We’d never been this far from our familiar stomping grounds before. West of the railroad tracks, three blocks past State Street, (which was the normal boundary of our unofficial territory), across a large overgrown lot littered with needles, cans, and used condoms. I think it was a park, but no longer functioning in its former capacity.
Normally, we didn’t have to worry about those considerations because, seldom straying far from home, we were always within a short walking distance to someone’s house, where a pitcher of iced tea or lemonade could be emptied into half a dozen plus one Dixie cups, our team sans a catcher and a proper center-fielder. We savored the sweetness while sweating in someone’s kitchen, our gear smelling of soiled leather and splintered wood.
On this occasion, however, we set off on our ill-defined journey with less actual idea of where we might end up with than did Coronado four-hundred years earlier. At least he had oxen and arquebuses. All we had were feigned scowls and Pro Keds.
Johnny, the youngest among us, was always the first to speak up. We’d been walking for around 45 minutes under a July southern New England sun, and were pretty thirsty and worse, we were getting on each other’s nerves. And, as usual, Scott was Johnny’s favorite target.
“Jesus H. Christ, Scott, you got a load in your pants or something? You walk like my grandma after her stroke.”
This, of course, would set off Scott, normally tightly wound to begin with, and now even more profoundly insecure with his newly acquired acne. He was just 12, but his body had already begun to betray him. A head taller than some of us, he was nonetheless the worst player in our group, though one we could always count on to never have anything better to do on any given day than to play baseball.
“AaarrrRRAHHH!” He went after Johnny with his bat raised high, but none of us believed he’d actually ever hit Johnny with it. Weirdly, they were actually quite inseparable; you never found one without finding the other. Nevertheless, to save face, he needed to indulge in the pantomime of outrage to assuage his honor. It’s just the way it was. Johnny stopped Scott by pointing at another approaching tribe of ball players, more roughshod and studiously sullen than even ourselves. And there were more of them.
Now, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that racial differences didn’t matter. Our group could be loosely described as whitish, if you considered one Portuguese, one half-French / half-Italian, one theatrically tall long-limbed loudmouth with dried Prell Concentrate in his hair, a pair of third generation Slovaks whose mother still made us say the rosary at home on Wednesday nights, one black kid who got beat up by the other black kids in our school for “jumping like a white boy” (worse than that, actually), and one other boy named John (as opposed to Johnny) who recently emigrated from Cape Verde (of all places) with the tanned, dewy skin of a doe. He was normally the most frightened of all of us, or at least the first to reveal his fear.
“Them Portuguese are gonna beat me up!” John exclaimed. No one knew why, but John always referred to anyone with skin even darker than his own as Portuguese. John was probably strong enough to take on two or three of them, but he couldn’t exactly be counted on if things got a little rough.
“Can it, John. Let me handle this,” announced Johnny, always the first to dive in to the deep end of a tsunami.
For some reason, though, when the eight or nine boys from the West Side reached us, silent and serious, it was me they first spoke to. How they had apparently reached this unspoken consensus that I might be the leader our tribe was beyond me. The only reason I wasn’t truly terrified was that just the previous week, I’d been in a fight in my own backyard with a local Puerto Rican kid named Matos, and had come out of it mostly O.K.
We’d been playing a version of football where the goal was simply to tackle each other as hard as we could whenever we ended up with the ball. Tackling Matos, I’d taken a knee to the cheek but had brought him down just the same. A moral victory for the boy in the plaid pants.
“Whatchoo doin’ around here? We ain’t never seen you guys before. You looking for a fight or somethin’?” They got right to the point. No 18th-century parlay and tea for these guys. “Nah, we just wanta play some ball. Looking for someplace different to play.” Then, in a bit of divine inspiration intended to gain a modicum of respect with this crowd, “The police keep chasing us out of our neighborhood. Damned cops.” I could feel the eyes of Scott, Johnny and my gang boring into the back of my head with a unified “WTF is he talking about?” Wisely, however, they kept their collective mouths shut.
“Oh, yeah, so you come over here looking for a game? You from the South Side?” Actually, I wasn’t really sure what side of town we were officially from, so I barely nodded in the affirmative. I’m pretty sure we were actually West End kids, too, in a way, but I hadn’t been raised studying the geography of Bridgeport, Connecticut. In school, we were forced to trace the journeys of Marco Polo and Magellan, but we were never required to know how to find our way from one public school district to another. There Be Dragons.
“Yeah, man, we just looking to play some ball.” Never taking my eyes off of their de facto spokesperson, I simply stated our case without inflection, fear or attitude. After a quiet moment, it was clear that neither group was hoping for a fight, and that other than the prospect of a baseball game, none of us had any other reason to stand there staring at each other a moment longer.
“You get first ups,” stated their little leader, perhaps eleven-years old. The boy had toes coming out of his right sneaker. His glove was a floppy mess of dead leather, and his hair hadn’t seen a comb since perhaps springtime. But he ran out to the shortstop position like a young Ernie Banks. The other kids on his team, outfitted in Sears hand-me-downs just like us, followed his cue and took the field like the young ghosts of a Negro League long forgotten. We had no chance.
Who knows how many innings our game lasted. We lost count at around eleven or twelve. No one wanted to stop playing. It was more than a game. Two lost tribes had improbably found one other on a field that wasn’t even there to host baseball, but baseball sprouts in the most unlikely locations. Dusk gradually gave way to evening, and at some point, a few of their players simply vanished. Not of the metaphysical persuasion, I simply chalked it up to everyone has a bedtime or a dinnertime somewhere in the world.
Once the ball itself disappeared into the darkening outfield, amidst the tall grass and the empty beer cans, we had no choice but to stop the game. I knew that they had probably won, though we had held our own. Their young leader jogged in from his shortstop position as my gang gathered round. We were waiting for him to announce some fraudulent score that would certainly send Johnny into paroxysms of incandescent profanity that would light up the night sky. But, instead, the boy said, “We’ll finish this game tomorrow.” Then he turned around and took off, the last one of their group off the field.
“Well, shit,” Johnny started. “My old man will probably kick my ass for being out so late tonight as it is.”
“Yeah,” said Scott. “No way I’ll be allowed to come all the way out here again tomorrow, or ever again probably.”
The other boys around us nodded in agreement. This game would go in the books as a permanent tie. In all the years we played together before and after that, it was the only tie game we allowed to occur. Forever after, when we remembered this game, we simply called it, “The Tie.”
Years later, when I was in my late twenties, I happened to drive by that empty old field on my way to a funeral. No one was around but a homeless man on a park bench, sipping from a brown paper-bag. I couldn’t help myself, and pulled over to look at the place one more time. No boys running around through the trash. No yelling to throw the ball to second base. No pop ups to the infield. Just quiet, and an old man drinking. I just stood there with my arms on my hips.
“Looking for something?” The man asked me. He wore an old sports coat, green pants, and had holes in his shoes.
“Not really sure,” I smiled back at him.
“Well, you just wait around a bit, and I’m sure it’ll all come back to you. That’s just the way of things.”
That’s just the way of things.