I’ve met Ian exactly twice, both times briefly. Yet it is fair to say that each time, he profoundly influenced my life.
The first time was when he was 3, and it involved an inside-the-park home run. This is what happened.
It was the summer of 2009. My wife and I had gone from East Hampton to Pittsburgh for a long weekend visiting her extended family in Western Pennsylvania, a few miles from the Ohio border.
On Saturday afternoon, everybody, about 30 people plus us, was attending a covered-dish picnic at a pavilion in a park. After an hour, with most of the food gone, everyone was still sitting around talking when I saw Andy Barr, one of my wife’s nephews, walking out to a vacant softball field adjacent to the pavilion carrying an aluminum bat, two mitts and a softball. His 6-year-old son James and his 3-year-old son Ian walked with him.
Soon they were playing. Barr stood on the mound pitching to Ian at home plate while James, in a catcher’s squat, heckled his younger brother, who awkwardly kept swinging and missing.
I thought, sitting there, why don’t I join them? It would be fun. So I got up and walked over. I stood in the most logical spot, considering I did not have a mitt. I stood halfway between the pitcher and first base. If the ball dribbled out to me, I could toss it back to Barr on the mound.
After a while, 3-year-old Ian hit the ball and began to run. It was a slow bouncer down the first base line fair, and I could not believe the first thought that came into my head.
“I hope this little boy picks up the ball as he runs by and throws it to me.”
I was thunderstruck that I thought this. This is what an old man says. An old man points and asks people to bring things to him.
At this time, I was 70 years old. Was I this old man? I was not. I started to run, stumble actually, toward the ball and by the time I got to it, the 3-year-old, arms pumping, was rounding first, heading for second.
I knew exactly what I had to do. Barr, the father, backpedaled toward third. I’d pick up the ball and throw it to him and we’d have this little squirt out there.
I hadn’t thrown a ball in years. I threw it as hard as I could. It bounced just before the mound, then came to a halt just beyond it. And with that, this little kid rounded third, then whooping with his arms raised in triumph, crossed home plate, completing an inside-the-park home run. On me — actually, an inside-the-park home run without it leaving the infield.
And I thought: This cannot stand. I have to do something.
Later in the day, we went to my wife’s brother’s house where we were staying. He had a basketball rig on a pole alongside his garage. Finding a basketball, I went out there alone and for the next half hour, shot hoops. I made a few, missed most, but it seemed to me that basketball agreed with me. It would improve my aim, my depth perception, my reflexes, coordination, strength, blood flow, state of mind and wind.
Midway through this I started keeping score. Two points if I made a shot. Two points for my invisible opponent if I missed. At the end, badly beaten, I came into the house breathless and sweaty.
I have been playing basketball six days a week since then. It’s been 12 years. And I’ve gotten pretty good. A crowd in my head cheers me on. A sports announcer reports the ebb and flow. My cardiologist, for real, tells me that I have no plaque in my arteries and that my heart is that of an athlete. I am to see him in three years.
My second encounter with Ian took place three weeks ago. It was in our Manhattan apartment. Late in the day, this 15-year-old arrived with his aunt and my wife’s sister — his grandmother — who were in from Pennsylvania to see the sights of Manhattan and stay with us. They were coming home for dinner after touring the Met.
Ian is taller than me, mild-mannered and helpful. Of course, I had to tell him the story of how he had changed my life.
During dinner, he asked if I’d like to watch his high school football team playing at the Ohio Regional Championships. They were undefeated. Had never been to the championships. And it was on YouTube, live, at 7 o’clock. I said sure.
We sat side by side on a sofa in the living room, a laptop between us. The women stayed in the kitchen, talking.
“We’re playing Columbian,” Ian told me. “It’s very important. They beat us last year.”
This was hard-hitting Midwestern football. Long passes for touchdowns. Madly cheering crowds.
Columbian took the early lead, but West Holmes High School, his school, with their coach ordering daring and successful fourth-down tries while deep in their own territory, rallied and won 28-25.
We high-fived when it was over. Another win a week on and they’d be playing for the Regional Finals.
The next Friday, with our visitors gone, Ian called me from his hometown, Millersburg, Ohio. Would I like to watch this next game? Yup I would. He’d be at the field. He played drums in the band. I would be in East Hampton. We could text each other and I could watch him at halftime.
West Holmes won again, going away. I was enthralled by the game. During timeouts, I watched commercials for MRV Asphalt, Killbuck Valley Market at 130 N. Main Street and many other local Ohio businesses.
This past Friday, Weste Holmes came from behind to win still again. The crowd and the band rushed the field. They were now regional champions, and next Friday would be playing in the Final Four to become state champions.
“Fourteen wins in a row!” the announcer shouted. “Everybody! West Holmes! On to the Courthouse. Party to 2 a.m.”
I’m there in spirit. Ian with the band in person. Whoooo!
Go, Knights, go!