Mar 16, 2012

Whose Field of Dreams Was This?

A Boyhood Nostalgia Trip

West Side Rec, Saratoga National Little League

After all these many years away, there it is in front of me. But something in me feels strange for some reason, and it is not the reaction I would have predicted. This was supposed to be a happy-happy nostalgia trip, after all. But walking through that open gate suddenly requires a conscious and confirming effort. Now I'm not even sure that coming over here was a good thing to do after all. Who'd have thought?

But here I am, reporting for duty once again. Playing second base and batting lead-off, Number 12. Sorry I'm not in uniform, guys. I'll just take my usual spot, midway between first and second right here, ready for pre-game infield practice. OK? Coach Green should be doing his slow walk out of the dugout any second now, bat and ball in hand, puffing a cigarette and soon pounding some grounders thru the dirt to us.

There's Skippy to my left, Chucky to the right at short and Frankie at third. Our ace Mikey H. is on the hill tonight, thankfully, so he is over on the sideline tossing to a scrub in prep. Sean'y will be behind the plate as always, so he ambles over alongside Coach to flip him the ball after its made its way among us around the horn. The outfielders are on their own, taking turns arcing the ball high into the sky to one another, simulating the upcoming pop ups they will soon be seeing for real.

It all looks pretty much the same. The backstop is definitely unchanged and original as are the bleachers on the far side. I'll make sure to go sit in them before I go, for they would be the same pieces of lumber on which the family all sat. The fence has been replaced, and the new one is set up closer to the plate. Or is that just ego taking over? Yeah, no doubt. How about the dirt, though; could any bits of it possibly be the same that were here so long ago?

But now we're into game mode. Funny, but I've almost always looked back and reminisced about playing defense and only rarely of hitting. I'll bet that is the opposite than is the case for most others. It must be because I loved the art of fielding so much, and I ended up being very good at it. I could always remember certain specific sequences in incredible clarity, as if they happened last week. Like snagging a richote'd liner off of our #2 pitcher's glove; flagging down one of Sean's laser beams to catch a kid trying to steal second, my heroic (to me and my personal fan club, at least) over-the-head catch in the Series.

But right now it's that last inning of my last year in Little League. It's all on the line. Trophy Time. We're up by one in a tense and well execute game. But they have a runner on first with only one out. It's gotten hairy as our ace tires and the other team starts to catch up to his heater. Coach comes out to say something to Mikey, but Sean seems to be doing all the talking. I look around at the other guys in the infield: they each look me right back in the eye and we all nod to one other. "We'll get there," we're all saying without moving our lips. "We'll get there." I turn around and point the two closest outfielders to where they should be standing, and they oblige with nervous obedience. Being a 12-year old, I was the elder here, after all.

Then I look at the crowd. Mom and Dad are in their usual perches; tonight my Dad is next to Skippy's. They went to school together and then went to war at the same time. Just like everyone else in town of that age. Here they are back together again. Mom is next to my aunt. Mom only got to about one-quarter of the games, for she had to keep the family neighborhood grocery store open until nine each nite. But this was it, requiring all hands being on deck. So tonight it was shut down early, with a sign on the door saying "Closed for Personal Reasons." My aunt, on the other hand, was at every single game all season long; her red Plymouth Barracuda always easy to spot parked out on Division Street. I would often worry about it taking a foul, but it never did. But my friend Roy's bedroom window across the street did once, which we all thought was a riot. Roy was the opposing pitcher in our last series. As tough as he was with his breaking ball, I somehow always managed to hit him well, including my pushing a foul line double against his squad a few nights earlier in the clincher.

Now we're ready to go. Mikey looks into Sean, who does his usual hop onto his toes in anticipation. He rocks back ever so slightly; I can still see that little hitch, early in his quick windup motion. There it is and then he stretches and drags his left leg along the dirt towards the plate. His fast ball barrels in. Somehow the kid managed to put his wooden bat on it with a loud crack of a sound. That wasn't supposed to happen, given he was in the bottom of the batting order.

It's hard at me in one furious bounce, maybe a half step to the right. But it's firmly in the glove and the momentum has me looking up and right at Chucky, who is dashing to second from shortstop. He was placed perfectly to get there quickly. It's out of my glove, into my hand and into his glove in a flash, all in one motion. He scrapes the bag as he glides over it towards me, then stops and pivots on his right foot to put himself on a direct line to first, to where he zips the ball. Skippy stretches out to take it, and the runner is out by a whisker. A double play. Yes indeed: we got there.

Skippy raises both arms and we all run towards Mikey and Sean. We pile onto one another, just off to the first base side of the mound, our gloves getting launched into the air as we run. I watch my Spalding leather hit the ground, and given that it was my most prized possession in all the world, I try to grab it for safekeeping. But someone was pulling me from behind and into the pile of screaming bodies, so I couldn't get to it. But my younger brother, who was our bat boy, saw my dilemma and grabs it, giving me a thumbs-up to let me know it was in his protection. I could now get back to celebrating the fact that we were the champs; which to a kid at that age, in that time, in that town, was a pretty big deal. Well, to this kid, it was.

Every minute detail as described above is exactly how it happened. Forty years later, there it still is: clear as a sunny day. Then it becomes the usual "where are they all now?" I only know the answer to that question for four of the players.

Our glorious ace Mikey stole a taxi that he had called to The Hub one night seven years later, deep into the post-high school Crazy Days of that era. The cabbie had come in the front door after realizing his horn honks were getting nowhere. As he weaved his way through the drunken mob inside, Mikey dashed out the side, into the running car and off he went. He proceeded to embark on a high speed joy ride up Church Street with it. By chance, I just happened to be home from college on that very night, and witnessed the shenanigans, in-motion, with some of the left behinds (what we called the peeps that didn't go away to school). "Ha ha, what a pisser that crazy bastard is, huh, stealing a cab 'cus he didn't have a ride home? " Yes, indeed, what a pisser.

Unfortunately, that ride only lasted a few westbound blocks, to where Church and Van Dam meet. There, Mikey lost control and barreled into a house on the left hand side, resulting in a horrendous crash, explosion, fireball and his instant death. I didn't even learn about it until my next return trip back home a month later. If hearing that news wasn't bad enough, me and my pal Bob P. spent that weekend's entire time conjuring up enough courage to go knock on his mother's door to retrieve my drum kit that was down in her basement. Not good: the before and after to that scene also took place at The Hub.

Roy, the one-time opposing pitcher, died an early cancer death. Sean went on to become a very successful college football coach, which was no surprise given his role as our little squad's heart and soul (and loud voice). Skippy is the only one I see on a somewhat regular basis, at his joint in town when I happen to be back there and in need of a cheap and filling lunch. I hope he keeps it a while longer, for I'm sure the day he exits will put an end to that "somewhat regular" thing. As for all the others? I haven't a clue.

For these are nomadic times. Whereas our parents would watch us romp on the very same fields of dreams in which they once played, along side our friends who were the sons and daughters of their own childhood friends, we ourselves scattered to the winds. Once we landed in our own Private Idahos, Zoomtowns and East Clusterfucks, we then pretended it was an equally satisfying experience watching our own kids play on fields to which we ourselves never set foot and with teammates born to parents which we never knew and never would.

But who's kidding who? We all know better. Among missing friends here at the seemingly empty West Side Rec Field on this particular afternoon, there's no need or motivation for us to BS one another now. Is there guys?



Ben lives on said...

Nice story,brings back a lot of memories good and bad

Anonymous said...

F'ing A. Nice.

T said...

RIP Hurl.

Foghorn Leghorn said...

You couldn't hit your weight!

Now whose line was that?

JM said...

Great memories. I remember how good you were with the glove.

I also seem to recall your explaining to the coach of the Freshmam HS team that the reason for your absence on the prior day was due to the fact that "certain days are made for baseball and certain days are made for fishing. Yesterday was a day for fishing." Or something real close to that.

I'm standing there watching this, fully expecting the coach (I think it was Mr McDonough?) to lower the boom on you. Instead, he just turns and walked away, shaking his head and mumbling.

I think he was just shell shocked.

How about we form an old man's league? Or a single game?