Fathers Playing Catch with Daughters

May 14, 1994|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

In the title essay of his book ''Fathers Playing Catch with Sons,'' the poet Donald Hall writes:

''Baseball is fathers and sons . . . the generations, looping backward forever with a million apparitions of sticks and balls. . . . Baseball is fathers and sons playing catch, lazy and murderous, wild and controlled, the profound archaic song of birth, growth, age and death. This diamond encircles what we are . . . joining the long generations of all the fathers and all the sons.''

Yeah, yeah. And what about the daughters, bub?

Of all the literature through which I've combed over the years -- and believe me, when it comes to combing through literature, I'm a veritable Vidal Sassoon with an English degree -- I've yet to find a single weepy description of fathers playing catch with their daughters. You'd figure the Bronte sisters might have worked it in somewhere along the line. But nada.

Hollywood hasn't been of much help either. In recent years, Tinseltown has given us ''The Natural'' and ''Field of Dreams,'' two flicks in which the final scenes, the emotional pay-offs that made the audience members cry copiously into their buckets of coconut-oil-saturated popcorn, involved games of catch between -- you guessed it, sports fans -- fathers and sons.

The matter concerns me because I am the baseball-loving dad of a 4-year-old daughter. I'd like for her to grow up to love baseball as I do, to play catch with me in the back yard, to fight me for the box scores in the morning, to share soft pretzels and razz the umps at the ball park.

And I'm doing what I can to point her in this direction, which I swore I would do for our child, regardless of its sex, when my wife became pregnant five years ago. However, I sometimes feel I'm struggling against a current that's too strong for me.

Take the lack of literary and cinematic depictions of father-daughter games of catch. Whom do I sue for this cultural inequity? It underscores how girls are generally not encouraged by our society to engage in sweat-inducing games. That's changing, as evidenced by the all-woman professional baseball team, the Colorado Silver Bullets. But there remains the question of whether, by nature or nurture or both, girls are less inclined than boys to go ga-ga over sports.

Last week, for example, I bought my daughter her first pack of baseball cards. She studied the propaganda, nodded mild approval and then stuck the cards in her tiny purse alongside her Polly Pockets dolls.

This jibes with a report from a friend of mine with a 7-year-old daughter. He, too, has been buying his little girl baseball cards in a campaign to steer her toward the national pastime. While she has yet to put the cards inside her purse, she has taken to stacking them in an order based on each player's ''cuteness.''

Maybe I worry excessively about this because, as the poet and guy-ness guru Robert Bly would say, I went without a male model for bonding to baseball. Maybe I'm obsessed about passing the game on to my daughter because my own father failed to perform this ritual with me.

Don't misunderstand; my dad is a terrific guy and was always a great provider for the family. But he's European. Soccer's his game, which means that although he can't throw very well, he can dribble or head practically any smallish object with amazing deftness.

It's just that I don't want my daughter to have to learn about baseball on the streets, the way her old man had to. I want to be there for her from the start, with tips on baserunning, hitting the cut-off man (or woman), throwing a change-up, talking the lingo and more.

She's not even out of nursery school, so there's plenty of time to teach her the fine points and infinite pleasures of baseball. Nonetheless, we've already begun playing catch with a Velcro glove-and-ball set. We've also been doing some hitting in the yard. I pitch her a plastic ball the size of Sputnik and she whales away at it with a fat plastic bat that looks huge in her hands.

I realize parents aren't usually impartial about their offspring, and maybe the size of the equipment has something to do with it, but my daughter does make decent contact almost every time she swings. She might not be a natural. Then again, who knows? My hope is simply that she'll have the opportunity, no matter if she takes it or not, to feel natural about joining those ''long generations of all the fathers and all the sons'' enjoying baseball together.

And, I would add, all the daughters. Let's not forget the daughters.

I= Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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