The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Batted ball”

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

When Second Base Was a Handbag

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.)

English: St. Augustine Cathedral Bridgeport Pa...

English: St. Augustine Cathedral Bridgeport Patrick C. Keeley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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 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!”

Remington Arms  demo Bridgeport, Ct.

Remington Arms, Bridgeport, Ct. 

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.

English: Fred Russell, Sadaharu Oh and Sparky ...

English: Fred Russell, Sadaharu Oh and Sparky Anderson in Tokyo, Japan in 1981 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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, and 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.

English: Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Bruce S...

English: Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Bruce Sutter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Scott and Johnny surreptitiously glanced at each other, a silent and respectful “WHAT THE FUCK?” mouthed 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 looked at strike three, his bat never having left his shoulder.

The priest walked over to Tony, and loud enough for most of us to hear, simply said, “Thanks for letting me play.  It’s been a while.”  With that, he handed Tony the baseball, then calmy strode 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 stand there, or we gonna play some ball?!”

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.

Related Posts:

Jabbar’s Traveling Baseball Circus

Baseball Summers In the 1970’s

Baseball, and the Neighborhood Girls

Baseball, and All That We Leave Behind

Post Navigation