While passing through North Carolina, an old friend happened to stop by the house the other day. He was once a happy and modestly successful man, but as he grew older, I am afraid he became more and more bitter. There were several reasons for his bitterness that many of us could relate to: he was passed over for promotions in his engineering firm, he was growing older and felt unfulfilled, he was hit with several medical bills, and he was always bickering with his wife and the neighbors. He saw no joy in anything, and even the simplest pleasures seemed beyond his reach. During his visit, he imparted the following story.
One day his wife handed him two tickets to a Pirates baseball game, and she said, “These are the best tickets they had left. You and Jay go to the game, and you better come back happier!”
They were incredible seats, about ten rows up from first base. He called his nephew Jay and talked him into going with him. At first, Jay hesitated. His uncle, who everyone in the family called “Gloomy Gus” (behind his back), was not always a joy to be around. When Jay heard where the seats were, he figured, “Oh, why not?”
The seats were easily the best the man had ever seen. He quickly realized they were not only close to first base, but even closer to the Pirates’ dugout. He saw their faces; he heard laughter and conversations and the sounds of wooden bats clanking together. Something ever so slightly awakened in the man. He played baseball when he was in high school, and he remembered how it felt to wear a uniform and to have teammates.
The game got underway, and about half of the seats were not as yet filled. A left-handed batter came to the plate. The man was taking in all of the sights and sounds when the batter hit a screaming foul ball about two sections over. The ball careened into a chair back, bounced in an aisle, lost a little speed and headed right for my friend. He instinctively put out his hand and caught it. He was surprised by how much it stung, but he held onto it for dear life. Naturally, those around him cheered and applauded.
His nephew said, “You’ve still got it, Uncle Gus!”
He was about to say something back that was going to be self-deprecating and bitter. For the first time, in a long time, he caught himself from perpetuating his own bitterness.
Instead, he looked at all of the seats and people, the chair backs, the concrete aisles and all of the angles and surfaces the ball had to go through after it left the pitcher’s hand to get to him.
He said to his nephew, “I haven’t caught a baseball in at least thirty years! Let’s get a hot dog, fries and something to drink!”
He didn’t even balk (forgive the baseball pun) at the $22.00 refreshment bill. For the rest of the game, not another foul ball came remotely close to them. From time to time he looked at the baseball and took it not just as a chance occurrence but as a sign. On the way out of the stadium, he even went to the shop and bought him and his nephew official Pirates baseball hats.
In a moment, he made up his mind that whenever he was tempted to say something filled with bitterness and regret, he would instead say nothing or say something positive.
When he came home from the game, he saw the neighbor’s kids playing catch in the driveway with a raggedy old baseball. The kids were wary of him as he had not been too friendly.
“You need a new baseball,” said my friend.
The kids were unsure how to answer him. He pulled out the baseball, told them the story and gave it to them. They looked at it wide-eyed and thanked him. He put the baseball to good use to heal a rift. It was a small step, but an important one.
He was happier than I had seen him in years. He had a chance to be a kid again, and to be a mentor. He could help others.
Sometimes we are sent signs by unseen forces. The signs may be subtle, and to others they may seem insignificant, but they are not you. If we just allow ourselves to look, the signs may be all around us, all in reach, like a foul ball meant only for us.