Connecting the Generations: There’s Nothing Like a Game of Three-Corner Catch
By Lyman Hafen
I would have been ten years old when I pulled that card out of a five-cent pack. I was sitting with my back to a mulberry tree in my front yard. Jim’s mobile market had already motored on down 600 South to the next stop, and I heard the truck’s horn blare, alerting my friends and their moms further down the street that groceries (and baseball cards) were available at the curb. My heart double-pumped as I unwrapped the pack, hoping with all my soul I would find a Willie Mays or a Sandy Koufax, or perhaps, even the Holy Grail of baseball cards, a Mickey Mantle, in that small stack of cards. I held them in my trembling hands and lifted them to my nose to smell the dusty sweetness glazed upon them by the chalky residue of a flat stick of gum. When the shiny Mickey Mantle appeared near the middle of the deck, I must have chuckled with joy. I gazed at it with adoring eyes. It was a 1965 Topps. In that magical moment, it became my most prized possession.
Most of my baseball cards from those sun-splashed boyhood summers eventually disappeared. They got dog-eared from endless shuffling, fondling, and trading. Some of them ended up clothes-pinned to the front fork of my bike in such a way that they poked through the spokes of the wheel and created amazing motor sounds as I peddled out the driveway. As I gained speed down 600 South, those cards transformed my bicycle into a roaring Harley Davidson. But some of the cards, like the treasured Mickey Mantle, were handled with care and protected from abuse and somehow survived. Today I have them in the same old cigar box I had as a kid. They sit safely atop my bookshelf where I’m comforted to know they will be when I need them.
* * * * *
My dad and I didn’t play a lot of catch when I was a boy, but when we did, it was wonderful. On those rare evenings when he’d get home from work with a sliver of sun still sparking over the west black ridge, I’d dig out our mitts and a hairy old ball and approach him. We’d step out on the back lawn and start to arch the ball back and forth to each other—easy at first—and then, it would flatten out and speed up as our arms warmed up.
I remember it as spring, and there must have been red-breasted robins chirping high in the pecan tree in our backyard, telephone wires lined with gossiping sparrows. There was the fresh smell of first-cut grass below us and the mystical scent of leather from the mitt held close to my face. The sky was as purple as the oily finger paints we smeared on paper at school, and through it all came the white streak of the ball—cutting the pristine air, popping in the glove, linking the generations.
Back and forth.
Back and forth.
Father to son.
Son to father.
A mythic connection that would always be.
* * * * *
I have five sons. Through the years, as they grew up, there would be a day each spring when the mitts would come out, and the assumption was that we would play catch on the front lawn for a while when I got home from work. That assumption would shatter on evenings when I got home just in time for a quick bite to eat before hurrying off to some meeting. Harry Chapin’s song “Cat’s in the Cradle” comes to mind when I think of those particular days.
I found redemption one evening about a quarter of a century ago. I pulled into the driveway that day with a smile on my face. No meetings that night. I was on a carefully charted course for the recliner, the newspaper, and then dinner. My son Matt, who was nine or ten then, met me at the door. “You got a meeting tonight, Dad?” he asked. His sandy hair was tousled, and he looked up at me with the hope of a generation in his eyes. “No,” I said. “I’m just gonna relax tonight.”
Matt knew that “relax” was code for “out of service.” He shrugged his shoulders, slipped out the door, and sped down the street on his bike. I pulled off my shoes and settled into the chair, newspaper spread before me. I scanned the headlines across the pages and quickly worked my way to the sports section. Soon I was deep into a story on spring training. Managers and players were talking about their prospects, their hopes, their goals for the season. I hadn’t finished the story when I got up from the chair. It wasn’t a conscious decision—I just got up, dropped the paper on the floor, and headed to Matt’s room.
There were books on the floor, shirts and jeans brimming over the dirty clothes basket, assorted clutter here and there. On the dresser, I noticed the Mickey Mantle baseball card I’d given him a long time ago. It was encased in hard, protective plastic, worth quite a bit according to Matt’s latest price guide. I turned the card over and confirmed it was a 1965 Topps. I slipped it out of its plastic case and held it up to my nose, trying to believe it still retained a hint of chalky gum smell.
The closet door was open, and I saw Matt’s baseball glove lying on top of a box full of sports gear. There was a scruffy white ball enfolded in the glove’s web. I picked up the glove and pulled it on. It was small and tight on my hand. I plopped the ball in the glove a few times then stuck it under my arm and started digging through the box for another one. At the bottom lay another glove, this one timeworn and old fashioned. Like a wolf sniffing out his territory, I lifted the glove to my nose, and its faint, ancient leather scent drew me back across the years and filled my chest with hope and longing.
I changed my clothes and packed the two gloves and the ball out to the front lawn where I sat in the waning evening and waited for Matt. I listened for a moment to the chirping of birds and ran my hand across the top of the grass and knew in that moment that spring had come.
Soon Matt rode up on his bike, studying me as if I were some exotic fish washed up on the beach.
“How was school today,” I asked.
“Fine,” Matt said.
“Did you get all your homework done?”
“They say the Red Sox should be real good this year.”
“I know,” Matt said. “I hope they make it all the way to the World Series.”
I tossed Matt his glove.
* * * * *
Today, Matt is a well-respected estate attorney in St. George, Utah, with clients from around the world. He is perhaps the busiest person I know, yet he finds time in every day to spend with each of his six children. I have often thought I should nominate him for father of the year. He has a wonderful backyard with all the amenities, from swing set to trampoline. But its most important feature is the long back lawn where he can play catch with his son, James.
As soon as I finish this piece, I’m going to pull the old cigar box down from the top of the book shelf and find just the right baseball card for James. I think there might still be a Willie Mays in there. I’m going to take it, along with my mitt, down to Matt’s house and see if he and James will join me in a three-corner catch on the back lawn.