The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Bridgeport Connecticut”

Caught With My Pants Down (A Tale of Baseball Youth)

When I was around eleven or twelve years old, my friends and I in Bridgeport, CT used to play a lot of baseball.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, we were playing what others called “sandlot” ball, though I never saw any sand around the streets of Bridgeport.  Mostly I just saw gum-stains that looked like blood-spatter, used condoms (which, as a kid, I mistook for miniature balloons), dead cats with maggot-infested eyes, and toothless negro winos who would offer to “suck your dick” (whatever that meant) for 50 cents.

English: A German Shepherd waiting for someone...

English: A German Shepherd waiting for someone to play with him. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those reasons, and several others, there were times when it was just as easy to stay close to the neighborhood and play ball.  The problem, though, was that the overgrown lot right next to my house on Colorado Ave. wasn’t exactly Wrigley Field.

Though it had once been a vegetable garden (who knew vegetables didn’t come from cans?), it was now a crab-apple orchard redolent of dog-shit (the fat lady across the street owned the only German Shepherd this side of Europe with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.)  But at least no one would come along and bother us.

A chain-link fence separated our modest little backyard from this larger space on a line extending about 100 feet, until it met up with a low piece of barbed wire, long since unceremoniously trampled under foot by Converse All-Stars, if not the inevitable Pro Keds.  So it was an easy hop from the sidewalk in front of our house into the semi-swampy morass that was our ball-field.

For some reason, a few girls would often stop by to watch us play ball.  They were around our age, perhaps a bit older, and they spent most of their time giggling and whispering behind their hands as we smacked the partially round sphere into the bushes behind what we decided would be second base.  To me it was strange and interesting that these girls would come over to watch us play.  They didn’t seem to belong to anyone; no one among us would claim them as sisters or cousins, yet there they remained all afternoon, cheering us on, regardless of our worthiness at the bat or in the field.

Then, disaster struck.  A small slick of mud which we had all managed to successfully navigate for much of the afternoon, claimed me as its first victim as I rounded third and headed for home, a brown-stained, embarrassed young man.  My feet had slipped out from under me, and I had gone down hard, ass-first, into the fetid, brown goo.  It is a moment I’ve since edited out of my personal highlights-of-my life mental movie reel.

English: A pice of chain link fence over some ...

English: A pice of chain link fence over some railroad tracks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What to do.  No way I could continue to play with my pants soaked through, so I told the guys (never once glancing in the direction of the girls) that I had to go inside for a few minutes to change my pants.  After the usual exchange of pleasantries between my friends Scott and Johnny regarding who should bat next (“Scott, you dumb-ass, it’s my friggin’ turn!”  “The Hell it is you midget moron!”), and on and on as I climbed the fence into my backyard.

The washing machine and the dryer were down in the basement on the side of the house where, if one looked up out the window, one could see across into the adjoining yard where my friends were still yelling and playing a little ball.  The distance was just five or six feet, and though I could see them all just fine, it somehow didn’t occur to me that they might be able to see me as well.

I didn’t go directly up into my house and on into my bedroom because my parents were neat freaks, and I knew I’d never hear the end of it if I left a trail of muddy, dirty blue jeans and underpants in the house.  So I decided instead to simply change right there in the basement.  There were always clothes drying either in the dryer itself or on the clothesline suspended in the basement between the furnace and grandpa’s workbench.

At least that’s what I must have subconsciously counted on as I kicked off my sneakers, pulled off my damp socks, and gingerly climbed out of the rest of my dirty clothes.  I threw the entire mess into the washer, dumped in a sufficient amount of powdered soap, and pulled the dial that got the old machine pumping and humming.

Except that, once naked, I glanced around and to my heart-pounding dismay, there were absolutely no clothes at all on the line, nor in the dryer.  What overly efficient domestic would do such a thing?  Then I remembered, my father had taken his annual August week-long vacation from his job at Remington Arms.

When dad was home, no one and nothing was safe from his legendary Deutsch cleaning rampages.  Lint, dust-mites and random loose threads were no match for his overworked Hoover, and the very idea of dirt inside our house was as unthinkable as my Catholic mother attending a protestant church.

So I just stood there for several minutes, completely unaware that at about this time some of my friends, and the modest retinue of girls, had now spotted me in the basement.  It took far longer than it should have for me to catch on to what all the excitement was about.  I just had to figure out how to find some clothes.

And that, of course, was when my previous level of embarrassment now blossomed into full-blown mortification.  As the throng sauntered, skipped and squealed toward the three rectangular basement windows for the free, unscheduled performance, all I could think to do was to duck behind the washing machine.  I sat down on the cool cement floor, bare feet extended out into the sunlight from my protective shadows, wondering how I could just will myself into oblivion.  It couldn’t get any worse than this, could it?

My father’s voice broke my pitiful reverie.

“Billy, where the hell are your clothes?”

I suppose I still owe him one to this day for going back upstairs to retrieve some fresh clothes, and because I don’t think he ever told my mother.

Back outside in the late afternoon sun, now softly resting upon the orange horizon, one of the girls called out to me just as I landed back on their side of the fence, my fingers careful not to get spiked by the sharp points on top.

“Hey, boy, do you wanna sleep with me?”

What an odd question to ask, I thought to myself.  Why the hell would I want to do that?  I’m sure I didn’t respond at all, but simply strode back up to the plate to take the biggest, most masculine cut I could ever take at a baseball.  I like to think that I hit it out over the trees in the distant outfield in front of the old, shuttered servant’s quarters from days gone by.  More likely, I put it in play and ran as hard as I could to first base.

One thing’s for sure.  For the rest of that day I took it easy going around third base.  But the next day, and the day after that, we took our chances back out on the streets of Bridgeport.  Riskier, yes, but the prospects for naked embarrassment paled in comparison to my recent experience back home.

Meanwhile, the girls continued to follow us around quite regularly for the rest of the summer, mysteriously glancing, winking and even blowing the occasional kiss at me.

Couldn’t they see that I was busy?

Jabbar’s Traveling Baseball Circus

A typical street scene in Bridgeport

Image via Wikipedia

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.

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