The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Johnny”

The Way of Things

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.

It was strange, actually, that we even found the place, considering we weren’t even looking for it, on a mission crafted of vague, half-formed ideas.  Let’s go looking for other kids to play ball against, in a place we’d never been before.  I would say that you used to be able make journeys like that in those days, but that would provide credence to an idea that was uniformly bad from the start.For one thing, none of us had brought any water, or any money.

 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Post Navigation