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.
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.