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DAVE CATCHES LABEL, `BEST DAD,' BY A NOSE

In the final moments of the film, "Field of Dreams," Ray Kinsella stands alone with the ghost of his father on an enchanted baseball diamond. Both feel the sadness of missed opportunities, and it leaks painfully from their strained conversation. Eventually, the father says goodbye and turns to leave. Ray, his emotions high, can't let his father go without first asking him to do something they used to do together, long ago. Ray says, "Dad . . . wanna have a catch?"

I was blubbering like a baby at this point. You see, I never played catch with my dad. He was a busy man. I always wanted to, but somehow, all through my Little League career, I never did.For this reason, whenever my boys come to me and ask to play catch, I always try to say yes. That is, until this past Saturday.

I was in bed, still buried deep in blankets and sleep, when my son Ryan sauntered into the room pounding the pocket of his baseball glove with his fist.

"Can you come to the school with us, Dad? . . . We need to practice hitting."

I opened my eyes and saw the boy standing there, a wide grin splitting his earnest face. "Sure," I said. "Why not?"

So after breakfast, Ryan, my other son, J.J., and I walked to the elementary school, pounding the pockets of our gloves with our fists.

I pitched a few to each boy and they smashed some beauties out into center and left.

"Let me pitch some to Ryan," J.J. said. J.J. has visions of being the next Orel Hershiser, and he's been working real hard at it, practicing every day out on the back lawn with Ryan. So I said, "OK. I'll catch."

"Better not, Dad," Ryan said. "You might get hit."

"Don't worry," I said, in a condescending voice. "Just don't hit any foul tips."

I squatted behind the plate and lifted my glove to give J.J. a large target. "Play ball!" I shouted. I felt great. I felt like Ray Kinsella. I felt like a good dad.

On the third pitch, Ryan foul-tipped J.J.'s fastball up over my glove and into my nose.

It's hard to describe the sound it made, but it went something like this, "UTHWMZP." My glasses parted on my face and abandoned ship, but not before making two deep cuts between my eyes. I lowered my head and, through blurred vision, watched blood rain down on the dirt behind home plate.

J.J. ran up to me and said, "You OK, Dad?"

"Yeah, I'm all right."

It's remarkable what grownups will say when their audience is young and impressionable. What I really wanted to say was, "No, I'm not OK, you idiot. I'm spray-painting the diamond red, and my brains are leaking out of my nose."

Now Ryan, the real culprit in this whole affair, the one who should be the most apologetic because he was the last one to touch the ball before it hit me, said, "I told you not to play catcher, Dad."

Then J.J. drew a brilliant conclusion. "You're bleeding a lot, Dad."

"I'm OK. I'm letting it bleed. It cleans the wound." Another attempt at parental bravura. What I was really thinking was, "Look kid, my nose is throbbing and my head hurts and I can't think of anything else to do right now but keep my head down and bleed."

"Did it break your nose, Dad?" Ryan asked, now showing at least a little sympathy.

"I don't know. Find me something I can use for a bandage, you guys."

"What about this?" J.J. handed me a boy's homework paper that had been stuck to the chain-link fence. You know, the kind of paper that has wood chunks in it the size of California. I pushed it against my nose, got to my feet, still bleeding badly, and said, "Come on, we better go."

Ryan, who'd been a model of sympathy and tact through the whole incident, said, "When you get cleaned up can we come back?"

"I don't think so, son."

After I washed my face in the bathroom sink, I knew my nose was broken. My face went one way and my nose went the other. I reached up to feel it, and my nose moved like oatmeal in a sandwich bag.

So now I wonder, is playing catch with your boys that big of a deal? Fixing my nose is going to cost me upward of $500, and even then I'll probably wind up with a profile like Karl Malden's. My face covers the full spectrum of color, from purple-black to gray-puce, and my nose feels like someone took a jackhammer to it. Still, I can see Ray Kinsella and his dad playing catch and I can see their love for each other in their eyes.

So next Saturday I'll be down at the school throwing the ball with the boys.

But I'm not playing catcher.