My son Zack quit baseball last month. He played second base for his high school team. For 14 years, since he was four, baseball was the thing he loved more than anything else. He told me it just wasn't fun anymore. Here's what he told his coach: "I loved playing baseball until I met you. Each year you taught me to enjoy it less. And if I continue to play for you, I risk not even liking the game at all."
Not playing baseball is a loss for Zack. I catch him lying on his bed listening to music with his mitt on. When he was 10 and got his first really good mitt, he never took it off. But this is different. He holds the mitt like an artifact, something left behind by death. He looks at it the way he once looked at a small piece of wood I showed him when he was 7 or 8. I explained that it was part of the wing of an airplane his great-grandfather flew into combat in World War I. When the war was over, my grandfather removed the piece from the plane and carved my grandmother's name into it. That wing holds a part of Zack's history; it's a piece of who he is. The mitt is, too.
For a lot of kids, especially boys, playing a game is the first thing that makes them feel alive. Football taught me that I could work at something and master it. Something that mattered in a way that school didn't. Football was the first thing I cared about enough to suffer for. Every day in the summer before I entered high school, I would throw 150 passes through a tire my father rigged in the entrance of the garage for me.
If football was my first love, baseball was Zack's. But first love is fickle. By the time I was 17, in the summer before my senior year of high school, I had grown tired of playing football. I was the starting quarterback, but I wanted to quit. There was a problem, though. I'd have to tell my father, the man who missed work to come to every game, who caught a million of my passes, who believed in me when the coach didn't. On the walls of our locker room, the axioms athletes live by were scrawled like graffiti. One of them haunted me as I figured out how to tell my father: "A quitter never wins and a winner never quits." While my father wasn't a macho jock type, I believed he'd be disappointed in me, that he'd remind me I was letting my teammates down.
When I told him, he smiled and said, "I'm proud of you. You've learned something it took me 40 years to learn, something most people never learn -- to follow your heart, not other people's expectations."
Thirty years later, I still get more satisfaction out of my father's words than I do out of anything I ever did on the field. Zack knows this story. And so I know he wasn't worried about telling me he was going to quit. Which leaves him free to deal with his own loss and to look for his next love. Whatever that is, I hope he brings to it the passion and joy he brought to fielding a baseball.
The author, a copywriter for a Cleveland advertising agency, has contributed essays to a number of daily newspapers.