He swings the yellow plastic bat in a wide arc, and he meets the white plastic ball perfectly. It sails far over the hedges, into the neighbors' pachysandra. Surprise crosses his 4-year-old face, then wonder, then triumph. "Great hit!" says the graying pitcher. "Thanks, Dad!" says the beaming batter, as he scurries around the imaginary bases.
My son and I have discovered the bond of baseball. We have always shared pretzels, corny jokes and stories about spooky old houses. Now we share foul tips, line drives and little loopers. The only question is which of us loves it more.
For most players, baseball is carefree, pick-a-blade-of-grass fun. But in the Leveys' back yard, baseball is a meeting ground. When I pitch that white ball and my son whales away at it, we are not passing time. We are communing.
We play pitch-and-hit when it's nice, but also when it's muddy. We play when it's too hot to think, but also when it's so cool that you need two sweaters. The other night, we played till 20 minutes past sunset. You couldn't even hope to see the ball any more.
We have even rewritten arithmetic on our makeshift diamond. When we say to each other, "Just one more hit," we invariably mean three more, or six.
In the past few days, as the fall chill has started to creep into the air, the younger Levey has begun to suspect that our nightly sessions soon might be called on account of snow, or general rawness. "Can we always play baseball?" he asked.
Yes, Allie Levey, we can. And as we do, we will continue to replicate the father-to-son teaching ritual that's old, and trite, and maudlin -- and compelling.
"Watch the ball! You can't hit what you don't see!"
"Don't chop down with the bat. Sweep it! Reach for the ball!"
"Keep that back foot steady. Hands together. Now step toward the pitch with that front foot! Good!"
When we started, about six months ago, Allie would miss 10 pitches for every one he hit. Now it's about half and half. His confidence is surging. So is his desire to please his coach.
"Dad," he will ask, "do you like it when I hit a good hit?" I always tell him that I do, because it makes me proud of him, but also because it shows he worked hard to learn something that's not so easy.
Every time he hears that, Allie's blue eyes glow. Every time I see that glow, I flash back to the dead-end street near my boyhood home, to a man with graying hair who didn't wait to be asked.
"A little catch before dinner?" he would say, as he walked in the door and hung his raincoat in the front hall closet. I'd rush to get the gloves while he changed out of his "downtown clothes." But we were never really playing catch. We were communing.
I would break off a curve ball. He'd declare it the greatest "hook" this side of Whitey Ford's. I'd smoke a not-so-hard one at his breastbone. He'd pretend that the mighty pitch had hurt his hand.
We'd always finish with a few pop-ups that he would rear back and throw, way up to the tops of the trees. I would circle wobbily under them as he would call out, "Keep your legs underneath yourself! Keep it in front of you!"
I haven't started Allie on pop-ups yet. At 4, he still puts his glove on the wrong hand half the time, and he has never yet caught a ball that didn't find the pocket of his glove by accident. Nor does he throw with much consistency, or much zip.
So I pitch, and he hits. Whack! "Just one more, Dad!" Slap! "Nice swing. Try again." Smack! "Do you like it when I hit a good hit, Dad?"
I admit I'm playing for the future as much as for the present. I admit that I want this little boy to remember these crisp evenings 40 years from now.
I stand there, lobbing the ball to this eager young rightie who's only 3 1/2 feet tall. But in my mind, he has gray hair and a full chest, and his adult voice, thick and deep, is urging a little boy in an oversized Orioles jersey to sweep that bat, to keep the weight on that back foot, to keep his eye on the ball, no matter what.
Yet Allie is still very much a 4-year-old underneath his major-league jacket. He proved it one night last month -- with tears.
He smacked a hard grounder off my shin. I ran over, picked it up, and ran after him as he sprinted toward first base.
"Don't tag me out, Dad!" he shrieked. "I want every hit to be a home run!"
Lecture time: I told Allie that life isn't like that. I told him that fielders will always be trying to get him out, so he had better get used to it.
He started to cry. I realized my mistake. If a 4-year-old wants a world where every hit is a home run, he should have it, especially from his Dad.
So now I scoop up Allie's hits and chase him all the way around the bases. But I never quite catch up to him, because gray hair and a deep voice will, soon enough.
We are putting the bat and ball in the closet. "Can we play baseball tomorrow?" asks my son, eagerly. "Oh, I'll think about it," I reply, coyly. He gives me a high five. I give him a hug. And we giggle the way we always do.