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That night we had our first game of catch, the first of many. My dad worked two jobs for as long as I could remember but he always found time to play baseball with me and before long he started teaching me how to pitch. Make no mistake, pitching is a skill you can learn, but to be good you have to have a natural gift. My dad had it and if he hadn’t hurt his arm he might have played major league ball. He told me with "all due humility" that he was the greatest pitcher he'd ever known -- until he saw me pitch. He was my dad and probably biased but he knew the gift had been passed down to me.
By my sophomore year in high school, I had become a starting pitcher on the varsity team and had already received more than 20 scholarship offers including one from Louisiana State University, my dad’s alma mater. It was fun to see how many colleges pursued me but everyone knew, when the time came, that I would accept the offer from LSU and head south to pitch for the Tigers.
Then it happened, the day that changed my life. My Kennedy assassination; my space shuttle Challenger.
It was a beautiful day in May, the kind of day that baseball movies are made about. The sun was shining, the air was crisp, and I was scheduled to start the last game of my senior season. My dad had to work that morning but he had arranged to get off early and to be at the game by first pitch. The day was also important because I was going to announce my choice of college and there were going to be local news outlets there to cover my decision.
As I got ready to head onto the field with the rest of my team, I looked down at my glove and remembered the first game of catch Dad and I had, almost eight years earlier. My glove wasn’t as worn as his but it had been re-stitched a few times and was well broken in. It was a connection with my childhood, and my dad, and my future and in many ways, it was my most important possession. I loved that glove.
As I ran out onto the field to the band playing our school fight song, I looked in the stands to see my family in their usual spot but my mom was alone. My head tilted a little to the side as my face squinched in confusion. I held my arms out as if to say “Where is dad?” but my mom just shrugged.
Most times we worry for nothing. The person who seems to be missing, overslept or ran out of gas. It’s seldom the worst, almost never. I kept telling myself that as I threw my warm-up pitches and started the game. The first inning I retired all three batters in order and once back in the dugout sent a team trainer to ask my mom where my dad was. When he came back with the message that she didn’t know and that he wasn’t answering his phone I started to worry.
At a time when I should have been concentrating on a game my mind was focused on my dad's absence. I was pitching in a anxiety-induced fog, trying to end each inning as quickly as possible so I could, once again, send the trainer for an update. To my dismay each time he would return with the same answer.
Baseball is not a timed sport. It’s one of the few games that can go on forever, but that day I wanted nothing more than for the game to end. Maybe it was that or maybe it was just being on autopilot but when I went out to pitch the ninth inning I hadn’t allowed a single runner to reach base. I was pitching a perfect game with only three outs to go. Even knowing this was my last inning I was still less concerned about the game than I was about my dad, however, eight pitches and three outs later I was being mobbed by my teammates for completing baseball's rarest feat.
For a moment I embraced the celebration and allowed myself to forget about my dad, just for a moment -- but when I regained focus and looked back to the stands my mom was no longer alone. Two police officers were with her and she was crying hysterically.
My dad had been rushing to see me pitch when a pickup truck ran a red light and plowed right into my dad’s car. He was killed instantly, as was my desire to play baseball. I packed my glove away with the bow that had adorned it the day my dad gave it to me. I was never going to pick it up again.
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