My retired parents are spending their first winter in Florida so my dad can have another place to complain about, and last week my wife and 4-year-old son and I invaded their cranky peace for five days of questionable beach days, cutthroat games of Scrabble and, yes, early-bird dinners -- which are now called "sunset specials," but, don't worry, the food still needs to be sent back because it's not hot enough.

In between it all, my dad and I took my son to a Florida Marlins spring-training game in a noble effort to pass along the national pastime to a new generation and, at least for a day, double the Marlins' fan base.

"Does 'fan base' mean they let the fans stand on the bases during the game?" my son, darling as he is, asked when I used the term on our way to the game.

"No, son," I said, worrying as I replied that I'd be proven a liar when we presented our tickets to the usher and learned that the Marlins organization had indeed cut costs this season by closing its seating area and asking fans to congregate on third.

Now, before you say, "Four years old is much too young to go to a baseball game or whatever it is the Marlins do," let me say: I used to agree with you -- until I hit upon an equation that is too mathematically complex to explain here but essentially involves shoving an endless stream of ballpark food down the 4-year-old's mouth until you either run out of money or your kid becomes violently ill. Either way, this typically gets you through five innings.

My dad, though, having forgotten the ways of 4-year-olds -- namely that they have the unfortunate character trait of believing what you say -- messed with the equation and promised my son we'd get a foul ball. Because who doesn't get a foul ball at a baseball game?

All of which is a long wind-up to explaining how I wound up with a damaged wrist worthy of a trip to the 15-day DL.

This is what happens, you see, when you reach out your hand during batting practice for a screaming, the-hitter-is-definitely-on-HGH line-drive foul ball -- and the ball decides to hit your hand, push it backward until it hears that wrist-cracking sound it loves oh so much, and then continue merrily on its way.

The saddest part is that on the hand in question was . . . a full-sized baseball glove. You're already pushing your credibility as a man when you bring your glove to a game -- but then to drop the ball and sprain your wrist? That takes a special kind of man with a supple hand.

Or maybe the saddest part of the whole episode was knowing my son had observed all of this -- and then, for good measure, watched a fielder 30 feet away pick up the ball and toss it to another kid in the stands with a father not on the verge of tears.

"Why did it bounce out of your glove?" my son asked. Then my dad asked it. And then some guy several rows behind us a little less kindly shouted a similar sentiment. And then my son asked it 27 more times.

And, so it seems, even before the first official pitch of the season, I have already slipped in the standings when it comes to my son's estimation of me. For now, a new toy seems to have fixed things, but, man, I've got my work cut out for me before the games really start to count.






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