In the past, I’ve written posts about growing up playing baseball in the summers of the ‘70’s, and how a certain so-called Beanhead was our arch-nemesis. I’ve also written about the neighborhood girls who used to tag along, encouraging our immature, dormant hormones to gradually, awkwardly emerge.
But I haven’t yet mentioned Jabbar.
Jabbar, like his more famous basketball contemporary, Kareem-Abdul, was a tall black man involved in athletics. But our Jabbar was not a player; he was an organizer.
I can’t quite recall how I first encountered this scruffy, bearded (like Walt Chamberlain) gentleman. But in my mind’s eye I can visualize him, wooden bat in hand, leading a motley parade of boys down the sidewalk along Maplewood Avenue in the slanted September sunshine.
He was always talking, chattering, cajoling, encouraging. His long legs loped along, pausing periodically, allowing the youthful throng to keep pace.
This puzzling spectacle usually appeared after school, once the boys – black, white, and Hispanic – had a chance to go home, throw their schoolbooks on the kitchen table, and grab their baseball gear.
Without any recollection as to how I ended up being recruited, I soon found myself tagging along near the end of the sweaty procession, pausing only at stop signs and street lights, heading God knew where.
Invariably, Jabbar had already located a field for us to play on. Sometimes, these fields, unkempt and ill-used, were over on the other side of town. If Jabbar had abandoned us there, I am quite sure I would have been clueless as to how to find my way home.
But they were actual baseball fields, not just convenient, empty lots. This was a relative luxury which we had seldom enjoyed in the past.
I was our primary first-baseman. In fact, I might have been the only thirteen-year old in Bridgeport with an actual first baseman’s mitt, a right-handed glove I still have to this day.
Jabbar always called me “Millahhh,” in something approaching an Economy-class Jamaican lilt.
“Millahhh, go ‘ead an ‘old de runnahhh!” he would call to me authoritatively. I had little idea what he meant, so I would shuffle my feet back and forth, set my jaw in anticipation of the next play, and hope I wasn’t screwing up too badly.
I never thought of him as our coach, exactly. In fact, to this day, I have no idea who the hell he was, where he came from, or who was paying him, if anyone. He was more of an oversized black muse, calling us out to learn to appreciate God’s greatest game.
One late afternoon, spurned homework abandoned indefinitely on a plastic table-cloth, I smoked a triple down the third-base line. I watched the ball skip along the foul-line, past the third baseman’s glove, out into a dark, distant corner. I was going for three as soon as I left the batter’s box.
“Millahhh! Go, Millahhh, GO!”
I reached third base standing up, two other base-runners safely crossing home plate ahead of me. Jabbar was already preoccupied with the next batter.
Here I was, standing on third base on a foreign corner of my dirty old town, feeling like all life required me to do now was to find my way home.
Yet no one I knew or cared about witnessed my fleeting moment of fame. My little brother, not one to up and join random populist movements, must have stayed home. Parents, well, I don’t know if my parents ever saw me play a single inning of ball my whole childhood. Even my best friends, my usual sandlot gang, hadn’t joined this traveling baseball circus.
I was gradually becoming aware, however, of a strange, new feeling; I could revel in a moment like this without requiring the validation of others, even Jabbar. It was a liberating feeling, yet redolent with mystery, like childhood cousins surreptitiously stealing a kiss on a sofa during a sudden summer shower.
I know the ending to this story, and you do, too. I grew up, leaving my baseball dreams scattered all over Bridgeport’s hard parking lots and filthy fields.
Jabbar was gone. No one I knew so much as mentioned the sudden disappearance of our personal pied piper. I don’t recall ever, in the rapture of my youth, stopping to consider what those fleeting moments meant to me, moments stoked in the coal-fire of an enigmatic black man’s burning heart.
I know now.