Episode 014 - Invisible Baseball

We're back for more! Our season 2 opener is a special story to me. My brother first told me a version of this story when we were on a more-or-less annual road trip across the state to watch some football. We live about 25 miles apart, but we don't get to see each other as often as we'd like. Busy work and family lives often get in the way of adult relationships. But when we find ourselves in the car together for hours at a time, we do a lot of talking and catching up. When he told me about invisible baseball, we both knew that it was a story that should be captured in some way. So over the next several months, I asked him now and then if he'd be willing to sit down and record it with me. We finally made that happen, and I really like the result. I think you'll like it, too.

Thank you so much to Rik Haden for sharing this story, for being so open and willing to share his memories, his emotions, and his perspective on the impact of aging on an entire family.

Music in this episode includes:

"Nasty" by David Szesztay

"Keep It In Your Heart" and "Saturday Afternoon" by Lobo Loco

"Sals Piano Solo" and "Sals Place" by Blue Dot Sessions

"Something (Bonus Track)" by Kai Engel

Baseball audio from August 16, 1958, New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox.


Meg’s father was living in Springfield, Missouri, and we as a family had gone to visit him there on his 80th birthday with the intent of talking with him for the first time about moving to Texas so that we could be closer to him. But the unfortunate thing that happened is, on that trip he became very ill and had a health emergency that landed him in the hospital there and was, proved to be life threatening at the time and ultimately resulted in emergency medical intervention and surgery. And so at the end of that summer then he moved to Austin, but he disembarked the plane on a stretcher and then was immediately transferred to a true nursing home. I think his first year living here was in 3 or 4 different rehab facilities just in dealing with certain things to get them back to that level of independence.

I think it was maybe in the fall of that year when Hayley was in 2nd grade and Gage was in kindergarten that then he recovered to the point where he could move to Beckett Meadows. I’d call it an assisted living facility, but it was most definitely not a nursing home. There’s a nursing home component to it, but… Feels a little bit like a hospital because it's full of sounds and smells and things that you might associate with a hospital. But on the whole, it felt more like apartments, but specifically designed to the purpose that they're supposed to serve. They took good care to make it a very livable place at this particular place. There was a central courtyard where all of those rooms that are along those corridors either had a window to the exterior of the property, looked out over the parking lot and grounds to the outside, or they looked back in on the central courtyard. And that interior courtyard was a really well-kept, beautiful place. There were always fresh flowers planted there in pots. There was a gazebo there where somebody could go and sit in a protected space to the interior building, but open to the sky and fresh air and all of that. 

We didn't always go as, entirely as, a family necessarily, but Meg would at least see Ed at least once a week. But it was more often than that most of the time, and surprisingly the kids wanted to go most of the time. And so there was an Activities Director there that would arrange a Valentine's Day concert and 4th of July concert. Those sort of things were happening in the evenings and we were regulars at, because the kids loved it so much and it also made, it was an interesting break in routine, or whatever.
I think they both were a very bright light in his life, in the last stages of his life where there wasn't a lot going on for him except for, for Meg and his daughters and his grandkids came to see him. But I think they also were very much so for a lot of people that we just got to know, got to meet there. It was, it got to the point where any time we brought our kids, there were a seeming dozen or more people who would all be clearly happy to see them, talk to them about what was going on with them at school and whatever. And then most to the point I guess, this community of older men that were living in this facility that would, that had a history in baseball that exactly dovetailed with Gage’s newly developing passion and love for baseball.

One of the big mysteries about Gage is where his just absolute devoted love and passion for that sport came from. We weren’t a baseball family by any means, and most players now that I encounter now, Gage has known thousands of baseball players at this point in his life or played against that many at least, there's always a dad that played baseball or uncle at a high level in college or double A ball or something, or at least it was father and son grew up going to games together. And there’s just none of that in our history or his history or even in his mother's family history to explain why as a 5 year old, he was already asking his Mom, “Can I play tee ball? When can I start playing tee ball?” It’s like it was something that he always knew was in his future and at the center of everything he did for the rest of his life. We had no idea at the time how central to our whole family's life baseball was going to become and how many weekends we were going to be driving all over the state of Texas and sometimes all over the country just to take this kid places to give him the opportunity to play the game for the thousandth time or two thousandth time.

When he started playing tee ball, we thought we were like any other family. We were just trying different things out with their kid. He was taking kung fu. He’d taken a few ballet classes. But through all of the things that he was kind of trying out at the time, he was like, “Baseball is my thing.” Or tee ball at the time at least. And when he started asking us about it, he was too young to play most places. Meg, always faced with a challenge like that, just finds an answer. And so she started checking around every little league in town that offered tee ball and found out what age they would take him, and finally she got in contact with somebody who was actually at the little league that was appropriate for our neighborhood, said, “Well, we don't take kids ‘til 6, but bring him in and let's see if he has the basic aptitude and just fundamental physical build and attention span to be able to participate with the older kids.” And so she went and did that, and he started playing tee ball at 5 with 6 year olds.

It's a silly enterprise to begin with, you know? It’s putting a bunch of kids out on a baseball field, mostly more for the entertainment of the parents than the actual kids, because half of them don’t want to be there, the second half want to be there, but they don't have the attention span last beyond the first general moments of the game and then it's all just after that about the coaches and the parents trying to corral and continue to make the game happen. And it so it becomes this sort of bizarre, scripted enterprise where it’s like, “OK, we can get from action to cut if we can just corral these kids and keep them focused long enough to...”

The thing is, at the time, I didn't recognize that Gage didn't fit that paradigm exactly. Every tee ball game that he played in, took him from beginning to end of the game. And he's kind of a math kid, because from the very beginning, the thing that for him that the game was all about was like that there's just a logic to it, and the beauty that he appreciates, and that it's a numbers game and it's a mental game and everything. And even from that age of 5, he was totally invested in the idea that it was one, two, three strikes, you're out, one, two, three outs the inning changes, and then the seven innings, and it's all this thing that builds up, and it's always what he’s been interested about.

And so that stage of his life, when I look back and remember it, was just, it was so electric and intense because there was just so much to learn. Just to be entering the game, and for me to be entering it too, because not coming from a baseball family, really, the way that the whole first years of him playing the sport, for me was learning everything that he was learning. There is so much more to it than I ever knew at the time. Like I had no idea at that time how much Gage and I both had out there ahead of us to learn together, just about this thing that was going to become the absolute central passion in his life.

He left little league very early. I'm just not sure exactly how it happened. We were totally conventional tee ball parents and little league parents and had no background whatsoever or any knowledge about select baseball and club baseball, which is apparently something that everybody in Texas or any baseball state knows about, but we didn't know about at the time. Somehow Gage found out about it, that there was this other stream for playing baseball that was much more serious and there were professional coaches and professional coaches who played at the collegiate or professional level teaching kids to play baseball in essentially academies. He found out about that, and he realized that they were approaching the game the way he wanted to approach the game. He didn't want to play with a bunch of kids who half cared about it. He wanted to play with a bunch of kids that were serious. And so somehow, I still to this day don't know where it came from, but he learned about tryouts for a club baseball program that wasn't even in our area. He found out about tryouts for an 8U coach pitch team and convinced his, convinced me pretty easily I guess, but then convinced his mother somehow, which is still astonishing to me how he pulled that off as a 7 year old to go to those tryouts. And we didn't understand at the time, even the age rankings. I didn’t have any idea at the time that when I took, I think he was like barely 7 when he went and participated in these tryouts, that I was bringing probably the youngest kid they’d ever seen to their tryouts. And so I just sent him out there and didn't realize, I had no idea that I was sending him out to actually try out with a bunch of 9 year olds. And so ultimately, Gage did, went through that tryout process, was selected to play on this competitive 8U team, convinced his mom with an earnestness that I think is beyond most 8 year olds I’ve ever known, that it was important to him and important enough for us to support him in it and at least consider it. 

And then for Gage, that was, absolutely he took to it right away, loved it, but it was being dropped out of the frying pan into the fire. So he went from that little league, to being coached by a coach who was a semi-pro baseball player in New Jersey. So it was like, New Jersey coach, serious, competitive baseball and Gage just dropped right into the middle of that. And just immediately committed to it and committed to doing the absolute best he can from the beginning.

And so then, suddenly in that period of life, like every minute with him was, “Can we practice? Can we throw? Dad, can we play catch? Dad, can we play catch?” And we spent like all this time, like if we went to the mall, he wouldn't want to go into the mall. He would try right away to convince me that Meg and Hayley should go in and take care of whatever business we had to take care of and that he and I should play catch in the parking lot. Because he's just learning to handle a glove and throw a ball and throw it well. Already at that age, they're telling him, “No, not rainbows. We want you to throw it on a rope.” And so here's this 7 year old trying to learn all that to fit in and be competitive with these other boys who had been doing exactly that since they were, probably the moment they were able to walk, their dads were teaching them how to throw a ball on a rope, you know? 

It's interesting because Meg, has, when Hayley was young, Meg started a practice of writing letters to the kids that she keeps in books. Her ability to see the future and see the value that certain things will have in the future and kind of anticipating that present is remarkable. And you know, she's a very much “stop and smell the roses” kind of person. I'm always like, “Let's keep moving. There's a schedule. There's a goal. Let's go.” And she's like, “Well let's stop for 2 seconds and look at this tree.” And so in that sort of wisdom that she has, she started writing letters to the kids from, I think, Hayley maybe at the age of four. So for Gage, that's an even younger age. And in Gage’s book, she has the first, his first mention of baseball sort of captured in a letter that she wrote to him and she even wrote at the time that she didn't really know where it was coming from and that it was just his, it’s just completely internal and from his own place.  Tied up into it is the two things that have, have seemingly always been present for Gage and are still totally present in his life now as a 17 year old are his just love and what he calls respect for the game of baseball. And then his, secondly, his love and respect and just comfort, like remarkable comfort level with senior citizens or the elderly, just older folks in general from the, from this same age.

We visited all of their grandparents, and so he had a relationship with all of his grandparents. And both of our kids have always had a very deep love for their grandparents. Gage has just always had a sort of unexplainable different connection with grandparents, though. But not just grandparents. Also the friends of grandparents. We would often go to spend a weekend with Meg’s mom and stepdad at the, we just always refer to it as the lake, and it’s a community where it was a lot of like-minded older people who were spending whatever time they could there, fishing, boating, that kind of thing. And there’d be a ton of kids and grandkids, cousins, you know, all of that. There would always be tons of children around to play with, and Gage was always, always, always more interested in being with the grandparents, the older people. Whether it was playing cards or frying fish or fishing itself, it was just, he was always more interested in being with the older folks than kids his own age.

And I think that that's, I mean that's just the way that he lives his life now. That's even more true now than it ever was. But it's always been there. And it’s just a comfort in conversation. It's funny, I remember times just looking back on him just sitting in a lawn chair next to Grandpa, or his Papa Ed, or his Papa Jack, and especially Papa Jack and one of his friends, sitting in a chair between them, and just looking at him and going, you know, he looks, it just looks the same. That looks like three old guys there, sitting there talking about their childhoods fishing where one of them is actually six years old. There's been many instances in my life where you could look at Gage sitting with a couple of old guys like that and just think that's an old man that got put in a young man's body.

So he had, I think that that may partly play a role in these relationships that he developed with seniors at these facilities is, it was a place that he could go where he got a lot of positive feedback for the stuff that he was interested in and wanted to talk about. And guys wanted to talk to him about stuff that he was interested in.

And he just had this group of guys who wanted to know how he was doing, and interested in what he was learning as he got past tee ball into the coach pitch and then eventually started playing club baseball, they’d want to know where he was playing and always had stories to tell him about Shoeless Joe and I mean, players that played so long ago that Gage really should have no interest in them. And most young players still like, you know, even the high school players that he plays with now, I would bet that half of them had no idea who Shoeless Joe Jackson was or you know, they might know the big names, but they wouldn't know what... But Gage can tell you Babe Ruth's shoe size. And the reason that he can tell you that is that when he was 6 years old, he had a conversation with one of his Papa Ed’s neighbors who told him, “Hey, you know the remarkable thing about Babe Ruth? He had tiny feet.” And that's something that Gage has remembered his entire life since and has become something that it's somehow part of who he’s become. And it’s something he can tell you right now. So he can tell you things about the game and the history of the game that he has no business really knowing. I think all of that goes back to that time in his life and those old guys that he used to sit and chat with at Beckett Meadows.

And I can, it's another one of just the beautiful memories I have of Beckett Meadows that there was one of those times where I think Meg had gone up to get her dad and prep him to bring him down. And I happened to look over at the end of the porte cochère, the entrance to this place where they always kept rows of rocking chairs on the other side where you’d see residents sitting sometimes. And I think it was new that year too, they’d also got a dog for the residents. So there was this yellow golden retriever, old, slow-moving dog that lived at the place But that dog was often sitting at the rocking chairs just looking for anybody to pet him for a minute. I mean, he just lived for that. It’s like going back to him with Papa Jack at the lake. I looked over and he's sitting in a middle rocking chair between two other old guys in rocking chairs on either side of him, just rocking with the same cadence and petting this old dog. And I walked over, and sure as shit, the 3 of them were sitting there in their rocking chairs just talking about baseball.

But you know, so Gage was an extremely active kid that required a ton of space, loved going to this place, was always energized when we went there. His sister, the same thing: always happy to go visit, liked the place, but the difference between the two of them is that she had a personality that allows her to sit down in a small space and carry on conversations. And she could do that. Gage, you had like maybe 10 minutes of that with him. And then he was just, as he always did most places, he was sprawled out on the floor and like flopping and kicking things over. He's just always been a boy that required a good amount of clear space to be in or something was going to get knocked over or broken. And as parents at the time for Meg and I, it was like almost always a constant stress in our lives. By the time we get to Beckett Meadows and he's starting to play baseball and all of all of that is kind of going on around it, that's just a little bit more of a window into what it was like to try to manage him at the time.

And so the way that that segues into Beckett Meadows and Ed was that the place to be able to do that was in that courtyard that I described, this sort of carefully landscaped, delicate, full of beautiful flowers and flower pots and elderly people sitting, watching in the gazebo. And Gage unable to sit beyond the first 15 minutes in Ed’s room while Meg took care of just like regular business. And so it was just always, “Hey, can we go throw? Can we go throw? Can we go throw?” And so that became a part of the routine there was, visit Papa Ed, throw a little, visit a little more, throw a little, visit a little bit more. But the only place that we had to really go, because the parking lot  wasn't conducive. And so we just, we needed a way to be close but for him to blow off some steam and then go back to the sitting and visiting and then go exercise, and then go back to sitting and visiting.

And so what I tried for, I don't know, 3 weeks or a month or whatever, was to go into that courtyard and throw with him. And in the beginning when he wasn't, when he couldn't throw that hard, it was like, even if a ball was a little bit errant, it wasn't going to cause too much damage. But then even in the course of the first few weeks, he was learning and developing so fast it, right way, “OK, now this kid’s throwing harder, and if he does go wild or something, it's going through a window, or it’s breaking a flower pot or something.” And it became such a stressful thing for me because, and because  it’s also a very quiet environment too. So you don't want to be, like I’m trying to contain this kid but also allow him to spend time with his grandpa, but also not be disturbing to residents who might be sleeping or whatever. It just, it became a very stressful thing for me to play catch with him in this courtyard to the point where it was just like, what started out as fun wasn't fun anymore because I would just spend the whole time every time he threw the ball going, “Man, there’s, what are we going to break, or is anybody upset?” You know, like every minute waiting for somebody in administration to say, “Hey, you can't freaking do that here. It’s a confined space.”

And so somewhere along the way, and honestly I have no idea of where the, what put this thought in my head other than on top of all the rest of it, Gage has always been very imaginative kid. He’d play a lot of, especially when he was a toddler, he’d play a lot of imagination games, having to imagine whatever. And so I knew he was perfectly capable of role-playing and imagination games, and I think that I had read something where it was like athletes talking about the power of visualization in the sports that they play. And it's always fascinated me because there's certain athletes that will, who write a lot about that like mental practice is almost effective as actual physical practice. Which is like a fascinating idea, right? And I think that I may have read something about that at the time, and I thought, you know, well if we could just like visualize this, if we could imaginary practice playing catch, maybe he's still getting something out of it and then I don't have to worry about the damn ball and all of then stress, and then we'll go to the park later, and we'll throw a real ball, but at least maybe while we're here at Beckett Meadows, we could just imagine playing catch. And thinking that there was no way he was going to buy it, a kid that's like so interested in throwing a real ball, I figured he'd just blow me off. But I suggested it one time, explained to him why, you know I was concerned about breaking a window or something, and he totally bought it. It was just like, “Oh, sure.” And so we started. I just put the ball off to the side, and we started playing catch with an imaginary ball. And I mean, it sounds so silly, but it actually works. It makes me think now more about the idea of the visualization to train in sports, because once you stop, and if you take it seriously and you stop, and you imagine like a real timing and a real, you're going through the real motion and you’re not just, it's just, it's not that much different I guess because your brain can make it up.

Real glove. Everything but the ball. He had a coach that said, “If you set,” I mean said this, even to 7 year olds that, “You're not going to set a foot on my ballfield unless you're wearing a ballcap. You're not a ballplayer if you're not wearing a baseball cap,” was one of the many tenets that his first coach had, and man, Gage took that serious as a heart attack. Still does. I don't think you will ever see him throwing a baseball without a baseball cap on. And so, both of us in baseball caps, gloves. Sometimes, if he'd had a practice or a game or something, he’d be in his full-blown uniform out there playing catch with no ball. But it was surprising to me how convincing an experience it was even for me because even like when you're playing imaginary catch, you'd even snap your glove closed on the ball when you imagine that it came into, because you don't want the imaginary ball to fall out of your real glove, so you've got to close on it.

And so that is like sort of, that's the innocent beginning of it was just me trying to manage my young son in this field, not have something disastrous happen, not cause something embarrassing for my wife, not get ourselves banned from this facility. You know, all this stuff in my mind, we just started playing imaginary catch. And then that's where for me, the, you know I may get choked up going forward from here, because that's, following this point in the story is when this grows into what for me is still one of the most beautiful experiences, beautiful memories, of my entire adult life, I think that maybe this is a story that's more transformative for me than Gage, because I think it was just such a natural part of his whole life. But I do think what happens after this, with imaginary catch, changed me maybe in a way that I don’t even have an understanding of now. Like I can’t say how it changed me, but it’s such a present memory in my mind that I know that it had as much affect on me as any of the other major events in my life.

So, we got in the habit of playing imaginary catch, and I think that there were, probably happened 1 or 2 weekends where there happened to be some residents sitting in the courtyard just enjoying some sunshine while we're playing it. And there’s 2 men that I, I can’t name them. I dont’ think we knew them. But there was a couple of guys that took an interest, enough so that I started to notice that when we started to play imaginary catch, they would turn up. And so then, it was never anything that we thought of. There was no plan to it. There was just particular sunny Saturday where we were out there doing that, and these guys came out where they could look on while we were playing imaginary catch, and then Gage made a pretend throw to me, and this was the first time it happened. One of the old guys just out of the blue all of a sudden said, “Whoa! Boy, he really hummed that one in there!” And so suddenly somebody else was seeing the invisible ball, somebody had seen it. So then he responded to that and started imaginary throwing the ball harder. And so then I imaginary started catching the ball as if it were thrown harder. So now I'm like, “Oh whoa, jeez, that one stung!” That kind of thing. Which of course feeds it even more with a 7 year old. And so then it just started growing from there and was just amazing. Other people would begin to participate, and it went from being a game of catch to a full-blown game. I'm not sure how it happened, but it was like we set up in a catcher and a pitcher position, and Gage would then be pitching to an invisible batter, and the residents would be the one that determined what happened with a particular pitch. I’d set up to catch for Gage, he’d get up there and he’d fake pitch, and it'd be like, “Oh, that was just outside!” And we would take those cues, and different of the residents would say different things. Like it just, it was just this amazing, unplanned, organic thing. And then, of course, it caught Hayley's interest. She wanted to participate. So she would come out and join us, and then we'd have a batter too. And then once you have like a real batter, not imaginary batter. It got so wild. It was so fun, and so… And so pure and beautiful.

And it just, that is what now what I'm talking about when I say, “Yeah, well, when Gage was little, he used to play invisible baseball.” My 7 year old son pitching an invisible ball to my 9 year old daughter, and these old guys who had loved the game and understood it well enough that they would call out in sort of an old fashioned play-by-play like you were listening to an old game on the radio. “Oh, she hit that one deep!”  And Hayley would run the bases, and as she was running the bases, rounding second, somebody would call out, “Oh! Held up on a triple!” And then she would know to stop at third base. And then, we put in an imaginary runner for her at third, and she'd go back and hit again, and her brother would pitch.

And that, I don't know how long that lasted. I think the end of it was just sort of as organic as its beginning. I don't know if a couple of the key spectators just got to a point in that stage of their life where they just couldn’t come out anymore, and that took some of the magic out of it, or if it just got routine enough for everybody that that took some out of magic out of it. There was no definitive end to it. There was no day where it was like, “OK, no more invisible baseball.” It just sort of, like most things in life, just sort of petered out without a real moment of closure. But it’s absolutely something that obviously affected me in an emotional way. Still does. That just is absolutely one of the most magical things that I’ve experienced.

I don't share this story often, and I’ve never, I don't think I've ever shared it in this much depth, but from time to time, where, when I talk about it just anecdotally, usually it’s to make the argument against accepting the perception that these are just depressing, stress-filled, dark places. Usually if I'm bringing this story out for any reason it’s to convince somebody that even though when you walk into an assisted living facility like that or even a rehab facility, although it's is a little more difficult to find the beauty in those places, it’s still there. That's what I came to know from that experience is that you got to get over the hump. You got to get over your discomfort. You got to get over your perception that what you're seeing is, because of the filter you're running through it, that it's automatically depressing. Look past all that. Because it would've been very easy, a very easy mistake for us to make based on the first days of those visits to say, “This is going to be hard on our kids.” Right? And I think that probably a lot of parents do that. It’s a very natural parenting instinct to say, “I need to protect my kids from seeing older folks in pain, seeing some of the indignities that happen in those kind of places.” It would be a very natural thing to say, “I need to shield my kids from this.” But that was one where we did sit down and have a conversation with one another about, “Should we or should we not involve our kids in this experience that we know that we are going to have to go through? Do we involve them or not?”  And we decided, “Yes, we do.” And that's probably the best parenting decision we’ve ever made, because there is vibrant, real life still going on there that can be participated in. I've had this conversation a number of times with Mom and Dad too, because now that they've moved here, they're often saying, “We just don't want to be a burden.” But because of that experience and because of invisible baseball and so many other wonderful things that happened to us in that stage of our kids’ lives, I know, and I tell her all the time, that it's, you’re not a burden at all. You're having a difficult time appreciating how much value you still bring to all of our lives. And you know, it’s understandable. I understand her point of view because I think that I would feel the same way in her shoes. But the thing that I know is that all of these people that we've met and kind of struggled through that last stage of human life along with have brought so much more value to our lives and to our kids’ lives than any effort it took to participate in the last stages of their lives, that I hope that our own parents can begin to be convinced of that. I believe that Mom and Dad are starting to hear it, but I also hope that anybody who's proudly made it beyond the age of 70 in our lives or in anybody's lives know that it's just the beginning, and every day they wake up and spend time with their grandkids is valuable and appreciated. I've got 2 kids that feel it 10 times beyond even what I feel it. So there it is. “Invisible Baseball.”