Of course I am bookish, proudly, and I’ll be even more bookish when I finish training our dogs, Leo and Sonya Tolstoy, to be competent babysitters. But I’m also a man of action, and the injustice of being presumed merely bookish, simply because I teach English and write, is so maddening that it makes me want to run straight to the library.
We’ve encouraged Starbuck to try different sports since he was three, giving him opportunities I didn't have, and he’s just started his second season of T-Ball. Some of the dads help out. One, a friend, went to college on a baseball scholarship. Another, when he isn’t teaching the kids something, stands throwing the ball 50 feet in the air and catching it in the glove behind his back without looking. There are four or five of these guys, plus the coach, and they all fire balls at each other from outfield to home to third base, raising small explosions of dust from their well-worn mitts.
Yesterday I sat with the moms because I was hurting. Earlier that day I’d rented a chainsaw and taken down a tree on our property, straining things already bent back in a game of Here Chum De Bad Guys with two-year old Wolfie. Truth is, I could barely walk, so I sat on the sideline, reeking of two-cycle smoke and chain oil, covered in sawdust, ruined, wrecked. I kept thinking, “My first heart attack is coming…now…no, now…and wait for it…here it is…NOW.” In my mind, all this was excuse enough not to get out there, but the others didn’t know any of that, and their odd looks made me glower at being judged. Stupid boring practice: It went on forever, then past forever because the dads were having so much fun they let the kids bat another round. Stupid having fun.
I was raised by women. They weren’t women who enjoyed a good Friday-night football game. My mom was very athletic, but her choice of sports reflected her class notions, love of nature, and need for solitude. As an undergrad at a private college she fenced and played tennis; later she developed some vaguely continental or British idea that a brisk hike up and down hills on a cold rainy day built character. She and I spent a lot of time outdoors, joined the Sierra Club, and I’m pretty sure we went on more than one volksmarch . She hated team sports like baseball and football, and associated them with machismo, anti-intellectualism, and aggression—even the domestic violence she’d experienced.
More than anything, I think she pitied the male of the species for keeping himself in thrall to his various balls. When I was old enough for Little League she told me she’d come to every game if I wanted to play, but I saw right through her. She was happy when I chose instead to spend time hiking, camping, and riding quarter horses on trails through the strip mines, and I was happier still climbing high up tall trees to watch the neighbor woman sunbathe. I had the kind of vanishing Huck Finn boyhood where I escaped members of the rival gang by knowing to smash backward into a bush honeysuckle in the forest, stop the cracking of wicker, and calm my breath as the bad guys searched in vain.
I can canoe, kayak, rappel, hump long distances with heavy things strapped to my back, read a map and compass, and identify plants and animals. I used to run and play tennis and guerilla soccer. I build things with dangerous power tools, know demolitions and weapons. I was an Army frogman, for god’s sake. I can even swaddle the hell out of an infant. Haven’t I proved my manhood?
Nope. I’m a shameful freak, positively un-American. It doesn’t matter that some dads hate water and sourly watch me porpoising with the kids at birthday parties at the aquatic center. I can’t tell you how many people are on any sort of team, from baseball to hockey. Do they even play hockey in teams, or is it all like the Hanson Brothers  in the movie Slap Shot? I don’t own a glove, bat, stick, helmet, pads, cup, or a single item of clothing with a sports logo.
It must be marvelous to sit with your sons on a summer afternoon in the confines of Wrigley, dogs and Cokes in your hands, brimming with stats about your home team, the St. Louis Browns , and telling the boys what they’ll see in the tenth quarter of the match with the Brooklyn Eckfords . I know how important all this is to American manhood, because I always weep uncontrollably when Kevin Costner’s ghost-dad comes out of the corn to play catch with his middle-aged son in Field of Dreams.
I want to be part of the pack, if only so my sons don’t remember me as the weird, bullet-headed dad sitting alone in a half-sized lawn chair at their games. I want to learn. At the end of the scrimmage yesterday I listened with interest as the T-ball coach explained to the children the most basic rules of play: “This is second base. You run to it from first base.” I waved my hand eagerly and called, “Oo, coach! Then you run to third?” I could tell by how the other dads looked at me that I was in. All I need to do by Tuesday is learn how to catch.