A Minor League baseball Game
As a father, there are activities that lend themselves well to father-son quality time: a camping trip in the woods, a hunting excursion, coaching your son’s soccer team. But the most sacred of father-son activities is the baseball game --- America’s pastime. I am blessed with a son who loves sports; or more accurately, watching sports on TV. His order of preference mirrors mine. First, football – followed by baseball, followed by basketball. There is no 4th place: not hockey, not MLS - it simply ends there. This past spring, Vaughn became a rabid fan of the Boston Red Sox, and watched every game if he could. In particular, he developed an obsession with Chris Sale, the marquis pitcher of an impressive rotation for the Red Sox. When Chris was on the mound, Vaughn was vested in every pitch like no one I have ever seen. He stood only 3-4 feet away from the TV, and jumped excitedly with every pitch, hopping so much that the floor shook, knocking photo frames off of our end tables. The culmination of his excitement hit a crescendo when Chris Sale got a strikeout, particularly a strikeout looking. Vaughn celebrated by running and skipping and hopping around our family room in jubilant circles. Oh, if Chris only knew the impact his performance had on my son.
Like many children on the spectrum, Vaughn is obsessed with the stats of the team after a game. He reviews all of the players’ numbers within minutes of the final out, as they tell the narrative of the game: batting averages, ERA, OBP, OPS, WHIP. For a learning fair project at school, he chose a math project that included baseball statistics as the core theme of his project. I loved every moment of it – we explored decimal numbers, fractions, algebraic formulas, mean, mode, median. So much fun.
It is early June, the perfect time of year to check out a game. I debate whether or not it would make sense to bring Vaughn to Fenway Park in Boston. After all, isn’t this the hallowed stadium of New England? I could create a father-son memory that would last all of Vaughn’s lifetime, particularly if they ever decide to tear down the historical park. Unfortunately, I already know the answer - no. Vaughn has too short an attention span. He would make it the 5th inning before he would want to leave. And like many children on the spectrum, his sensory processing would be in overdrive at Fenway – too many stimuli: the loud boisterous fans that would surround us, the music, the jumbotron billboard with all its flashing numbers. Besides, we’re blessed with a fantastic minor league team in-state: the Pawtucket Red Sox. McCoy stadium is the perfect minor league stadium: small enough to give us a Bull Durham-ish intimacy, but large enough to give us a true baseball game experience.
We drive to the game and park in a lot outside the stadium, which I will have to pay for. This is intentional, as I know we will not make it the full nine innings, and plan ahead for an easy early exit. On the drive up, I explain to Vaughn why Mommy didn’t come, explaining that baseball is a father-son ritual, similar to how he and I watch the Red Sox together at home, while Mommy (not a fan) preoccupies herself with something different. Vaughn reacts to my explanation the way he typically does: a small grin as he gazes sideways out the passenger window.
We enter the stadium holding hands. Though the park is small, there is a great turnout for a weekday game. The weather is beautiful, wide stretches of blue sky with intermittent wispy clouds. As we make our way to our seats, I look for a way to engage Vaughn. His eyes are everywhere and nowhere. In the concourses of the stadium, the fans are laughing, chatting, moving in every direction – it’s overwhelming for Vaughn, and I feel his hand clasp mine tightly.
“Why don’t we grab something to eat before the game?” I chirp up.
“Okkaayyyyyyyyy……” Vaughn responds looking off into the distance.
I survey the concrete landscape. I need to find a concession stand with a short line. Vaughn’s limited attention span doesn’t lend itself well to long queues. If he gets irritated, it could spill over into his patience sitting in the stands for the game. I really want to watch this game. It’s the perfect day and I want everything to be perfect.
I quickly spy a stand with two lines. The left line is shorter and seems to be moving. I grab Vaughn’s hand tightly and we jockey through the crowd. As we stake our place in line, I survey who’s ahead of us - only three families. This will do fine. I now preoccupy Vaughn while we wait.
“So, here’s what you can have – a hot dog and a soda, or…………. A pretzel and a soda…….orrrrrrrr……how about nachos and a soda?”
“ Hot dog”
“Okay, how about a soda too?”
Vaughn? Do you want a soda?”
“Vaughn, what kind?”
“ A Coke”
“Okay, a coke. Sounds great! I’m going to have the same….hot dog and a coke. Perfect.” I lie. I’d rather grab two beers, but my urge to be the perfect father supersedes my frat-boy instincts.
We weave our way to the crowd to find our seats, informing Vaughn of where our seats will be. Since our seats are alphanumeric, I know it will further occupy him and give him an area of focus.
“Okay, Section 8. Seats 14C and 14D. Got it?
As we continue to make our way through the jostling crowds, I feel Vaughn’s hand squeeze mine tightly as he exclaims.
“Oh, Daddy. I see it. I see it. Section 8.” He points up to the far right.
“You got it!”.
We climb up the steps out onto the stadium. The walk to our seats is easy, the stands are only patchy with fans at this point before the game. Our seats offer a nice view of the stadium behind the third base line, a wonderful shadow traverses our section that keeps the sun out of our eyes. With our hot dogs and sodas in hand, we sit down. Perfection.
The game begins and I take in the leisurely pace of a minor league game. Since Vaughn is not familiar with the Pawtucket Red Sox rotation, he spends more time looking at the Jumbo-tron billboard than the field. He needs to assess every batter’s statistics, as though he were a physician reviewing a patient’s biometrics. I enjoy how chatty Vaughn is during the game. If a player has great stats, he exclaims “Ohhhhh, maybe we’ll see him move up to the Red Sox”. If they are too low, Vaughn smiles and issues a word of caution “Uh oh, he may be demoted to AA. See you in Bristol.”
By the 2nd inning, the stands are starting to fill up around us. Vaughn’s excited conversation about the players catches the ear of the young man sitting next to him. He is young, about 19 or 20, African-American and responds to Vaughn’s comments on a players’ stats in a very neutral fashion, occasionally adding his own thoughts. I enjoy hearing the banter back and forth between them. This is rare –Vaughn does not often engage in sustained conversations with strangers. As I eavesdrop on their dialogue, I can’t help but analyze the demeanor of this young man. His face is somewhat blank and expressionless; the language – mechanical, matter-of-fact, without much inflection, though he is engaged. And his eyes, something about his eyes. Could he be on spectrum as well? I have an eye for it now, but could I be wrong? The gentleman to the left is an older white man who does not speak at all, though his demeanor is open and affable. Who is he? Father, guardian, mentor? – what is his relationship to this young man?
By the 3rd inning, the conversation between Vaughn and the young man stops. Vaughn focuses all of his energy on me, eagerly discussing each player’s stats. Though I enjoy his attention, it is exhausting, the conversations are redundant. I look for a new way to distract him.
“Do you want to get a snack? Maybe we can get some popcorn?
“Are you sure?
My efforts sneak in a beer into my evening have been thwarted.
In the bottom of the 4th, the Pawsox are retired in 1-2-3 fashion. The players exit the field as the announcer extols the virtues of local sponsors: a Toyota dealership, a personal injury law firm that promises the largest settlements imaginable, a new buffet style Italian restaurant. Over the announcer, Vaughn interjects:
“All done. I want to go home. Let’s leave”
Vaughn’s tone is firm and certain.
“Are you sure? It’s only the 4th inning. We’ve only been her a little over an hour.”
“Yes. I want to go home”.
I grab his hand and excuse ourselves past the fans seating in our row. Walking back to the car, I hink about the man sitting next to Vaughn. What was his story? Was my assumption even correct? And who was the other man? What was the nature of their relationship? I then flash forward to an imagined future. Will I be taking Vaughn to games when he is 19, 20? How will things be different? I shake off the thoughts. No, stay in the moment, stay in the present moment.
“Yes, my son”
“I don’t want to go to another game here this year”
“I’d rather just watch games at home”
“Okay” I say, hearing my own heavy sigh.
We cross the street to the parking lot. As we make our way to the car, I concede to the reality of this moment. No father-son ritual can be manufactured, even with the most benign of intentions. The moment is what it is, not what you want it to be. His memory is what matters, not mine.