Some things can't be begun again. Childhood, innocence, love once it's gone wrong . . . And that, of course, is why spring is so valuable. It is, every year without fail, a chance to start over. It is the season of hope, though it often gives way to the season of heartbreak.
Where I grew up, in Kentucky, the season itself was hauntingly beautiful -- and heartbreakingly brief; slow to arrive, fickle in temperament; bursting suddenly into sharp yellows and cotton-candy pastels and just as suddenly disappearing in full summer green. Apart from the Kentucky Derby, which had a 50-50 chance of being a chilly surprise, the only reliable harbinger was baseball.
Like the Southern spring, I was slow to bloom -- as a baseball fan; but I always knew when the time for the sport had come. The diamond at the far back corner of the school lot dried out, and my father began to listen to two radios at the same time.
He was a Yankees fan, which I found baffling; why root for someone who didn't need it? The Dodgers were my guys. "If you're going to root for someone," he said mildly, "you might as well root for the best."
And then he taught me to pitch.
Not because he thought I had great potential as a player -- in those days the words "girls" and "Little League" were never uttered in the same sentence. And not because he missed having sons; if he did, we never knew it. He always taught his daughters there was nothing they couldn't do.
He taught me partly because he loved the game, but mostly -- and it took me years and years to realize this -- he taught me because he did not want me to be the last child chosen when grade-school captains counted off their teams.
I never learned to imitate his side-arm delivery -- a mysterious, rubbery, fluid motion that entranced you like a cobra till you swung at empty air -- but I learned enough to unsettle a few fifth-grade batters. And I don't recall ever hitting a single one.
My father died in 1964. I've tried to remember most of the things he taught me: How to use a screwdriver and an electric drill. How to paint walls and apply wallpaper. How to make a fried-egg sandwich and fix a toaster. How to plant daffodils and trees. How to listen, and how to be a good neighbor.
How important it is to have grand dreams. (One year he wanted to move to Texas and be a cattle boss at the great King Ranch. "Oh, your father's just got a bee in his bonnet," my mother said; but my sister and I had already picked out our hats and named our horses.)
How to mow a lawn (in a square, never the same way twice). How to play chess and poker (big smile, keep your eyes on the game). How to keep smiling, no matter what cards you're dealt or what pieces you lose. If I forgot how to throw a good curve, it didn't matter.
Until I made the Show.
I wish I could say I was spotted by a major league scout on a sandlot . . . but the truth is I won the door prize at a company picnic: a chance to throw out the first ball at an Orioles game.
Daddy, it's the Bigs!
I wanted to tell him how it felt. How green the grass is, and how clean it smells. How loudly the balls smack into gloves. How quiet it is on the field, no matter how many fans are roaring their heads off upstairs. How big the mascot looks and how serious the players seem. The cool feel of the ball in my bare hand, the sense that for all the spectators above, the man with the glove and I are there alone.
I had, instead, to offer him a little prayer: Dear Daddy, I haven't thrown a baseball in 35 years. I'm afraid I'll hit the mascot or drop the ball or bean the cameraman or forget to let go or fall over my own feet. So do you think you could just lean down from the Big Yard where you play now and give me a nudge? A hint? I want you to be proud of me. I'm listening real hard 'cause I know you're here. I know you wouldn't miss it for the world.
The Bird hugged me. Billy Ripken pretended he was going to throw a practice pitch right at my head. Two or three people in the front row learned my name. I walked out on the field, my heels sinking slightly in the soft earth. I pitched the ball. Leo Gomez caught it and handed it back to me. I went back to my seat in the stands. The Orioles won.
And from now on, when springtime comes, you can call me Nuke.