Today I Bought a Mitt, by Edward J. Nitkewicz
by Edward J. Nitkewicz
I fell in love at the age of seven.
It was 1971 and in June of that year my father brought me to my very first professional baseball game at Shea Stadium. A few weeks later, my uncle took me and my two cousins to a double header at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. I saw Tom Seaver pitch, Duffy Dyer catch and Willie Mays bat. I witnessed Thurman Munsun block a runner trying to score from second base and Bobby Murcer hit a home run into the bleachers. Never before had I laid my eyes upon grass so green or skies so blue.
Soon, no white tee shirt in my wardrobe was safe. A black marker helped me convert every shirt into a Met jersey. I was Jerry Koosman, Tim Foli or Jim McAndrew when I donned my “36”, “19” or “43” jersey. Sponge ball games became epic battles as my Mets battled my best friend John Thistleton’s Mets, neither one of us willing to cede the blue and orange cap of the Mets to the other.
Years would come and go. In high school I accepted the reality that I was not a very good baseball player. I abandoned playing the game to pursue football through high school, college and ultimately two knee surgeries. However, I never abandoned my love of the game and that passion remains a part of me to this very day. (The “Ed Nitkewicz Mid-Life Crises Tour” that started when I was seven is almost complete as I have now visited all but five major league ball parks in professional baseball.) I could not wait to share my passion for baseball with my children.
It is said that people plan and God laughs, not at us or our misfortune, but at our adherence to the notion of what we believe will someday make us happy.
My beautiful son was born in 1998. After some difficulties, my wife and I were on our way to building the family we dreamed about. From the moment of delivery, there were signs that things would not always be as planned. He was not immediately responsive nor was he breathing fully in the delivery room. He was not able to get the breast feeding thing down pat. And he was briefly jaundiced.
At eighteen months, Edward was inoculated. A few months later at his annual check up, we reported to his doctor that he was not as verbal as he had been earlier. Edward was referred for evaluation of developmental delays and soon thereafter the we were advised that Edward suffered from autism. The devastation that set upon my family was immeasurable. We dusted ourselves off and struggled to take on the mission of raising a son with autism.
Grief is often mistakenly linked solely to death. In truth, it is our response to loss. I grieved the loss of the child I planned to raise and the father I planned to be. As I learned more about autism, I accepted that my son may not have friends. I understood that Edward would probably not go to college. I lamented that he would not have any use for cleats. My dream of buying my son a baseball mitt were dashed. I grieved the loss of a significant part of the parent I planned to be.
In 2007, I learned that a group of parents had organized a baseball program for children with special needs in Dix Hills. I went to the field and observed the program. Children with Down’s Syndrome and Autism wearing baseball uniforms and holding baseball gloves. Parents were standing next to some in the field so as to keep their child focused on task. And miraculously, the task was playing baseball. Edward was invited to participate during the remainder of the season and he did.
Last year, a group of parents in South Huntington joined together and formed “Challenger” programs for soccer, basketball and, of course, baseball. I have been privileged to serve as Coach Ed to these wonderful athletes. In baseball, there are no outs. There are no errors. The last batter of each inning hits a home run and victoriously does their own unique home run trot. The joy in their eyes is surpassed only by the tears of joy in the eyes of their parents.
I love my son and I love baseball. I learned a valuable lesson these past few years. Sometimes dreams aren’t dashed. They are merely delayed and reformed. I will never forget the day I shopped for a baseball glove for my son. As I said then with tears brimming in my eyes, “today, I bought a mitt.” I trust that God laughed.
Ed Nitkewicz is a member of Awe in Autism’s volunteer review board.