A Christmas visit from the old sports school

Little Davey wasn’t supposed to sneak into the downstairs closet, but he did. His mom was asleep. Davey was searching for hidden Christmas presents.

It took awhile. He already was yawning when he found a wrapped box hidden under some blankets. Certain this was meant for him, he pulled it open.

Out rolled a faded gray baseball.

“I’ve been looking for that,” came a voice. Davey looked up to see a bearded figure in a stocking cap.

“Obi-Wan Kenobi?” he said.

“Santa Claus,” the old man sighed.

“No way, dude,” Davey said. “I’ve seen videos of Santa Claus on YouTube. He drives a turbo-prop sleigh. And his reindeer rap.”

“That’s today’s version,” the old man said. “Every year gets its own Santa Claus. I’m from 1953.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I misplaced that.” He nodded toward the ball. “It was meant for your grandfather. I dropped it down the wrong chimney. Been looking for it ever since.”

“What are you gonna do with it?”

“Take it back.”

“To 1953?”

“I like to finish what I started.”

Little Davey gripped the ball.

“Not so fast,” he said. “Let’s make a trade.”

Batteries not included

Santa seemed perplexed. But little Davey had been raised on fantasy football, so he figured he could gain points through any situation.

“Whatcha got in that bag?” he said.

“Everything,” Santa replied. “What do you like?”

“Sports,” Davey answered.

Santa took out a bicycle rim. “How’s that?”

“What is it?”

“You use it as a basketball hoop.”

“A hoop? What if you dunk? Is it tear-away?”

“Beg your pardon?” Santa said.

“Forget that. What else you wanna trade?”

Santa removed a leather helmet. “Ho, ho, ho. You like football, Davey?”

“Where’s the wireless radio?”

“Radio?”

“How am I gonna get the plays?”

“Hmm,” Santa said. “OK. Maybe some sneakers?” He pulled out a pair of black canvas high-tops.

“Whose shoe is that?”

“It’s yours. Merry Christmas.”

“Nah, I mean, is it LeBron? Kobe? Steph?”

“Why would Santa give you someone else’s shoe?”

Davey made a face. Santa made a face. Clearly, they were not speaking the same language.

Having a ball

“Tell you what,” Davey said. “I’ll trade you this old ball for a carbon-fiber snowboard.”

“I don’t have that,” Santa said.

“A Formula 1 golf cart? A Shinola bicycle?”

Santa shook his head.

“How about some Air Jordon Blackouts? Or the gold-dipped Nike Dunks? No, wait. … How about a Sony PSP player and the newest games?”

“Games!” Santa exclaimed. “I have games!”

“Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater? Madden? UFC?”

“I was going to say Checkers.”

“What’s Checkers?”

“What’s UFC?”

“They fight with kicks, elbows, fists.”

“Those poor men.”

“Women.”

“I need to sit down.”

Santa plopped against the wall. He eyed the ball. “Your grandfather,” he said, “wanted that so badly.”

“What for?” Davey said. “It doesn’t even turn on.”

“Once upon a time, you didn’t need batteries to enjoy sports or screens or joysticks. You played. You broke a sweat. And you used your imagination. Imagination is everything. Even in a game of catch.”

“What’s ‘catch’?”

“You never played catch with your dad?”

“My dad’s not around.”

Santa’s eyes began to water. He reached into his bag and pulled out a glove.

“Put this on,” he whispered.

“And then I hit you?” Davey said.

Santa shook his head. He walked down the hall. He motioned for Davey to throw him the ball. Davey, who was great with a video controller, had never learned to throw. He rolled it on the floor.

Santa held the ball out. “Now imagine you are your favorite ballplayer.”

“So I have $200 million? Cool!”

“No. During a game. And it’s the last man up. And you need one more out to win the pennant. And it’s a fly ball coming your way…”

The ball rose. Davey raised his hand. He squeezed just as the ball popped in his glove. “I did it! Yes!”

He felt a sudden urge to throw the ball back. But the bearded man was gone. The next thing Davey knew, he was being nudged on the shoulder.

“Wake up. Why are you sleeping in the closet?”

Davey lifted to see his mom. Everything was back in place. No ball. No old man. Davey rubbed his eyes.

“Mom, are we gonna see Grandpa on Christmas? I want to play a game with him.”

“You know he hates those video games,” she said.

“Yeah, I know,” Davey said. But as they headed upstairs, he glanced at a pile of blankets and a small box peeking out. His imagination began to jingle.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.

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