On a warm afternoon in late May, 66-year-old Charles Choice stood on an empty UT Arlington baseball field, glove in hand.
“You’re going to have to take it easy on me now,” Charles said, his voice carrying across the foul line and into right field. “It’s been a long time since I’ve done this.”
Charles had reason to be nervous. After all, it had been more than 12 years since he last caught a ball, and this one was about to be thrown by a major league baseball player. His son, Texas Rangers rookie Michael Choice, stood less than 20 feet away, ball in hand.
“All right, you better catch it,” said Michael, 24, smiling at his father. “You ready?”
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Charles nodded as he smacked the inside of his mitt with the back of his fist.
Michael tossed the ball to his dad, who reached out and caught it with ease, almost as if no time had passed. Charles tossed it back, his throw falling a few feet short of its intended target.
“Man, that’s kind of weak,” Charles said.
“You’ve got to get some extension, get that arm back there,” said Michael, stretching his own throwing arm back behind himself. “I feel like I’m teaching you now.”
The little boy he used to play catch with in the back yard had grown into a man. He’d spent his entire life playing right here in Arlington, first as a little leaguer, then at UT Arlington, and now with the Rangers, just like they had always dreamed.
It was surreal.
Idol at home
Like most young boys, Michael grew up idolizing his father, frequently asking his dad to tell him stories from his youth, mostly stories about baseball.
Charles, who was 42 when Michael was born, had plenty to share with his only son.
The elder Choice grew up in Dayton, Ohio, playing football and baseball for Nettie Lee Roth High School. A solidly built catcher who could hit for power, Charles went on to be named team MVP his senior year before taking his talents to Clark Atlanta University, where he lettered in baseball and football.
One story in particular stuck with Michael over the years, one he would ask his dad to repeat more often than the others.
“Back where I played my high school ball, there was this tall oak tree beyond the center-field fence,” Charles said. “I was seeing the ball well that day, feeling really good, and the pitcher threw me a hanging curveball. That was my favorite pitch. I couldn’t catch up to the heat the way Michael does, but don’t you throw me a breaking ball.”
Charles didn’t miss, belting the pitch to deep center field, clearing the fence and the tall oak tree, leaving the fans and his teammates speechless as he rounded the bases.
“You look at my dad, he’s a big guy, and I used to think about him being younger, being this strong-built guy who hit a home run dead center over an oak tree,” Michael said. “I used to think, ‘Man I want to do that one day, I want to hit a towering shot, some kind of a meaningful home run that I can tell my son about.’ ”
Passion for baseball
As Michael grew, so did his passion for the game. Charles seized the opportunity to spend time with him, using baseball as a way to teach him about life’s parallels to the game he loved.
With their home a modest 15 miles from the Globe Life Park in Arlington, the two would make frequent trips to watch their favorite team over the next few years.
“He was 4 years old when I took him to his first game,” Charles said. “We sat in the nosebleeds and I can still remember, he was wearing a red hat and he asked me ‘Dad, can I get a hot dog?’ and I said ‘You sure can, buddy!’ We were so high he really couldn’t see much but he just knew we were at the ballpark together.”
In the following years, the pair spent hours in the back yard playing catch and hitting soft toss.
“I would ask him to play catch with me every day,” Michael said. “That’s all I wanted to do, and he’d do it anytime I asked.”
When Michael outgrew the back yard they moved to the street that lined the front of their South Arlington home.
“We’d long toss; really stretch it out, constantly looking both ways for cars, trying not to throw the ball in the gutter,” Charles said. “He always had a big smile on his face. He knew he could throw the ball hard, and when he got older he’d grin like ‘I know I can throw it past you now.’ ”
After years of surrendering balls to the gutter, Charles decided it was time to take Michael to an actual field to work on his game.
The two scoped out Arlington Bowie High School’s facilities, discovering a spot in the fence they could easily slip through.
“I remember we would go in their cages and he would throw to me until his arm got tired and he couldn’t throw anymore,” Michael said.
Over the next decade, Michael went on to star at Mansfield Timberview High School, hitting .506 his senior year, followed by three years patrolling center field at UTA.
Charles remembers going to see a game with two friends from high school.
“On the way over they told Michael, ‘If you can play as good as your dad you’ll be something special,’ ” Charles said. “So Michael went out and did his normal thing, and when we got back in the car after the game they looked at me and said ‘Yeah, sorry Charles, but your son is a whole lot better than you ever were!’ ”
As a junior, Michael hit .393 with 16 home runs and was named first-team All-America and Southland Conference player of the year. In his three years at UTA, he batted .392 and hit a school-record 34 home runs.
Following his stellar collegiate career, Michael was taken 10th overall by the Oakland Athletics in the 2010 Major League Baseball draft.
“I remember taking him to a UTA game when he was 12 or 13 years old just so he could see the speed of the college game,” Charles said. “The day he was drafted, all that went through my mind and I was just in awe. To see all the hard work pay off, all the memories. He means everything to me. He’s a better person than he is a baseball player. That’s what makes me the most proud.”
Michael spent much of the next three years riding buses from city to city, attempting to grind his way to the show.
On a rare off day, while in Class A short-season ball in the Pacific League, he found himself at the Nike Factory Store in Beaverton, Ore., shopping for shoes. While there he met his wife, Jade-Marie. Two years later the couple married and welcomed their son, Blair, into the world.
“For the first time I wasn’t worried about anything but him at that moment,” Michael said. “Once you have a son you realize all the sacrifices and things your parents made for you and you realize how much they mean. I try to do things with [Blair] like my dad did with me. I try to set an example for him every day.”
After batting .302 in Triple A for the Sacramento River Cats in 2013, the A’s brought Michael up to the big leagues for their September playoff push. Over the next month he hit .278 in 19 plate appearances.
Three months later Oakland made a significant four-player trade, sending Michael to his hometown team, the Texas Rangers.
After sharing the news with his wife, Michael immediately called his dad.
“I was trying to get ahold of him and he wouldn’t answer his phone,” Michael said. “He was on the other line and couldn’t figure out how to click over.”
After half an hour, Michael finally got through and told his dad the news. He was coming home.
Back at UTA, the shadows now starting to creep across the outfield grass, Charles seems to have found his rhythm.
He puts a little more zip on his next throw, popping Michael’s glove.
“You notice how good and straight they are now?” he says, smiling.
“Yeah, I see you got it back now,” Michael says.
“The Rangers aren’t going to sign me, that’s what you’re saying?” laughs Charles.
Michael smiles and fires one a little harder.
“I think it’s a little late for that, but I think you could probably [throw out] the first pitch.”
After a few more throws, the pair calls it quits for the day, walking side by side toward the first-base dugout.
Charles throws his arm around Michael’s shoulder.
“This brings back a lot of memories, son,” he says.
“Almost like old times,” Michael says.
For fathers, regardless of what they experience leading up to it, raising their children becomes the central experience of their life, the greatest source of pride and joy. The son, it seems, is the father’s best version of himself.
And perhaps there is no simpler way for a son to feel that connection with his father than out in the yard, playing catch with his hero, his dad.
“I went to the ballpark the other night by myself,” Charles said. “The ambiance was just beautiful. The smoke was drifting out of the top of the restaurant, the smell of the food and the concessions, the players were warming up; it was a perfect day. I just had to stop right there and thank God for giving me the opportunity to watch my son play ball.”