Dear Dad

Here's a letter ESPN's most-gifted Eric Neel wrote to his father:

Hey Dad,

Your granddaughter and I play T-ball these days at a local rec center, a patch of trampled grass and dirt just north of where the 134 cuts from Pasadena to L.A.'s west side. Tess wears number 12 and meticulously pulls the front of her red jersey down over the top of her pants so you can read ANGELS across the front. She has rituals. She runs out to play second base and draws a broad circle in the dirt with her right toe and then steps into the circle, crouches down, reaches her glove toward the ground and looks up at the hitter. In the batter's box, she licks her upper lip, taps the plate twice, takes two deliberate practice swings, then pulls the bat up and back until her chin and nose are tucked behind her left shoulder, like she's got a secret, like she's The Shadow peering from behind his cape.

I help coach the team, and she and I practice hitting in the backyard at home sometimes. At the start, I'll wrap my arms around her from behind, and put my hands on hers so we can swing the bat together. We're close enough to hear each other breathe, and I'll whisper to her: "Watch the ball all the way. Swing through." When I was her age, you and Mom had already split up; you'd moved out, and the divorce was pending. I remember taking practice swings in front of a mirror in my bedroom, trying to hold the bat still at the finish, trying to imagine what I should look like. So much can go wrong at the beginning. Your arms aren't quite strong enough to bring the bat level through the zone. Your feet get anxious. You lose your balance. So I like to wrap my arms around Tess those first few swings and move through them with her. I like to whisper in her ear.

[Illustration: James Noel Smith]