Playing With a Hole in My Glove
Updated: Aug 28
Ya win some, ya lose some—ya learn some...
I managed to survive until 5th grade without any real experience in organized sports. My idea of a good time outdoors was re-enacting scenes from action-adventure TV shows in our backyard, or dangling precariously from the steel fire escape at school. But my parents were concerned that I didn't have enough structured activity, so I was “persuaded” that it was time to get serious and play ball.
At the age of 10, I was drafted into the Minor League, a subset of Little League designated “for those with less experience.” Could I possibly have less experience? Could I possibly care less? Let me say that I recognize the cultural importance of The Great American Pastime, and how it has been fundamental to our nation. God bless. But it did not speak to me.
I still recall the year before, during our weekly “phys ed” classes. The parent who volunteered to run the class was the cigar-chomping owner of a liquor store, more of a babysitter than trained instructor. On his first day, he announced that we were going to play football and sent the boys from 4th, 5th and 6th grade onto the asphalt parking lot that served as our playing field.
I stumbled back through the crowd of yelling and shoving older boys, trying to hide the tears welling in my eyes. Panic had gripped me and I turned to Mr. G for help. I had no idea how to play football, could I please be excused?
In the face of this pathetic scene, Mr. G turned pale. He took the moist, unlit stogie from his mouth and looked imploringly for one of the nuns to handle this situation. Without aid and fumbling for words, he asked “Don’t you have any older brothers to teach you?” No, I sobbed. I’m the oldest.
Summoning his deepest well of parental wisdom, he gave me a pep talk. “Sports will be good for you. Builds character. You’ll learn lessons that will serve you your whole life.” See, that’s what I was afraid of. Suffice to say, it was a miserable semester on the asphalt.
But now I had the support of a real coach and my parents, to boot. Dad wasn’t much of a baseball fan, but he grew up in New York City in the 1940s, so he could walk the walk. He took me to see the Mets play the Phillies, so I could get the full experience. Unfortunately, Uncle Mike came along and he spent most of the game talking Dad’s ear off. I was left to my own devices, enlivened only by the occasional hot dog or Fudgesicle delivered to my seat by sweaty, frantic vendors lugging huge aluminum crates.
Staring out into the field from seats above the third base line, I tried to parse out the play-by-play that echoed through the ancient public address system. Even if the words were crystal clear—which they weren’t—I’d still be lost. Watching this pageant unfold before me, I am reminded of church. Not because it is a holy of holies, but because, like Latin mass, it is an impenetrable mystery. My mind wanders to other matters, like, will we get home in time for The Wonderful World of Disney?
Thus prepared, I report to my team on the Huff Avenue field, with my newly-purchased mitt and cap. Coach is a tall, burly man with a booming voice. He looks me up and down, one of the smaller and rounder guys in the Minor League, and points to right field. “We’ll start you out there.” Dad had explained that most balls were hit into the center and left fields, so I ran confidently out to my position. Already exasperated, Coach calls me back. “Not yet. We’re up first.” The game hasn’t started and I'm already in the doghouse.
Everything I knew about baseball I learned from Charlie Brown. While he wasn’t much of a ball player, the little round-headed kid had spunk and enthusiasm. I tried to muster some of the same, and when it was my turn at bat, I went to the plate determined to hit one out of the park. Unfortunately, I was probably distracted humming Vince Guaraldi’s jazzy theme music as the balls whizzed by me, and I struck out in three pitches. Even though, as Coach later pointed out, I coulda walked.
This began my season in the Minors, alternating long patches of inactivity in right field with brief, furious swings once or twice per game. Any contact that I made with the ball predictably yielded an out for our side or a base for the opponent. I soon became the least popular member of the team, with catcalls and hoots from my fellow players, and a steady glower from the Coach. Like my cartoon pal, I spent Wednesday nights dreading the game that lay before me, and Thursday nights nursing my humiliation. Definitely no joy in Manville.
Standing for what seemed like hours at a time in the patchy grass field, I watched the games play out from a safe remove. The soft chatter and cheers from the 50 spectators blended with the cicadas in the trees, punctuated by the occasional CRACK of the bat and ball. It was easy to let my mind drift—was there any huckleberry pie left in the fridge?—so of course I didn’t hear the next CRACK. It was only when I saw the second baseman running toward me that I realized my error. I squinted into the bright sky, searching for the tiny softball, and nearly ran into the center fielder, who also missed the ball. The Coach stared right at me, mouthing, “When are you gonna learn, kid?”
This went on for several weeks, and I felt like I had a target on my back where a number should be. Thursday, June 6, was different. We were at Weston Field, and the mood on the bench was tense. I wasn’t playing any better or worse, but the kids weren’t picking on me, either. Waiting for my turn at bat, I listened to a couple of teammates direct their venom elsewhere. Norm proclaimed,“I think they ought to put that A-rab in a cell and feed ‘em to the rats!” Kenny retorted,“You can’t do it if it’s too ‘cruel and unusual.’” “Fine. Then just string ’em up good. Or shoot ’em. Or both. Frickin’ Sa-ran Sa-ran.”
This grisly speculation continued throughout the game, with one thinking up ever more baroque punishments and the other countering with more conventional penalties. But there was a glee in their conversation that was hard to take. Looking at the small crowd in the bleachers, I could tell folks were on edge. The cheers and jeers were muted, somehow. Last night’s tragedy was not the first assassination of a public figure in our short lifetimes, or even the first of Spring, 1968. But Bobby Kennedy’s murder stung our predominately Catholic, working-class town.
His family name held a special power. It was not unusual to see a portrait of JFK hanging in people’s homes. My grandmother proudly displayed a painting of the late president in heaven, sowing seeds of peace alongside the late Pope John Paul. Folks were stunned that it could happen again. I didn’t remember this much reaction back in April, when that Dr. King was shot, except the sisters at school talked about what a tragedy it was to lose such a good man. It didn’t stick. This time it felt personal. The whole business of “assassination” was pretty abstract to me, but I felt sad anyway.
Even though I was not the usual object of scorn, I went home feeing badly. The next morning, before I turned to the funnies, I scanned the front page of the newspaper, searching for explanations. Why was this such a big deal? I became curious, and learned how people had hoped for a different outcome, how RFK stood for change and progress and other stuff that sounded good to me. I felt the loss, even though I didn’t fully understand it. But I began to read the news, as well as the comics, and I soon had more questions than I had answers. Which led to a daily habit of reading, thinking and learning.
That uncomfortable night remains my strongest memory from playing baseball. I soldiered on for next four weeks, until the season came to an unceremonious end. I never returned to right field. Baseball didn’t “take,” and I forgot everything about the game. Except how it felt. Like Mr. G said, I learned some lessons that would serve me my whole life.
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This memoir was the product of my continuing work with Suze Allen at ManuscriptMentor.com. If you’re interested in writing, that’s a good place to start.