A Patriarch’s Last Catch

by Tim Franklin

“By closing my eyes, I can see him standing in front of me playing catch.”
Eulogy for Richard Franklin, October 31, 1998

Speaking these words from the Channing chancel at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, my grief can barely be contained. I choke out the words as waves of emotion subconsciously emerge from the consolidated memory of hundreds of catches with my father. Grief wells up strongly, remembrance triggered by a single sentence. My voice cracks. I sob ever so briefly. I slow before continuing this eulogy to my beloved male role model, my dad. None of the memories are at all specific. However, collectively I feel them all, the rhythmic slap of leather baseball hitting a leather glove, one catch precipitating the next throw in a seemingly endless cycle—slap…slap…slap…slap. As I speak the sentence, or try to, all the tosses and catches lump together to symbolize the affecting human closeness between father and son provided by a simple game of catch. Sports offer men a venue for intimate relationship. I see him in my mind’s eye standing before me, glove on his left hand upraised, giving me a target for my next throw. In one memory, he wears a tie and dress shirt, fresh from work. In another, he wears our family catcher’s mitt, squatting as deeply as his middle-aged knees allow, giving me a low target during my fire-balling prime as a little leaguer. Yet another occurs with my great Uncle Jack, the former NFL linebacker, looking on. Each still shot holds his warm countenance, his bigger-than-life presence, his entire attention focused on me. Nothing else in my twelve-minute tribute rends me quite so emotive.

One Christmas, perhaps 1962, when I am seven, possibly eight, I discover a fully assembled pitchback near the tree; surely a late-night assembly after Edward and I are in bed. My joy at finding it cannot be contained. The pitchback is notable because it suggests that in my first year or two after falling in love with baseball at six, I tapped Dad so often to play catch that he bought me a mechanical stand-in. The pitchback intends to relieve him from a portion of his duties supporting my new passion. The legacy of playing catch surely went back to my granddad and dad. Granddad, too, supports my needs for having a catch until arthritic hips make him give it up. Edward also plays with me often although it was not his deep passion. So, Dad remains my go-to guy for a catch.

Come spring, the pitch back finds a permanent home in the near corner of our backyard. Sitting diagonally facing the garage, rope swing and hanging ladder across from it, we install a pitching rubber on the slight rise that bisects the backyard side to side. With a rigid outer frame rimmed by small metal springs attached to a nylon net, a thrown ball hitting the net rebounds back in the direction of the thrower. Outlined on its nylon net, the pitchback’s strike zone serves as target for my pitches. I play alone with the pitchback for hours at a time.

More often, the pitchback serves as a backstop when Dad dons the catcher’s mitt and plays catcher to my pitching practice. It also plays backstop when Dad throws me batting practice, a routine he wrote about in one of his memoirs, The Bailout Problem. Conversations during this practice center on my technique or target, or become discussions about how a favorite player on the Reds or Pirates or Yankees might execute a throw or swing.

The pitchback eventually moves with us to Morgantown, West Virginia, and finds use in the large unfinished portion of our basement making solo wintertime toss and catch possible. With increasing professional pressure at WVU, the pitchback does offer me an alternative when a tough day at work means Dad declines my invitation for a catch. However, the pitchback never replaces his role. During my own sons’ youth, I learn better Dad’s commitment when I shake off the wear and tear of professional stress and head out back to have a catch upon request. Like Dad, sometimes I decline. While the pitchback provides six or seven years of service to my baseball cravings before rust takes over, my first-choice option is always Dad. It leads to hundreds of evenings playing catch, sometimes at twilight, precious time spent with him before capabilities mature for sharing adult interests.

The Picture. The family gathers in celebration of the older man’s eightieth birthday and his wife’s seventieth birthday. This evening just before twilight sets in, someone suggests playing catch. Three grandsons, all currently playing some level of youth baseball, leap at the suggestion. The older man, though visibly aging, jumps at the opportunity to relive a common pastime during his own and his sons’ childhoods and to share the same pastime with his grandsons. Within moments, each, with mitt in hand, finds their spot in a circle playing catch. Each tossing the ball across the circle to the next, the rhythmic slapping of leather ball on leather mitt punctuates the progression of the ball being thrown from one to the next. A few in the circle signal for a pop fly while other tosses require reaching low or turning to field the catch over the shoulder. Around and around the ball moves, young and old playing equal roles, each getting into the family action—slap…slap…slap…slap.

This is one of those wide-angle, elongated, panorama photographs possible with 35 mm film cameras in the decade before digital photography put film into its historical niche. An older man stands in the middle of the grassy yard, glove up extended in anticipation of catching the baseball suspended in air in the photo’s center. Five others stand across the picture and yard, all with gloves, watching the older man make the catch. Two are his adult sons. Three others are his grandsons, ranging from seven to fourteen years of age. The rented park cabin sits in the photo’s back right with trees in spring leaf surrounding the yard. The full gaze of all six attenuate on the airborne ball.

With last light fading, the ball settles into the older man’s glove. The six ball players retire to the cabin for food, drinks, and conversation. As I sit next to the older man, sipping my Scotch, his attention directed elsewhere, I study the side of his face closely, noting the way the gray whiskers of his mutton-chop sideburns exit his skin, the way the pores on his nose look, the way his remaining hair combs back across his head, the way his wizened eyes focus on and absorb his conversation partners.

Later that weekend, I watch as Dad drives down the driveway of the rented park cabin. As he waves from the driver’s side window, turning the blue Plymouth onto the park road, I wonder to myself, “When will I see him again?” In his last years, it is a question I always ask myself as he drives away, my mind subconsciously snapping a memory…just in case. It will be late October, the old man no longer able to speak clearly, or move from his death bed, the last catch now a fading memory.

Late October of 1998 in Baltimore is glorious—warm days, leaves all colors of yellow, red, brown, and gold. These are also the saddest nine days of my life. With his radiation-damaged bone marrow no longer making sufficient platelets so critical to clotting, internal bleeding from a minor fall leaves him too low on oxygen, permanently damaging his brain. When I arrive from my Indiana home to see him in Union Memorial Hospital’s intensive care unit, he remains semi-conscious, acknowledging my presence upon arrival and, when I leave, saying to me in semi-audible language, “Take good care, Tim.”

My siblings assemble, the medical staff infusing him with platelets until my brother arrives from Oregon. Then, Edward and I ride with him by ambulance to a hospice facility a few miles up Charles Street. Later that afternoon, I sit with him as his new doctor comes to meet him. When the doctor leaves, Dad, now fully alert but unaware of medical plans, looks intensely at me, communicating nonverbally his strong desire not to be kept alive artificially. His deep hazel eyes, now almost a purple, burn right through me. He knows his time is upon him. He wants us to let him go. I look back into those deep, deep eyes and tell him he will receive nothing more than morphine to manage his pain. I then speak words no child ever wants to say: “Dad, as you wish, we are not going to keep you alive. You are now in a hospice facility. The doctors expect you to live no more than a day, maybe two. Dad, you are going to die soon.” My voice trails off. I hold his hand. He calms, knowing his fear is not real. Shortly, he drops back into his semi-conscious state. When I say goodbye and get up, he again mumbles, “Take good care, Tim.”

Later that evening, dear friends arrive from Florida. His favorite protégé attends as well. His wife, daughter, and two sons fill his room with people he loves. It is cocktail hour. He is alert and present, eyes wide open. We drip Scotch into his mouth with a dropper. He rises, half sitting in bed, acknowledging everyone, greeting them with a sweeping wave of his left arm, his huge wingspan still evident. Spirits remain high, a last happy hour, before he drifts back to semi-consciousness once more, this time for good.

As Dad lay semi-conscious in the hospital, we read to him. We suspect he can hear us, though, we know not. It beats hanging around the room watching him breathe. Before his fall, Dad read Civil War Trilogy, the work of historical fiction written by Michael and Jeff Shaara. While he lies in the hospital, we finish one book and begin the next in the series. The day after his last happy hour, we read to him all day and into the late evening before retiring. He does not make it through the night.

Nothing can prepare a person for losing a beloved parent. I am no different. Good news at work, I reach for the phone to call him to share before realizing he cannot answer. I arrive home in Baltimore for a work assignment, greet my mother, grab a Scotch, and sit with her, all the while feeling like he will join us. When Mom is due for Christmas later that year, my excitement is hard to contain. As she settles in our living room and unwinds from her trip, I realize the rhythm of our three-way conversation misses his balancing presence. I drink my Scotch, and his, but it fixes nothing. Like so many grieving souls, I spend anxious moments fretting that, over time, I will not remember him clearly. That first year after his death is a dark, restless period for me.

However, during this same holiday season, my wife gets around to having film processed— taken during our busy and uneven last several months of 1998. She sees the new pictures first, directing my attention to look, particularly to one she had taken. As I sort through them, there it is. The elongated panorama photo of the last catch sits in the stack glossy and flawless. Dad stands in the center, glove raised in the fading twilight, the ball suspended midway between my throw and his catch. I stand to the photo’s left, my arm extended in follow through. Edward stands on one side, Trevor, Torrey, and Todd on the other. My dad, and his progeny, frozen in eternity by the glimpse of a camera. The very, very last catch of a prodigious patriarch. I sit and stare at the photo. It is perfect! Tears well up in my eyes. Joyful tears. Sad tears. A pathway back to a special memory, the very last throw and catch, the boys’ chatter and rhythmic slap of leather almost audible—slap…slap…slap…slap.

Tim Franklin retired from full-time work in 2020 and now enjoys his encore career partnering with his wife, Nancy, working part-time with universities and regional organizations. Tim began exploring his interest in writing memoir by taking classes during 2023 with Sebastian Matthews through the Great Smokies Writing Program. His early writing efforts have explored topics of family and his own personal development with his early experiences pointing to greater commitment and larger projects. Tim and Nancy live with their dog, Wilson, on a mountain outside Asheville, North Carolina.