It seems like not so long ago I was but a boy, young and green with eyes unmellowed, but believing I was indeed extremely wise. I was no expert at baseball, but my bedroom was adorned with photographs of baseball heroes—especially those of Pete Dillard. Pete was a famous professional player whose parents lived in our town, and he came every summer for a week with his family to visit them. It was kind of fun to see him around town, shaking hands with everybody and sometimes joining in a neighborhood game and signing autographs afterward. But I never seemed to get close enough to him to even say hello. One day when I was approaching a crowd of fans around Pete, I overheard a boy say, “Hey, Pete, how did you ever get so good at baseball?”
Pete shrugged his shoulders modestly, smiled, and said, “Lots and lots of practice.” But then he paused for a while as if he remembered something and added, “Maybe it’s because I once had a Sunday School teacher who loved me. All of us called him Chief.”
And then Pete was gone.
Most of my experiences with baseball consisted of playing games with my dad and a sprinkling of friends on hot summer evenings. When Dad didn’t have meetings or if he didn’t have to work late at the office, he usually spent some time with me. After dinner we often played catch out in our front yard until way after the street lights blinked on. I still remember his calm, deep voice as he called out to me, “Good throw, Son” or “A little higher, boy” or “Nice curve, John.”
Then other boys would come straggling over one by one and stand and watch us, and Dad would stop the game and invite them to join us. If we eventually accumulated enough people, we’d begin a game of baseball. Everybody liked my dad—almost as much as I did.
There was a boy who lived directly across the street from us, Homer Johnson. He had a mop of red curls, pale thin skin that revealed his veins clear through, and thick, thick glasses. He hardly ever came out of his house. My mother said that he had had a lot of illness. But every so often I’d see his piercing eyes watching us from an upstairs window as we played ball. I’d try not to feel those eyes, but I could not ignore them.
One day just when we had chosen up sides for a game, my team was short one player. But that didn’t matter, because I had all good players. Then suddenly Dad turned his head and said in his calm, deep voice, “Oh, hello there, Homer. Want to join us?”
I reeled around, and there was Homer standing across the street in front of his house, his hands in his pockets. He fidgeted a lot, but slowly he dragged his feet and crossed the street. As he neared, I noticed that he was thinner and smaller than he looked to be from his window … and he didn’t look very strong.
I turned toward my father. “Dad …” I tried to whisper. But he had already walked over and put an arm around Homer. Now they were both walking toward us.
“John needs one more man on his team,” Dad was saying. “You can be an outfielder for now.”
I felt my ears burn. Dad caught my eye, and I think he knew how I felt—he always did. But there was something in Dad’s look that silenced me. I picked up my ball and mitt and stomped off to my position.
The other team scored two home runs. And then it happened. Someone smacked the ball out into the field toward Homer. I saw him position his hands to catch the flying ball, and then … splaatt! His glasses flew, and he was holding his nose, with blood dripping from beneath his hands. Dad had him lie down on the grass to stop the bleeding. Then he sent him home to wash up. Fortunately his glasses hadn’t broken.
After Homer left, I said, “Dad, he’s no good as a player. He shouldn’t be on anyone’s team ’cause he’ll make it lose.”
Then in a low voice so no one else could hear, Dad said, “He’s a child of God, John. Always remember that.”
I didn’t want to make a scene in front of everybody, so I just tromped off and continued playing ball, but my ears were burning. I didn’t say anything else for the rest of the evening. I resented being preached to.
Homer didn’t return the next day or the next. But the following week he was back again, standing in front of his home, fidgeting and staring at us. As we pitched and threw and shouted on my lawn, I could not help but feel two penetrating eyes on us. Then I heard Dad’s voice inviting him to join us, and again I felt my ears turn hot. As I glanced over at my father, I saw a pleading look on his face as he gazed back at me.
That night I lay in bed, wide-eyed. I had thrown off the covers, and still my bedclothes stuck to my back. I heard a rustle. Standing in the doorway was Dad. “You still awake, Son?”
I nodded, and hoped that he could see my response in the dark. His large angular figure came toward me, his gentle eyes sparkling in the dark. I thought of Homer and looked away.
He sat beside me, and I felt a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Son …” he began softly. “Things are getting tight at the office, and I’ll have to stay late at work for a while.”
My heart fell.
“But I have one day reserved just for you,” he continued. “Pete Dillard is going to be in town in a couple of weeks, and they’ve asked him to speak at a fund-raising dinner for crippled children. I have two tickets for you and me.”
Suddenly I was smiling. “Dad!” I shouted. “You mean I get to see Pete Dillard for real! Boy, oh, boy! Wait until my friends hear about this!”
Even though I had this exciting event to look forward to from that day on, things were not the same when my friends and I got together to play ball on the front lawn. Without Dad, we often got into squabbles, and one of the fellows would go home mad. Sometimes Homer would stand at his front door, watching us. But nobody invited him to play ball. So he just stood there all the time with his piercing, piercing eyes.
At last the day of the dinner came. There was Pete in the front of the hall, shaking hands with people and looking really interested in what everyone had to say to him. I don’t remember what was served. My only thoughts were about the baseball that I set beside my plate for Pete to autograph after the dinner.
When it was time for Pete to talk, he arose confidently. He didn’t give the speech we all expected, but said only a few words. Again he mentioned Chief, the Sunday School teacher I had heard him talk about sometime ago.
“I was awkward and clumsy as a boy,” Pete said, “but it was the confidence that Chief had in me that gave me what I needed in my long struggle to become the person that I wanted to become.”
Then he sat down. People began crowding around for autographs. I picked up my ball and started up front. Suddenly I realized Dad was next to me, waiting to meet Pete too.
Finally our turn came. I held my ball up for Pete to autograph. But Pete was staring past me with a funny look on his face, arms outstretched.
“Chief!” he cried. “What are you doing here?” And he threw his arms around my dad.
“I’ve lived here for five years,” Dad replied. “I’ve tried to get hold of you every time you’ve been in town, but you’re an awfully busy man!”
On our way home in the car, many unanswered questions filled my mind. But somehow I couldn’t seem to find the right words to express them. All I could say was, “Dad, you’re great, you really are. Even Pete Dillard thinks so.”
The next evening seemed so empty without my father. I stood in front of my house, waiting for the neighborhood boys to start coming by to play ball again. Idly I tossed a ball into the air, marveling over the happenings of yesterday.
Suddenly I became aware of two piercing eyes upon me. I tried to ignore them, but they were there nonetheless. Then the scene of Pete Dillard embracing my Dad flashed through my mind, and the word Chief! seemed to ring out loud and clear. And I realized then that I yearned to be like my dad.
I found myself slowly crossing the street, walking up the steps of the house opposite mine, and knocking on the door.