The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Pro-Keds”

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caught With My Pants Down (A Tale of Baseball Youth)

When I was around eleven or twelve years old, my friends and I in Bridgeport, CT used to play a lot of baseball.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, we were playing what others called “sandlot” ball, though I never saw any sand around the streets of Bridgeport.  Mostly I just saw gum-stains that looked like blood-spatter, used condoms (which, as a kid, I mistook for miniature balloons), dead cats with maggot-infested eyes, and toothless negro winos who would offer to “suck your dick” (whatever that meant) for 50 cents.

English: A German Shepherd waiting for someone...

English: A German Shepherd waiting for someone to play with him. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those reasons, and several others, there were times when it was just as easy to stay close to the neighborhood and play ball.  The problem, though, was that the overgrown lot right next to my house on Colorado Ave. wasn’t exactly Wrigley Field.

Though it had once been a vegetable garden (who knew vegetables didn’t come from cans?), it was now a crab-apple orchard redolent of dog-shit (the fat lady across the street owned the only German Shepherd this side of Europe with Irritable Bowel Syndrome.)  But at least no one would come along and bother us.

A chain-link fence separated our modest little backyard from this larger space on a line extending about 100 feet, until it met up with a low piece of barbed wire, long since unceremoniously trampled under foot by Converse All-Stars, if not the inevitable Pro Keds.  So it was an easy hop from the sidewalk in front of our house into the semi-swampy morass that was our ball-field.

For some reason, a few girls would often stop by to watch us play ball.  They were around our age, perhaps a bit older, and they spent most of their time giggling and whispering behind their hands as we smacked the partially round sphere into the bushes behind what we decided would be second base.  To me it was strange and interesting that these girls would come over to watch us play.  They didn’t seem to belong to anyone; no one among us would claim them as sisters or cousins, yet there they remained all afternoon, cheering us on, regardless of our worthiness at the bat or in the field.

Then, disaster struck.  A small slick of mud which we had all managed to successfully navigate for much of the afternoon, claimed me as its first victim as I rounded third and headed for home, a brown-stained, embarrassed young man.  My feet had slipped out from under me, and I had gone down hard, ass-first, into the fetid, brown goo.  It is a moment I’ve since edited out of my personal highlights-of-my life mental movie reel.

English: A pice of chain link fence over some ...

English: A pice of chain link fence over some railroad tracks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What to do.  No way I could continue to play with my pants soaked through, so I told the guys (never once glancing in the direction of the girls) that I had to go inside for a few minutes to change my pants.  After the usual exchange of pleasantries between my friends Scott and Johnny regarding who should bat next (“Scott, you dumb-ass, it’s my friggin’ turn!”  “The Hell it is you midget moron!”), and on and on as I climbed the fence into my backyard.

The washing machine and the dryer were down in the basement on the side of the house where, if one looked up out the window, one could see across into the adjoining yard where my friends were still yelling and playing a little ball.  The distance was just five or six feet, and though I could see them all just fine, it somehow didn’t occur to me that they might be able to see me as well.

I didn’t go directly up into my house and on into my bedroom because my parents were neat freaks, and I knew I’d never hear the end of it if I left a trail of muddy, dirty blue jeans and underpants in the house.  So I decided instead to simply change right there in the basement.  There were always clothes drying either in the dryer itself or on the clothesline suspended in the basement between the furnace and grandpa’s workbench.

At least that’s what I must have subconsciously counted on as I kicked off my sneakers, pulled off my damp socks, and gingerly climbed out of the rest of my dirty clothes.  I threw the entire mess into the washer, dumped in a sufficient amount of powdered soap, and pulled the dial that got the old machine pumping and humming.

Except that, once naked, I glanced around and to my heart-pounding dismay, there were absolutely no clothes at all on the line, nor in the dryer.  What overly efficient domestic would do such a thing?  Then I remembered, my father had taken his annual August week-long vacation from his job at Remington Arms.

When dad was home, no one and nothing was safe from his legendary Deutsch cleaning rampages.  Lint, dust-mites and random loose threads were no match for his overworked Hoover, and the very idea of dirt inside our house was as unthinkable as my Catholic mother attending a protestant church.

So I just stood there for several minutes, completely unaware that at about this time some of my friends, and the modest retinue of girls, had now spotted me in the basement.  It took far longer than it should have for me to catch on to what all the excitement was about.  I just had to figure out how to find some clothes.

And that, of course, was when my previous level of embarrassment now blossomed into full-blown mortification.  As the throng sauntered, skipped and squealed toward the three rectangular basement windows for the free, unscheduled performance, all I could think to do was to duck behind the washing machine.  I sat down on the cool cement floor, bare feet extended out into the sunlight from my protective shadows, wondering how I could just will myself into oblivion.  It couldn’t get any worse than this, could it?

My father’s voice broke my pitiful reverie.

“Billy, where the hell are your clothes?”

I suppose I still owe him one to this day for going back upstairs to retrieve some fresh clothes, and because I don’t think he ever told my mother.

Back outside in the late afternoon sun, now softly resting upon the orange horizon, one of the girls called out to me just as I landed back on their side of the fence, my fingers careful not to get spiked by the sharp points on top.

“Hey, boy, do you wanna sleep with me?”

What an odd question to ask, I thought to myself.  Why the hell would I want to do that?  I’m sure I didn’t respond at all, but simply strode back up to the plate to take the biggest, most masculine cut I could ever take at a baseball.  I like to think that I hit it out over the trees in the distant outfield in front of the old, shuttered servant’s quarters from days gone by.  More likely, I put it in play and ran as hard as I could to first base.

One thing’s for sure.  For the rest of that day I took it easy going around third base.  But the next day, and the day after that, we took our chances back out on the streets of Bridgeport.  Riskier, yes, but the prospects for naked embarrassment paled in comparison to my recent experience back home.

Meanwhile, the girls continued to follow us around quite regularly for the rest of the summer, mysteriously glancing, winking and even blowing the occasional kiss at me.

Couldn’t they see that I was busy?

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