Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Daily Dose #19 (06/15/11)


(A Lake Boy Tale)


In the spring and summer of 1971, I joined a Little League Ball Club.

My baseball training was pretty non-existent. My dad Nick was a hard working man, and had been since I could remember. He was up and out of the house by 5:15 am every morning, six days a week. Sometimes he didn't come home until 7:30 or 8:00 from the factory, wiped out. He had the weight and responsibility of many families on his shoulders, let alone his own brood.

Every once in awhile, we would have a catch in the backyard as the evening's dinner meat had it's untimely heated intercourse with grill fire. But we never went to ballgames at MacArthur Stadium, or even watched games on TV... there just wasn't enough time.

I became aware that spring that a bunch of my friends had signed up for Little League, and had been involved in organized baseball for a while. These were the new friends of sixth grade, and curiously, my elementary school circle wasn't into baseball as much as they were into Scouting.

So when I asked Chris Kelly if I could join, he was enthusiastic. So I did. I wanted to hang with my band of brothers. I became a Red Sock.

My father was ecstatic. Finally, one of his boys showed an interest in athletics, rather than running around like Leonardo DaVinci with my brother, The Prince Of The D'Medicis (which was basically my Mother's upbringing agenda).

His boy was going to participate in "The National Pastime". Evening catches and batting practice became much more frequent, and I cherished the extra time that Dad eked out to spend with me, trying to get me up to speed.

Red Sox practices were a blast. My friends were the youngest on the team, but the older boys were really good. We had all the Cahill boys, and Keith and Kevin Sawyer, who were already making themselves known as the future of Skaneateles High School sports. We were loaded, and the prospects of a Championship Season for the Red Sox weren't even in question. The only competition looked to be The Yankees.

The team was coached by Mr. Sawyer, Keith and Kevin's dad. Very early on in practice, we all knew that the Red Sox were going to be the instrument to deliver his son's to Little League glory. Nepotism? Sure, but it made sense, because Keith and Kevin were very talented athletes.

I was anything but a talented athlete. I never played before. I couldn't hit, catch or throw. I didn't know the rules, or the culture of baseball.

But it didn't matter to me. Practicing on that little square patch of grass beneath the track that sat atop a hill overlooking Elizabeth Street was a blast. I loved running down fly balls from left field and diving in the dirt. Sometimes I actually caught the ball. Most times I just ended up with a mouthful of sod caught in my braces. I just loved being with the fellas, doing fella kind of stuff; sweating and getting down in the dirt in the sunshine.

But mostly, I loved baseball because my Dad loved baseball and I loved him. I will never forget the look on his face on the day that uniforms were issued to The Red Sox, with me trying on the crisp white cotton replicated professional Red Sox uniform that was several sizes too big, modeling it for him. He almost cried tears of joy, something I had never seen my father ever do.

And so the season commenced. I rode my bicycle down to Austin Park to play in my first real baseball game under the lights. I was breathing a rarefied kind of air, just being there and being a part of that scene.

Of course, I didn't start. If not for the Official National Rules of Little League, Mr. Sawyer wouldn't put me in the game at all. Who would blame him? I certainly wouldn't. I had a pretty accurate assessment of my own lack of skills on the diamond.

But the rules are the rules, and Wally Sawyer followed them. Every kid on the roster had to play at least 1.5 innings, and I debuted my talents or lack thereof, at the bottom of the fifth. The stands were filled with Little League fans and parents of the players, except my own. They couldn't make it for some reason.

Just as well they didn't show up. I struck out, had a fly ball hit me in the head in left field, and then eliminated myself from taking possession of first base with an infield pop fly cupcake ... after excruciatingly foul tipping twelve consecutive pitches.

But to sit on the pine and cheer my fellow Sox on as they systematically dismantled the opposition? It was great. Watching the heroic exploits and feats of baseball derring-do as performed by my friend Chris, the Cahill and the Sawyer boys was thrilling for me. I was part of something way bigger than myself, and it felt good.

I had all summer to improve. It was going to be a great season.

The coaching strategy that Mr.Sawyer would adopt was revealed that first game. Have the incredibly talented starters cream the competition for five and half innings, pad the score, put in the scrubs, and walk with a win.

After a few practices we approached the start of our second game, and like as before, I picked the pine splinters out of my coolie at the bottom of the fifth. As I approached the plate, suddenly I heard the loudly ringing bray of Trua Sawyer, the coach's wife, and mother of our golden boy star players.

"WAAAAALLLY! Yer not gonna put HIM in are ya? He sucks!"

I whiffed the first pitch amid the faint twittering of laughter from the bleachers.

"See? That little greaseball can't hit the broadside of a barn!!!"

The laughter increased in decibel level.


Throughout that summer, Mrs. Sawyer never let an opportunity go by to hurl invective at me while I tried to play baseball. The more outrageous she was, the more positive feedback she got from the stands, which just amplified her level of outrageous.

I became the object of her floorshow, and she never failed to pull out all the stops.

"Greaseball". "Dago". "Guinea". "Wop". "Guido". "Goombah". "Brown Skin". "Nigger". I was swarthy, and spent most of my time in the sun.

These were the nouns she used to point out every one of my baseball shortcomings. Every time I went to bat, or aligned myself under a fly ball from way out in left field, I was so filled with anxiety that it took all my concentration not to cry, or vomit out of nervous tension. The entire season, I never got a hit.

It took me a while to figure out that the cooler that Trua brought to every game was filled with beer, and that by the bottom of the fifth inning of every game she was three-sheets-to-the-wind-on-her-way-to-four drunk. What did an eleven year old kid know about drinking?

The outcome of every game was determined by the time I entered it. And when I did, that was the time for Trua's comedic and verbal skills to be rolled out as I became the object of public humiliation and ridicule. It was regulary scheduled comic relief like clockwork, as the mighty Red Sox went on to an undefeated season and into the playoffs.

It was a public stoning, every game. My teamates were embarassed, but that embarassment manifested itself in them distancing themselves from me instead of rallying around me. I became a leper.

Just as consistently as Trua's racist harangues were going to reduce me to a human ash heap at every game, I could absolutely count on one more component.

Mr. Wally Sawyer, my coach, her husband, and the father of the golden blue-eyed child Gods, would do absolutely nothing to stop his wife's abject cruelty and abuse.

After riding my bike home after every game, I would look at myself in the wall sized mirror of our pink tiled bathroom. The clear tracks of my tears lined ans streaked my dirty face horizontally, due to the velocity generated by furious pedalling with cleated feet.

And I would ask myself "Why am I putting up with this?"

My mother would never go to a kid's baseball game. Especially her own, as it was against her every agenda point in molding a future Leonardo DaVinci. My father, never could make a game, either due to his schedule, or the fact that he was dog tired after six consecutive fourteen hour work days per week.

He was so proud of me. I was playing on a team headed for a championship, and when we got the opportunity to discuss the season, I'd recall each game, and the super human exploits of my team members, and the not so super human exploits of my own.

He just met that news with an arm around the shoulder, words of encouragement, and the wisdom to point out that "Rome wasn't built in a day: and you won't be either: Just keep plugging, son".

If I quit, then evening catches with Dad would quickly become a thing of the past.

I couldn't tell them about the fifth inning floorshows of Mrs.Sawyer's. I just had to ride it out until the end of the season.

I couldn't, and I wouldn't, break my father's heart.


A curious thing happened as The Red Sox advanced through the playoffs in August.

Many families of our star players had scheduled their respective vacations during the same week, and even fielding a team of nine for the semi- final playoff game before the championship was in question. The roster had been obliterated; the starting nine full of ringers were going to be in Cape Cod, or some other east coast vaction destination spot.

What was once a guaranteed shot at the trophy might have to end up in a forfiet.

At practice, there were only nine of us. There were no Kelly's or Cahills. Just seven scrubs and the incredibly talented Sawyer boys.

All of us were going to have to play the entire game, and we were going to have to win it to meet the hated Yankees for the championship cup.

I'd like to tell you that amazingly I had a bottom of the sixth, walk off homer run to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat heroic moment, but that was not the case.

It might make for a better sports story with a happy ending, but real life always intrudes.

I was just as lousy as I ever was, and seeing how this might be the last time that Trua could take a drunken whack at me, she now had six full innings in which to do so, never hesitating to exploit every opportunity to spew her drunken bile directly at me to the delight of the crowd attending the event.

I kept my batting average a perfect zero. I never knew what it felt like to get a hit in a baseball game.

The game was incredibly tight, but the Sawyer Boys pulled through putting the seven uncoordinated bunglers on their respective backs, and The Red Sox preserved their undefeated season. Next on the horizon was the championship game.

As the sun set in the West over St. Mary's Church, Mr. Sawyer took it upon himself to have a paternalistic chat with me. As we walked off the diamond, he put his arm gently around me over my shoulders.

"Ya know George, I know this season was rough for ya. But ya have heart. You never caved in, crumbled, or quit....and it's a good thing ya didn't. If ya hadn't been here today son, our season woulda been over. We couldn't have done it without ya. Yer just as an important member of this team as my two boys are... I'm really proud of ya, son"

And right there, I allowed myself to break down. I cried. I thought about all of the ratcheted abuse that this man's shrew of a wife heaped upon me for an entire summer, and the fact that this man had allowed it... and now he was giving me the "We couldn't have done it without ya speech"?

I knew when everybody was coming home from vacation. Fielding the "A" team next week was a forgone conclusion.

I squared my eleven year old shoulders at this hulk of a man,this... cretinous piece of shit, disengenuous oaf. I looked him dead in his watery blue eyes, handed him my cap and glove, and with all menace and clarity of force available to me, snarled:

"Go Fuck Yourself, Coach"

As he stared at me with his jaw agape, I turned and walked off the infield.

Liberated, the imaginary band at my adolescent dance with authority officially struck its first chord.

I went home to tell my parents I quit the team. The Sox went on to beat the Yankees the next weekend.

I enrolled in a Saturday art class at the Everson Museum shortly thereafter, and most of the students were inner city African American kids. I now knew where I belonged, and I no longer belonged to Skaneateles, and it no longer belonged to me.





Todd said... go brother! loved it

Anonymous said...

Your parents should have been standing there to knock that "ladies" teeth down her mouth. People do not realize that it has only been a generation since I-talians have been recognized as anything other than 2nd class citizens.Now, everyone wants to be Italian. LOL

Suzy B said...

It's the type of tale that when told by a man who has grown and become a veteran of this world's highs and lows; yet, can still so freshly call to mind that middle school aged angst he experienced as a kid, well it almost seems surreal. I could feel your pain...truly. The fact that it was an adult who was hammer'n on you and not someone in your own peer group made it all the more heinous. Even worse -that adult was the coaches wife...oi yei. It is a shame that no other parent/adult sitting in those bleachers had the hutz pah(sp?) to tell her to shut her big fat trap and leave that poor kid alone (okay, I said it!! since time is relative; put that in your pipe lady and smoke it!) You were fending for yourself and there was a real strength in your young character to have stayed it out and then, to tell your coach off and walk away. Not easy to do when you're only 11 yo!
Once again, a great piece of writing George.