For Dad—Thanks for playing catch with me all those years. Happy 60th Birthday and here’s to many more.
Before Leuenbergers were runners, we were baseball players. If my estimates are correct, I have attended over 200 Little League baseball games in my time, my first less than a week after I was born. I had my first cigarette at a Little League game (cigarette butt, that is…As the youngest child I had a penchant for eating things off the ground that I shouldn’t have at these kind of events). For two years we lived in the town where the Little League World Series was played each August, spending those last summer nights before school began again sitting on a steep hill watching Japan play Cuba or the USA play Mexico. Throughout that first decade of my life, countless days in March through May were spent in metal bleachers, watching, cheering, and getting sunburned kneecaps. Baseball was an integral part of my childhood, an activity that shaped the schedule of my days just as it shaped my sense of self.
Baseball was an integral part of my childhood, an activity that shaped the schedule of my days just as it shaped my sense of self.
One of the most memorable moments of my childhood happened at one of those many Little League baseball games, game number 104… or something like that. I was in 3rd grade. I was sitting in the bleachers at yet another one my brother Sam’s Little League games: The Dodgers vs. The Tigers, watching both teams warming up in the outfield by playing catch: scooping up ground balls, getting under pop-up-flys, stretching their dusty leather gloves and extending their growing limbs to make the play. At one point, Greg Hahn—one of the Dodgers—did not stretch his glove far enough during warm-ups, and a stray ball came flying into the bleachers. My shining moment of brief childhood/little sister/baseball glory had come. I scrambled off my seat in the bleachers, retrieved the ball, wound up, and threw it back into the field, high above the heads of Greg, my brother Sam, and Frank Lenzi, the coach of The Dodgers. “WHOA!” Frank yelled to me. “You have a strong arm!” A grin spread across my face from ear to ear.“Yeah that’s what my dad tells me!” I yelled back, thrilled with the compliment, revelling in my moment of Little League glory, proud of the strength of my 8 year old arm.
That moment at the VFW Little League field was in the making since the age of 5, the age when I can first recall playing catch with my dad. We would toss a baseball back and forth on the grass island between the church bell tower and the oak tree—the air was always thick and warm, the shadows long. I would wear knit shorts from Sears, and dad would wear his Dockers pleated khakis because I didn’t want to wait for him to change out of his work clothes to play catch with me. I’d always demand that he put me through the paces, all the basics: ground balls, pop-fly-to-the-sky, and “throw-it-hard-this-time” fastballs. I would dart around that grass island, sweat dampening my bangs to my forehead, my arm tiring and my hand stinging as I made every effort to return each ball to my dad with all the strength my little self could muster. “You’ve got a strong arm!” my dad would say to me (long before Frank Lenzi), a grin spreading across my rosey-cheeked face as we went inside to put our gloves back in the green plastic basket underneath the stairs. That was a compliment I can remember being distinctly proud of as a child. I loved being called strong.
To a tall, gangly six year old girl who had a tendency to feel a bit out of place amongst her dainty classmates, being told I had “a strong arm” was a formative moment. With that compliment, my dad began to teach me one of the most important lessons I needed to learn as a child. He encouraged me to be proud what gifts I did possesses, of what strength I did have, of who I was and how I was made. Playing catch with my dad on those humid summer nights taught me to not be ashamed of my identity, my gender, my skills, my interests, my personality traits. I was Grace Leuenberger, and I was strong. As I’ve gotten older, I realize how formative that lesson I learned while playing catch would become for the future I had ahead of me, the power behind the connotations of that word and that trait.
Playing catch with my dad on those humid summer nights taught me to not be ashamed of my identity, my gender, my skills, my interests, my personality traits. I was Grace Leuenberger, and I was strong.
16 years later, I’ve found myself in situations where I’ve been confronted with the negative associations that can come with the word strong and the traits that stems from strength. Words like aggressive, intense, and bossy have pushed their way to the front of my mind, words I didn’t feel the string of when I was playing baseball in the backyard with my dad. It wasn’t until I recently that this realization occurred and witnessed firsthand that being strong could be perceived as a problem by others. While in college I’ve been told my “strong personality could prove challenging for a man accept,” I’ve been criticized for holding leadership positions, and I’ve been made to feel all the kind of words that twist strength into characteristic no one would want to be proud of. Instead of strong, I’ve felt very small, weak, and confused. This criticism has stung, and it has stung hard.
This kind of stinging was a sensation in the soul, but the same sensation has affected my physical body before too, a sensation I also experienced when playing catch with my dad. If I hadn’t played catch in a while, my hand would always be sore afterwards, the muscles not yet built up to absorb and distribute the shock of the hardened baseball when it met the soft flesh of my hand. But over time, my hand got stronger, the muscles in my palm were built up, resilient, able to absorb the sting of any fastball my dad could throw at me. Over time, the muscles in my hand were trained by the help of the person on the other side who wouldn’t let me be afraid of the “throw-it-hard-this-time” fastballs. Over time, playing catch with my dad made me strong. But I didn’t build this strength on my own. I didn’t go outside and throw baseballs at the garage door as fast as I could. I didn’t lift weights. I didn’t practice by myself. I grew strong because my dad played catch with me, my dad spent time with me, my dad poured words of encouragement to me that would stay with me long after I outgrew my childhood baseball mitt.
I grew strong because my dad played catch with me, my dad spent time with me, my dad poured words of encouragement to me that would stay with me long after I outgrew my childhood baseball mitt.
As I’ve had to deal with the string of criticism, the backlash of being a leader, I am indebted for the people on the other side who made me strong, the ones who stood by my side and helped me deal with the pain and not accept the sting as a permanent injury. A synonym for strong is well-built, and I am well-built because of those who helped build me up when others tried to tear me down. I learned the important lessons that have made me who I am from a father who in many ways, reflects the traits of a bigger Father. I was lucky enough to learn these foundations truths when I was young, and not just from my dad, but from my mom, too. Together, they have each helped me become who I am, they have empowered me to be able to do the things I do and love the things I love, to see what is true and good and honorable and cling to those things.
Undeniably, there are more moments ahead when the sting will resurface, when my strength will be tested and when my very identity will be scrutinized. But I will remember the foundation I am built on, the things I learned while playing catch outside on the grass island between the church bell tower and the oak tree, while eating around the dinner table, while sitting at Little League games on a warm spring night.
Over a decade has passed since I last played catch. Just last winter while packing for another move, I found the basket of baseball gloves as I was sorting through old mittens and gloves, including my dad’s. As I put my hand into his glove, I was brought back to all those muggy summer nights, to the lessons I learned playing catch. That glove is a piece of my past, an artifact of my identity. It is my dad’s glove, and it reminds me that the sting will subside, that I should not be afraid of fastballs, that I can be proud of being called strong. That glove was part of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned: to not be ashamed of who I am or how I was made, because my father and my Father love me that way. It’s an old lesson, an old truth, but as I grow older myself, I’m finding that those kind of truths are the best.