The Draw of the Diamond

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006

Down along the dugouts, the players are warming up. The sergeant first class begins singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." It's not yet 1 o'clock, and a few fireworks shoot into the sky.

Up in Section 507, a few rows down from the top of the rafters, Owen, Ethan and Noah Schaefer are standing with their dad, Robbie, each with his right hand over his chest. As the national anthem draws to a close, the boys and their father are all smiles.

The youngest son, Owen, 7, his eyes twinkling, reaches to grab a piece of blue cotton candy. "That's good stuff, huh?" his dad asks. "Yeah," Owen responds, letting out a grin that exposes blue-tinted teeth.

Decked out in their Nationals finest, with hot dogs, sausages and bottled water in tow, the Schaefers were ready to watch some baseball. A few minutes into the first inning, shortstop Derek Jeter took to the field for the Yankees. Father and sons stood to boo, joining scores of Nationals fans. "I do not like him," Owen, a Red Sox fan, declared, seeming to speak on behalf of the family.

"Try asking him about Johnny Damon," his father suggested with a laugh, referring to the former Red Sox outfielder who now plays for the Yankees.

Such scenes played out across RFK Stadium yesterday, as families celebrated Father's Day under the hot and heavy sun for the final game in the Washington Nationals' three-day series against the New York Yankees.

There were the three Schaefer boys from Vienna, who (with the help of Mom) gave their dad tickets as a Father's Day gift.

There was Steve Bielamowicz and son Matthew, who came to the game after the 10-year-old's morning tryout for a Little League baseball team near their home in McLean.

And there was William Shephard, his son-in-law Chris Porter and 10-month-old grandson, Ellis. They drove from Richmond with other family members for what was Ellis and his grandfather's first time together at a Major League Baseball game.

Baseball, it seems, is a bridge between generations, the uniting language between children and fathers, who sometimes find it easier to say "I love you" if there's a ball and a glove involved.

It might be partly myth or nostalgia or desire for the idealized childhood of old movies, but baseball is as much a fixture of Americana as apple pie. A game of catch has a steady rhythm: It's casual, organic.

It's something to do on a warm afternoon, to talk about over breakfast and to share always, without any of the tensions between fathers and sons getting in the way.

In his essay "Fathers Playing Catch With Sons," Donald Hall, the newly named poet laureate, describes his boyhood memories of listening to Brooklyn Dodgers games on the radio with his dad while cruising along the shores of Long Island in the family's Studebaker.

"Baseball is the generations," he writes, "looping backward forever with a million apparitions of sticks and balls, cricket and rounders. . . . Baseball is fathers and sons playing catch, lazy and murderous, wild and controlled, the profound archaic song of birth, growth, age and death.

"This diamond encloses what we are."

The same could be said for Nationals pitcher John Patterson. He spent his childhood in Orange, Tex., playing ball with his father, Doug Patterson, himself a minor league player until an injury kept him from reaching the majors.

"When we really needed to communicate or whatever, we always ended up at the baseball field. There's a real bond there," Doug Patterson said as he warmed up his pitch yesterday morning at RFK. In a few hours he would be one of nine fathers of Nationals players to throw the opening pitch to his son. It would be his first time on a major league field.

A few feet away, pitcher Chad Cordero played catch with his father, Edward Cordero. Chad grew up in Chino, Calif., where his father worked night shifts as a Wonder Bread truck driver to have his afternoons free to go with his son to baseball practice.

"Once he learned how to walk, he started swinging a bat," Edward Cordero said.

Baseball, his son said, was "the way we bonded. We went out every Sunday to play catch. I really got to know him through baseball."

When Chad was a boy, Edward would impart life's lessons through baseball: In life, "you have the ups and the downs. It's the same thing in baseball. You'll have good games and bad games, and you've got to get up the next day."

About an hour later, fans would begin filing into the stadium. As the Schaefers breezed through the concourse and up the ramps to find their seats, they made a pit stop at a souvenir stand.

Owen got a miniature red wooden Nationals bat: $5.

Ethan, 9, and Noah, 12, both got black terry cloth sweatbands: $7.

And what about their dad, Robbie Schaefer? He got $2. "This is what's left," he joked.

Once they found their seats -- and looked out to survey the expansive view -- Schaefer reflected on what it's like to spend Father's Day at the ballpark: "There's something about sharing this with your kids. . . . It's a relaxed game. It feels like you're spending quality time together, not just for entertainment."

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