The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the category “Baseball Memories”

The Last Days of Summer

When I was a kid, I used to keep track of my batting average during our extremely informal sandlot baseball season.  I really didn’t know how to figure out a batting average, but I knew that one hit in two at bats was a .500 average, and I would go from there.  One year, I hit something like .667, but I may have been off by 50 points or more.

To call it a “season” really doesn’t do justice to our daily habit of roaming around Bridgeport looking for a place to play ball.  Moreover, if we couldn’t find other kids beyond our neighborhood to play against (which was often the case), then we would split our core group in two and just play against each other in a lot, a field, or a quiet side-street.

Our baseball season would go on without significant interruption until the dawn of another school year.  At that point, as the summer sunlight began to slant away from us, retreating into an early dusk, fewer and fewer of us would regularly be available after school to play ball.

A terrible disease called onset Algebra now vexed us in the short hours between our after-school snack and bath-time.  It was often accompanied by a sharp pain of anxiety in the gut as we realized those moments lost daydreaming in the classroom (when we should have been paying attention to the teacher) were probably a fatal mistake.

The darkness of the dreaded spelling homework doomed us, rendering pointless our pathetic protests to mom.

“Mom, can’t I go out and play now?”

“Not until after you finish your homework.”

“But Scott and Johnny are outside playing ball already.”

“I don’t care if Scott and Johnny are out there all night.  Now go finish your homework, mister.”

There were still those infrequent moments where on a surprisingly warm September afternoon just after Labor Day, my friends and I would sweat out the school-day like alcoholics sobering up in the sunshine, and revel in the smell of leather gloves and the sound of the ball smacking into our mitts.

These, the last days of summer, passed over us, through us, around us, the aroma of dead August still scenting the air.  We would fight a losing battle to hang onto September, knowing full well that October portended thicker jackets, shorter days and frostier mornings.

Funny thing about the last day of summer.  By our unwritten definition, it was the final day we were all available to play baseball together.  But we never knew in advance which day that would be, and we never marked its immediate passing with ceremony or scroll.

Yet for some odd reason, after several slippery decades and another Labor Day have passed me by, denoting another dying summer, I still half expect to look out my kitchen window and see Scott and Johnny tossing around a scuffed ball, waiting for me to come out and play.

Now my son, about the same age as the boys I remember playing with all those years ago, faces his own after-school homework demons, his lazy summer afternoons already just hazy memories.

But the bat and ball buried deep in the closet beckon, and my arm feels good today.  The math problems will still be here when we get back, and I doubt Scott and Johnny will wait around out there forever.

In baseball, it turns out, there are no last days, merely irregularly scheduled off-seasons.

 

 

 

 

 

Remnants of All Things Dying

The slushy streets sounded hollow as my boots clicked on the pavement, as if the subterranean world below Bridgeport was a cracked eggshell just waiting to collapse into itself.  I imagined the bones of workers clubbed to death in labor disputes by company goons a half-century before my father was born, rotting down there, shovels and picks in mummified hands awaiting a battle long ended.  Dead buildings of gray brick and grime stood sentinel along wide, deserted streets.  They called this time of year “Spring.”

I felt both sweaty and chilled in my dark blue fleece as the remnants of a sun dissolved behind black cherry clouds.  My dad once worked in one of these vacant buildings where cold metal machinery claimed fingers, hands and even the occasional arm in its vast unforgiving maw.  Guys got bandaged up and went back to work the next day.  The blood of men in their thousands greased the wheels of industrial America.  My dad called it “going to work.”

My friend James lived up on Washington Ave. about a mile or so from my house, but a frayed ribbon of Bridgeport mile was a showcase of all that had once been, and now only the scattered, battered remains were apparent.  A vast industrial cemetery graveyard that I called home.  It started to drizzle.

I had hoped James and I could play some catch.  I’d even brought along an extra glove in my denim duffle bag I’d inherited from a gnarled aunt whose favorite pastime was collecting stamped envelopes from places others had been, of which she could only imagine the worst calamities befalling her if she’d ever set foot outside her two-room apartment, triple locks on her front door.  I couldn’t say I blamed her.

James didn’t answer the door at first; he never did.  Apparently allergic to the light even in a refracted nightmare of a town like ours, asthmatic James finally cracked the door open, stretched and yawned in his undershorts and without a word, allowed me to enter his darkened sanctuary.  He coughed as he pointed to a pile of papers on a desk on the edge of a shallow kitchen.  It was a story he and I’d been working on, but it wasn’t coming together. Like our story, he and I would soon go our separate ways, connected only by the fiction that friendship lasted forever.

“So, what did you think?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.

James sighed a lot.  (Only my dad sighed more often.)  There were levels to his sighs.  Small sigh meant things were typically O.K., but never would be great.  Medium sigh, shorter in duration but more intense, meant he had actually given the subject some thought and predictably wasn’t impressed.  Long sighs followed by a trip to the refrigerator for a glass of milk indicated categorical failure on your part from which there might be no return.

What followed was a long sigh, followed by a trip to the bathroom.  That was a new one, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I knew it couldn’t be good.

Good times with James only happened more or less by accident now.  A friendship formed between a pair of fourteen-year old loners in a Catholic high school populated by medieval nuns, creepy lay-teachers and sadistic jocks was a friendship defined under duress in the trench-warfare of adolescence.  Now that we’d been freed from the petty tyranny of our education, our bond had begun to dissipate, though neither of us had the guts to completely face up to it.  Getting on each other’s nerves was about all we had left.

When he emerged from the bathroom several minutes later, dressed in blue jeans and a Pink Floyd tee-shirt, I chose not to ask for specific feedback on my portion of the story.  It would be a hopeless and depressing waste of time.  So I pulled the glove out of my duffle bag and tossed it over to James.  He briefly examined it without surprise or excitement.

“Where the hell’d you get a left-handers mitt?”  he asked, because I was right-handed.

“Babe Ruth’s fucking grave.  What the hell difference does it make?”

Babe Ruth's grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery

Babe Ruth’s grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Without a word and to my everlasting astonishment, James led the way outdoors to the mostly empty parking lot around the back of his apartment building.  Only a lone, ’76 Nova stood in the way of the spot where we last played nearly a year ago.  Luckily, it had its parking brake off, and with the driver’s side window smashed in, it wasn’t too difficult to manipulate the abandoned vehicle out of our way, if you were careful about the broken glass.

I started off with a split-fingered fastball, the way Bruce Sutter used to do it.  That pissed James off ’cause he wasn’t expecting it, so he fired a two-seamer back at me which nearly ripped the webbing of the glove I’d had since sixth-grade (and still have today.)  I smiled, which I think was the first time either of us had smiled that day.

“Asshole!” I called out to him, the echo reverberating off the silent brick buildings.

I threw him my best change-up, which never fooled anyone I ever threw it to.

“That all you got?” he shot back, a faint hint of a smile nearly creasing his lips.  “No wonder you never got laid in high school.”

“With those Amazons?”  Christ, even the nuns looked better.

“Donna would’ve let you at least touch her.”  He was getting comfortable now, his arm angle the familiar three-quarters I remembered from the high school ball-field.

“Yeah, with your dick,” I called back.  A pretty standard, unoriginal response expected by both parties in a conversation such as this.

“Got one for you,” he warned.  But I knew what was coming.  A tight curveball, small but perceptible break to it, creased the March breeze and smacked into my tan George A. Reach Co. mitt.  It felt like home.  Not the one I actually lived in, but the place I imagined must be just around the corner from the park, where kids played in actual sunshine on real grass.  Home.

A middle-aged black man came down and sat on a stoop just watching us for several minutes, followed by a pair of young, twin sisters with pink barrettes in their hair.  James and I had nothing more to say to each other, but I like to think the sound of baseball — the final game of catch we ever played — yet reverberates off silent walls in a crumbling, forgotten part of town accessible only through faulty, imperfect memory.

Banana Bread and George Theodore’s Sweet Tooth

My grandmother, of Slovak origin, made certain foods I could barely pronounce, let alone digest.  Among these old-world favorites (at least in eastern Slovakia, near the Ukrainian border), were bobalki, halushki and sirecz (pronounced “cidets.”)  I dare you to try to find any of these items on your friendly neighborhood menu.  Go ahead.  I’ll wait.

Even other Slovak-Americans (whom I rarely came into contact with, but they do exist), sometimes hadn’t heard of these foods.  In fact, I’m left wondering if these particular victuals weren’t native to simply one small neighborhood in a hidden quarter of a half-forgotten farm village left over from the Hapsburg Empire.  Kind of like the Mets fan rumored to live on the northern side of Staten Island, just beyond the ferry terminal.  He’d likely also have been a fan of Mets outfielder George Theodore.

George “The Stork” Theodore was a Utah native best remembered perhaps for colliding with Mets center-fielder Don Hahn during their improbable pennant winning season of 1973.  Theodore’s best season came in 1971 when he batted .333 with 28 homer runs and 113 RBI in 507 plate appearances.  He also scored 112 runs, and stole 15 bases in 17 attempts. Unfortunately for the Mets, that performance came in the Single-A California League in Visalia when George was already 24-years old, which is sort of like an 18-year old dating a 9th-grader.

George liked marshmallow milkshakes, or so the back of his 1974 Topps baseball card informs us.  I, on the other hand, loved my grandma’s banana bread.  In fact, from Bridgeport, Connecticut to Portland, Maine and then down to Greenville, South Carolina, I’ve never had banana bread quite the equal of her moist, sweet yellow cake.

She passed away over a decade ago, leaving the world with more apps than they can download while waiting for their tires to be balanced at your local Tire Kingdom, but all the poorer regarding the existence of a nice, satisfying little snack bread. Which, as far as I’m concerned, pretty much sums up the 21st-century.

I’m sure that if George Theodore had visited our house on Bridgeport’s west side in the mid-’70’s, he, too, would surely have enjoyed her banana bread.  In fact, it is even possible that the back of his card would have read “George loves Mets Fan Bill Miller’s Grandma’s Banana Bread.”

It would have been quite the coup for Topps, and Mets fans everywhere would want to know where exactly Colorado Avenue in Bridgeport really was.  A perhaps mythic location akin to the Elysian Fields in New Jersey, or the Schaefer beer brewery  on Kent Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn (which closed down in 1976, a pretty respectable year for the Mets.)

As far as I could tell, Slovaks generally didn’t go in for baseball.  In fact, as a species, Slovaks seem primarily to have thrived on the concept of not being noticed at all, which is what happens when you’ve spent around 500 years having been conquered and pillaged by one invader or another.  My ancestors did try to warn Jonathon Harker, however, away from Dracula’s castle, but who ever listens to a Slovak?  (“The Slav natives Harker meets along the way to the castle likewise incur his disdain.”  Dracula, page 33.  Ouch.)

Ya Gotta Believe! became a popular battle cry in Mets Land in ’73 precisely because Tug McGraw wasn’t mostly Slovak.  Not even a little bit, in fact.  And I’m fairly certain he’d never had bobalki at Easter or Christmas, but that was his loss.  Still, having the American League affiliate of the Hapsburg Empire nearby in the Bronx, led by the despotic Teutonic House of Steinbrenner, we Slovak-American Mets fans knew a thing or two about playing second fiddle to the Yankees while biding our time.  The uprising at Shea Stadium in ’73 wasn’t unlike the Glorious Revolution that swept Europe in 1848, but with slightly less bloodshed, at least if you weren’t seated in the bleachers.

For me, George Theodore represented that unlikely euphoric atmosphere which engulfed much of the Tri-State area that summer.  Yes, Tom Terrific was the valiant warrior, and Bud Harrelson slugging Pete Rose after a hard slide into second base was the iconic moment, but George Theodore was the any-man who’d known mostly nothing but mediocrity or worse suddenly finding himself in a goddamned ticker-tape parade in the canyons of New York City, eating his banana bread and marshmallow milkshakes with a big ear-to-ear grin on his face as he sat in the back seat of a Lincoln Continental filled with confetti.  Or so I’d like to believe.

George is 68-years old now, around the same age that my grandma was when my parents, my brother and I left her and my grandpa behind and moved out to the suburbs.  I think Dante mentioned some sort of appropriate punishment for people like us who did that sort of thing in his “Purgatorio.”

With that move, all remaining Old World smells, tastes and fears were left behind for the stilleto-capitalism of the Reagan ’80’s, by which point Spielberg had almost single-handedly buried the blue-collar ethnic working class under the scrap-heap of American cultural history with his schmaltzy, two-dimensional paeans to paleo-Eisenhower suburbia replete with market-tested hairstyles and product placement marketing.  Even the ’86 Mets, I now have to admit, were a bit more like New Coke than The Real Thing of ’73.

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday, and my wife and kids and I will drive on out to my parents’ house and enjoy a nice, unnecessarily gargantuan Sunday meal.  It will taste delicious, and we’ll all have a great time.  I may not remember to take a few moments tomorrow to remember the old ethnic foods my grandma made forty years ago, the foods that are probably built into my DNA, but a 1974 Topps George Theodore baseball card does sit in the glove compartment of our Toyota.

Once, my older son found it in there, and asked me why I keep such an old card just lying around with the gas station receipts and the loose change.  I told him because it helps me remember things I don’t dare forget.

 

 

 

The Way of Things

We’d never been this far from our familiar stomping grounds before.  West of the railroad tracks, three blocks past State Street, (which was the normal boundary of our unofficial territory), across a large overgrown lot littered with needles, cans, and used condoms.  I think it was a park, but no longer functioning in its former capacity.

It was strange, actually, that we even found the place, considering we weren’t even looking for it, on a mission crafted of vague, half-formed ideas.  Let’s go looking for other kids to play ball against, in a place we’d never been before.  I would say that you used to be able make journeys like that in those days, but that would provide credence to an idea that was uniformly bad from the start.For one thing, none of us had brought any water, or any money.

 Normally, we didn’t have to worry about those considerations because, seldom straying far from home, we were always within a short walking distance to someone’s house, where a pitcher of iced tea or lemonade could be emptied into half a dozen plus one Dixie cups, our team sans a catcher and a proper center-fielder.  We savored the sweetness while sweating in someone’s kitchen, our gear smelling of soiled leather and splintered wood.

On this occasion, however, we set off on our ill-defined journey with less actual idea of where we might end up with than did Coronado four-hundred years earlier.  At least he had oxen and arquebuses.  All we had were feigned scowls and Pro Keds.

Johnny, the youngest among us, was always the first to speak up.  We’d been walking for around 45 minutes under a July southern New England sun, and were pretty thirsty and worse, we were getting on each other’s nerves.  And, as usual, Scott was Johnny’s favorite target.

“Jesus H. Christ, Scott, you got a load in your pants or something?  You walk like my grandma after her stroke.”

This, of course, would set off Scott, normally tightly wound to begin with, and now even more profoundly insecure with his newly acquired acne.  He was just 12, but his body had already begun to betray him.  A head taller than some of us, he was nonetheless the worst player in our group, though one we could always count on to never have anything better to do on any given day than to play baseball.

“AaarrrRRAHHH!”  He went after Johnny with his bat raised high, but none of us believed he’d actually ever hit Johnny with it.  Weirdly, they were actually quite inseparable; you never found one without finding the other.  Nevertheless, to save face, he needed to indulge in the pantomime of outrage to assuage his honor.  It’s just the way it was.  Johnny stopped Scott by pointing at another approaching tribe of ball players, more roughshod and studiously sullen than even ourselves.  And there were more of them.

Now, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that racial differences didn’t matter.  Our group could be loosely described as whitish, if you considered one Portuguese, one half-French / half-Italian, one theatrically tall long-limbed loudmouth with dried Prell Concentrate in his hair, a pair of third generation Slovaks whose mother still made us say the rosary at home on Wednesday nights, one black kid who got beat up by the other black kids in our school for “jumping like a white boy” (worse than that, actually), and one other boy named John (as opposed to Johnny) who recently emigrated from Cape Verde (of all places) with the tanned, dewy skin of a doe.  He was normally the most frightened of all of us, or at least the first to reveal his fear.

“Them Portuguese are gonna beat me up!”  John exclaimed.  No one knew why, but John always referred to anyone with skin even darker than his own as Portuguese.  John was probably strong enough to take on two or three of them, but he couldn’t exactly be counted on if things got a little rough.

“Can it, John.  Let me handle this,” announced Johnny, always the first to dive in to the deep end of a tsunami.

For some reason, though, when the eight or nine boys from the West Side reached us, silent and serious, it was me they first spoke to.  How they had apparently reached this unspoken consensus that I might be the leader our tribe was beyond me.  The only reason I wasn’t truly terrified was that just the previous week, I’d been in a fight in my own backyard with a local Puerto Rican kid named Matos, and had come out of it mostly O.K.

We’d been playing a version of football where the goal was simply to tackle each other as hard as we could whenever we ended up with the ball.  Tackling Matos, I’d taken a knee to the cheek but had brought him down just the same.  A moral victory for the boy in the plaid pants.

“Whatchoo doin’ around here?  We ain’t never seen you guys before.  You looking for a fight or somethin’?”  They got right to the point.  No 18th-century parlay and tea for these guys.  “Nah, we just wanta play some ball.  Looking for someplace different to play.”  Then, in a bit of divine inspiration intended to gain a modicum of respect with this crowd, “The police keep chasing us out of our neighborhood.  Damned cops.”  I could feel the eyes of Scott, Johnny and my gang boring into the back of my head with a unified “WTF is he talking about?”  Wisely, however, they kept their collective mouths shut.

“Oh, yeah, so you come over here looking for a game?  You from the South Side?”  Actually, I wasn’t really sure what side of town we were officially from, so I barely nodded in the affirmative.  I’m pretty sure we were actually West End kids, too, in a way, but I hadn’t been raised studying the geography of Bridgeport, Connecticut.  In school, we were forced to trace the journeys of Marco Polo and Magellan, but we were never required to know how to find our way from one public school district to another.  There Be Dragons.

“Yeah, man, we just looking to play some ball.”  Never taking my eyes off of their de facto spokesperson, I simply stated our case without inflection, fear or attitude.  After a quiet moment, it was clear that neither group was hoping for a fight, and that other than the prospect of a baseball game, none of us had any other reason to stand there staring at each other a moment longer.

“You get first ups,” stated their little leader, perhaps eleven-years old.  The boy had toes coming out of his right sneaker.  His glove was a floppy mess of dead leather, and his hair hadn’t seen a comb since perhaps springtime.  But he ran out to the shortstop position like a young Ernie Banks.  The other kids on his team, outfitted in Sears hand-me-downs just like us, followed his cue and took the field like the young ghosts of a Negro League long forgotten.  We had no chance.

Who knows how many innings our game lasted.  We lost count at around eleven or twelve.  No one wanted to stop playing.  It was more than a game.  Two lost tribes had improbably found one other on a field that wasn’t even there to host baseball, but baseball sprouts in the most unlikely locations.  Dusk gradually gave way to evening, and at some point, a few of their players simply vanished.  Not of the metaphysical persuasion, I simply chalked it up to everyone has a bedtime or a dinnertime somewhere in the world.

Once the ball itself disappeared into the darkening outfield, amidst the tall grass and the empty beer cans, we had no choice but to stop the game.  I knew that they had probably won, though we had held our own.  Their young leader jogged in from his shortstop position as my gang gathered round.  We were waiting for him to announce some fraudulent score that would certainly send Johnny into paroxysms of incandescent profanity that would light up the night sky.  But, instead, the boy said, “We’ll finish this game tomorrow.”  Then he turned around and took off, the last one of their group off the field.

“Well, shit,” Johnny started.  “My old man will probably kick my ass for being out so late tonight as it is.”

“Yeah,” said Scott.  “No way I’ll be allowed to come all the way out here again tomorrow, or ever again probably.”

The other boys around us nodded in agreement.  This game would go in the books as a permanent tie.  In all the years we played together before and after that, it was the only tie game we allowed to occur.  Forever after, when we remembered this game, we simply called it, “The Tie.”

Years later, when I was in my late twenties,  I happened to drive by that empty old field on my way to a funeral.  No one was around but a homeless man on a park bench, sipping from a brown paper-bag.  I couldn’t help myself, and pulled over to look at the place one more time.  No boys running around through the trash.  No yelling to throw the ball to second base.  No pop ups to the infield.  Just quiet, and an old man drinking.  I just stood there with my arms on my hips.

“Looking for something?”  The man asked me.  He wore an old sports coat, green pants, and had holes in his shoes.

“Not really sure,” I smiled back at him.

“Well, you just wait around a bit, and I’m sure it’ll all come back to you.  That’s just the way of things.”

That’s just the way of things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baseball Summers Long Gone

By the time my brother Mark and I were ten and twelve-years old, respectively, our summers had settled into a comfortably predictable pattern.  Wake up to a sultry, summer morning, have some Hawaiian Punch fruit drink (5% real fruit juice!), King Vitamin cereal, throw on some old clothes, then head out to round up our friends.

Scott, Johnny, Tony, and occasionally the Jelleff brothers comprised our small, stable group.  In later years, my older cousin Jimmy would sometimes come all the way over from Stratford to flesh out our crew.

Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s had just finished a remarkable three-year run as World Champions.  Now the Big Red Machine, as relentlessly efficient and mechanical as The Terminator, dominated the baseball diamond.

I was a Mets fan.  My brother Mark was a Braves fan because he liked their logo.  Scott was an A’s fan, and Johnny liked the Yankees.  Tony, a quiet, wiry Portuguese kid, kept his loyalties to himself.

Stopping first at Scott’s house just down the street, we might first trade some baseball cards (Tony Perez for Bert Campaneris straight up), then Scott would show us his latest Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath record.  Eventually, we would gather up our uncertain assortment of bats, gloves and balls before sauntering down Maplewood Avenue to collect Johnny and Tony.  They lived side-by-side in identical gray two-family houses with no yards, front or back.

Tony’s black-clad grandmother was always sweeping the sidewalk in front of their house.  Her smile offered us a view of her few remaining teeth, each one a sentry guarding her ironic, foreign laugh.

Johnny was once again in trouble with his dad, as his younger sister would always gleefully announce to us upon opening the back door to their modest home.  Johnny was a tough little nine-year old with a keen sense of humor.  He would back down for no one.  Slow as Ernie Lombardi wearing a ball-and-chain, Johnny could hit and field, but if a ball got by him, you knew you had yourself at least a triple.

For some reason, it never occurred to us to bring any water along as we trekked over to middle-class Fairfield to play ball.  The thirty minute walk wasn’t so bad in the late morning, although the burnt orange sun was already high in the sky.

Playing in Fairfield was always a crapshoot.  Sometimes, you got lucky and would be able to play uninterrupted for most of the day.  But as often as not, a station-wagon full of pampered, interchangeable suburban kids would invade our field like chubby white locusts.  This would usually happen, of course, in the middle of a game.

Someone’s overbearing dad – they always looked vaguely like either Robert Conrad or Lee Majors – would gruffly announce that they had “reserved” the field.

We knew this was bullshit, of course, but in those days young boys generally didn’t argue with adults.  And we never happened to have a handy grown-up of our own tagging along to provide us cover.

Johnny would just mutter, “Aw shit,” to himself, and we’d trudge off back up and across King’s Highway past Caldor and the County Cinema Theater (some movie about a man-eating shark was very popular that summer.)

Back in Bridgeport, we would inevitably stop off at the family owned and operated A&G Market where I bought my first pack of baseball cards in 1974.  We would purchase a lunch of RC Cola (look under the cap to see if you’re a winner!), and a bag of funyuns.

Fortified with this food pyramid-busting meal, we would climb a chain-link fence and spend the next several hours running, shouting, hitting and throwing on the hot black-tar pavement.

We took the game deadly seriously.  Every pitch, swing, and tag was grounds for an argument.  Scott, hot-tempered as a drunk Red Sox fan at a Yankee game, would throw his glove to the ground, yelling in his nasally, pre-pubescent voice about what total crap the final call was.  Johnny would just laugh at Scott’s antics, which pissed Scott off even more.  Eventually Tony or I would have to step between them to get the game going again.

If not interrupted in late afternoon by someone’s mother or young sister coming by to collect one of us for some unsavory, real-world task (Johnny needs to take out the garbage; Scott needs to come home to watch his two brothers; Mark and I need to go to church:  “Christ mom, on a Wednesday afternoon?  You’ve got to be kidding”), we would play all the way up to suppertime.  As if triggered by some ancient primordial reflex, mothers all over the neighborhood would start shouting out the door for their children to come in and get washed up for supper.

Exactly when all of this ended, I can’t really say.  It must have been around 1978 or ‘79, but I can’t be sure.  One day I was just a kid playing ball with my friends.  Then, without warning or regret, it just stopped.  Someone may have moved away.  New friendships were forged at new schools.  Girls suddenly popped up like dandelions on a spring lawn.

I’m quite sure, though, that I had no idea then that the most important time of my life — the period that essentially shaped the man I have become – had disappeared for good, and would one day, many years later, try desperately to avoid being pinned down and recaptured by mere words.

 

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Future of Innings Not Yet Melted

Years ago, a friend of mine and I were making lists of the best players who played for each of our favorite teams.  Mine, of course, was the Mets.  His was the Red Sox.  We made our lists in the L.L. Bean warehouse, Zone 21, amidst the cardboard dust and broken yellow straps that littered the floor.  We had another two hours until the end of our shift.  No windows through which to notice the snow.

His list had many of the predictable names:  Teddy Ballgame, Yaz, Fisk, Clemens…he even added Babe Ruth to his pitching staff.  I granted him that one.  The old pig-farmer was once a kid lefty with promise.  Then, panic-stricken into silence, I noticed that his list of the greatest Red Sox of all-time included Tom Seaver.  He had shoplifted Tom Terrific right out of the store under his coat, much as the Reds had done in ’77.  This couldn’t stand.

Yagottabefuckinkiddinme, I blurted out.  Seaver?  He threw what, maybe 90 pitches in his entire Red Sox life?  That’s like me accidentally walking into a wedding ceremony, and emerging with a ring.  It just don’t work that way.  I slowly crossed Seaver’s name off his list.  Looking up at him, I said, “try again.”  I wrote, “Calvin Schiraldi” in small, neat letters over smudged Seaver.

But rules are rules, and we had none when we set up our lists.  My friend saw the loophole, and pounced.  That’s how winners happen.  When the Reds scammed Seaver from the Mets for a broken harmonium and a box of confiscated Turkish porn films, Mets fans knew they’d been had.  But losers always find a way to lose; it’s as irresistible as running a tongue over a broken tooth.  Still, Dan Norman?

Up to that point, I had left Nolan Ryan off my list of Mets, along with Ken Singleton, Amos Otis, and Paul Blair, as well as Snider, Mays, and Ashburn. I topped off my updated list with Bret Saberhagen.  But then so did he.  Going for the kill, I scribbled Jimmy Piersall’s name down, Mets class of ’63.  Clearly, that was below the belt.  My friend groaned.

Nothing left to do but gloat as I leaned on the pallet jack, waiting for the fork-truck driver to come back around.  Forty more cases of fleece jackets to load, then home to an Old Thumper and some chow.  Should be about 4:30 by now.  Not that it mattered.  The cold apartment on Spring Street was dialed up to December Maine Cold, frost on the handrails and black-slick death ice on the stairs.

The click of cleats on hardwood floors was still months away.  Leather glove smell of organic dirty perfume hidden in closet under box of wide-ruled college notebooks, stats of ’73 Mets in the margin of Sociology 101 scribbles.  Invertebrates and Mollusks in red notebook between columns of stadiums I’d meant to see.  Most are gone now, but the notebooks remain, hostage facts squeezed and forgotten in boxes.

My friend on my second-floor landing now, semaphore scorecard waving like a warning, his evidence of a 1986 Houston Astros ballgame.  Mike Scott and his vanishing split-finger optical illusion.  Beat the Mets twice in the playoffs. Not pitching, but counting coup.

I added Mike Scott to my list.  Drafted by the Mets in 2nd round, 1976.

My buddy just shook his head, but he had brought along an extra pair of six-packs and some egg rolls, so we were good for the evening.  Steel winter morning was still twelve hours away, and the inside of our souls were calm with pencil-mark scorecards and dog-eared almanacs, becalming order to the ordinariness of existence, waiting for the next hot prospects to melt in toaster-oven future, promise of a 44-double season mounting with the death of each winter day.

Was spring really true?  Who could say?  Future inning snow-flakes shadowed the night sky, blinding us from the moon’s faint light.  Floating to earth, all of next season, a snow carpet, tranquil and smooth, yielding nothing but the quietness of expectation.

 

 

 

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Day Babe Ruth Called His Shot

Writing about Babe Ruth is like writing about God.  No matter what you say about either of them, you are bound to offend someone.

Still, there is one major difference between the two of them. God never hit 714 home runs.

Oh, sure, God COULD have hit that many if he had wanted to, you say, but we’ve heard that before about countless prospects over the decades. Yet only a heroic Henry Aaron and an inflatable Barry Bonds have surpassed Ruth. Gods, of course, have the power to know what truths the future holds, a power that mere mortals are not privy to.

So how, then, was Babe Ruth able to predict that he would hit a home run off of Cubs pitcher Charlie Root in that legendary at-bat in the 1932 World Series? Actually, the essential question here is, DID Babe Ruth truly call his shot on that early October afternoon in Chicago?

It all began with sportswriter Joe Williams.  In the late edition of the same day as the game, he wrote, “Ruth Calls Shot As He Puts Home Run No. 2 In Side Pocket.” (Ruth had already hit another home run earlier in the game.) At first, even Ruth dismissed the story, saying that he was just pointing towards the Cubs bench telling them he still had one more strike to go.

As time went on, however, Ruth began to warm up to the story, embellishing it as time went by.

Yet no other player on the field that day was able to positively confirm that Ruth actually did call his shot, a monster 440-foot home run towards the flagpole beyond the outfield wall. Still, the famous photo exists that shows Ruth gesturing, arm outstretched, pointing at someone or something during this very at-bat.

Isn’t it at least plausible that this enormously talented hitter and consummate showman really could have called his shot that day? Ruth later claimed that he announced, “I’m gonna hit the next pitched ball past the flagpole. Well, the Good Lord must have been with me that day.” God, apparently, is a Yankees fan (which would explain a lot of things.)

Yet Yankees pitcher Charlie Deven, in an interview given seven decades later, said that while at first he thought Ruth’s foreshadowing gesture was indeed a portent of the subsequent home run, he was corrected by Yankees shortstop Frank Crosetti who told Deven that Ruth simply put up one finger to indicate he still had another strike coming.

Cub’s pitcher Charlie Root denied to his dying day that Ruth called his shot.  In one interview, he said that if Ruth had tried a stunt like that, his next pitch would have knocked Ruth on his ass.

The player who was physically closest to Ruth in that moment was Cubs catcher Gabby Hartnett.  Hartnett later stated that Ruth did not in fact call his home run.  Instead, he said that Ruth bellowed, “That’s only two strikes,” while pointing at the Cubs dugout.

One might argue that Crosetti simply wasn’t physically close enough to Ruth to hear what he actually said.  And it can also be argued that Gabby Hartnett, being the catcher for the opposing team during a bitterly contested World Series (which the Yankees swept in four games), would have every reason to try to deny additional glory to the Yankee legend.

We must keep in mind that Ruth was not a brash, 25-year old kid just trying to make a name for himself.  In that case, it is conceivable that players on both teams would have tried to cut Ruth down to size for his lack of humility. But Ruth was an aging, 37-year old legend playing in his last World Series.  He was not just another star; he was THE star that all of baseball was indebted to for leading the way out of the woods of the scandalous 1919 season which could have ruined baseball indefinitely.

It was his exploits that changed the game forever, filling stadiums all over America, putting a little more money in every player’s pocket. In other words, his reputation already cast in stone, it’s hard to see why, if Ruth really had called his shot that day, not a single player on the field that day would grant him this one last diamond in his crown.

Unless, of course, it never happened. But why, then, would Ruth feel compelled to embrace this apocryphal tale?

To answer this question, we have to take a closer look at Ruth the Man, as opposed to Ruth the demigod. Despite enjoying a very productive season in 1932, Ruth was clearly no longer the dominant slugger in the American League.  For the first time since 1925, Ruth failed to lead the league in any of the following three categories:  Home Runs, RBI’s, or Slugging Percentage.

His teammate, Lou Gehrig, with whom a tense rivalry existed, had driven in 151 runs to Ruth’s still fine 137.  Worse, Jimmie Foxx of the Athletics had out-homered Ruth 58 to 41, falling just two homers short of Ruth’s own single-season home run record.

While Foxx and Gehrig had finished 1-2 in MVP voting in ’32, Ruth finished tied with Joe Cronin for a distant 6th in the balloting. Ruth, age rapidly creeping up on him, must have sensed his days as baseball’s most awesome slugger were numbered.  He also must have known that despite how much he was loved by his countless admirers, in the end, his on-field production would dictate the intensity and degree of their future admiration.

Ruth would also have realized that the world itself had changed drastically since the Yankees glory days of the late 1920’s. Charles Lindbergh had flown across the Atlantic back in ‘27.  Now, Europe was faced with the specter of Fascism in Spain, Italy, and Germany. A world-wide Depression had taken hold, and America itself was threatened by malignant forces both from within and without.

In short, the world was clearly not headed into a new Age of Reason.  Dark forces could only be effectively met by new heroes.  Franklin Roosevelt and his inspirational Fireside Chats were still months away.  Ruth, then, already a hero back in the heady days of the ‘20’s, tapped into the American Zeitgeist once again, and delivered the miracle this emotionally impoverished nation needed, i.e., that a man could still control his destiny.

Babe Ruth’s Called Shot resonated with the American public because it proved that even in the face of extreme darkness, heroic moments were still possible.

Yet, for our purposes here today, during a time of renewed social and economic turmoil, our rationalist selves have to accept that there just doesn’t seem to be any objective evidence that Babe Ruth really did call his shot.

Enhanced by Zemanta

The Demons That Haunt Even Doctors

He arrived at the old brownstone as if ejected from a garbage disposal, dirty, sore and squalid.  The little black girls jumping rope on the sidewalk recognized him, again.  No way he could look them in the eye.  Uh, uh.  Not like this.  No autographs today, kids.  Not here on the Island.

His face was that of a high school kid searching for a way to avoid afternoon English Lit ennui, second-lunch flowing into third, then a furtive sneak out the back door towards the bus stop on 48th Street.  Fuck Fitzgerald and his jazz-age jerk-off friends.  Their type was always hanging out for a handout, flashing fat wads of cash and gold teeth, like so many shark-gypsies.

The Crack House

The Crack House (Photo credit: Hryck.)

The lower floor vacant like the soul of a disposed evangelist, the upper floor tangy with piss-smell and live vermin.  Crawling out of the shadows under cracked, spinal-cord plaster, black teeth like moldy graves on a new-moon night, those who would sooth this jaded specter, spooning out the crack.  Bottles of brandy, vodka and rum, like a Christmas bell-chime chorus, littered and glittered on the floor in the fading, late-afternoon light.

Now an unlikely bonus companion, a working T.V. set, tuned to a parade not all that distant, though another world away.  Ticker tape and NY logos and limos rolling down the canyon avenues, ten miles an hour, kicked a hole in his soul.

He could be there in the enchanted din, flashing that boyish grin, small chin and curly hair, stooping next to the mayor, profiling postponed so a brother could flow while let alone.  Millions of faces, mostly white, gratified now in the land of the Dow, hoping to hold on to the wave, as it tossed back the day, already a ghost under the shade of the elms along 54th.

But not there, instead, smoking and weeping, definitely not sleeping, as the pain lingered just beyond the fringes of the high, too, too many eyes on him all the time.  His effortless grace always one pitch from disgrace, no vanity but all childhood fear and demons now here, and how does a kid bear it night after night, when love bleeds cash, and nowhere to go once the lights are turned down low, and mom’s not aware that her boy’s dream has nightmares of its own in the silent noise of the street?

Better to bury those parts of himself that aren’t the fastball unseen, the curve that buckles the knees, the three strikes and you’re just another sit down now and think about why you even thought you’d ever get a hit off this kid, a 4-0, one-hit shutout, two balls hit to the outfield at all, Dykstra grabbing one on the track, Straw clearing them all with a granny in the eighth.  Sorry-ass Pirates not knowing what just hit them, and what they didn’t hit at all.

Now darkness falls, and he drifts in the lull of a cool, empty night.  Bold newspaper headline screaming “We Clinch” cover his bare feet, keeping his warm heart beating as he lies on the cool, dirty floor, dreaming of locker-room lights, and mom’s hugs so tight, while the flies sing in his ear and a dark clouded  moon shines no light on this room where fear claws at the walls, for those who listen, it always calls, like a banshee at the death of a dream.

Or, in his own words:

“When the party started winding down, for myself, a lot of times I get to a certain point of using drugs, the paranoia sticks in,” said Gooden. “So I end up leaving the party with the team, going to the projects, of all places, on Long Island.  Hang out there.

“Then you know what time you have to be at the ballpark to go into the city for the {1986 World Series} parade, but I’m thinking ‘OK, I’ve got time.’ Then the next thing you know, the parade’s on and I’m watching the parade on TV. … Horrible, horrible feeling.”

Enhanced by Zemanta

Can You Hear the Magic?

I sat on some old baseball bleachers today, out in the countryside where no one wanders anymore.  The cool wood was dirty to the touch, and seemed to not have been witness to a game in several years, perhaps generations.  An old apple tree nearby drooped and dropped its useless fruit to the ground.  A coal-black crow came and sat down nearby, wondering what I’d come here for.  As he spied me suspiciously, the wind picked up and blew the breeze back toward me.

Crow

Crow (Photo credit: tfangel)

I’d only been out here because there was nowhere else to go.  When the family is away, or busy, it’s a pleasure to pursue the nothing that I used to take for granted.  This ancient spot seemed as good as any other to just sit still, in the quiet of the late morning, like stealing a part of a day that no one knew even existed.

The chalk-line base-paths had long ago faded to a mottled brown, dead leaves leading to a distant corner of the outfield, a scarred wooden fence like a gnarled old man jealously guarding his yard.  Bare spots in the foggy outfield, a pasture gone to ruin like a battlefield after the last charge had slowed to a crawl, then flickered out into a fading mist.  No one left to mourn the missing.  Aggrieved silence shouting in your ear, why are you here?

The crow grew bored with me, pecked violently at a spot on the ground, (more for show than for sustenance), then left me behind in this shadowy realm, a semicircle of dust, broken branches and dreams safely asleep.  Home-plate remained, stubbornly grasping the ground, the spoke around which the wheel of silence whispers.  Had I died and had to go somewhere at all, this would do.

Baseball field

Baseball field (Photo credit: Dendroica cerulea)

Now rain, at first cool pinpricks, then steady and confident, a noisy crowd billowing in from the storm, shivering slightly as it pooled in new puddles.  Taking the broad hint, I sloshed down to the soggy infield, sneakers soaked to my ankles, dripping baseball cap admitting defeat.  No tarp to save the day, nor to eat Vince Coleman.  

In a corner near the third base bench where the young players used to shout and scratch and stretch, a stick of some ancient provenance, not merely a fallen twig, reclined at a jaunty angle, a trapezoid when viewed at a certain distance, geometry all gloomy in the graying landscape.  An old discarded shard of bat, perhaps?  A whittling piece to work at on those long half-innings when the pitcher and the plate are estranged?

Closer now, and pulled out of the first trickle of flood water forming an embryonic new river, notches neatly spaced an inch apart on the stick, a bit less than a foot in length.  Each notch, perhaps, a base-runner coming home, hearing the crowd, feeling the magic of the moment course through his soul.  A game not far off, only an epoch ago.  Cheers and huzzahs filling the field, settling on the leaves and branches, there for the taking, if you will only listen.

Previous to 1746, the score was kept by notches on a short lath: hence the term notches for runs. The notching-knife gradually gave way to the pen, and the thin stick to a sheet of foolscap.  -Henry Chadwick

Enhanced by Zemanta

All That We Leave Behind

Playing ball in the parking lot behind my friend Tony’s house.

Cool pavement under shady maple trees.

We had to climb two chain-link fences to get to this place.  The last car would usually vacate the lot around 5:00, so we would begin playing ball here sometime around 4:30, just to be on the safe side.

We’d already been playing all day.  Pickup games on side streets and in overgrown dandelion fields.

In the lot, we played “one-bounce” with a red rubber ball.  The pitcher would toss it, overhand, towards home-plate on one bounce.  By putting a spin on the ball, the pitcher could make the sphere either bounce away from the lunging batter, or jam it in on his hands.

If an infielder caught a ground-ball on one bounce, it was ruled an out.

Eleven-years old, I am standing on third base, the result of a hard smash I hit that made it halfway down the driveway before being recovered by the outfielder.

As I faced home-plate, I suddenly knew, as clearly as if a bell had gone off in my head, that I would remember this moment forever.

I was in that breezy, afternoon space between growing into myself, and all the trials and expectations that were sure to follow.

As I waited for the next batter to hit the ball, I happened to turn to my right and noticed something carved into the trunk of a maple tree.  Weather-worn and barely legible, it read, “J. Holvanek was here July ’56.”

John Holvanek, I knew, was one of my father’s childhood friends.  His son, John Holvanek, Jr., age nine, was here playing with me, yelling at the batter to “just hit the goddamned ball!”

In the age of Mantle, Mays and Snider, back when this parking lot was still an open field, John Holvanek, senior, had played baseball.

Standing in the outfield grass, sun high in the sky, waiting for the chubby kid to hit one out to me in center field.

I am thirteen-years old now.  The four guys playing with me are between the ages of eleven and fourteen.  We walked three miles from our street in the hot summer sun to get to this lonesome Little League field, hidden high on a bluff overlooking the town of Fairfield.

A dragon-fly hovers ten feet away, calmly positioning himself to make his next kill.  I, too, know that I am positioned correctly to catch the fly ball that Richard will inevitably be lofting high into the muggy afternoon heat.

Richard only ever hits high fly balls to straight away center.  I know this because I’ve made a mental note of several of his prior at bats.

He always hits the scuffed up baseball off the end of his aluminum bat, partly because my cousin, Jimmy, won’t throw him anything over the plate for fear of getting decapitated by a line-drive.

I am the sole outfielder.

The August sun traces hot fingers of perspiration down my neck.

On his next swing, Richard really lays into one, sending the ball soaring high into the sepia sky.  It is a towering drive that clears the left-center field fence by fifteen or twenty feet.  All I can do is stare at it as it plunks itself down among the scrubby weeds and the vine-covered trees.

Great, now someone, namely me, has to climb the fence and retrieve the ball; it is one of only two that we brought with us, and we can’t afford to lose it.

The terrain behind the fence is extremely difficult to climb through.  Sloping sharply downward at a 45 degree angle, the topography is not unlike that on Little Round Top at the Gettysburg battlefield, with the added obstacle of a jagged barbed-wire fence that juts out randomly from under the soil.

Also, it’s hotter than hell, and the mosquitoes are feasting on my blood.

After several minutes of fruitless, frustrating searching, I spot something straight ahead of me.  It is sort of white, like the baseball, but it appears to be somewhat larger than the ball I’m looking for.

I kneel to take a better look at it.  Using my baseball glove as a tool, I brush away the brackish, wet leaves piled half an inch thick.

It is part of an old sign.  At first, being a Catholic, I thought that it read, “Confessions.”  But this seemed rather unlikely to me, being out here in the woods and all.  And anyway, “Confessions” weren’t something you put up signs about.  Then I realized that it actually read “Concessions,” and it began to make sense to me.

On the other end of this field, there used to be a concession stand where players and fans could cool off with a bottle of Coca-Cola, and enjoy a snack of their choice.  Children and parents spent their Saturday afternoons enjoying the sounds of the crack of a bat smacking a ball, kids laughing and yelling, and cicadas screeching in the woods.

I thought about picking up the sign and showing the others.  Instead, I kicked a wet pile of dead leaves over it, and resumed my search for the baseball.

On the lawn behind my apartment building.

My six-year old boy is standing barefoot in the grass holding a wooden baseball bat behind his shoulder.  He is locked and loaded, ready to rip into one of daddy’s famous, underhand “slow” balls.  I stare in at him and say, “Hey, give me your game-face.”  My son bares his teeth at me and scowls.  He is intensely focused.

I toss the ball exactly where he likes it, up and over the plate where his small arms can extend themselves just enough to drive the ball over my head.

And that is exactly what he does.  His drive travels an estimated sixty-five feet into the tall bushes that provide our ground-floor apartment with a modicum of privacy.  He circles the imaginary bases as fast as he can.  He hasn’t yet perfected his home-run trot.

I lope over to the bush to find the baseball.  (Some things never change.)  I pluck it out easily and turn to jog back to my “pitcher’s mound.”  But my boy is already half-way back, heading towards our apartment.

“Dad,” he says, “I don’t want to play any more today.”

We’ve already been playing almost an hour, and the April sun is already hot here in South Carolina.

I begin to suggest to him that we write “First homer, April ’10” on his baseball, to commemorate his first home run, but he is already pulling open the screen door to get a drink.

I look around the yard for a moment; everything has been picked up off the lawn.

I head back in towards the apartment, and I wonder if, many years from now, my little boy will remember this moment.

On a whim, I toss the baseball as high up into the cobalt sky as I can, and wait for it to come back down into my glove.  As it hovers halfway between Heaven and Earth, I wonder how many times in my life I’ve searched the skies, the streets, and the woods for baseballs.  I often ended up finding things others had left behind.

I often ended up finding Baseball.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Post Navigation