When the ball game comes on TV, he does one of two things. He might grab the red plastic bat that his grandmom bought for him down the Shore, grip it at its knob, and swing it as if he were playing the high striker at the county fair, all the while calling out the names of the 2014 Philadelphia Phillies.
I'm Jimmy Rollins!
I'm Chase Utley!
I'm Domonic Brown!
Daddy, do you see me?
Sometimes, he doesn't pick up the bat. Sometimes, he clasps his empty hands together as if he's holding the bat, and he swings and swings and calls out name after name.
I'm Ryan Howard!
I'm Ben Revere!
He's too young to understand that he's acting out a fitting metaphor for his favorite team - all those Phillies, swinging invisible bats. He just swings and shouts, "I hit a home run!" and runs across the room and spread-eagles, face-first, onto the hardwood floor, as if he's sliding into home plate, a smile spreading across his face.
His name is Evan. He turned 3 on Friday, and he's never happier than when the Phillies are playing and he is watching them. He mimics the players. He asks questions about them. He has memorized the uniform numbers of the entire starting lineup, most of the bench guys, and some of the pitchers. He loves each of them equally because he loves each of them fully. He gets as excited about Chase Utley's at-bats as he does about Cesar Hernandez's at-bats, which means he probably gets more excited about Cesar Hernandez's at-bats than the members of Cesar Hernandez's family do.
His interest in baseball is a recent and welcome development. His mommy and daddy had hoped to find something that would direct him away from the rigid, high-strung behavior that has characterized his daily life since he was a year old. If they didn't play the same song on an endless loop, if they moved one of his Matchbox cars a half-inch, if they broke a graham cracker in half instead of handing it to him whole, Evan would explode into tears, and the fits often spiraled downward from there. These seemed something more than common toddler tantrums. For a long time, Evan's mommy and daddy weren't sure what might be wrong, if anything. Besides, whatever it was, he would grow out of it. That's what Evan's daddy told himself, anyway.
Finally, one day in March, Evan's mommy and grandparents met with four specialists from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and from the press box at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Fla., while covering the Phillies during spring training, Evan's daddy listened in on the meeting through a conference call. The specialists' voices were warm and understanding and kind, and each of them said what a bright and charming little boy Evan was. But then a doctor said the word autism, and Evan's daddy didn't hear much else after that because his head started spinning.
He was fortunate that he had tucked himself into a darkened corner outside the sun-warmed, wide-windowed press box, where the other sportswriters were crafting their stories and columns and cracking wise about the Phillies and each other. That way, as the specialists used phrases such as "on the spectrum" and "likely to experience social difficulties," no one could hear him sniffling or see him wipe his eyes.
The specialists outlined treatment techniques, and Evan's mommy and daddy do their best each day to implement and stick to them, to be patient with him, to try not to dwell on what struggles he might encounter as he grows up. They recognize that there are other parents dealing with far graver hardships, and every visit to CHOP or the doctor's office reminds them of how blessed they are to have Evan exactly as he is.
It's just that every mommy and daddy, deep down, want as much of their child's life as possible to be perfect, and when your son wakes at 2 a.m., screaming, begging you to rub the scratch on his foot even though there's no scratch on his foot at all, and the screams increase in intensity because you're not rubbing his foot the right way, and the crying continues unabated until 6 a.m., and there's nothing you can do to soothe him until he calms himself enough to whimper, "I'm sorry, Daddy," well, that feels about as imperfect as it gets.
Somehow, though, a Phillies game always reaches him. It is, for his daddy, the greatest irony of what promises to be a long, lousy baseball season here. Evan's daddy has a job that demands he be clear-eyed and honest in analyzing the Phillies. Through that prism, he agrees with many in his profession: that the organization needs to rebuild, and that trading its most accomplished players to acquire younger talent - assuming it can - is an essential component of that process.
It all sounds logical and sensible, until he considers the prism through which Evan views the Phillies, the joy his son displays when Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley and even Cesar Hernandez appear on the TV screen, the connection that Evan has formed with these particular players on this particular team. And in those moments, the notion that the franchise might be reluctant to trade Rollins and Utley because the two of them have been Phillies and are Phillies and ought to remain Phillies seems completely reasonable, maybe even preferable.
Still, Evan's daddy is a realist, so he took him to his first Phillies game last month, to make sure they had at least one chance to see Rollins and Utley in person. They sat in the right-field bleachers at Citizens Bank Park and laughed at the Phillie Phanatic and saw Utley line a sharp single to center field, and Evan ate an entire soft pretzel and got to sit in the press box for a half-inning to see where his daddy works, and when it was time to leave he pretended to slide head-first into home, right there on the crud-covered concrete floor of the pavilion deck, and it was worth the extra-long, extra-soapy bath that night. Every second was worth it, because his daddy was able to comfort him a couple of nights later, when the screaming started again, by asking him to remember their fun day at the ballpark together.
The hope is that Father's Day will provide more good memories. Evan will spend the afternoon with his parents, his grandparents, and his godmother. The Phillies game is scheduled to start at 1:35, and whether he grabs his red bat or not, he will run around the house and call out the players' names and uniform numbers and smile. His will be the purest swing his daddy has ever seen, and for a little while everything will be perfect.