The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Bridgeport”

The Last Days of Summer

When I was a kid, I used to keep track of my batting average during our extremely informal sandlot baseball season.  I really didn’t know how to figure out a batting average, but I knew that one hit in two at bats was a .500 average, and I would go from there.  One year, I hit something like .667, but I may have been off by 50 points or more.

To call it a “season” really doesn’t do justice to our daily habit of roaming around Bridgeport looking for a place to play ball.  Moreover, if we couldn’t find other kids beyond our neighborhood to play against (which was often the case), then we would split our core group in two and just play against each other in a lot, a field, or a quiet side-street.

Our baseball season would go on without significant interruption until the dawn of another school year.  At that point, as the summer sunlight began to slant away from us, retreating into an early dusk, fewer and fewer of us would regularly be available after school to play ball.

A terrible disease called onset Algebra now vexed us in the short hours between our after-school snack and bath-time.  It was often accompanied by a sharp pain of anxiety in the gut as we realized those moments lost daydreaming in the classroom (when we should have been paying attention to the teacher) were probably a fatal mistake.

The darkness of the dreaded spelling homework doomed us, rendering pointless our pathetic protests to mom.

“Mom, can’t I go out and play now?”

“Not until after you finish your homework.”

“But Scott and Johnny are outside playing ball already.”

“I don’t care if Scott and Johnny are out there all night.  Now go finish your homework, mister.”

There were still those infrequent moments where on a surprisingly warm September afternoon just after Labor Day, my friends and I would sweat out the school-day like alcoholics sobering up in the sunshine, and revel in the smell of leather gloves and the sound of the ball smacking into our mitts.

These, the last days of summer, passed over us, through us, around us, the aroma of dead August still scenting the air.  We would fight a losing battle to hang onto September, knowing full well that October portended thicker jackets, shorter days and frostier mornings.

Funny thing about the last day of summer.  By our unwritten definition, it was the final day we were all available to play baseball together.  But we never knew in advance which day that would be, and we never marked its immediate passing with ceremony or scroll.

Yet for some odd reason, after several slippery decades and another Labor Day have passed me by, denoting another dying summer, I still half expect to look out my kitchen window and see Scott and Johnny tossing around a scuffed ball, waiting for me to come out and play.

Now my son, about the same age as the boys I remember playing with all those years ago, faces his own after-school homework demons, his lazy summer afternoons already just hazy memories.

But the bat and ball buried deep in the closet beckon, and my arm feels good today.  The math problems will still be here when we get back, and I doubt Scott and Johnny will wait around out there forever.

In baseball, it turns out, there are no last days, merely irregularly scheduled off-seasons.







Remnants of All Things Dying

The slushy streets sounded hollow as my boots clicked on the pavement, as if the subterranean world below Bridgeport was a cracked eggshell just waiting to collapse into itself.  I imagined the bones of workers clubbed to death in labor disputes by company goons a half-century before my father was born, rotting down there, shovels and picks in mummified hands awaiting a battle long ended.  Dead buildings of gray brick and grime stood sentinel along wide, deserted streets.  They called this time of year “Spring.”

I felt both sweaty and chilled in my dark blue fleece as the remnants of a sun dissolved behind black cherry clouds.  My dad once worked in one of these vacant buildings where cold metal machinery claimed fingers, hands and even the occasional arm in its vast unforgiving maw.  Guys got bandaged up and went back to work the next day.  The blood of men in their thousands greased the wheels of industrial America.  My dad called it “going to work.”

My friend James lived up on Washington Ave. about a mile or so from my house, but a frayed ribbon of Bridgeport mile was a showcase of all that had once been, and now only the scattered, battered remains were apparent.  A vast industrial cemetery graveyard that I called home.  It started to drizzle.

I had hoped James and I could play some catch.  I’d even brought along an extra glove in my denim duffle bag I’d inherited from a gnarled aunt whose favorite pastime was collecting stamped envelopes from places others had been, of which she could only imagine the worst calamities befalling her if she’d ever set foot outside her two-room apartment, triple locks on her front door.  I couldn’t say I blamed her.

James didn’t answer the door at first; he never did.  Apparently allergic to the light even in a refracted nightmare of a town like ours, asthmatic James finally cracked the door open, stretched and yawned in his undershorts and without a word, allowed me to enter his darkened sanctuary.  He coughed as he pointed to a pile of papers on a desk on the edge of a shallow kitchen.  It was a story he and I’d been working on, but it wasn’t coming together. Like our story, he and I would soon go our separate ways, connected only by the fiction that friendship lasted forever.

“So, what did you think?” I asked, although I already knew the answer.

James sighed a lot.  (Only my dad sighed more often.)  There were levels to his sighs.  Small sigh meant things were typically O.K., but never would be great.  Medium sigh, shorter in duration but more intense, meant he had actually given the subject some thought and predictably wasn’t impressed.  Long sighs followed by a trip to the refrigerator for a glass of milk indicated categorical failure on your part from which there might be no return.

What followed was a long sigh, followed by a trip to the bathroom.  That was a new one, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I knew it couldn’t be good.

Good times with James only happened more or less by accident now.  A friendship formed between a pair of fourteen-year old loners in a Catholic high school populated by medieval nuns, creepy lay-teachers and sadistic jocks was a friendship defined under duress in the trench-warfare of adolescence.  Now that we’d been freed from the petty tyranny of our education, our bond had begun to dissipate, though neither of us had the guts to completely face up to it.  Getting on each other’s nerves was about all we had left.

When he emerged from the bathroom several minutes later, dressed in blue jeans and a Pink Floyd tee-shirt, I chose not to ask for specific feedback on my portion of the story.  It would be a hopeless and depressing waste of time.  So I pulled the glove out of my duffle bag and tossed it over to James.  He briefly examined it without surprise or excitement.

“Where the hell’d you get a left-handers mitt?”  he asked, because I was right-handed.

“Babe Ruth’s fucking grave.  What the hell difference does it make?”

Babe Ruth's grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery

Babe Ruth’s grave in Gate of Heaven Cemetery (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Without a word and to my everlasting astonishment, James led the way outdoors to the mostly empty parking lot around the back of his apartment building.  Only a lone, ’76 Nova stood in the way of the spot where we last played nearly a year ago.  Luckily, it had its parking brake off, and with the driver’s side window smashed in, it wasn’t too difficult to manipulate the abandoned vehicle out of our way, if you were careful about the broken glass.

I started off with a split-fingered fastball, the way Bruce Sutter used to do it.  That pissed James off ’cause he wasn’t expecting it, so he fired a two-seamer back at me which nearly ripped the webbing of the glove I’d had since sixth-grade (and still have today.)  I smiled, which I think was the first time either of us had smiled that day.

“Asshole!” I called out to him, the echo reverberating off the silent brick buildings.

I threw him my best change-up, which never fooled anyone I ever threw it to.

“That all you got?” he shot back, a faint hint of a smile nearly creasing his lips.  “No wonder you never got laid in high school.”

“With those Amazons?”  Christ, even the nuns looked better.

“Donna would’ve let you at least touch her.”  He was getting comfortable now, his arm angle the familiar three-quarters I remembered from the high school ball-field.

“Yeah, with your dick,” I called back.  A pretty standard, unoriginal response expected by both parties in a conversation such as this.

“Got one for you,” he warned.  But I knew what was coming.  A tight curveball, small but perceptible break to it, creased the March breeze and smacked into my tan George A. Reach Co. mitt.  It felt like home.  Not the one I actually lived in, but the place I imagined must be just around the corner from the park, where kids played in actual sunshine on real grass.  Home.

A middle-aged black man came down and sat on a stoop just watching us for several minutes, followed by a pair of young, twin sisters with pink barrettes in their hair.  James and I had nothing more to say to each other, but I like to think the sound of baseball — the final game of catch we ever played — yet reverberates off silent walls in a crumbling, forgotten part of town accessible only through faulty, imperfect memory.

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.




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:

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Baseball Summers In the 1970’s

Baseball, and the Neighborhood Girls

Baseball, and All That We Leave Behind

Baseball Summers Long Gone

By the time my brother Mark and I were ten and twelve-years old, respectively, our summers had settled into a comfortably predictable pattern.  Wake up to a sultry, summer morning, have some Hawaiian Punch fruit drink (5% real fruit juice!), King Vitamin cereal, throw on some old clothes, then head out to round up our friends.

Scott, Johnny, Tony, and occasionally the Jelleff brothers comprised our small, stable group.  In later years, my older cousin Jimmy would sometimes come all the way over from Stratford to flesh out our crew.

Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s had just finished a remarkable three-year run as World Champions.  Now the Big Red Machine, as relentlessly efficient and mechanical as The Terminator, dominated the baseball diamond.

I was a Mets fan.  My brother Mark was a Braves fan because he liked their logo.  Scott was an A’s fan, and Johnny liked the Yankees.  Tony, a quiet, wiry Portuguese kid, kept his loyalties to himself.

Stopping first at Scott’s house just down the street, we might first trade some baseball cards (Tony Perez for Bert Campaneris straight up), then Scott would show us his latest Iron Maiden or Black Sabbath record.  Eventually, we would gather up our uncertain assortment of bats, gloves and balls before sauntering down Maplewood Avenue to collect Johnny and Tony.  They lived side-by-side in identical gray two-family houses with no yards, front or back.

Tony’s black-clad grandmother was always sweeping the sidewalk in front of their house.  Her smile offered us a view of her few remaining teeth, each one a sentry guarding her ironic, foreign laugh.

Johnny was once again in trouble with his dad, as his younger sister would always gleefully announce to us upon opening the back door to their modest home.  Johnny was a tough little nine-year old with a keen sense of humor.  He would back down for no one.  Slow as Ernie Lombardi wearing a ball-and-chain, Johnny could hit and field, but if a ball got by him, you knew you had yourself at least a triple.

For some reason, it never occurred to us to bring any water along as we trekked over to middle-class Fairfield to play ball.  The thirty minute walk wasn’t so bad in the late morning, although the burnt orange sun was already high in the sky.

Playing in Fairfield was always a crapshoot.  Sometimes, you got lucky and would be able to play uninterrupted for most of the day.  But as often as not, a station-wagon full of pampered, interchangeable suburban kids would invade our field like chubby white locusts.  This would usually happen, of course, in the middle of a game.

Someone’s overbearing dad – they always looked vaguely like either Robert Conrad or Lee Majors – would gruffly announce that they had “reserved” the field.

We knew this was bullshit, of course, but in those days young boys generally didn’t argue with adults.  And we never happened to have a handy grown-up of our own tagging along to provide us cover.

Johnny would just mutter, “Aw shit,” to himself, and we’d trudge off back up and across King’s Highway past Caldor and the County Cinema Theater (some movie about a man-eating shark was very popular that summer.)

Back in Bridgeport, we would inevitably stop off at the family owned and operated A&G Market where I bought my first pack of baseball cards in 1974.  We would purchase a lunch of RC Cola (look under the cap to see if you’re a winner!), and a bag of funyuns.

Fortified with this food pyramid-busting meal, we would climb a chain-link fence and spend the next several hours running, shouting, hitting and throwing on the hot black-tar pavement.

We took the game deadly seriously.  Every pitch, swing, and tag was grounds for an argument.  Scott, hot-tempered as a drunk Red Sox fan at a Yankee game, would throw his glove to the ground, yelling in his nasally, pre-pubescent voice about what total crap the final call was.  Johnny would just laugh at Scott’s antics, which pissed Scott off even more.  Eventually Tony or I would have to step between them to get the game going again.

If not interrupted in late afternoon by someone’s mother or young sister coming by to collect one of us for some unsavory, real-world task (Johnny needs to take out the garbage; Scott needs to come home to watch his two brothers; Mark and I need to go to church:  “Christ mom, on a Wednesday afternoon?  You’ve got to be kidding”), we would play all the way up to suppertime.  As if triggered by some ancient primordial reflex, mothers all over the neighborhood would start shouting out the door for their children to come in and get washed up for supper.

Exactly when all of this ended, I can’t really say.  It must have been around 1978 or ‘79, but I can’t be sure.  One day I was just a kid playing ball with my friends.  Then, without warning or regret, it just stopped.  Someone may have moved away.  New friendships were forged at new schools.  Girls suddenly popped up like dandelions on a spring lawn.

I’m quite sure, though, that I had no idea then that the most important time of my life — the period that essentially shaped the man I have become – had disappeared for good, and would one day, many years later, try desperately to avoid being pinned down and recaptured by mere words.


Beanhead, and the Sandlot Kids

Home base of baseball field in Třebíč, Czech R...

Image via Wikipedia

Growing up in “The Park City,” Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1970’s, it was surprisingly difficult to actually find a park in which to play baseball.

Sure, there were parks around.  And if you wanted  a hooker, drugs, or a gay encounter in a bath-house, Bridgeport’s many parks offered all of this, and more.  If however, you were an eleven year old boy who just wanted to play some ball, well, good luck my friend.

Usually, the best we could do was an overgrown, abandoned field, or a lightly used parking lot.  One lot in particular, however, became our most consistently available playground.  We called it the Insurance Lot, effectively foreshadowing the dry, corporate major league ballpark names we would  come to despise two decades later.

No one knew why we called it The Insurance Lot, and I’m quite sure none of us ten to twelve-year-old kids could even explain to you just what insurance was, but once applied, the name stuck.

The lot, directly behind my friend Tony’s house, was paved and shaded by a couple of huge elm trees.  It was bordered by an eight foot high wooden fence in the back (home-plate and the backstop.)  A long, copper-wire fence interspersed with high scrub-grass and bushes on the right side represented the right field line, and a 1940’s era two-story wooden building painted red in the front was center field.

The small, fenced in property of an old bald man we kids called “Beanhead,” due to the strange shape of his skull and his olive skin-tone, was left field.  It was a very bad idea to hit the ball into left field.

A pitcher would stand a few feet from the middle of the lot and toss a hard, rubbery sphere on one hop towards home-plate.  When a player hit the ball, he might smoke it down the driveway along the wire fence leading out to Clinton Avenue for at least a double.

Or if he hit a line-drive to straight away center, it would bounce off the red house, and you would often end up with only a single.  If a kid hit it over the second floor windows, however, that was an automatic double.  A roof shot was an automatic homer, but it could also mean the end of the game if the ball got stuck up there somewhere.

An extreme right-handed pull-hitter, though, always faced the danger of depositing the ball into Beanhead’s backyard.

Beanhead, of course, was always home, just waiting for an opportunity to shake his bony fist at us and confiscate yet another baseball.  It was rumored that Beanhead had the largest collection of baseballs in all of southern New England.

We sometimes fantasized about kicking in his small basement window, dropping down into it with a few flashlights, and liberating a boatload of baseballs.  No one, of course, ever had the courage to even climb his fence.

As a result of the ever-present threat posed by Beanhead, most of us kids who hit from the right side of the plate learned to shorten-up our swings, and to angle our body away from that dangerous left field corner.

If the New York Mets ever decide to try to break Jason Bay of his dead-pull hitting tendencies, they might consider the tried and true Beanhead School of Hitting so that Bay could learn to use the whole field.

Eat your heart out, Charlie Lau.

One fine summer afternoon, going on about supper time, my little brother hit a long drive that one-hopped itself up…and over…Beanhead’s four-foot metal fence.  We all waited silently for the inevitable result.

Sure enough, Beanhead, spry old man that he was, came charging down his little back porch in his khaki pants and leather slippers, a gleam of triumph and a flash of anger battling for equal time on his pinched, green face.

In the late afternoon shadows, it seemed to me that his complexion appeared greener than usual, as if he was gradually morphing into an exotic vegetable.

Beanhead hesitated for a moment as he looked around at us, confident that we were all paying attention.  Then he slowly reached down and picked up the ball.  At that moment, my brother, already standing on first base, said something loud enough for all of us to hear.

“I hope he dies.”

Now, even by our de facto Lord of the Flies childhood philosophy of life, this qualified as one shocking statement.

I’m not sure that Beanhead heard it, but if he did, it was the last thing he ever heard any of us say.

We never saw Beanhead again.

About three weeks later, our friend Johnny’s dad told Johnny that Beanhead had died of cancer.  When Johnny told us this during one of our final games of the season, we all looked directly at my little brother.

“Holy smokes,” someone said, “you wished him dead and now he’s dead.”

With that, we broke off the conversation and resumed our game, still not sure how safe it would actually be to hit a ball into Beanhead’s yard.  Playing it safe, no one hit another ball into his yard for the remainder of the summer.

By the following summer, two of my friends had moved away to the suburbs, and our shrunken little group had suddenly outgrown the tiny little insurance lot.  Venturing out now all the way to Tunxis Hill in Fairfield, a thirty minute walk along Kings Highway, we had discovered what the rich kids already knew.  A couple of legitimate baseball diamonds existed, there for the taking.

We never again played in our old home ballpark, The Insurance Lot.  Like Ebbett’s Field, it exists now only in our collective memories.

I imagine, though, that whoever inherited the task of emptying out Beanhead’s basement, attic and closets must have been puzzled by the presence of so many balls of varying color and condition.

But who Beanhead really was, and why he did what he did, are part of the dark mysteries of childhood, a time when the adult world often collides unpleasantly with the uncluttered truth of youth.

A time when the sandlot kids just want to play some damn baseball.

Baseball, and the Neighborhood Girls

Gaga with neighborhood girls

Image by enda_001 via Flickr

During the decade of the 1970’s, parents were not yet in the habit of stalking their child’s every activity, video camera in hand.

By and large, our parents lived separate, mysterious lives.  We kids would run out of the house, screen doors slamming behind us, as soon as we’d finish eating breakfast, and we’d drag ourselves inside through the back door come dusk.

Of course, on weekdays there was school.  Ten months out of the year, we tolerated grown-ups teaching us many things we just knew with absolute certainty we’d never use again.  Things like long division, diagramming sentences, and that hideous book,  “Silas Marner.”

And weekends, our parents would occasionally drag us over to an elderly aunt’s house to drink grape juice while watching Mutual of Omaha’s, “Wild Kingdom.”

At that time, it was always clear that, even if you had a sister within our age group, she was, by definition, not invited to play directly with us boys.  We boys set the daily ad hoc agenda.  Girls could tag along at a safe distance if they had nothing better to do, but they were not to interfere with the serious business of baseball.

And, of course, except for the periodic war games we would play (Americans vs. Germans; Seventh Cavalry vs. Indians), we mostly played baseball.

It was rare that the six of us boys who formed the core of our neighborhood group did not have gloves, bats and a couple of baseballs with us wherever we ventured.  Finding an actual place to play usually comprised the most challenging part of our day.  There were no actual baseball parks or little league fields within several square blocks of us, so we would improvise a playground wherever we could, always without express written permission to do so.

Meanwhile, at a safe distance, someone’s little sister, or later, a trio of young Puerto Rican girls, would tail us throughout our wanderings.

I never once saw a girl in our age group actually put on a glove, or lift a bat in those days, even just to try it out.  If softball existed anywhere at all, it was probably in the distant and bizarre suburbs, where logical, discernible street patterns simply did not exist, and no one ever walked.

My slowly evolving interest in the opposite sex could be measured by the degree to which I noticed them in proportion to how far I was able to hit a baseball.  At first, as a seven or eight year old, when slamming a short line drive past the pitcher was all my thin frame could muster, I couldn’t tell you if a female was within shouting distance of our zip code or not.

By the time I was ten or eleven, I enjoyed the smiles and cheers of the girls as I pulled into third base after a bases-clearing triple over the U.P.S truck in what we considered to be right field.

At thirteen, I wanted to know their names, and where they lived.

Well, I kind of knew where they lived, the brown house on the corner of Maplewood and Howard Avenue.  But we’d never crossed that street before.  Everyone over there spoke Spanish, and there was simply no telling how a bunch of skinny white boys would be received, even if we were bold enough to venture onto their property.

Her name, as it turned out, was Ruth.

She was the middle sister of the Puerto Rican trio that used to follow us around Bridgeport.  In all the time she and her sisters trailed us, cheering for home runs, clapping and shouting when the ball skipped its way into an outfield gap, I never once spoke a word to her.  Not even a “See you later,” at the end of a satisfying but exhausting day, the sun a purple-red bruise over distant Stratford.

Then one day, as I was walking along with my gang to one of our favorite haunts, the empty (on Sundays) paved lot of a local insurance company, I was startled to notice that Ruth had fallen in beside me.  Her hands were thrust purposefully into her blue jeans pockets; her white blouse a direct assault on my immature male sensibilities.

She began speaking to me, and I immediately began to feel panic that one of my gang would make fun of me for having a “girlfriend.”  It just wasn’t something I was prepared to be tagged with, even if I really was flattered by her attention.

Ruth asked me a few questions at infrequent intervals about things like how long I’d been playing, what my favorite position was, and why we didn’t go find more kids to play with so we could have two full teams.

I kept my responses short and simple.  Better to show her who was boss.  Mostly, though, we walked side by side in silence.  I glanced over at her a couple of times, feigning interest at a passing car or a beat-up stop sign.  Inwardly, I felt something I’d never experienced before.

I felt validated.

I knew at that moment that although I was still a kid, the days of being primarily mom and dad’s child were rapidly being replaced by an overwhelming  desire to truly become my own person, my own man.

Ruth’s presence filled me out and gave me definition.  The clothes that I wore, the way I walked, my choice of words, now all seemed to come into much clearer focus to me.  They mattered.  I mattered.

The rest of that day is lost to me like the smoke of a birthday candle.

But just a few short weeks later, Ruth, her sisters, and her entire family were mysteriously, and without warning, gone.

Although as kids we weren’t supposed to learn of human tragedy when it hit close to home, the word on the streets was that Ruth’s younger sister had been found suffocated in an abandoned refrigerator, and that the cops suspected foul play.  Indeed, a little while later, a suspect, who it turned out was an adult male friend of the family, had been taken into custody.

The gang and I were suddenly alone, and I felt lonely.  Occasionally, as I stepped to the plate, wooden bat resting comfortably on my  right shoulder, I would steal a glance at the spot where Ruth and her sisters used to sit and watch us play.

At some point, I stopped looking for her, and went back to playing ball for myself, and for my gang.

For me, I’ve loved and followed baseball for over forty years now.  It’s been the one constant in my life that I’ve been able to depend on.

For Ruth and her sisters, all I can offer are these memories I now share with strangers I may never meet.

Thank you girls, once upon a time, for being our fans.

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