The first time I saw him was at dusk on the kind of summer day that makes Southerners whisper, “I’ll be,” while fanning their necks with whatever they can get their hands on.
Needless to say, I was on my way inside when his silhouette caught my eye. I turned just in time to see him motioning to someone else while his pitcher’s glove hung at his side. He looked to be a teenager from my vantage point, but I didn’t look long enough to know for sure. I had things melting in my grocery bags and air conditioning whispering my name while the crickets started their night songs.
I closed the door, pulled the curtains until they met in the middle of the back door, and figured I would introduce myself to the boy in the common area behind my house another day. Surely there would be a cooler day when I could be friendly, right?
A few days later I was on my way to a play date and I could see him from the back again. He had his mitt and was wearing a jersey that looked more like a winter choice than mid-July clothing. I could hear him yelling into the distance at what I presumed to be the same friend, and I made a quick waving motion in their direction and got into my car in an attempt to look friendly. As I reversed out of my driveway I paused, and as I watched his arms move wildly, I wondered how in the world someone could be vertical in this heat, let alone moving.
Three hours later we pulled back into the driveway, and I squinted through the trees to make sure my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me.
He hadn’t moved.
His jersey was soaked through with sweat, his hair sopping wet as he wiped his face with the back of his mitt-free arm.
“Is that…?” I stared straight ahead, convinced I must be imagining it.
“Those boys are always playing out there, mommy.” Ellie shook her head and unbuckled herself, eyeing the door and then in a swift, deliberate motion she burst it open and made a dash for the house.
I looked in the rearview mirror at Abby.
“Honey, have you met that boy yet? Does he play on the high school team?
Abby shook her head no and raised and lowered her shoulders, fingers on the door handle.
I carefully took Charlotte out of her car seat and watched him out of the corner of my eye. All of a sudden he shouted and I jerked her awake by accident. She was just a few months old at the time and had that newborn, panicked cry as I grabbed the rest of my bags and made my way inside.
He never turned around.
I walked into the house and told Todd that the boys were playing again and that I was going to go introduce myself to them. I handed the baby over, grabbed a couple bottled waters, and went outside.
Sometime in the span of those three minutes, he had completely disappeared from view. I sat on my back steps for a few more minutes and then gave up.
After all, it was hot.
By the time August rolled into our new neighborhood, we had gotten to know some of the other kids and one day while they were swinging outside I asked the little girl who lives across the street who the boy was.
“Oh that’s Andrew.” She replied nonchalantly. “But he’s not really a boy. I mean, he’s close to his twenties I think.” She sipped her drink and tucked her flyaway hair back under her hat.
“Really? Because every time I see him he’s playing baseball with someone else and he screams loud and points all around, and I can’t tell what…”
“Oh, Ms. Angie, he isn’t playing with anyone else” She interrupted. “He’s done that for years.”
She watched my eyes squint in confusion and offered up and answer before I could ask.
“He has Down’s syndrome. He just loves to pretend, I think.” She smiled.
I closed my eyes for a moment as I tried to retrace the outlines I had seen in the evenings, and I realized that I hadn’t actually ever seen another person playing. I had presumed there was because of his screaming, but there wasn’t ever another voice.
I looked at her and nodded. They ran off to play and I put Charlotte in a little bouncer in the shade while hoping he would come back out so I could meet him. He didn’t come out that day, nor the next. In fact, almost three weeks passed until one day I was upstairs cleaning and I heard the familiar sound of a player urging his players to round the bases.
I ran outside, bare-footed on the gravel, and started to walk towards him.
I took a few steps and stopped, sensing that it wasn’t time for me to speak. Without taking my eyes off of him I lowered myself onto the little brick half-wall around our porch as he raised his hands high in the air and shouted. It was clear that the game had gone his way, and as he waved to all the fans and made a victory lap, I was mesmerized.
My sundress was sticking to my back as the gnats made a mess of my legs. I tucked them up underneath me, scraping them along the ragged brick as I craned my neck to see what was going to happen next.
It was at this point that I noticed that although he always had a mitt, I had never seen either a ball or a bat. I smiled as I realized he didn’t need them.
He had everything he needed for the perfect game.
Something to receive the imaginary ball.
The voice to thank his adoring fans.
The persistence of a seasoned ballplayer on a hot summer day.
And last, but not least, the ability to see the whole thing in a way I never could.
Because on that night, and dozens more since then, I have seen the same thing happen.
A man-boy with a leather glove and a field of fireflies believes that he is victorious.
I have never spoken to him.
In fact, I don’t even know his last name.
As many times as I have watched him play, I have yet to even see his face. My house sits behind the catcher, I suppose. There isn’t much need to turn away from the field.
I asked one of the other neighbors and she told me he doesn’t really like to be bothered when he’s playing. As much as I would love to shake his hand and tell him the joy he has brought me, I have the sense that my back porch is close enough for his comfort.
I have prayed for him many times, and asked the Lord to grant me a version of what he has, because I realize I am woefully unable to dedicate myself to anything the way he has devoted himself to the game.
How do I play it?
Well, first off, I run away from the heat.
Also, I wouldn’t dare play without a proper bat and regulation-sized baseball.
I would have real bases, real fans, and also, real prize money.
And I wonder if I would bother to play at all if nobody was watching.
Yet day after day, season after season, the same boy in the same jersey with the same dedication takes his place on the field.
Well, I suppose it’s because the win isn’t in any of that other stuff, and more than that, I’ll tell you this:
In a solid year of living here, I have yet to see him lose a game.
He cheers, he runs, he takes grandiose bows in front of an empty field while we shuffle our groceries and our children and our dreams in and out of the car, in and out of the house, in and out of, well, life.
It was a mild October afternoon when I realized I didn’t ever need to see him to love him. I had started to learn some of his motions and what they meant, and one day before the sun fell down I heard him call out into the silence.
“Bring ‘em in! Bring ‘em in! Come on! Run! RUN! RUN!!!!.” He was waving wildly and I was sitting with a book on a blanket in the backyard. I tried to peek through the slats in the fence but he moved just out of sight. I jumped to my feet and while I have no idea what possessed me, I just got so excited that I lost track of monitoring my responses. His voice hit a fevered pitch and I felt my fingers tighten around the top of the fence, waiting in eager anticipation for what would happen next.
I would swear to you that just for a brief moment, I saw what he saw.
There were runners on the bases, coaches in a frenzy, and a crowd on the edge of their seats.
The ball dropped, the men ran, and the boy made me believe.
He threw his glove on the ground and started jumping up and down and clapping, and before I knew it, I let out a holler like I had just won the lottery. I knocked over my diet coke, and covered my mouth out of fear that I would scare him.
In fact, he never knew I was there.
And you know what?
I made a promise to myself that I have been intentional about remembering when the days get long and the heat is oppressive.
It doesn’t matter who is watching.
It doesn’t matter what you think you can bring to the game.
What God needs from you is the sweat rolling down your neck and a heart that believes He can use you.
Every time the air starts to smell like honeysuckle and the fireflies dance through the trees, I peek out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the boy who taught me how to love the game.
I pray this is the summer that you see the glory of God through the lens of a boy who plays like he can’t lose.
Soak every bit of it up, even if it means your ice cream melts.
Because before you know it, the leaves will be falling and it will be too late. You have exactly what you need right now, and more than that, you have a God who stands perched while waiting to round you home.
Take your place, friends.
It’s time to play ball.