The other day I got the news that an old friend of mine and his wife were getting ready for their first child. "I wouldn't believe it, either," Paul said. "But it is what it is, and I couldn't be happier."

I'd heard the news already, of course - news travels fast in small towns, and faster in small cities, where old friends cling together out of too many habits. Paul and his wife had been married less than a year, and living comfortably across the river. They were young and in love and expecting a boy.

"We kinda have to have this baby shower thing, now," Paul told me. Years ago, Paul was the kind of guy who politely asked you for the money he'd loaned you months ago. "I'm not saying you have to bring a gift, but..."

Of course, I had to bring a gift. His saying that I didn't have to clinched it. He told me the date and we joked a little about old times, how the child would be living proof we were getting older. When we hung up, I felt something like the accumulated anxiety of every Christmas season drop on my shoulders at once. The unique gift was out there, of course, something to show my joy for Paul without coming across as overly sentimental or embarrassing him with outrageously expensive luxuries. But something perfect wasn't going to fall into my lap. I knew it, the way I knew my knowledge of baby gifts amounted to less than zip. The search was on, and felt heavy even before it started.

I started looking at the big-box stores (Toys Ain't Cheap, Babies R Expensive) clustered around the local mall. The gifts were depressingly similar, lots of big packaging with small toys inside. Most of the stores offered gift giving "advice" in the form of circulars for their latest products on sale. Besides which, some of the items looked impossible to gift wrap, despite their obvious purpose.

An online search guide revealed some useful ideas, like narrowing a search with words like "unique" and "creative." These terms bumped me into a better class of website, featuring classier items that looked durable. I browsed through a bunch, but settled on a personalized baseball bat. Paul and I had played ball for years on weekend pickup games, and it seemed a good way to communicate old memories. Also, I thought I might be the kindly uncle, encouraging the baby towards sports.

Another idea - a close runner up - was a helicopter bank, also personalized, that could go in the baby's nursery. I imagined it could be the baby's first toy, and I'd at least have given something solid and durable, the kind of thing that lasts well into their childhood. I wanted something more personal than supplies, and while I knew some of Paul's wife's friends were bringing such things - elaborate diaper cakes and dainty bath and bedtime sets - I wanted something more masculine. I thought the bat would work, because to a greater or lesser extent most men in their secret hearts hope their child is a great athlete. It's an afterglow of our own childhood ambitions.

Still, I was bringing a baseball bat to a baby shower. I knew Paul would appreciate it, and maybe the baby would laugh someday, too. If not as a baseball player, at least as a well meant gift from a well-meaning uncle. I figured that was about as unique as I could ask for.