If my friends could get out of their summer houses, we met at the diamond to sharpen the angles of our wild fastballs. The guts of our dirty brown ball unraveled like a tongue, wagging at the glove skipping by, hurling past the catcher in angry air like an exclamation point.
The neighborhood boys and I played in Little League as the North Menomonie Orioles. We met on green fields and became friends stitched together by bonds of wood and leather.
We tried—and failed—to throw a curveball, cursing the cowhide and dreaming of the day we’d be big and twist a ball that skipped away from trouble. To be young and play ball allowed me to dream big.
Summer passed quickly in Wisconsin, and every game was a life event I couldn’t miss. I lived to swing a bat, and if a bus filled with ballplayers drove by my house, I raced to Wakanda Park to compete against other kids for foul balls during games. Sometimes, surrounded by bigger kids that might take it from me, I buried a ball under leaves and weeds only to retrieve at dusk. I had a bag full stamped in light-blue ink: Stout Blue Devils and Menomonie Indians.
Oriole games were scheduled once a week. I hated waiting for game day as it zig-zagged toward me like a dirty, slow knuckleball. I spent hours throwing against our brick garage wall, fielding the bounce back, waiting and waiting.
Finally we played, and then I waited again for the Dunn County News to print the standings. Those standings were like summer runes, marking my life in baseball wins and losses. Once the paper made a mistake in the Orioles win-loss record; I called to set them straight.
By the time we were seniors, we’d grown confident and invincible, throwing bullets and curves while pounding opposing pitchers. We won the conference championship in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, at Carson Park—the diamond where Hammerin’ Hank Aaron started his baseball career exactly 20 years earlier with the Eau Claire Bears.
After playing just one year in college, my baseball career ended, but my love for the therapy of a ball diamond lived on. As a father, I made an infield for my children in our five-acre Michigan backyard. Cutting branches from trees, I broke them into small sticks and pounded them through paper plates to anchor the bases. I taught them to hit, throw, and run through first. I never worried about them hitting it out of the park; and I hoped baseball would teach my son to contain his passions.
Divorce ended our baseball days in the big Michigan backyard, and when I saw my children I said if they wanted the truth they should go to their mom; if they wanted a story, they should come to me. Baseball is poetry in triangles, I said, but I camouflaged my sadness, like a pitcher hiding the ball in their mitt until the moment they rear back and finish with a flaming strike.
Living away from them in another state, I sent a new baseball on their birthdays. My gift was never a curve or changeup; each year, they knew exactly what was coming—not a round scuffed-up sphere with lost stitches, but a shiny new ball with their names and ages written in black magic marker between the seams. Most of those baseballs, like the years they marked, are long gone.
Divorce was not a fastball but more of a screwball bouncing up from the dirt: those orbs, dangerous and dirty; and when my son threw, I saw divorce-trauma coming at me, a story spinning an angry poem in cowhide. He reminded me of a North Menomonie Oriole from 1966, a passionate child throwing hard and wild.
Baseball memories have lived on in the fabric of their lives too. My youngest daughter sends me a new baseball book every spring, and gave me a ball and T-shirt she bought while attending a game at Wrigley Field in 2019. She grew up playing soccer, but her baseball love arrived between the seams in magic marker, “Cubs vs. Tigers, Happy Father’s Day!” My other daughter wrote a college paper in Michigan on the phrase, “baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie make America;” a phrase I had whispered in her ear as I tucked her into bed each night. Her paper told stories about Wakanda Park, a place she’d never seen.
When I see them again, I’m going to ask my adult children to play catch. Our dialogue will happen in fingers tenderly squeezing the seams only to release and throw. We’ll throw between the lines with a worn ball and forward thrust, and our new stories will register with the plop and sting in the palm. I’ll throw through the pain in my shoulder in hopes that angers, regrets, and mistakes will fade with every exchange and our language formed in spinning seams will extend into extra innings.
This is grace in baseball and in life: extra innings, where truth and story meet for a shot at redemption and a hope to diminish the shame of a missed catch; or for another trip to the batter’s box to fix the humiliation when our bat went blind; perhaps one last chance to stitch-up the warp and weft of family bonds, that in earlier innings, frayed and could not hold.
Our adult game—throwing through hidden pain—will feature conversations about life, where every throw will be a missile of hope, and with each catch, the oracle rattling in a mitt will lead to a redemption story. Mistakes of the past will be stitched up by our homing ritual, and grace in the extra innings will bring us to embrace the hopes and dreams experienced by all generations in the remarkable act of a throw, catch, and repeat.
Gregory Ormson is a Midwest transplant living in Arizona where he writes and teaches yoga. He’s worked as a college teacher, preacher, journalist, business writer, and sports writer. In 2017, he won Eastern Iowa Review’s Lyric Narrative Non-Fiction Award for “Midwest Intimations” and in 2016, Indiana Review’s 13-word story contest. His work is published in Quarterly West, Cutbank, Eastern Iowa Review, The Empty Mirror, The Good Men Project, Trinity Seminary Review, The Seventh Quarry (Wales) and others. He’s an occasional cigar smoker and a Harley-Davidson riding yogi with a philosophy problem. A current conundrum: to be a Diamondback fan or stay with his Milwaukee Brewers. Find him at gregoryormson.com or @motorcyclingyogig.