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Original Issue

Like Son, like Father

A dad, jaded by access to baseball's innermost sanctums, views the sport anew, thanks to his young boy

Bo knows baseball. No, not Bo Jackson. Nor Bo Schembechler, Diaz or Belinsky. This Bo is age four, and his full name is Robert William Wulf. We did not nickname him after any of the other baseball Bos.

But there is baseball in his blood. One night last summer, Mom and Dad and Bo were sitting on the couch watching a game on TV, and we saw Mike Greenwell of the Red Sox flail at a pitch for strike 3. Without warning, Bo piped up, "He didn't step into the ball." Was Bo just repeating a rudimentary tip from a recent batting lesson? No, a replay revealed that he was, in fact, correct. Greenwell had been caught flat-footed. Out of the mouths of babes....

And Bo practices what he preaches. With younger brother John as a sort of accidental backstop, Dad will softly toss tennis ball after tennis ball to Bo. He will step into each one, and with a swing I wish I had, he will invariably hit it on a line with his 23½-inch, 8-ounce Fisher-Price model bat. When up at bat, he will often assume the identity of a favorite player or, sometimes, a player of his own invention. "Now up," he will say, "Jim Potato." Then, like a seasoned broadcaster, he will add a biographical note: "Jim likes to drink water."

Oh, he does have a tendency to miss the pitch up and away, but from a purely objective standpoint, I would have to say he is a pretty good little (3'6") hitter.

I certainly don't want to be thought of as a father who's pushing baseball on his son. But because of my job, writing about baseball, and Mom's undying allegiance to the Bosox—that's not how he got his name, either—the boy has acquired a knack for the game. When Bo was only 1¼, he could run around the bases in his room, yelling, "Don Mattingly!" as he crossed first, "Marty Barrett!" as he crossed second, "Wade Boggs!" around third and "Gary Carter!" sliding into home.

Bo has a dozen items of Red Sox clothing, he has spent time chatting with members of the Kansas City Royals bullpen during a spring training game, and he is intrigued by the concept of a team of Cleveland Indians. But Bo's "favoritest" team is the Pittsburgh Pirates. That comes more from his infatuation with Peter Pan than anything else, though he has noticed that both of Bobby Bonilla's names begin with his own. So when the Pirates come to New York, we make it a point to see 1) them play and 2) how much a four-year-old can eat. "I'm so exciting!" he will say as we walk into Shea, but by the third inning and the fifth vendor, he is ready to go home. According to both my own and baseball's rules, Bo is credited with a victory if he can last five innings.

The games last summer, however foreshortened, were as much a treat for me as they were for Bo, and just as new. In the past 10 years, I have attended countless games. As a working writer, I was privy to batting-cage conversations. I was able to ask managers questions about strategy. I watched some of the game's greatest players and some of the game's greatest games. Yet I stayed somehow removed. I never cheered. I never booed. I never stood during the seventh inning stretch. In the name of objectivity, I lost track of what brought me to baseball in the first place. I walked through champagne-soaked clubhouses and forgot what a thrill it was, 25 years ago, to have a Yankee relief pitcher named Dooley Womack acknowledge my shouts to him from the Yankee Stadium bleachers.

Going to baseball games again as a fan brought that and other images back to me. A slide by Mickey Mantle in my first-ever big league game, Aug. 4, 1957, when the Yankees beat the Indians 5-2. The letter I once received from Arlo Brunsberg, a catcher for the Toledo Mud Hens—and, briefly, the Detroit Tigers (1 for 3 with a double)—to whom I had written.

I really don't care if Bo, or John, ever becomes a player of note. But I do want them to have their own Dooley Womack and Arlo Brunsberg. In the meantime, I'm grateful for this fresh look at a game I've been watching all along. Fathers playing catch with their sons, tossing the ball from generation to generation, is an oft-worked theme (see Field of Dreams). That game of catch is why so many sons of major leaguers end up in the majors.

What struck me last summer, a summer in which Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr. played on the same team, was not so much that I had passed the game along to my son. Rather, he had somehow given it back to me. Thanks to Bo, I'm stepping into the ball again.