Early on Ben had problems speaking. With his right arm, however, he could speak the language of baseball.
As soon as I’d get home from work, we’d gather the red plastic bat with the big barrel and a Wiffle ball. Ben would pitch and Daddy would drive the ball deep into the neighbor’s backyard. (Yeah, being a dad is tough work.) With each successive hit, Ben’s eyes would get bigger and bigger. He was in his element. When darkness fell and it was time to go in, Benny would get flustered and even start to cry; this was unusual, as Ben rarely shows emotion. One time, in fact, I hit a line-drive shot that landed squarely on Ben’s right cheek. I felt horrible. I looked around to make sure his mother didn’t see that one! To my astonishment, there were no tears. He held the ball in his small hands, anxious to resume the action. “Play baseball,” he declared.
Word began to spread among the neighbors. They would come out of their suburban homes with their cocktails and delicate dogs to watch this two-year-old phenom throw batting practice to his old man.
A few days later, a group of older kids organized a game of baseball outside our home. The kids swung their bats and ran the bases while little Benny, standing a good 10 feet away, threw one accurate pitch after the other. This diapered toddler couldn’t form many words but he found his niche on the pitcher’s mound.
We all know about compulsions – excessive hand washing or door closing, for example. (I wish Ben would do more of the former and less of the latter.) When we’re walking on the beach, Ben will spot a pair of flip-flops under a family’s umbrella. These are not people we know, but that doesn’t deter him from bending down to arrange the scattered flip-flops so they are neatly aligned.
But a pitching compulsion —who knew? It’s ironic to consider that Ben’s pitching prowess could be explained by repetitive behaviors and compulsions that we don’t normally find ourselves celebrating. If practice makes perfect, Ben sure had a lot of it. Consider this: We have video of Ben, no older than 15 months, tossing a ball across the room 25 times in a row without pause. Family members had gathered to watch him, and I just assumed that he was an attention junky. Now I see it through a different lens.
One day when little Ben was pitching to me, I unknowingly caused him to become very frustrated. After hitting several long balls in a row, this time I squared around to bunt the ball, something he’d never seen Daddy do. He had a minor fit and pleaded with me to “play baseball.” Bunting apparently did not fit his definition of baseball. He wanted to see Daddy go deep – that was our routine and anything short of that apparently caused him unbearable disruption and anxiety. And I thought I had issues with change.
When Ben was 3, seemingly overnight, he lost the minimal verbal skills he had developed to that point. He began keeping to himself. He went inward.
And his interest in throwing a ball, even his understanding of the concept, vanished. It would never reappear…