The first time I saw Billy was on a warm spring afternoon in 1980. His grandma pulled up to the baseball field and Billy nervously climbed out of her car and started walking towards the dugout.
His grandma called through the open passenger door window, “I love you and I’ll pick you up in a couple of hours after my hair appointment.”
I was the little league baseball coach and Billy was a last minute add-on. I didn’t know anything about him, but I admit I was agitated that I would have to make some last minute adjustments to accommodate this little boy.
His hair was a Sunkist blonde and he had a bowl cut that shaped his head like a little helmet. Underneath that helmet of hair, starring out at me were two of the saddest blue eyes I had ever seen. He wore a pair of Tough Skin jeans and an old pair of tennis shoes. All of the other parents had bought their kids practice uniforms and cleats. Little league was serious business. We meant to win.
Over his shoulder he had an old bat. The handle of the bat had been run-through the webbing of two baseball gloves. One was smaller than the other, the size for a small boy, while the other was a little older and more worn, definitely the size for an adult.
“Get out on the field and warm up.” I said a little too gruffly. I had to force one of the other boys from the team to play catch with Billy and from that moment on I knew he was going to be an outsider.
He was awkward and slow, I was impatient. If he weren’t sitting on the bench, I would put him out in right field to keep him out of the way. That became our routine for the next three weeks.
One day he showed up a little late at practice, all of the other kids were already paired up to play catch and warm up. Frankly, I’d been hoping that he wouldn’t come.
“Alright,” I said, “I’ll play catch with you, but take it easy, I don’t have a glove.”
He removed the two gloves from his bat and handed me the bigger one. I could smell the saddle soap that had been applied to it and see all of the creases in the leather.
“It was my dad’s.” He said quietly. “He used to play catch with me everyday after he got home from work before he died.”
I looked at his little face outlined by his Sunkist colored hair and his piercing blue eyes. I knew that I had failed him. He needed a father figure, instead he got me.
I slowly took the glove, “I would love to use your dad’s glove if it’s alright with you.” I said.
He nodded his approval and, for the first time since he started coming to practice, he smiled.
I held the glove up to my nose and could smell the sweat of warm past summer days mixed with leather. I looked at Billy and understood that this was one of the ways he felt his dad’s presence. I gently put the glove on my hand understanding that Billy was trying to hold onto his dad, he was trying to connect.
We played catch not only that day but everyday after that.
Today, twenty years later, I went over to Billy’s house just to see how he’s doing. As I pulled into the driveway, Billy’s out on the front lawn playing catch with his son and I immediately smelled the sweat aroma of sweat mixed with warm past summer days and leather.