secret lakes that opened up once you navigated past the downed logs and lily pads. He could cast a plastic worm between two cypress knees at 30 yards. I’ve still got a couple of his old Garcia Ambassadeur reels. The gears turn as smooth as the planets. He took good care of his tools.
His name was L.M. Tomlinson, but most people called him Tommy so he passed the name to me. He grew up in a family of sharecroppers, picking cotton on another man’s land. Then he cut down trees and hauled them out of the woods on a mule wagon for 50 cents a day. Finally he got an indoor job at an appliance shop, working on toasters and coffee pots, and before long he could fix anything. He built houses on the side. He was maybe 5-10, 170, but when he turned a wrench the muscles rose under his skin like dolphins.
He made me a basketball goal out of a sheet of particle board and some plumbing pipe. Back then basketball and baseball were my two sports. They got mixed together in my head. When I played imaginary NBA games, performing as all 10 players plus the announcer, the stars were members of the early-’70s Atlanta Braves. Mike Lum made a lot of baskets in my backyard.
Basketball seemed easier. You just aimed the ball at the hoop. In baseball, the ball was aimed at you. My dad kept throwing the ball to my backhand side, and I kept missing. I was a no-tool player. My only home run in organized baseball came when I was 8. I hit a ground ball to the pitcher and scored on four errors.
That was Pony League. The next year I moved up to the Midget League, for ages 9 through 12. There’s no bigger three-year gap in human development than the one between 9 and 12. The 12-year-olds looked like the end of that Ascent of Man drawing. We 9-year-olds were back there with the fish. The coaches had to put every kid in every game or I’d have never played. Most often I played right field. A few times I played first. And maybe twice that whole season, they put me in left.
I’m wearing the glove my mom bought at the Rexall drugstore. It’s not leather — it’s vinyl, like a Naugahyde couch — and it’s barely bigger than my hand. It’s all we could afford. The ball is coming down right at me, which helps, because my legs have turned to petrified wood. It’s true, time does slow down. I need to throw home as quick as I can after I drop it. If I drop it. I can’t drop it. God, don’t let me drop it.
The ball is getting bigger. I can tell where it’s going to end up. Just a little to my right.
My dad didn’t watch ballgames, but he loved the fights. Muhammad Ali got him all twisted up. He couldn’t stand a young man with a big mouth dodging Vietnam and telling everybody he was the greatest. White men of my father’s generation had never heard a black man talk like that. So my dad rooted against Ali every time … until the fight started and anyone could see how skilled Ali was, and how brave in the ring. By the end, my dad wanted Ali to win.
What he loved most, though, was wrestling. Even the best people have a hole in their swing. My dad believed pro wrestling was real. When I was little, I left the room every time a masked man came on. But before long I could see the pulled punches and the referees’ conveniently turned heads. We argued about it. How could he not see? In the moment, when he swore the sleeper hold really did put that guy to sleep, I wondered how my dad could be so stupid.
Of course, as I got older, he got smarter. He died 22 years ago, and I’m still figuring out things I learned from him.
He helped me find my calling, even though neither one of us knew it. Sitting there watching wrestling with him, I absorbed the keys of storytelling: heroes and villains, drama and pacing, setup and payoff. Dusty Rhodes taught me more about how to write than Faulkner ever did.
My dad taught me to work hard for a dollar. He taught me you can think through just about any problem. He taught me the mysteries of the Bible and the Bass Pro Shops catalog.
Most of all, he taught me how love requires patience, and patience, love. He was tired when he came home from work. But he did what good fathers do. He kept throwing the ball to his boy, over and over, thousands of times. And after a while, the ball stopped rolling to the fence.
I catch the ball.
I sprint toward our dugout but my teammates mob me before I get there. We bounce up and down in a little knot. The coach grabs me out of the middle and puts his arm around me. People are still cheering.
Nearly 40 years later, replaying it in my head for the thousandth time, one detail jumps out.
I caught it backhanded.