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 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, 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 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 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.
Jabbar’s Traveling Baseball Circus
Baseball Summers In the 1970’s
Baseball, and the Neighborhood Girls
Baseball, and All That We Leave Behind
Posted in baseball
, Baseball Memories
and tagged baseball
, Batted ball
, Bruce Sutter
, Chris Speier
, Remington Arms
, Sandlot Ball
, Sparky Anderson
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.