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An Unlikely Baseball MVP (Most Valuable Parent)

He knew nothing about the national pastime, but sometimes parenthood calls one to do the most unlikely things.

A baseball bat, cap and glove; illustration by Dan Bransfield
Credit: Dan Bransfield

Every spring, the posters appear around our uptown Manhattan neighborhood, inviting parents to sign up their kids for the Hudson Cliffs Baseball League. A fun way to spend weekends in spring, introducing kids to the joys of the game on ballfields down by the Hudson River, in view of those fabled cliffs. The league has been around for 30 years now. And guess who started it?

Me. Rick Hamlin. The guy who knows next to nothing about baseball or sports in general. The one whose most fervent prayers as a boy came when he was stuck out in right field during P.E., entreating God, “Please, please, please don’t let the ball come to me.” It would have taken a minor miracle for me to catch the thing, and even then, I’d never be able throw it into the infield.

And yet I later happened to become the father of two boys, eight-year-old Will and five-year-old Tim, both of whom were interested in the sport. Saturday mornings, I’d take Will out to the playground and we’d play ball with a few other boys and their dads. I was so glad those fathers could coach and pitch and knew the rules of the game.

I’d play catch with Will, and thanks to my weak arm, the ball would drop at his feet before he could get in position to catch it. After a few too many misses one day, he sank to the ground and said, “How am I ever going to make the major leagues?”

I wanted to tell him, “You got the wrong dad, kid.” I mean, when I’d gone to the sporting goods store, I bought him a mitt for the wrong hand. Who knew that a right-handed kid should get a mitt for his left hand? That’s how clueless I was.

Still, I wanted to find some way of giving our kids confidence on the field, a confidence I’d never had. There was an official Little League in our area, but it was super-competitive and catered to older boys. What if we had something a little more low-key, something that welcomed both boys and girls, with T-ball and softball for the younger ones?

I happened to share the idea with a couple neighbors on the playground. “That would be great!” they said, their eyes lighting up. Me and my big mouth. Now who could organize such a thing? Not me. I tried to put the idea aside, but it wouldn’t leave me.

Like Moses, I felt I was being called to do something way out of my league (no pun intended). Remember how Moses struggled to speak, exclaiming, “for I am of slow speech and of a slow tongue” (Exodus 4:10), and yet God called him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt?

Okay, Rick, I told myself. You had this big idea. Now you’ve got to do something about it. One thing I could do was make a few phone calls and get information. I had to do that often enough at work as a writer and editor at Guideposts.

So I started calling the city’s parks and recreation department, explaining that there were some families uptown who wanted to start a baseball league in our neighborhood. Were there any fields we could sign up for? We’d need two ballfields, ideally down by the river, for several hours every spring weekend.

The parks and rec department bounced me around. Finally I spoke to the official who could help us. I made our request for the fields, and he asked me to call him back in a few days. I half-wondered if I was supposed to slip him an envelope of cash. No, that would never do. Not for the Hudson Cliffs Baseball League.

Now that was the sort of thing I knew how to do: Come up with names for things, like putting a title to a story I wrote. Hudson Cliffs came from the name of the neighborhood’s elementary-middle school, P.S. 187.The scariest phone call I ever made was calling that official back. What if he said no? What would I tell my boys then? I think I prayed even harder than I used to when I was out there in right field as a kid.

“Yes, we’ve got something for you,” the man said. Two verdant ballfields for four hours every Sunday morning, from early April to mid-June. That will mean missing Sunday school, I thought. Then again, we could still make the Sunday evening service.

“Wonderful,” I said to the man. “Thank you so much.”

Hudson Cliffs was launched. What a joy it was to sit on the benches behind home plate, watching Will and Tim hit the ball, run the bases…and make clutch catches in the outfield. Wow. How grateful I was for the other parents who did the coaching and refereeing. They did the hard work. As for me, I was christened “Commish” by a friend. The most unlikely baseball commissioner ever.

After several years of play, Will and Tim aged out of Hudson Cliffs. Amazingly enough, the league still goes on, these days run by the Hebrew Y.

Our now-grown sons sometimes tease me, arguing with each other about who is going to retell the Hudson Cliffs origin story at my funeral. That’s not going to happen for a long time, I hope.

Meanwhile, both Will and Tim are new dads, each with a boy of his own, and I can’t wait to see what they’ll have to do. I know better than anyone: Parenthood—like the Lord—can call you to do the most unlikely things, things you never knew you could do until you try.

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