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.