DALLAS – For a few days in early January, Frank Miller walked around his house with a baseball, practicing the grips of a slider, basket, and cutter. He had read a book on pitching, and now he was obsessed.
He needed to play catch, state. So his wife, Alice, more adept at social media, posted a note on Nextdoor, the neighborhood app.
“My 74 year old husband would like a partner to throw the ball with. He is a former high school and college pitcher and is looking for a catcher or someone who knows how to throw a baseball. “She volunteered for her husband’s in good shape. ‘
In a world with the tire torn off, the idea of a man in his eighties longing for a baseball buddy seemed to trigger something in humans.
“My son is interested,” a woman replied quickly.
A steady stream of messages followed.
“I can throw,” said one man.
“I would like a catch,” said another.
“What a wonderful way to bring people together and start 2021 with a positive tone,” wrote another neighbor. “This makes me smile.”
By confessing his own needs, Frank had inadvertently exploited a longing for others. Without knowing what else to do, Alice welcomed everyone: “What about 3pm on Wednesday at Cole Park near the tennis courts?”
They wondered if anyone would actually come.
Not that Frank could not bear it if they did not. He is not the shell of a man who is in pain for a life he has never had. A retired civil engineer, he plays golf and tennis, spends summers in Michigan, flies a Piper Archer, checks items from the honey-to-do list. He has a son, a daughter, a stepson and three grandchildren. It’s an enviable life.
But as Jim Bouton wrote in the classic book “Ball Four”, many people spend their lives grabbing a ball, only to realize “it was the other way around all the time.”
The game caught up with Frank Miller in the early 1960s, when he pitched for high school teams in Greenville, NY, and then for Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He can with film clarity describe the grand slam he hit in May in his freshman year – and show you the ball, which he keeps in a box marked “memorabilia.”
He has visited his enthusiasm with Alice, his third wife, who knew nothing about baseball when they met 10 years ago. “Frank introduced me to the complexity of the game,” she said, unable to sound like a hostage.
The Millers were surprised by the response to Alice’s Nextdoor post, but when they thought about it, it made sense. Between the two curses in politics (“I’ve lost friends,” Frank said) and the pandemic, people are cut off, scared and lonely.
“I think people will reconnect a little bit right now,” he said a few days before the meeting.
On Wednesday, he and Alice showed up early at Cole Park, Frank wearing a lime green mask, jeans and a Texas Rangers jersey and hood. In the black equipment bag he wore his Nokona glove (a Christmas present from 2019 that he had barely used), four new baseballs as smooth and white as eggs, two older bullets and the Hawthorne capture mitten he bought six decades ago at Montgomery Ward. Earlier in the day, he had used Gorilla Glue to close a tear in his thumb.
A local TV reporter had seen Alice post and was waiting for Millers at a park bench. Frank joked about the priorities. “Do you know they’re accusing the president right now?” he said, laughing. In Washington at the time, members of the House were talking seriously about enemies, foreign and domestic.
One by one, into the park from all directions, around 10 more arrived, many with mittens hidden under their arms. A bearded man in his 30s. Three boys from the North Dallas High School team and the staff member who had encouraged them to come. An elderly man in a T-shirt who said “ALASKA – The Great Land.” A woman in her 60s who had come just to watch.
The players swapped hell and elbow bumps, then formed two lines facing each other in the sunny space between the oak trees. The nearby gnawing of tennis balls brought with it the slow, steady rhythm of balls bouncing in mittens, like the last few popcorn kernels that exploded in the microwave.
As a 74-year-old, Frank short-circuited a bit, but still managed to deliver the ball with an impressive zipper. One of his throws jumped off the glove of an elderly man, who then hopped after the ball, threw it back to Frank on a couple of bounces and shrugged.
This was Rich Mazzarella, 73, who grew up in Astoria, Queens, worshiped the Yankees and played on a Scrabble board for youth sports leagues: CYO, PAL, YMCA. He had not thrown in 35 years, and – this is unfortunate, but facts are facts – had long ago given his baseball gloves to his grandchildren. He had to borrow Miller’s fishing tackle to play.
Mazzarella was asked why he came.
“Fountain of Youth,” he said. “The opportunity to do something I never expected to do again in my life.”
He settled down in his best catching position (a little high in the hind leg) and caught a few more spots from Frank, their total age about as old as the game itself.
Soon they took a break, their arms wavered, but the day had gained its own momentum. A few steps away, two strangers, aged 46, lobbed a ball back and forth over about the same number of feet.
Chris Barber, 26, whom his mother had asked to attend, arrived at the park at an uncertain moment in his life. He is unemployed and is searching and scratching to get to California to find the future. His casting partner, David Boldrick, is 72, happy and settled, a mechanical engineer who enjoys the slow sunset in his working life.
It is not easy to imagine another setting where these two may have met and talked, but there was easily a connection here, where the ball arch tied them together like a string.
Boldrick asked Barber about California.
“Do you have a job out there?”
“I do not have it yet.”
“What kind of job do you want?”
“I have no idea.”
Pretty soon they stopped throwing. They stood and talked. Barber offered to study chemistry.
“You can do whatever you want with it,” Boldrick said.
The players threw for an hour in perfect, spring-like sunshine. Finally, the arms were tender and the shadows extended, they circled up, wrote their names in the notebook Frank had brought, and promised to meet again soon.
As they spread out, Frank said loudly but kindly to himself, “Isn’t baseball beautiful? It really is a work of art. ”
It was time to go. The Millers had an agreement to get the coronavirus vaccine. Frank threw his throwing arm around Alice, and they set course, happy that they had put some Gorilla Glue on the universe.