Last Glove

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 1998, Tom Bentley


I’ve just performed one of spring’s most pleasurable rituals: I oiled up a softball glove, put a ball in and rubber-banded it shut. Now, while the glove sleeps for a night or two, it will snugly cradle the ball’s shape, and hence know precisely what it is being trained to catch. Of course, you know that this has to be a new glove, because an old one would have long ago perfectly conformed its leathery net to capture any ball in flight.

So, a simple thing, a new softball glove, but as I considered it, a world of implication. As I walked out of the sporting goods store after its purchase, I was knocked by the notion that it could be the last glove I’ll ever buy. I mused that at 43 there was a fair likelihood that I didn’t have a endless number of softball games left, that this glove’s use—by me, at least—had a finite, foreseeable end, an end not brought on by some screaming line drive, but by compromise and decline.

So, big deal, maybe I will only play softball for a few more years; why whine about the inevitable? It’s just this: there is such deep, down-to-my-nerve-endings connection with those fused notions of youth, bright springs and long summers, and the joy of carefree and endless fun. Baseball, despite all the big-money shames of its professional incarnation, still seems one of those living metaphors that encompasses all these things.

I know how dreamy (and drippy) that all sounds—the mid-life crisis arena of thought can be pretty starved of original content (and soaked in gooey sentimentality), but still, there’s something telling there. I’m going to try and muck around in this mush without getting too much on me, because I think it brings up larger issues than my slowing bat speed.

As Americans, we’re living longer now. The magazine stands are loaded with titles like Health, Self, Self-Health—surely Panicking Self-Obsession is only a month from its first publication. Our egoistic self-microscoping has sacrificed many a tree older than me, slain on the altar of the Graying of the Boomer Generation presses. And those same newsstands have no shortage of stories of sixty-six year-old grandmothers with sixty-six swimming medals and octogenarian bicyclists talking about their latest trek through Death Valley, “Sure it was hot, but not nearly as hot as the summer of 1919....”

Following that line, the articles take the tack that middle age is not only something that happens later, but something that’s completely different from how it was known a generation ago. I have some suspicions that these are the middle-aged writing these articles, and that there’s a bit of writer’s wrinkle cream going on. But no matter if middle age starts at 50 now, or even 55 (by god, any number greater than 45, please!), anyone within hailing distance of those numbers starts to add them up, and subtract the things that no longer seem possible.

Naturally you have to make adjustments to time’s relentless chipping; it’s probably a matter of course that most folks my age don’t knock back eight or nine Jack Daniel’s and go dirt-bike riding in a snowstorm on a whim. (Nowadays, that’s something that you plan out for an hour or so.) But it stops me cold to think that I might stop doing something so defining, so cast with emotional texture such as playing baseball, because of a concession to adulthood. Ugh, “adult”; even the word itself sounds limited and boxed-in. Peter Pan, thy name is mine.

One of the most difficult things in adjusting to adulthood’s narrowing is that you retain that emotional memory of your self from time long past, and it still tugs. I remember the fierce agony I felt when the Dodgers blew a game during a late-season pennant race in the early sixties. I flung the little transistor radio I was listening to against my bedroom wall and cried, while its shattered chips rained down on the room.

That bedroom wall told a tale of its own: Being an LA boy, for years and years I lived and died for the Dodgers; Sandy Koufax was like Thor, flinging thunderbolts past paper bats from on high. But on my wall I had a huge poster of Willie Mays, who was surely Odin with better hands. Willie was master of earth and sky—exuberant, graceful and impossibly gifted—someone who couldn’t, shouldn’t age. But age he did. (Lucky for me, as my needs matured, I could put up an equally huge poster of Jimi Hendrix opposite him, a complement in my pantheon.)

I had a monstrous 2,000-pages plus Baseball Encyclopedia, that had the statistics for every player that had every played in a major league game, be it for just one at-bat, or for having thrown a single pitch. It seemed so important to me, pouring over that book for hours, trying to memorize the hard printed facts as I imagined the deeds being carried out on great green fields in front of noisy crowds.

The cheers from those crowds were in the imagination of a hundred thousand kids across this country, kids like my brother and me, who for days into months would try for hours to strike each other out with a tennis ball thrown against our back gate. It’s so very odd how the mind works: I have a vivid memory of making an over-the-shoulder catch of a long, arcing drive in a Little League game years ago; I see the grass, hear my feet pounding, feel the soft clutch of the ball in the glove—it was a moment that borrowed but ten seconds from time’s bank, over thirty years ago, but I still get a little frisson of thrill to consider it. Some area of our selves is set aside, a place where we are heroes; however shallow the contemporary world of sporting triumphs, those mental medals will never lose their shine.

I don’t have any kids, probably never will, so I won’t have that pleasure and perspective of a father engaged in what I imagine is one of the true simple joys, playing baseball with his son or daughter, perhaps as his father played with him or her. I remember missing a ball thrown by my father that hit me square in the forehead, but I wanted my dad to be proud of me, so I pretended it didn’t hurt. For our young country, baseball has a long generational memory. (Though I don’t think many attendees at the last Cubs World Series are here to tell the tale.) I can’t think of my old neighborhood without thinking of baseball: I broke at least one window on every house on our block with a thrown or hit baseball; my very best friends to this day are ones I met down my street, brought together by baseball.

That stuff’s in your bones, the motions that your body makes. Sometimes, when I’m walking through the house, doing the various house things, I’ll spot the big wooden bat I’ve got, now near the bed to swat intruders rather that pitches. I’ll grab it and bring it out to the living room to take a few swings, check my stance, bob up and down a bit. Do I see the living room furniture at those moments? No, there’s just the bright green fields, the sun, the infielders with their gloves held low....

Rituals have a renewing, a self-defining place-in-the-universe sense, whether it’s lighting a candle on Sunday mornings for a love lost to circumstance long ago, or pounding the pocket of your glove, in between pitches, in the outfield. Those motions, their meanings, can’t be erased, because they are on a paper where bones don’t creak. I think they are all the more resonant by being associated with spring, rebirth, a little stirring in the soul.

So now it’s spring: birds, flowers, the ping of the bat. Ping? Yeah, I guess I will have to concede to those omnipresent metal bats. Hell, I’m still unhappy with the designated hitter rule. (Now I understand why some old curmudgeons seem to enjoy being old curmudgeons.) As that dried-up old Bolshevik Trotsky said, “Old age is the most unexpected of all the things that happen to a man.” Get out there and get the glove worked in, no matter that the joints scream a bit. Aspirin’s still legal, isn’t it?