The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Jesus”

Leaving it all Behind: Joe Wood Has a Beer in Ouray

The meals are generally warm and agreeable in this establishment, the last one down here along the highway before you get to Stony Mountain.  They all know me in here; got my table ’round back near the bandstand where all they ever play is goddamned “Waltzing Matilda” over and over, as if they might just conjure up another Gallipoli simply by doing so.  My reflection sits at the bottom of my beer mug, waiting for me to pull it out.  Once, I was of the inclination to do so, but thought better of it.  We each have to learn to make it on our own in this world.

"Smokey" Joe Wood, Boston AL (baseball)

“Smokey” Joe Wood, Boston AL (baseball) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The shoulder stiffens in the dry, brittle air of winter’s Colorado.  Jesus died at 33, and I ain’t planning on kicking the bucket just yet, and yes, that crown of thorns must’ve been one sonovabitch, but mister, until you’ve awakened at 4:00 a.m. after a hundred curveballs, and twice as many fastballs, well, all I’m sayin’ is, don’t come cryin’ to me about sin and redemption.  We all get squeezed sometimes.

Flaky Lacy over there says she’s seen my picture in a newspaper brought back from the East.  Says she thinks I was famous, playing some game of Ball or something.  Showed me the headline, and the picture of a dark-eyed, serious looking kid of the age when youth sets, then begins to die.  The camera captured the image the instant before the melting began, when first you lose your heater, then your heart.  Finally, they take your name and put it in a magazine.  Might as well be an obituary.

Tried second-base once.  It didn’t take.

I could hit a little.  Batted .366 years after I couldn’t comb my own hair with my right hand.  They say your body compensates for itself so that one part of it grows stronger when another part shuts down.  Well, the wrong part grew stronger, sir.  The memory of the ball just whistling out of my right hand, effortless as a young girl dancing barefoot in summer’s backyard — all lemonade and perfumed air — gets stronger and sharper.  It cuts and slashes leaving nothing but the wound of youth.

Boston ball grounds - 1912 (1st part of panora...

Boston ball grounds – 1912 (1st part of panorama), 9/28/12 (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Maybe I’ll leave this land of the Ute, and head back East after all.  Got a cousin in Connecticut.  Said I could get a job in New Haven teaching pitching.  I could get down to Boston once in a while, I suppose.  Sit with the old men in the bleachers, talking about the way things used to be.  How the young fellers of today don’t know how to play the game the way we once did.  Clean balls now, and everyone hits a homer, drives a car, and owns a radio.

Ran into a man on my way out of here yesterday.  Said he was a reporter.  Asked me to come back in and have one more for the road.  Said to me, “You was Smokey Joe Wood.”  I said, “I guess I still am, but for the part that refers to my right arm.”  He laughed and shook his head.  “Don’t know how you do it,” he pondered.  “Why, whatever do you mean, sir?” I retorted.  He held off for a moment, bottom jaw cranky with doubt.  Foamy beer clung to his lips and chin, leaving him looking like a bearded Greta Garbo.

“You had the world once,” he started.  “You were literally ‘King of the Hill’, and no one could knock you off your perch.”  He stared at me now, in the same way mortals first came to detest the fallen Gods of old when Olympus would no longer shelter them.  “How do you get on with it at all?”  His question lingered in the air, like the moment after the first drop of rain, but before the second.  It insinuated a dark chasm that I had heretofore generally avoided.

Colorado Meadows

Colorado Meadows (Photo credit: QualityFrog)

“I don’t get on with it at all,” I responded.  “I simply play dead, and it gets tired and moves along on its way.  It is dumb, sir, and spends time fretting over its feces, and pulling thorns from its feet.  Me, I adjust the shadows so they cloak me when I sleep, and when I arrive at a new destination, they always arrive a step behind me, lapping at the sunlit, dappled ground.”

I paid my tab and left that place.  On the way out of Ouray, on a cannonball headed to the Atlantic, I spotted a ballgame out my window.  A barefoot boy, bat on his shoulder, turned to look at the train barreling by his little, brown diamond.  He waved, perhaps not at me, but at the image of speed and power that captured his imagination.

I thought I knew just how he felt.  I waved back, (just in case), head resting against the cool windowpane, eyes closed now, and said goodbye.

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.

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Baseball, and All That We Leave Behind

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