The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Sandlot Baseball”

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?

Jabbar’s Traveling Baseball Circus

A typical street scene in Bridgeport

Image via Wikipedia

In the past, I’ve written posts about growing up playing baseball in the summers of the ‘70’s, and how a certain so-called Beanhead was our arch-nemesis.  I’ve also written about the neighborhood girls who used to tag along, encouraging our immature, dormant hormones to gradually, awkwardly emerge.

But I haven’t yet mentioned Jabbar.

Jabbar, like his more famous basketball contemporary, Kareem-Abdul, was a tall black man involved in athletics.  But our Jabbar was not a player; he was an organizer.

I can’t quite recall how I first encountered this scruffy, bearded (like Walt Chamberlain) gentleman.  But in my mind’s eye I can visualize him, wooden bat in hand, leading a motley parade of boys down the sidewalk along Maplewood Avenue in the slanted September sunshine.

He was always talking, chattering, cajoling, encouraging.  His long legs loped along, pausing periodically, allowing the youthful throng to keep pace.

This puzzling spectacle usually appeared after school, once the boys – black, white, and Hispanic – had a chance to go home, throw their schoolbooks on the kitchen table, and grab their baseball gear.

Without any recollection as to how I ended up being recruited, I soon found myself tagging along near the end of the sweaty procession, pausing only at stop signs and street lights, heading God knew where.

Invariably, Jabbar had already located a field for us to play on.  Sometimes, these fields, unkempt and ill-used, were over on the other side of town.  If Jabbar had abandoned us there, I am quite sure I would have been clueless as to how to find my way home.

But they were actual baseball fields, not just convenient, empty lots.  This was a relative luxury which we had seldom enjoyed in the past.

I was our primary first-baseman.  In fact, I might have been the only thirteen-year old in Bridgeport with an actual first baseman’s mitt, a right-handed glove I still have to this day.

Jabbar always called me “Millahhh,” in something approaching an Economy-class Jamaican lilt.

“Millahhh, go ‘ead an ‘old de runnahhh!” he would call to me authoritatively.  I had little idea what he meant, so I would shuffle my feet back and forth, set my jaw in anticipation of the next play, and hope I wasn’t screwing up too badly.

I never thought of him as our coach, exactly.  In fact, to this day, I have no idea who the hell he was, where he came from, or who was paying him, if anyone.  He was more of an oversized black muse, calling us out to learn to appreciate God’s greatest game.

One late afternoon, spurned homework abandoned indefinitely on a plastic table-cloth, I smoked a triple down the third-base line.  I watched the ball skip along the foul-line, past the third baseman’s glove, out into a dark, distant corner.  I was going for three as soon as I left the batter’s box.

“Millahhh!  Go, Millahhh, GO!”

I reached third base standing up, two other base-runners safely crossing home plate ahead of me. Jabbar was already preoccupied with the next batter.

Here I was, standing on third base on a foreign corner of my dirty old town, feeling like all life required me to do now was to find my way home.

Yet no one I knew or cared about witnessed my fleeting moment of fame.  My little brother, not one to up and join random populist movements, must have stayed home.  Parents, well, I don’t know if my parents ever saw me play a single inning of ball my whole childhood.  Even my best friends, my usual sandlot gang, hadn’t joined this traveling baseball circus.

I was gradually becoming aware, however, of a strange, new feeling; I could revel in a moment like this without requiring the validation of others, even Jabbar. It was a liberating feeling, yet redolent with mystery, like childhood cousins surreptitiously stealing a kiss on a sofa during a sudden summer shower.

I know the ending to this story, and you do, too.  I grew up, leaving my baseball dreams scattered all over Bridgeport’s hard parking lots and filthy fields.

Jabbar was gone.  No one I knew so much as mentioned the sudden disappearance of our personal pied piper.  I don’t recall ever, in the rapture of my youth, stopping to consider what those fleeting moments meant to me, moments stoked in the coal-fire of an enigmatic black man’s burning heart.

I know now.

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.

 

Baseball, and the Neighborhood Girls

Gaga with neighborhood girls

Image by enda_001 via Flickr

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.

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