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Better than Fiction (creative non fiction, personal essays)

    The Joy of the Game


    I’m old now, almost 80, and like many my age, my mind wanders back to the time when I was young. Or, it just wanders.

    I remember young girls with pony tails and short shorts, the unkempt man with grease stains on his shirt who walked the alley peddling rags and old iron, Cohen’s Candy Store on the corner of Fifth and St. Louis, and watching Milton Berle on the neighbor’s ten inch TV screen with twenty others. It was either a Zenith or a Muntz.

    I remember a gray, 1940 Dodge with running boards, food rationing to support the war effort, my mother’s spaghetti sauce, my body, lean as a blade and firm, and my friends, loyal and true, many of whom are gone now. Like so many of my vintage, however, I seldom remember what I had for breakfast. It doesn’t matter much.

    My boyfriends and I played together in the yard at the rear of our apartment building. There was no grass, just a dirt surface surrounded by a blue, wooden fence. When rain muddied the yard, we moved our games to the adjacent alley, or to the schoolyard, about a mile from home. At school, the playground was covered with gravel, an abrasive that was good for scraping skin from knees and elbows. A chain link fence separated the school yard from the rest of the neighborhood. We could have easily walked through the gate, but we chose to climb it and tear our jeans, instead.

    We played every sport, but slow pitch, sixteen inch softball was our obsession. We played it every day except when it snowed or was too cold. Our games were not scheduled; we just showed up after school or on weekends and chose sides. We cut cardboard squares for bases, and we chipped in for the ball, a “Clincher,” that set us back 15 cents each. It lasted about a month before splitting and spilling its innards.

    Out of the box, the Clincher was a thing of beauty—pure white, tightly seamed, and during the first couple of innings before it was knocked around some, as hard as granite. Mitts were for “sissies” and banned from use. Similar disdain was directed toward anyone who backed away from a line drive. We went for it no matter what; in fact, bandages over bruised and swollen fingers were badges of distinction. Some of us wore them to school as a matter of course, even when our fingers hadn’t been injured.

    Teams had ten players, the usual nine, plus a short center fielder who positioned himself behind second base, close enough to field grounders hit up the middle and far enough to snag bloopers hit to the outfield. When only nine guys showed up, a team did without a short center fielder, or sometimes, the opposing team supplied a catcher.

    Teams were chosen by captains, typically the two best players in the neighborhood. Everyone knew who they were. A coin toss determined who got first pick; then, they took turns making their choices until everyone was chosen. It was a swift and merciless process that showed us precisely where we ranked in the eyes of our peers. No one cared about the self-esteem of those picked toward the end except for those who were picked toward the end.

    Uniforms varied. While still in grade school, we changed our school shoes for sneakers and wore what we had worn to school. On a warm weekend day, it was shorts and a tee shirt, although those who were into puberty sometimes went shirtless to advertise their burgeoning biceps and pectorals. By ninth grade, most wore athletic pants of various colors with a stripe down the outer seam. We bought our first pair of spiked shoes and practiced knocking mud from our cleats with a bat, even when there wasn’t any. A few wrapped colorful bandanas around their foreheads, supposedly to absorb excess perspiration, but it was mostly for the look.

    Some of our guys enjoyed heroic reputations. Fat Sam for example, weighed about 250 but stood only five foot six inches tall. His stature plus a low slung butt resulted in a center of gravity similar to a sequoia. When he connected, the ball soared out to left or center field. The outfielder, already hard against the chain link fence, watched as it flew over his head, and most the time, the ball was still going up.

    Sam hit some truly prodigious shots, one hitting the “M” on the sign of Mel’s Tobacco and Liquor store across the boulevard from the playing field. Mel, who was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his business establishment, saw the ball ricochet off his sign and bounce off his cat, heretofore dozing in the sun. Mel cheered and the cat hissed.

    Fat Sam preferred to play catcher, probably because a minimum of running was required. While guarding home plate one afternoon, an opposing player tagged up at third base with the idea of scoring after a fly ball to left field. The left fielder threw a strike to home, and Sam was waiting with the ball, cupped firmly in both hands and cradled tightly against his abdomen.

    The baserunner barreled into Sam assuming that such a tactic might dislodge the Clincher from Sam’s grasp. The collision resulted in his staggering halfway back to third base where he fell and lay twitching on the ground, as if possessed. All the while, he alternated between calling for his mother and God until he regained consciousness. Sam picked him up, shook his finger to admonish him never to try that again, and handed him his hat.

    Sam’s reputation was well-deserved, although it’s probable that his legend was somewhat tinted by hyperbole as time passed. One of our guys, “Head,” we called him for the unusually large size of his cranium, swears he remembers Sam smashing a new Clincher into a drainage ditch, a good 300 feet from home plate. Little Louie recalled an incident where a shot off Sam’s bat took the head “clean off” a seagull who was pecking at pieces of popcorn near third base.

    Fat Sam went on to graduate with honors from law school. He married, had three children, and built a successful practice in real estate law. He died from kidney failure in his early fifties. A couple of us offered to donate our kidneys, but none of us had one that matched. It was the only time I saw Sam cry.

    Fess was our shortstop. He was good looking and well-built with a shock of blond hair he wore to his shoulders, a style which wouldn’t come into vogue until a few decades later. He was also dyslexic, a disability that complicated his progress through school. In those days, people thought kids who couldn’t read were just lazy or stupid, and little help was available for them.

    Truth is, Fess was anything but stupid. In fact, in some areas he was quite gifted, for example, at enlisting a string of hopeful cheerleaders to read his assignments to him and help him write his essays. Thus, he made it through high school, although it took him five years.

    Fess was gifted at shortstop, too, some would say a genius. We had a one run lead in the last inning of a game against an unbeaten team from a neighboring school. They knew of us, and we knew them, so a challenge was inevitable.The top of their lineup were due at bat, and they looked very confident, indeed smug, as they took their practice swings. I was playing left field, so I had a perfect view of all that happened in front of me.

    Their first batter hit a line shot headed in my direction. I would retrieve it after a bounce or two and get the ball to second, thus holding the batter to a single. To my amazement, though, and everyone else’s, Fess dashed to his right, leaped about three feet, and somehow managed to snare it with one hand. Most of our opponents’ smugness evaporated at the same time as their jaws dropped. And, no one could anticipate that the best was yet to come.

    Their second batter hit a one hopper into the hole between short and third. Fess took a couple of steps to his right and threw the batter out with his right hand. The third guy managed a grounder that was headed up the middle until Fess drifted to his left, snatched the ball on the short hop, and threw the batter out with his left hand. He managed this feat so smoothly that hardly anyone noticed that our shortstop could throw equally well with either hand. I haven’t seen anyone do it since.

    On the walk home from the field after the game, I asked Fess how he did it. Like an eight year old musical prodigy who composes symphonies, he didn’t know. His talent was just there, ready to be applied when needed.

    Fess and I were roommates for a while at college where it wasn’t long before he discovered he couldn’t major in “Shortstop.” Lengthy reading and writing assignments overwhelmed him, and he dropped out. We stayed in touch until he moved out of state, and after a few years, I stopped hearing from him. On occasion, during a losing battle with insomnia, I’ll close my eyes and imagine him throwing out one batter with his right hand and the next with his left. It was artistry, no less than balletic.

    I played softball until I lost a step or two and could no longer reach fly balls I once would be waiting for. For a time, I managed to prolong the inevitable by moving to first base where my deficiencies were less obvious. Finally, just past my forty-second birthday, I put the spikes in the basement and the Clincher in the closet. For the last couple of years, some of my teammates were men well into their fifties. We showed up every Sunday morning, bellies lopping over our belts, braces supporting various joints, and inevitably pulled our hamstrings while playing a semblance of the game we loved. We suffered through Wednesday, but it didn’t matter much.

    Today, the kids don’t play 16 inch softball anymore. Ask any 12 year old what a Clincher is, and his response is likely to be a blank stare. Now, it’s Little League and Pony League, neatly organized and scheduled, on manicured fields with regulation bases, umpires, uniforms, scoreboards, and pushy parents berating coaches. Seems to me the only thing they’re missing is the joy of the game.

    Many of the apartment buildings on the street where I grew up have been demolished, but mine remains. The dirt yard at the rear has been covered with concrete, and a couple of abandoned and rusty Buicks stand nose to nose at one end, providing shelter for a family of feral cats. I drove by not long ago and was amazed at how small the yard appeared. Exiting my car, I stood where I used to as a boy, assumed my stance, and remembered the first time I lined a Clincher from one end of the yard to the other. It was an important rite of passage.

    My Clincher remains, too, in a special place on the top shelf of my closet. Once in a while, I take it down to fondle and toss from hand to hand. It’s well-scuffed, but would likely survive a few more games. My name is written on it. So is Fat Sam’s, Fess’s, Head’s, Little Louie’s, Chubby’s, Glue’s, and the rest of them.

    I don’t see the guys anymore, but it would be great to share one more Sunday in the schoolyard with the sun in our faces. Give me just one more game with our cardboard bases, a new Clincher, and a body that is lean and firm again.

Alan Balter is a retired university professor who had a wonderful career, spanning 35 years, at the University of Illinois and Chicago State University. His job was to prepare teachers for children and adolescents with special needs. Now, in retirement, he has turned to writing fiction, poetry, and personal essays. This helps keep his neurons firing and his dear wife sane.

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