A few weeks ago, after seeing an Instagram post that mentioned an adult baseball league in New York City, I decided to add my name to the free-agent list. I didn’t think much of it. If someone emailed me back, great. If not, I’d probably avoid an injury. To my surprise, I got a phone call a few days later.
I’ve spent the last eight years as a “travel dad”—one of those guys you see down the left field line watching their kid’s every move, standing next to other travel dads, evaluating each play as if our kids were major leaguers. My son Eli is fifteen years old now and has played baseball all his life. With Eli’s departure for college on the horizon and no other players coming up in the family, I figured there was no better time to embrace a little of my pre-kid life and maybe reclaim a little of that youth in the process. Playing in an adult league gave me the chance to walk a mile in someone else’s baseball cleats, an unexpected bonus of the experience.
My baseball bag was like a time capsule, pulled out of storage for an unlikely return to the field. It boasted a 34/28 softball bat from 2008, Adidas cleats with a thin layer of brown dirt, and sunflower seeds that looked edible but the 2009 expiration indicated otherwise. My baseball glove, curiously, was nowhere to be found.
Like so many youth travel teams, adult leagues are starved for pitchers. As a lefty pitcher who played Division I baseball for four years, I was a big find. The catch? I’m forty-five. I could hear the hesitation in the league commissioner’s voice. “Do you think you can still throw? When was the last time you pitched competitively?”
I thought my arm was in pretty good shape from being around Eli’s team for so many years. I had thrown live batting practice the previous summer, and when I had some success against a talented group of thirteen-year-olds, the dads took out their radar guns. I was thrilled to see I was throwing seventy miles per hour consistently. “I’m ready to pitch,” I told him.
Not long after, the manager of the Harlem Bodega Cats called me. Same line of questioning. He told me to come to Randall’s Island and he’d get me in.
The moment I accepted, my arm started hurting out of nowhere. I’m not making that up. I’ve thrown bullpens to my son, thrown as hard as I could playing stickball, and never had arm trouble over the years. But when I said I would play with the Bodega Cats, my arm seemed to know what was about to happen. Like any forty-five-year-old who still thinks he’s twenty-five at times, I ignored it.
The week leading up to the game couldn’t move fast enough. It felt like college again, carrying a baseball with me at random times, thinking about the opposition. But instead of telling my roommate about the game, I got to tell my son about it, which was even more fun.
I’ve been to Randall’s Island a thousand times in the last eight years for countless kid practices and games. Now I was headed there for myself.
I introduced myself, careful to keep my hat on to hide my gray hair. I stretched a little, threw a little, ran a little, and probably should’ve done more of all three. The manager asked if I could play outfield. I said sure. A teammate hit me a few fly balls. Trust but verify, I guess. I made the plays. A little after 2 pm, I ran out to left field for the first inning of the Brick City Bandits-Harlem Bodega Cats doubleheader.
Standing in left field in a game where fly balls are few and far between allowed for a lot of “me” time. In no particular order, some of the thoughts I had were: All things considered, don’t hit it to me; if you don’t know the center fielder, left field is a little boring; I’ve told Eli a thousand times not to check his phone between innings, but maybe I could just do it once or twice.
While I was daydreaming our opponent got a few runners on, and when one of them stole third, I was late backing up the overthrow. He scored, though I don’t think I would’ve had a chance to throw him out at home. Either way, I was late. It occurred to me that that was just the sort of thing I would get on Eli’s case for, so maybe I should take it easier on him. Similar thoughts occurred to me throughout the day.
The second inning was full of excitement. I cleanly fielded a single to left and threw it to the cutoff man. Perfect fielding percentage intact. In the bottom of the second, I had my first at-bat.
The opposing pitcher was throwing what I would expect batting practice at this age to look like. My at-bat went like this. Runners at first and second, one out, down a few runs. The pitcher wound up and as the first pitch came in, I could see the ball really well. This is great, I thought. See it, hit it. So simple. After all, that’s what I tell Eli. You have to get hits off the weaker pitchers and then hope to get a little lucky off the tougher ones. Ball one. Ball two. Ball three. There was no take sign given but I gave the sign to myself. Swinging at 3-0 as the number ten hitter in my first at-bat didn’t seem right. Strike on the inside corner. 3-1, hitter’s count. Fastball down the middle. Fouled it off to the left side. Yikes—how did that happen? 3-2. Another fastball down the middle. Dreams of a double to left-center to drive in two runs were quickly dashed as the ball went sky high in the direction of third base. I ran hard down to first. Have to practice what you preach, right?
Before the game, I told the manager that if he was going to bring me in to pitch in game one, I’d appreciate it if he took me out the inning before, just so I could throw and loosen up. When the starting pitcher got into trouble in the top of the fourth, I got the wave. No warm-up, no loosening of what remained of my forty-five-year old muscles, just a slow jog from left field to the mound.
I entered with the bases loaded, one out, and the number three hitter up. This wasn’t the 1927 Yankees, but third in the lineup still counted for something. Deep breath, just throw strikes. That’s what every dad yells in travel baseball, right?
My first pitch was a fastball on the outside corner. Hard one-hopper to first through the first baseman’s legs; two runs score. Deep breath. On my next pitch the batter hit a jammed soft liner just over second. And just like that, I’ve let all three runners that had been on base score, not exactly what I had hoped for. Deep breath. I struck out the next hitter on four pitches, going with a submarine pitch for strike three. Homage to Nestor Cortes. With a full count, I struck out the next hitter on a high fastball. Where was that a few minutes ago?
I walked into the dugout and sat down, exhausted. I threw strikes, which was good. Did I embarrass myself? No. Am I hurt? Not yet. These are the sorts of questions forty-five-year-olds ask themselves in these situations.
Now I was on base. Runners at first and third. I stole second uncontested thanks to a great jump. Then I made a good read that a soft liner over the third baseman’s head would fall and, thanks to my quick start, I nearly passed the runner in front of me on my way home. That was one of my proudest moments of the game.
I sat down in the dugout, out of breath, and found myself questioning myself as a travel dad. Am I too hard on Eli? What is my role in his development? This hitting thing is actually pretty hard. Fielding a ground ball and paying attention for the entire game are equally hard. Am I too demanding? I didn’t have all day to question the last seven years, though, because I had my second inning to pitch.
A ball and two quick strikes and I was looking at another strikeout. Slider, inside to a righty, perfect placement. Ball. “You’ve got to be kidding me?” I said, loud enough for the umpire to hear. It was a strike, 100 percent. It’s not the umpire’s fault. You have to do better. That’s what I tell Eli.
I was amazed how fast the old me came out. I argued lots of calls in high school and college. I slapped my glove in frustration when a teammate would make a mistake, and there I went again with that in my first adult league game. That’s nothing to be proud of. Perhaps that’s why I’m so on top of Eli when he acts like that. That behavior isn’t acceptable. But in the moment? Man, that’s hard to control. If I couldn’t, how could I expect him to?
On that day, for just a few hours, I was able to recapture a little bit of the younger me. And yet I relived my competitive sports days through an altogether different lens because while playing in my cleats I imagined myself in Eli’s. I kept wondering if Eli can enjoy playing the game with me by his side. As the day wore on, I thought more and more about whether my baseball interactions with Eli were fair and productive. I’m not the worst travel dad, but I’m not the best either.
There’s a reason they tell parents to stand in the outfield and just observe. If Eli had been standing behind the dugout dissecting every play I made, telling me what I did wrong and how I could improve, he would’ve ruined my experience even though he would’ve been trying to help. I don’t think I ruin baseball for him, but I’m not proud when I think about how I sometimes slap the fence when he walks someone. I need to do better, because that’s not helpful and it’s not fun. And baseball is fun. That’s how I remember it.
When the second game ended, the team gathered in the dugout. One of the twenty-somethings congratulated the team on two competitive games. Apparently, they’ve been blown out a lot. I was happy to be part of the victory. He also said, “Big shoutout to Dan for pitching so well. Seriously. Great job, especially since the last time he pitched was in the 90s.”
I packed up my baseball bag. Cleats, gloves, bat. In my head, I could hear myself saying, Eli, make sure you pack everything up—I don’t want you to forget anything. The time capsule had served me well. This day was about more than just balls and strikes, more than just a return to my best days. It was an opportunity to reflect in a way I hadn’t imagined possible. I’m better off for it, and Eli will be too. I couldn’t wait to get home to tell him all about my day.
Dan Gati is an executive producer at PokerGO, living in New York City with his wife and three young athletes.
Image: Man in a jersey at a baseball game. (Unsplash: Lesly Juarez)
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