The night I caught a soaring foul ball at Yankee Stadium was the night I heard God speak to me. The magic of the moment was so exhilarating I lost sight of its spiritual power at the time, as fans nearby cheered and I basked in the joy of my feat. About 48 foul balls are hit on the ground and in the air during an average game, according to statisticians, but television or radio announcers rarely capture the personal feelings associated with a catch, and you never read about what a foul-ball catch meant to a fan in the next day’s Sports section.
Maybe that’s because what it means isn’t apparent right away. Much as the biblical Jacob realized only after a dream-filled night in the desert that God was in “this place,” a moment in Genesis where the Torah suggests that the divine is everywhere, I came to accept a similar insight about my night at the ballpark only after the fact. Like Jacob, I saw in hindsight the sacredness of my experience. That mystical catch, that one amazing second, would empower me to settle longstanding issues with my father and move forward in my career. Over the decades since I caught that ball, I’ve come back to that moment during times of self-doubt, or when I’ve felt stuck, remembering how it felt to be so close to God.
Family and business always went together for my father. When I was little—first in Seattle, where I was born, and later in San Francisco, where we moved when I was 6—he’d recount stories about working before the war with his father in Glubokoe, Poland (now Belarus), in a small shop where they sold wheat flour and other ground grains. After the war, my father and his brother, the only relatives to survive the Holocaust, came to the United States, where an uncle who’d immigrated decades earlier got them started in the residential construction business. Through the booming 1960s and ’70s, they grew comfortably prosperous running separate property-management companies. But my father’s traumatic past led to frequent bouts of depression, and when my brothers and I were kids our mother warned us constantly not to do anything that would “upset Daddy.” We learned early on to tread carefully around him.
As the eldest son, I was recruited now and then to sit shotgun in Dad’s Dodge station wagon as he made his rounds. We’d buy 5-gallon buckets of paint and visit apartment managers or check with carpenters who were building 2-bedroom duplexes in the East Bay. During high-school vacations, when I came home sweaty from an honest day’s work, Dad beamed. But I found the work boring: painting interiors of rental units, pulling weeds out of cracks in driveways, or carrying loads of two-by-fours to carpenters.
Even though Dad wanted me to go into the family business, I had other plans; at 24, I got my first job as a reporter at a small California newspaper. A few years later I accepted an East Coast newspaper job and moved across the country to Hartford. But Dad never lost hope I’d return. He tried to lure me with more money, my home state’s idyllic weather, and Jewish guilt. “Jeff and I could really use your help,” he’d say, referring to my brother, the only one of Dad’s three sons who joined the firm. I always hedged, fearful I would upset him if I flatly rejected his offers. “I don’t know, maybe someday,” I’d say, confident my wishy-washy reply would buy me a few years before facing his nagging questions again. Deep down, I feared too that a move home would feel like traveling back in time, returning to a relationship where Dad once again treated me like a little kid, even if he wanted me to be his partner in business.
My friend Irwin had joined the same East Coast paper a few months after me. But while he eventually landed a magazine job in Manhattan a few years later, I was moving slowly up the journalistic ladder, unable to make the same kind of breakthrough career move. Therapists suggested I was unconsciously self-sabotaging my career, allowing guilty feelings to punish me for not helping my father in the business.
In the meantime, I married my girlfriend Julia, who’d moved across the country with me, and two years later we had a baby. I felt frustrated with my job, but quitting wasn’t an option—Julia had started graduate school, and I had a child to support. Adult life suddenly felt overrated. Now in my 30s, I still felt guilty about leaving my father and his business on the West Coast, but I also felt trapped and stymied in my career on the East Coast.
A few months after Irwin moved to Manhattan, I went to visit. We met at his Park Avenue magazine office, and I was dumbstruck with admiration and envy during the quick tour. His office had an expansive view of Midtown, and he casually referenced his fabulous expense account. (It was the 1980s, when fabulous expense accounts were not uncommon in publishing.)
From there, we went to the ball game and settled into our seats on the second deck above right field, just beyond first base. I felt giddy being at Yankee Stadium for a night game, the May air electric with the buzz of fans all around. As we sipped beers and cracked peanuts, dropping shells near our feet, we talked about life, work, and our dreams, while the Yankees battled the Seattle Mariners.
Indelible memories from my early childhood in Seattle ran through my mind: hydroplanes landing on Lake Washington, holding Dad’s hand as we walked by docked ferries on Puget Sound, smelling sea water and fish and chips. So, while I watched the Mariners, I thought about my father. He’s the one who took me to my first baseball game, when I was 11, after we moved: The San Francisco Giants played the then-Houston Colt 45s—although to be accurate, I felt like I took my dad since, as an immigrant, he had no understanding of the game.
That night at Yankee Stadium with Irwin, a left-handed batter for Seattle kept fouling pitches. One flew toward us. Everyone rose.
I stretched my arms into the night sky, almost as in deep prayer. But God wasn’t in my thoughts; it was the baseball I focused on, spinning like a meteor. It inched closer. I locked onto it as I’d been taught since Little League. My hands came together like I was cupping a drink of water, and that’s when the ball landed inside them, softly, without hurting, a clean catch.
“You caught the ball,” Irwin yelled, his face shining.
I smiled wide, laughing with pure joy. “I caught the ball!” I yelled back. “I caught the ball!”
The whole stadium, if not all of New York, seemed to turn and cheer. I raised my arms high in victory, clutching the ball like a precious egg I couldn’t drop.
Yankee Stadium. The connection to my birthplace, Seattle. This was more than a ball, more than luck. I didn’t think about it during the catch, but over time I came to believe that in that moment God was present, like he had been with Jacob, delivering a message about my past, my present, and my future; about where I came from, who I wanted to become. That catch, high above right field, taught me that anything is possible; we all have the capacity to leave our own Mitzrayim or metaphorical Egypts, just as we have our own ways of enslaving ourselves or others around us.
I used that insight on a trip back to California to finally tell my dad once and for all that I wasn’t going into the family business. It wasn’t easy. I felt sweat dripping from my armpits, but I summoned the courage. “Here’s the thing,” I told him. “I’m not a businessman. I’m a writer. Why would you want to hire someone with no experience to help run your business?” He laughed. I rattled on, but I’d done it. To my relief, he didn’t yell or look crushed, as if I’d just destroyed what remained of his dreams for his family. He just nodded, as if he’d known all along.
After telling him the hardest thing I’ve ever had to tell anyone, I felt buoyant. I swear I heard thunderous cheers, as if I’d hit a walk-off home run.
I wish I could say my writing career turned brilliant from then on, like my life was a feel-good movie. It didn’t. Old habits die hard. On the other hand, I started taking more risks, working harder at being the writer I always envisioned. That voice from Dad, which implied my chosen career was impractical, grew fainter.
I still have that foul ball I caught nearly 30 years ago, tucked in a shoebox in my bedroom closet. I suspect I’m not alone among those who have totems like these hidden away, totems we can’t fully explain, though we try.
These days, I’m better at catching the saboteur who trips me up, my yetzer harah. As with catching a baseball, practice helps. And my father, to my surprise, has actually said he admires me, and he treats me less like his little boy, even though sometimes, despite everything, he can’t help himself and suggests that it’s not too late to join the family business.
When I think about catching that foul ball, I still feel in my heart that it wasn’t dumb luck; it was bashert, fate, that I caught it. I seldom pull it out anymore, this future heirloom no one but me really wants, but when I hold it in my palm, I do hear God’s still, small voice. It reminds me of that night and the lessons I’ve learned, ones I try to follow and ones I’ve tried to teach my three adult children: To stand up for what you believe. To look to the heavens now and again when you need help or courage. To claim what you dearly want in life. Even if sometimes, it’s just a soaring white ball.
Leonard Felson has written for the New York Times, The Boston Globe, Reader’s Digest, The Jerusalem Report, and other publications.