My friend Scott was nothing if not resourceful.
After we climbed the hot metal fence with the spikes on top into the parking lot of the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport, we counted our blessings. This lot was one of the biggest and the best in which to play baseball from Maplewood Ave., over to Clinton Ave., and on up to North Ave. (which became the more regal King’s Highway once you crossed into Fairfield.)
On this happy occasion, we also happened to have a full complement of neighborhood boys, including a couple of kids from way over on Howard Ave. whom I didn’t know too well. It was rare that we had enough kids (not to mention bats, gloves and balls) to play an actual game between two teams.
Normally, we’d play four-on-four, with anything hit to right-field an automatic out. Fewer than eight kids meant mere batting practice for the day, desultory fly balls dropping well out of reach out of our de facto outfielder.
Scott was the first one to notice it. The smooth handbag rested, discarded and disgraced, near the green metal dumpster under the stained glass image of Jesus extending His hands, sans glove, for what must have been a low line-drive.
We had the usual piece of damaged roofing tile for first base, Johnny’s mother’s Neil Sadaka L.P. for third base, and, despite our proclivity for high scoring games, what was left of a ONE WAY, DO NOT ENTER sign for home plate.
But Tony’s mom would no longer let us use his grandma’s crocheted Lord’s Prayer on a doily for second base. So we knew we would have to improvise.
Except for the one used Kleenex tucked hopelessly away in the loose change compartment in the front, the brown leather handbag was empty. If we could pull the strap off (which the Jelliff brothers did, quickly and efficiently), we’d have ourselves a satisfactory keystone to slap down in the middle of the steamy asphalt.
Scott, craving the validation from his friends he never got from his bastard of a step-father, let out an adolescent, voice-cracking war-whoop as he raised the handbag over his head like an Algonquin war trophy
Johnny, always quick to kick the chair out from under Scott’s skinny legs while the self-induced noose was wrapped firmly around his neck, shouted, “Shut the hell up, Scott! Let’s freakin’ play!”
Johnny was the youngest of our group by an unheard of four years, but he could hold his own with even the 7th graders. His dad actually hung around with my dad on similar turf in the days when Bridgeport’s impending collapse was delayed by the still sinewy bonds of church, work and family.
Once the work went away, to Taiwan, Malaysia, and even fucking Arkansas, the families fragmented, leaving only the churches to sort through the scattered bones and abandoned souls of the old, neglected neighborhoods.
But at least we had our second base.
At precisely 4:00 p.m., Tony hit a shot that approached, on a line, the red and orange stained glass windows of what we thought of as the Diocese H.Q. It was the mysterious place that only priests and the occasional civilian grownup had ever set foot inside of, and we couldn’t even begin to imagine what Holy Rites and adventures went on inside that place.
Even my grandpa, who seemed to go to church whenever he was awake (and he didn’t sleep much), had never entered that cloistered universe.
Tony’s line-drive, perhaps aided by the irregular shape of the lopsided nine-month old baseball itself, curved away from the window, slamming into the stone border just six inches away from Jesus’ outstretched hand.
We knew it was exactly 4:00 p.m. because at the exact moment that ball hit stone, the bell inside the office chambers tolled four times. For a second, our young minds searched for some connection between the line-drive and the bell but, of course, there wasn’t one.
Until one of the priests, a middle-aged man wrapped in a black cassock with white trim, approached us purposefully. Without a word, he strode up to our pitcher, one of the boys from over on Howard Ave., and held his hand out for the ball. Assuming that excommunication would probably follow close on the heels of the surrendering of the baseball, I was just glad it wasn’t one of my buddies.
As the quiet priest, tall and calm, held out his hand, doing his best impersonation of Reds manager Sparky Anderson, purple clouds bruised the sky above us. I thought, “Holy shit, we’re sunk. We’re gonna lose the baseball, then it’s going to freakin’ rain.”
The priest stood, shadow-less in the diffused sunlight, with his back foot planted on our pitcher’s mound (a paper-plate from Carvel Ice Cream.) When his left leg came up to his belt, his head sank slightly into his left shoulder as his right arm began to arc high over his head. His fastball exploded into the mitt of Matt, our 13-year old catcher. Matt just blinked as he tossed the ball back to this still-silent priest.
Now he had our attention.
He motioned for Tony to get back in the “batter’s box,” a crude outline of chalk on pavement. Tony, perhaps feeling what the guests of the Inquisition might have felt in 16th-century Spain, held the Chris Speier model Louisville Slugger high and back, his right arm cocked at the elbow. This time, the pitch started heading for Tony’s face, then about eight feet out, it curved over home plate, catching the outside corner for a strike.
Scott and Johnny, always looking for something to argue about, merely glanced at each other, mouthing “What the fuck?” silently behind their baseball gloves.
Strike three was what appeared to be that new pitch, the split-fingered fastball, recently made prominent and popular by Cardinals relief pitcher Bruce Sutter. Tony just looked down as he leaned on his bat.
The priest walked over to Tony, and loud enough for most of us to hear, simply said, “Son, thanks for letting me play. It’s been a while.” With that, he handed Tony the baseball, then strode evenly and without arrogance back inside the priestly vault. At first, no one said anything. We weren’t even sure if this was some kind of unspoken message on his part that we should get the hell out of there.
This was, after all, priestly property, and we weren’t exactly invited.
Finally, Johnny broke the ice, yelling at Tony, “You just gonna lean on that bat all day, or are we gonna play?!”
We played until our hands were raw and our shins were sore, until the universal call of mom’s announcing supper rang throughout the neighborhood, and encroaching darkness dimmed our enthusiasm.
As for the priest, despite playing in that parking lot several more times throughout the summer, we never saw him again.
Wherever he ended up, though, I like to think he’s still mixing fastballs and curves on a sandlot in some half-forgotten town that exists on the periphery of the American Dream.