The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Sandlot Ball”

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

Beanhead, and the Sandlot Kids

Home base of baseball field in Třebíč, Czech R...

Image via Wikipedia

Growing up in “The Park City,” Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1970’s, it was surprisingly difficult to actually find a park in which to play baseball.

Sure, there were parks around.  And if you wanted  a hooker, drugs, or a gay encounter in a bath-house, Bridgeport’s many parks offered all of this, and more.  If however, you were an eleven year old boy who just wanted to play some ball, well, good luck my friend.

Usually, the best we could do was an overgrown, abandoned field, or a lightly used parking lot.  One lot in particular, however, became our most consistently available playground.  We called it the Insurance Lot, effectively foreshadowing the dry, corporate major league ballpark names we would  come to despise two decades later.

No one knew why we called it The Insurance Lot, and I’m quite sure none of us ten to twelve-year-old kids could even explain to you just what insurance was, but once applied, the name stuck.

The lot, directly behind my friend Tony’s house, was paved and shaded by a couple of huge elm trees.  It was bordered by an eight foot high wooden fence in the back (home-plate and the backstop.)  A long, copper-wire fence interspersed with high scrub-grass and bushes on the right side represented the right field line, and a 1940’s era two-story wooden building painted red in the front was center field.

The small, fenced in property of an old bald man we kids called “Beanhead,” due to the strange shape of his skull and his olive skin-tone, was left field.  It was a very bad idea to hit the ball into left field.

A pitcher would stand a few feet from the middle of the lot and toss a hard, rubbery sphere on one hop towards home-plate.  When a player hit the ball, he might smoke it down the driveway along the wire fence leading out to Clinton Avenue for at least a double.

Or if he hit a line-drive to straight away center, it would bounce off the red house, and you would often end up with only a single.  If a kid hit it over the second floor windows, however, that was an automatic double.  A roof shot was an automatic homer, but it could also mean the end of the game if the ball got stuck up there somewhere.

An extreme right-handed pull-hitter, though, always faced the danger of depositing the ball into Beanhead’s backyard.

Beanhead, of course, was always home, just waiting for an opportunity to shake his bony fist at us and confiscate yet another baseball.  It was rumored that Beanhead had the largest collection of baseballs in all of southern New England.

We sometimes fantasized about kicking in his small basement window, dropping down into it with a few flashlights, and liberating a boatload of baseballs.  No one, of course, ever had the courage to even climb his fence.

As a result of the ever-present threat posed by Beanhead, most of us kids who hit from the right side of the plate learned to shorten-up our swings, and to angle our body away from that dangerous left field corner.

If the New York Mets ever decide to try to break Jason Bay of his dead-pull hitting tendencies, they might consider the tried and true Beanhead School of Hitting so that Bay could learn to use the whole field.

Eat your heart out, Charlie Lau.

One fine summer afternoon, going on about supper time, my little brother hit a long drive that one-hopped itself up…and over…Beanhead’s four-foot metal fence.  We all waited silently for the inevitable result.

Sure enough, Beanhead, spry old man that he was, came charging down his little back porch in his khaki pants and leather slippers, a gleam of triumph and a flash of anger battling for equal time on his pinched, green face.

In the late afternoon shadows, it seemed to me that his complexion appeared greener than usual, as if he was gradually morphing into an exotic vegetable.

Beanhead hesitated for a moment as he looked around at us, confident that we were all paying attention.  Then he slowly reached down and picked up the ball.  At that moment, my brother, already standing on first base, said something loud enough for all of us to hear.

“I hope he dies.”

Now, even by our de facto Lord of the Flies childhood philosophy of life, this qualified as one shocking statement.

I’m not sure that Beanhead heard it, but if he did, it was the last thing he ever heard any of us say.

We never saw Beanhead again.

About three weeks later, our friend Johnny’s dad told Johnny that Beanhead had died of cancer.  When Johnny told us this during one of our final games of the season, we all looked directly at my little brother.

“Holy smokes,” someone said, “you wished him dead and now he’s dead.”

With that, we broke off the conversation and resumed our game, still not sure how safe it would actually be to hit a ball into Beanhead’s yard.  Playing it safe, no one hit another ball into his yard for the remainder of the summer.

By the following summer, two of my friends had moved away to the suburbs, and our shrunken little group had suddenly outgrown the tiny little insurance lot.  Venturing out now all the way to Tunxis Hill in Fairfield, a thirty minute walk along Kings Highway, we had discovered what the rich kids already knew.  A couple of legitimate baseball diamonds existed, there for the taking.

We never again played in our old home ballpark, The Insurance Lot.  Like Ebbett’s Field, it exists now only in our collective memories.

I imagine, though, that whoever inherited the task of emptying out Beanhead’s basement, attic and closets must have been puzzled by the presence of so many balls of varying color and condition.

But who Beanhead really was, and why he did what he did, are part of the dark mysteries of childhood, a time when the adult world often collides unpleasantly with the uncluttered truth of youth.

A time when the sandlot kids just want to play some damn baseball.

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