We lived beyond the knowledge of those living ten miles away. We believed it to be Shangri-La among the fields of prune trees and apricot orchards. When the winter rains fell and dry creeks roared to life, we, the happy tribe of lost children, stared out the tear-streaked glass longing for spring. Then, when spring transformed the prune trees into white-clad Cinderella’s and yellow mustard waved tribute at their feet, we poured from our front porches to enjoin the rites of spring.
First, there were long tubes of wood to be brought outside. “Lumber,” some called them, “timber,” others proclaimed. The long crack in Gate’s had been carefully taped up and an ugly nick in Tom’s had been smoothed down with rasp and file over the rainy days. Everyone agreed that these repairs would suffice.
Second, webbed, leather hand protectors were brought out. Eagerly we worked the winter stiffened calfskin, each one seeking that personal preference of malleable perfection. No one asked what substances others used. Those were closely guarded secrets. Mine (and I’m finally revealing my closely guarded secret from all these decades past) was simply lots of spit. I couldn’t afford anything else.
Last, there were the leather spheres essential to our seasonal oblations. Jimmy’s had a fresh coat of masking tape, Tony’s was brand new. Mine was blackened from use and scuffed to boot. Clearly we would use Tony’s first and Jimmy’s last.
These simple utensils at hand, it was time to begin the sacred rites. Joey and Tom divided us quickly into two equal groups. Then Joey topped a bat which Tom caught with one hand. Joey immediately placed a hand on top of Tom’s, and hand over hand they raced until Tom’s hand closed over the top.
“Tom’s up,” we called. Joey’s team took the street. Tom’s team sat on the sidewalk in front of Joey’s house, Tom assigning us our order. “Gate first, then Steve. I’m third, Brian fourth…” and as usual, “Mark, you’re last.” Tom, Joey, Dave, those three could drive a ball past the end of the street and into the front yards of the houses beyond. Me? No one played back when I came up to bat. I was lucky if I hit the far fence of Jimmy’s yard, which wasn’t saying much as it was only five feet past first base.
Home plate was the rectangle of painted house numbers on the curb in front of Joey’s house. First base was the same painted rectangle in front of Jimmy’s house, and third base was the same in front of the house no one stayed in for very long. Second base was the small cover over the electrical access in the middle of the street, which being only five feet beyond the manhole cover/pitcher’s mound, made our diamond rather asymmetrical. The yards of those houses that were in bounds, (Tom’s and Andy’s) were fair territory, but the houses were all out-of-bounds.
I came up in the second inning, determined that today was my day. Today I would drive the ball. Today I would force the outfielders crowding second base to sprint hopelessly after a ball heading to the far corners of the street. I swung at Matt’s first pitch. Bat and ball met in the sweet territory where crossed two trajectories. The ball soared up, up, and still up. I flung my bat aside, racing toward first, rounding the bag, looking out into the street trying to find where the ball would land. No one was racing down the street towards a vanishing ball. I glanced back. Matt stood on the pitcher’s mound, glove extended toward the sky, and there as I watched, the ball settled into the pocket of his mit. I was out, another lousy high-flying pop-up.
The rest of the morning was futility for me. Every ball I hit found its way into someone’s mit. I was out, out, out when I came up to the plate.
I wasn’t much better on the mound. I usually pitched, mostly because I wasn’t very good. My pitches were high, low, outside, inside, but rarely over the plate. Not that it mattered. No one else pitches much better. We depended upon defense and scoring to win games. The idea was my lousy pitching would be hard to hit, but the reality was that no one had much trouble hitting off me.
About the fifteenth inning the score was tied 22 to 22. Gate smoked the ball. Kenny, running from first, went racing for home, Gate flying behind him. Danny raced into Tom’s yard, dug the ball out of a juniper bush, and threw it to Tony at third. Tony gloved the ball, turned, and tagged Gate as he stepped on base.
“Out,” screamed Tony.
“Safe,” yelled Gate.
“Out,” hollered Tony holding up the ball to back up his claim. “Out,” yelled Tony’s teammates.
“Safe,” reiterated Gate. “Safe,” argued his teammates.
“Out,” screamed Tony, hurling his mitt on the base to underscore his assertion. “You’re out. I tagged you before you touched the base.”
“Did not,” bellowed Gate, waving his hands to emphasize his point. “Touched base before you tagged me.”
“Did not,” Tony’s team backed up their man. “I saw him tag you. You’re out, out, out!”
“I saw his foot touch base before the tag,” replied Gate’s teammates. “Safe by a mile.”
For several minutes we yelled back and forth, neither team willing to budge. We knew the compromise that we would settle on. Gate would go back to second where everyone agreed he had been safe. As it wasn’t the third out, Tony got the out. We had a one run lead and the game continued.
It was after lunch break that I got my first bit of luck. Batting in the thirty-five inning, the pitcher got one over the plate and I swung with all my might. At the crack of the bat and ball, Robert on third raced for home as I raced for first. The ball dribbled about two feet in front of me, coming to a halt in fair territory. As each team up had to provide the catcher, the pitcher, Matt, had to field the ball. He raced to the ball, scooped it up, and collided with Robert. The ball flew out of his hand as Robert fell on home plate. I stood on second base, safe.
The rest of the afternoon descended into a boring game of outs broken up by rare runs, and at dinner break, our team trailed by three runs. Dinner break was longer than lunch break. Father’s had come home from work, causing time outs as they drove through the playing field into their drive ways. As usual, Jimmy’s dad parked on the street, adding an additional hazard to our game. We were called in for supper, all at different times, so by the tine we reassembled we had about an hour of daylight left. It was inning fifty-six.
Now it was my team’s turn to put up or shut up. We scored a quick run, then, after two scoreless innings, we got two more runs. The game was tied. By then, the sun was down and light was leaking out of the sky. It didn’t matter. Our eyes were adjusting to the growing dark and we could see just fine. It was parents, looking out of well-lit rooms, who would call an end to our games a good ten minutes or more before it would have been too dark to play. As we came to bat, they hadn’t looked out yet.
Robert drilled a line drive into Daniel’s glove. One away. Roger knocked the ball into Andy’s yard and was safe at first. Time came up and I was on deck. “Come on, Tim,” I called. “Get a hit.”
“We want a pitcher, not a belly-itcher,” roared my team. Matt wound up. He threw. The ball loomed out of the dark. Tim swung. Roger was running. The ball rocket off Tim’s bat. Danny, raced after the ball, scooped it up, threw to second. Matt, covering the base, caught the ball and tagged Tim. Roger held up at third. Two away.
I came up, the worst hitter on the team. The go ahead run was on third, but if I got out…. I refused to think about that. This was my moment. I gave the bat a practice swing, then stepped to the plate.
Matt hurled the ball and I swung, bat biting the air. Strike one. Matt threw again. I swung fouling the ball straight back into the bumper of Joey’s dad’s truck. Strike two.
I stepped back to the plate, glaring at Matt. He reared, threw, and I swung.
The ball rocketed off my bat and I was running toward first. Dave raced backward’s from first, stopping at the far fence in Jimmy’s yard. Joey raced into Andy’s yard, stopping on Andy’s side of that fence. Allen raced to the front corner of the fence. Yes, another pop-up. All three strained to see the descending ball. “Mine,” yelled Allen.
I stopped on first. Roger had stopped a step from home plate. We watched the ball soaring down, Allen’s glove making a swipe at the ball, missing, and the ball hitting on the very corner of the fence, then ricochetting off into Jimmy’s yard. Roger stepped on home. And then Gate’s mother’s voice, “Tony, Gate, Danny, Matt, time to come in.” The game was over.
It was the darkness that gave me my sole moment of baseball glory. Had my high pop-up occurred in the better light of just twenty minutes earlier, Allen would have made that catch easily. As it was, I had hit the ball so high, it had disappeared into the dark, then came hurtling down not giving Allen time to judge the ball. I didn’t care. For once I was the hero. For once I had driven in the winning run. For once I felt what it was like to be a Willie Mays or an Orlando Cepeda. I would go home, get ready for bed, and lay my head down to sleep in triumphant.
For tomorrow the sun would come up and we would rise and go forth and play another day-long game of baseball, and I would be the same lousy ball player I had always been. But not tonight.