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Under the coronavirus lockdown, a father and son rediscover their love for baseball

Basketball rims and tennis nets are gone, but the diamond is still open for a game of catch

I could see his frustration growing. My son Nick’s high school basketball season ended in late February. Nothing’s been normal in his life since then. He came home from boarding school in early March, expecting to return to campus later in the month. Of course, he never went back, as the country shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. I could see the absence of his routine was eating at him.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our nation, causing widespread illnesses and death, and shutting down the economy. There’s nothing good associated with this horrible disease. That said, during this forced timeout, Nick and I rediscovered one pleasure that we’d lost over the years — the power of a father and son spending an hour or two on a baseball field, sharing a laugh and growing closer in these most uncertain of times.

Nick and I have always loved baseball. We used to practice it together three to four times a week until he turned 12. That’s when Nick, like a lot of other boys around that age, began specializing in a single sport, which in his case was hoops.

Nick (left) and Dwayne Bray (right) spending quality father-son time playing baseball again.

Dwayne Bray

Like many sports-minded young black men raised in the 1970s and early 1980s, I grew up idolizing baseball stars such as Jim Rice, Gaylord Perry and Reggie Jackson as much as Dr. J and Magic Johnson. Over the years, while my wife and I raised Nick and his two older siblings, we transformed ourselves into a basketball family. But during this pandemic, Nick and I learned that if we wanted to play sports together, baseball was the best option. While cities are removing basketball rims and tennis nets from parks, no one has closed off the local baseball fields. Like running trails, they’re still available.

Nick was born in Arlington, Texas, and when he was a baby, I started rolling balls of all kinds his way. Baseballs. Tennis balls. Basketballs. Footballs. Golf balls. Before he was 4, I took our games outside in the Texas heat. In our driveway and on the side of our home, I’d show him the art of dribbling with his off-hand, fielding ground balls, catching and throwing a spiral, running sprints and distances, as well as hitting a forehand and putting a golf ball. By age 5, I was no longer pushing him. He was pulling me, demanding to go outside and “do sports.”

Nick had two older siblings, but they were teenagers when he was born. A whole ’nother generation. I felt I needed to be even closer to him since he wasn’t growing up with a brother or sister close to his age. His siblings were off to college by the time Nick began joining sports teams at age 6, plus we’d moved to Connecticut and left the siblings in Texas to finish school. In our family, my wife dealt with all the serious stuff such as taking him to the doctor, feeding him nutritious meals and making sure he was good at school. I’ll admit it: I was lucky enough to be the “sports parent.” My contribution was coaching his sports teams and making sure he had the skills to be able to play for as long as he chose.

Once we got to Connecticut, we signed Nick up for T-ball and for a basketball league. He loved both sports and also dabbled in cross country, soccer and tennis.

Things changed when Nick got to the eighth grade. That’s when the high school coach at Kingswood Oxford School in West Hartford, Connecticut, put him on the varsity basketball team. He was about 5-foot-7, 135 pounds. I remember one game against Canterbury School, in which middle-school Nick got caught up in a switch and was matched up against Canterbury’s top varsity player, Donovan Mitchell, the future NBA star (and one-time college baseball player). Nick gave up at least eight inches and 75 pounds to Mitchell. Needless to say, Mitchell got the best of Nick and his teammates, but we were proud that Nick was playing against such high-level talent. It was at that point that Nick decided he had to give up baseball if he wanted to compete against the best players in New England. Nick, now 5-foot-11 and 170 pounds, ended up with 400 3s in high school and was a first-team All-New England player.

Before basketball took over Nick’s life, he and I used to enjoy going to the park and hitting and throwing the baseball around the yard. Our sessions would always end with me on the mound and Nick getting one final at-bat. He’d hit the ball as hard as he could and run the bases. Wherever the ball went, I’d have to run after it and then try to tag him out before he rounded home. It always seemed as if that last play ended at the plate. Most of the time he would score, but occasionally I’d run him down.

Through the years, I noticed that fewer black fathers were taking the time to teach their children the fundamentals and intricacies of baseball. In our Connecticut community, only a handful of black kids would come out for little league baseball tryouts. But a couple of dozen black kids would show up for travel basketball tryouts.

Baseball has been losing black players for decades. The numbers are down in little league, high school and college. In 1981, nearly 19% of MLB was black. Today, that number hovers around 7%. Only one black kid who grew up with Nick is playing college baseball today, while dozens are playing some level of college hoops or will be next year. Nick, who is doing a postgrad year at Suffield Academy, will be playing basketball in college, too, although we won’t know where until the end of April.

In mid-March, shortly after the NBA suspended its season, our local recreation center shut its doors. No sweat, we thought. Nick and I would go to the park so he could stay sharp and put up hundreds of 3s a day. But officials advised people not to play ball in the park and removed the rims from all hoops throughout our community.

If it weren’t for the isolated world of coronavirus that we live in, I doubt that Nick and I would have ever revived our baseball ritual. This was about dad and son and a game that we both love.

Nick suggested going to the golf range and driving some balls. But the golf ranges, like the golf courses, were closed. Next thing you know, the city was removing the nets from tennis courts. We were in full shutdown mode.

I was getting tired of watching Nick play video games and streaming movies.

Then it dawned on me. Nick and I should restart the father-son baseball sessions we had abandoned once he became a varsity basketball player. They’re part workout and part bonding. Nick liked my baseball idea. In fact, his face lit up when I mentioned it.

Our first trip back to the diamond happened the Saturday before Easter. The last time Nick and I had played baseball together, I was 48. I’m now 55. He was 12. He’s now 19. Years ago, skin-and-bones, wide-eyed Nick would jump into the passenger side of my car with his baseball glove and buckle up. Now, a more buff Nick has facial hair. I thought we were riding to the baseball field together, but he jumped into his own car and said he’d meet me at the park. They grow up so fast.

We arrived at Elizabeth Park, which is across the road from the home of Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, who has issued strict orders about social distancing and staying home. The governor could look out his window and see Nick and me pulling up to the diamond. Nick joked that he’d gotten a robocall from the governor hours earlier, updating citizens on the virus. What if the governor saw us and sent state troopers to get us? Our crime: playing baseball in public during a pandemic.

They’d also have to arrest a few others who were in the park: a few joggers and a family flying a kite.

The field wasn’t in good shape. The grass hadn’t been cut, so the infield was overgrown with crabgrass and dandelions. The sun bathed us and we smiled and stretched. It all seemed surreal, the times we were living in and the fact that dad and son were back on a baseball field for the first time in about eight years.

Once they moved to Connecticut, Nick joined T-ball and a basketball league. He loved both sports and also dabbled in cross country, soccer and tennis.

Dwayne Bray

I began by tossing Nick some balls that he could hit into the fence above the backstop. That was always how we started things, back in the day. Next, he walked through the crabgrass and out to the mound. I crouched behind the plate and caught about 25 fastballs — some high, some wide and some down the middle. Years earlier, I’d let him send 50 pitches my way, but bending down to catch 50 pitches isn’t in the cards anymore.

We moved to short toss and, once our arms were loose, we tossed the ball long. I hit him some infield grounders and he fielded most of the balls cleanly, given that he was working with uneven turf and tricky hops. Then we got to our main activity, which was dad hitting long fly balls to son, who would roam center field and shag them. We only had two baseballs and that was plenty.

“Hit it farther,” Nick yelled after my first few flies were more shallow than he wanted. “Make me run.”

As best I could, I tried to jack the ball but soon remembered the best way to hit it far was to relax and just make contact. It was all coming back to me. When I tried to hit it hard and far, I hit dribblers or missed altogether. When I relaxed and swung, I was more apt to send it soaring over Nick’s head. He couldn’t get to a few, but chased others down as if he were a Mookie Betts starter kit. After one good catch, Nick hollered, “Call the Mets!”

After about 10 minutes in the outfield, Nick sprinted in and said, “Let’s switch up. You go to the outfield and I’ll do the hitting.” After about another 10 minutes we switched back.

After about an hour, I was spent. I knew we had one more thing to do. I pitched Nick a fastball and he jacked a screamer into deep left-center. I ran as fast as I could after it. By the time I reached the ball, he’d already crossed the plate. He didn’t slow down to give me a chance. He just wanted to crush the old man. We laughed.

If it weren’t for the isolated world of coronavirus that we live in, I doubt that Nick and I would have ever revived our baseball ritual. This was about dad and son and a game that we both love.

“I had forgot how much fun baseball is,” Nick said to me as we packed up our equipment. “When I have kids, I’m going to make sure I play baseball with them.”

“And when MLB comes back, I’m going to watch more of it,” he said.

As I headed off to my car, and he to his, he had one more thing to say.

“Dad, as long as things are shut down, let’s keep doing baseball, OK?”

Three days later, we were out there again.

Dwayne Bray is a journalist at ESPN. When he’s not using his free time to play baseball with his son, he’s coaching a grassroots basketball team, the New Haven Heat North.