Healthy Kids    

Like father, like … daughter?

When it comes to my kids and sports, life threw me a curveball

Michael Malone is thrilled his daughter, Charlotte, inherited his love of sports, even if she doesn’t want to share it with him.

I always dreamed of watching my son excel on the ball field. Two kids later, I still do.

Before I became a father, my visions of fatherhood were — like many men, I’m sure —centered around sports: Me standing on the sidelines or sitting in the bleachers, cheering my impossibly swift and exceedingly dexterous son as he scored a goal, ran for a touchdown, or rifled a double into the gap.

And before I ever glimpsed a fuzzy sonogram image, those visions of the future involved a son, not a daughter.

I’d like to think some other dadhood images crept in — me misting up as the kid got his diploma, standing up for him at his wedding — but I only remember sports ones. And always with a boy.

I come from a sports family. While none of us was a particularly gifted athlete, we all played something. I have happy memories of attending the softball games of both my father and mother before I was old enough for tee ball. According to family legend, my mom even made a daring outfield catch and doubled a guy off base during a picnic pickup game the day before she gave birth to me.

Baseball, football and basketball dominated our TV and often our conversations. Family outings with open greenspace in view often erupted into Kennedy-esque games of kickball or football.

My wife comes from a similar background — a mantel full of baseball, squash and swimming baubles back home in Boston, brothers with glorious 300-yard drives off the tee, Red Sox ornaments on the Christmas tree. (‘Papi’ holidays to all!)

So it didn’t seem too much to expect for our son to inherit our athletic genes.

At an early age, Gavin seemed to possess them. He ran fast with a noticeable efficiency in his movement. (“Groggy fast!” he would yell while sprinting, before he could properly pronounce his name.) Gavin could wallop a wiffle ball the length of our back yard (evidence of which still exists in the deep recesses of YouTube). We bought him Mets t-shirts and Red Sox caps, and took him to watch Little League baseball and high school football.

Yet when he was old enough to play organized sports, Gavin had very little interest. We signed him up for Under 6 soccer (he didn’t ask to join, but neither did he veto the idea), and each week proved more of a struggle to get him onto the field.

Gavin was full of passion, but it was for dinosaurs, snakes, lizards, horses, Harry Potter, skyscrapers, airplanes, cruise ships and rockets — all of which he could draw with undeniable aplomb.

Gavin’s a great kid — an energetic Cub Scout, an excellent student and, more important, a friend to all in his class (his teacher’s observation, not mine). But his analytical mind and easygoing nature have conspired to make the very concept of competitive sports pointless: If the Jets are so intent on moving the ball into the end zone, why then would the team in the blue shirts try so hard to stop them? Or, if the Mets guy wants to hit the baseball, why is the pitcher throwing it so fast?

My daughter, two and a half years younger, has shown more of a competitive streak (though Mr. Rogers himself might have had more of a competitive streak than Gavin). I started to wonder if she might be the one to fulfill those offspring sporting fantasies I’d had years before. We signed Charlotte up for soccer, and on a brilliantly sunny Saturday morning that was full of promise, I slipped pink and black cleats — so cute you might want to hang them from your rear-view mirror — over her tiny feet, and drove her to the field to meet the rest of her “Hot Wheels” teammates.

Within moments, Charlotte’s mood soured.

The uniform, the cleats, the coach, a bunch of kids she didn’t know — it was all too much. There were tears. There were scared looks to the sideline as the coach walked the team through drills, which I responded to with hopeful smiles. Memories of standing on that same cleat-marked field two years before came flooding back, imploring my son, begging my son, bribing my son — OK, two Dunkin Donuts after the game… all right, three, and that’s my final offer — to finish the game.

Halfway through her first session, when practice turns to a 3-on-3 game, Charlotte lasted a lone 60-second shift before spending the rest of the game crying on the sidelines.

But we Malones do not quit. Since my wife is better at coercing the kids — after all, she’s responsible for getting them to eat a few times a day — she suggested that she take our daughter to soccer the next week. As I held my breath the next Saturday morning, Charlotte slipped on her shin guards and uniform and those cute cleats, and followed Mom out the door.

Gavin and I stayed home, making Lego airplanes. I was tempted to call my wife every 10 minutes, but waited until an hour had passed.

“How’s she doing?” I asked anxiously.

“Good,” said my wife. “She’s having fun.”

Warmth spread from my chest to my gut.

“That’s great,” I said.

“Oh, and she scored a goal!”

My daughter scored a goal! The fatherhood fantasies I’d harbored for a decade were finally fulfilled — while I was sitting on the floor of our family room, making Lego airplanes. I was ecstatic for her, if a little sad for myself.

I asked Charlotte the next week if I could come along, and she said no. She wouldn’t say why — only that she did not want me there. (Mind you, I’m not the dad on the sidelines, screaming at his kid. I’ve seen that dad; I’m not him.) So I stayed home with Gavin again, and we constructed a replica of the Intrepid aircraft carrier out of cardboard and duct tape.

And so it went: the girls off to soccer Saturday mornings, while Gavin and I turned the basement into a haunted house, or made the Statue of Liberty in scrap-paper mosaic, or created Magic Kingdom out of Superstructs, or built K’NEX robots for the first annual Robot Marathon around our family room.

I thought Charlotte might actually grant me permission to watch the final game of the season, but I got the same determined shake of the head from her, and no explanation as to why soccer worked so much better with me back at home.

I watched her slip on those cute cleats, round up her ball and head for the car; a season of soccer under her belt, and all I got to see were a couple shaky video clips.

My son snapped me out of my reverie. We had sticks in the back yard to gather and sharpen, Gavin said. Cheering my daughter from the sideline sure would be fun, but making bows and arrows from twigs and fishing line is pretty cool, too.     

Michael Malone lives in Hawthorne with his family. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Westchester Magazine and the San Francisco Chronicle. His books include “Notes From the Captain Lawrence Tasting Room” and the novel “No Never No More.”