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A Ballpark Promise

A child’s faith is tested, but she learns she can talk to God about anything—even baseball.

A baseball lying in the grass.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I would have given anything to take them back.

I looked at that youngster beside me in the car, pixie face eager beneath her baseball cap. Knowing just how much 10-year-old Erin missed her dad, wanting to do something special for her, I’d invited her to go with me that afternoon to watch the Giants play the Chicago Cubs at Candlestick Park.

I’d never seen a kid so excited. We’d been driving across the Bay Bridge when she suddenly piped up, “Maybe we’ll catch a foul ball!”

And like an idiot I’d said, “Well, honey, now that your dad’s in heaven, maybe he’ll mention that to God for you.”

Just a throw-away remark, but I saw that she took it seriously and I wanted to bite my tongue off. A child’s faith is tested enough when a parent dies without some dolt planting pipe dreams.

“You mean,” Erin asked in an awestruck voice, “you can talk to God even about baseball?”

I switched subjects fast, talked about some of the great times our two families had had together. We were like one family, really, next-door neighbors for 11 years, each couple with three kids the same ages, Craig and I close as brothers in spite of being so different.

It was our differences, in fact, that made the relationship so great. Craig could repair anything—electrical circuits, clogged plumbing. When my kids had a bike wheel come off, they wouldn’t waste time with me, they’d go straight to him.

As for me, sports were my thing, especially baseball. I’d gone to college on a baseball scholarship, been drafted by the California Angels to a minor-league contract right out of school. After four years I was aspiring to a spot in the major leagues when I damaged my rotator cuff. That ended my professional career, but not my love of the game.

We made a deal, Craig and I: Things that needed fixing, he’d do, coaching the kids was my job.

All six of them were great little athletes, but Erin was something else. Lots of speed, a pitcher’s concentration and a throwing arm every guy in her Little League division envied (she played on a boys’ team). It made a special bond between the two of us, all the more important in the six months since her dad’s death from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

I’d never forget his final words to me in the hospital room a few hours before the end. “Keep a watch over my kids, Steve.” As if he had to ask!

As we pulled into the parking lot at Candlestick, Erin chattered away, my thoughtless remark hopefully forgotten. Soon we were settled into our seats halfway between home plate and third base, Cracker Jack boxes in hand. The pitcher warmed up, and we prepared for our private contest.

When I first started taking kids to ball games I’d invented a way to pass the slow moments between pitches. Each of us would call out a guess as to what would happen. “High pop-up to right field!” Or, “Line drive to center!”

Ninety-nine percent of the guesses were wrong, of course, but when someone did predict correctly, he or she got a point toward an extra hot dog or a souvenir program. Erin was calling, “Swing and a miss on a curve ball!” unfazed by a score of zero.

It was a wonderful afternoon, a close game with some spectacular plays. Like the baseball fanatics we were, we’d both brought our mitts, though Erin—to my vast relief—hadn’t spoken again about a foul ball coming our way, the notion apparently forgotten as quickly as it came.

It was in the bottom of the ninth, game nearly over with two outs and the batter up, that she stood up suddenly and sang out, “High foul ball right to us!”

I laughed at the certainty with which she could still make these pronouncements. There was a crack as the batter connected with the ball, sending it high over the third-base line. A second later the laughter died in my throat as I watched the trajectory of that ball, saw it spin, curve to the left, and begin a slow downward arc right toward us.

All around us people were on their feet, arms raised, grabbing for it. I’m a tall guy, six-foot-five. I leaned forward and stretched my hand up. The ball slapped into the fingertips of my mitt.

Erin was jumping, laughing, crying, brushing away tears with her own mitt. I started crying too, the two of us shouting, hugging each other, staring at that miraculous ball.

Erin looked at the ball, that is. I was seeing something more wondrous still. I was watching a child’s first encounter with the God we can talk to even about baseball.

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