Until they reach a certain age, girls will play any game their Daddy devises. This is fun for the Daddy, and presents many opportunities. A father’s knees, rising up from under the sheets, are as good as Everest for a little mountain climber. Daddy also makes an excellent dinosaur, tackling dummy, water-hose-holder, and all the rest. And who needs a massage when you can play “Dance on Daddy’s Back”?
One of our great bedtime rituals was the Camel Ride up the stairs, with one or more girls clinging to my back, while I lunged and clumped up the steps, singing Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” (Years later, I was sitting in a movie theater with Maura, then in her early twenties, watching “Whiplash,” a movie about an aspiring jazz drummer which includes a performance of “Caravan,” when she jolted upright in her seat and almost shouted “That’s the Camel Ride song!”)
One of the greatest pleasures of this kind was teaching the girls the basics of baseball. As everyone knows, the rules of baseball are as inscrutable as an Egyptian papyrus to the uninitiated. For American kids, though, baseball is like an irregular English verb or fluoride in the drinking water—you pick it up automatically as you grow up. In the case of the O’Brien girls, they learned the rules of baseball playing Home Run Kickball with their Dad.
Home Run Kickball started with me rolling a bouncy ball across the lawn to Katie when she was four or five, so that she could practice kicking it. This was big fun. Kids are thrilled by the chance of kicking a ball that is rolling toward them, and if it comes from their father, so much the better. It may seem easy, but the first time your kid tries it be sure to have the cameras rolling. The timing is trickier than it looks, and you’ll get great footage of your child kicking too early (whiffing and falling on their back), kicking too late (falling on the ball), and fouling the ball off in every direction.
It didn’t take long before Maura wanted to take her turn as well. One thing led to another, and before you know it, we had a home plate and two bases laid out in a triangle, and the girls were running the base-paths after kicking the ball. The rest was automatic. I was pitcher, coach, and umpire. I called every ball, every play. Katie was at the plate and I’d holler “Yer Up! Maura’s On Deck!” If one of them got her foot on the ball, I would declare it a “Hit” or a “Home Run.” If they whiffed: “Strike One!” The field crackled with announcements, chatter, encouragement, and instructions: “Foul ball, go back!” “Ball One!” “Yer Out!” They had no idea what I was saying; my patter was just part of the fun.
If they made it to first or second base and heard me declare them “Safe!” they would jump up and down with excitement. There were tears the first time I told Maura that she was “Out” because I had tagged her before she reached first base; tears and protests. But the rules are the rules, and I made her sit on the steps while her sister was up. A moment later, there being only two batters on the team, she was right back in the line up. The tears were forgotten as she stepped back up to the plate, and after that being “Out” was just part of the game.
We never graduated to bats, balls, and mitts. None of the girls ever played Little League or team softball. But they had their moments of glory on the greensward nonetheless, with the ball soaring over their Daddy’s head, and their legs churning as they rounded the bases and sprinted for home.
Talk about a home run.