perm_identity More than just playing catch

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 180 ~ May, 2012

I was nervous before my first ever Little League game at Garrity Field, the best of the three fields in the town, with eight or nine rows of metal benches on both the first base and third base side.  Garritty Field was also on a main street, with cars continually whooshing by, and even had a two-story shack off behind home plate, a chipped dark green painted, wooden structure, with a concession stand on the first floor and the upper level reserved for an announcer and the scorer for the game.

I was nine-years-old and my team was the Indians, our uniforms white with red trim, and we were sponsored by a local real estate company.  Our team was good, or at least I thought it was better than our win and loss record turned out to be. I enjoyed our twice weekly practices on the field at the nearby elementary school almost more than the actual games.  I also liked that our team was managed by Joey Coletti’s older brother, Jim, and we were the only team not managed by someone’s father.  Jim was someone we looked up to without ever feeling intimidated.  He encouraged us to do our best, offered tips where appropriate, and then it was “On with the game.”

Little League was divided into the minor league and the major league, and the Indians were in the minor league since it was almost unheard of for someone to make a major league team before the age of eleven.  I’m still not sure why we were forced to try our for Little League.  I can’t think of one kid who never made it on a team, but who knows? There were six teams in the Little League minors, and only twelve spots per team, so there were probably a few too many trying to make a team.

A Saturday morning in February all new potential Little League players had to show up with a parent or guardian at a school gymnasium.  We were then forced to field grounders and given a chance to take our best shot at three pitches.  I don’t think I slept much the night before, so nervous was I that I might fail, terrified that my dream of playing would be thwarted before it even began.

My father took me to the tryouts, trying to reassure me and calm me down, even though he had absolutely no interest in baseball.  My mother was the avid baseball fan, starting with her love of the Brooklyn Dodgers when my parents first moved to Manhattan from Toronto.  Still, my father dutifully, and frequently, played catch with me, starting when I was about five, and I believe the first baseball mitt he ever owned was bought at the time he took me to the Englewood Sports Center to buy my first glove, one with Luis Aparicio’s signature scrawled across it.  Along with Willie Mays, a true home run hitter, which I knew I’d never be, Luis Aparicio, the great fielding shortstop for the White Sox, and then the championship Orioles, was my hero.

I never thought of my farther as being physically handicapped, but he was, born with spina bifada, with one foot about a size and a half larger than the other, so when he walked, he tended to lean forward to make his limp less noticeable.  His childhood was marked by numerous operations on his back and legs, and a great deal of time wearing leg braces and using crutches.  Naturally, he never played sports as a kid, and though he may have regretted this a bit in the beginning, he dedicated his time and interest to science and studying, as well as becoming a pretty accomplished magician, one who mastered a variety of tricks, from those where he was flawless at shuffling cards and guessing which one you picked, to multiplying little red balls, one after another appearing from the first one, and also replicating the same type of trick with handkerchiefs, and finally demonstrating a brilliant sleight of hand by pulling a bright penny out of a child’s unsuspecting ear.

I’m not sure whether my father took it upon himself to devote so much time playing catch with me, or perhaps my mother encouraged him after it was obvious I didn’t share my father’s love of model trains, or more likely, it was a combination.  Regardless, those catches in the backyard or on the lawn just before the beach at the lake at the summer cottage in Ontario were probably the best shared moments of my life with my father.

I remember one particularly haunting story he told me as he sat on the side of my bed when I was maybe four, long before wanting to play baseball was close to becoming something I wanted to do.  Unintended consequences, I was able to see that later on.  The theme of loneliness and rejection ran through my father’s childhood, and in relating such horrible experiences to me, he sought to reassure me that nothing like that would ever happen to me.  Unfortunately, it had the opposite effect.  If my father, whom I looked up to as someone who was there to care for and protect me — in short, was the equivalent of my own childhood deity — could suffer so much during his childhood, what chance did I have?

Anyway, the haunting story had to do with baseball.  I guess my father was eight or nine, and obviously couldn’t participate in any capacity, so he was standing around watching his friends playing a game of baseball in a local park.  I don’t know how my father came up with this idea, but he decided it would be funny, a great joke, if he grabbed the bat of the player who was up before he could swing at the oncoming pitch.  In my father’s head, the player would be prevented from swinging and everyone would have a great laugh.  In reality, the hitter snapped his wrists back before following through and smacking the pitch, with the result that he smashed my father in the face, breaking his nose, and sending my father sprawling on to his back, unable to walk, with blood gushing everywhere.

With that in the past, and Little League in my future, I do remember my father taking me to my first professional baseball game at Yankee Stadium shortly after I had an epiphany and apparently turned to my mother and said in awe, “You mean Mickey Mantle’s real?”   And he was real all right, starting in center field the day my father took me to see the Yankees play the Kansas City Athletics.  We were joined in our outing by the man who lived across the street from us in Flushing, Queens, and his son, who was about my age.  Hot dogs and soda and peanuts, and spending the afternoon watching the heroics on the field of the larger than life, at least for me, players on the New York Yankees, whose numbers on the scoreboard listing the lineup were consistent and readily known to me throughout my grade school years.

Like my first Little League game, I don’t remember all that much about the first Yankees game I attended, except I know we won our game at Garrity Field and the Yankees beat the Athletics, though I have no idea of what the score was of either game.  I do know at the end of the Yankees game that day, a memory that was triggered by Billy Crystal in a baseball documentary, my father and I walked hand in hand out on to the field and out across from the infield toward center field where much of the crowd was leaving the stadium, and we were, as well.

Phil Rizzuto, the Yankee “Scooter” and great shortstop before my time, and before he became heralded for his familiar, excited cry of “Holy Cow!” as an announcer for Yankees games on WPIX Channel 11, was the master of ceremonies on opening day at Garrity Field for my first Little League game.  Members on both teams lined up in front of their respective dugouts as some guy in the announcer’s booth played a horrible, warped record with a song about “Little Leaguers being eager beavers,” and fortunately, those are the only words I remember.  And then the umpire yelled, “Play ball!” and the other team took the field.

I started in left field that day and batted clean up. I don’t know why but almost without exception the son of every team’s manager played second base.  And that’s where Joey Coletti started, even though his brother was our manager.  I do know that Joey Coletti and I both scored during that first inning at bat and we were never behind in the game.  I also know that my father wasn’t there to see it.  In fact, my father never saw me play Little League that year, or the next, or ever, and I’ll always wonder if he knew how much he helped me by playing catch for countless hours with me, limping with an awkward limp, as he stretched his undersized glove out to greet the ball that was thrown by me.