When I was a kid and lived in the Bronx, our family’s apartment was just a few miles from Yankee Stadium, and only a few more miles from the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan, where the New York Giants played before they moved to San Francisco in 1958.
Despite all this nearby major league activity, I was no sports fan. I didn’t give a damn about baseball and couldn’t understand why others did. When other kids asked who my favorite player was, I’d quickly answer, “Mickey Mantle.” It was an easy answer because Mick and I shared initials, and no kid in the schoolyard would challenge my choice. I was lucky that none of them asked me for his batting statistics.
My mother’s parents, who lived near us in the Bronx, were big baseball fans and wanted to convert me. They surprised me with tickets to a double-header. It was a double-dose of torture.
It was the longest day of my young life.
It seemed like the ten longest days of my life. I spent hour after interminable hour, staring at white spots on a green field and listening to old men belch from their beers, while I kept asking my grandparents, “Can we go home yet?”
I loved Gramma Del and Grampy Jay, but this was child abuse.
In later years, I didn’t get to like ballgames much more than I had as a child. In mandatory games during gym class, my favorite position was to be “left out.”
In college, I went through a strange metamorphosis.
There was an intramural softball program, and a bunch of hippies and assorted misfits thought it might be fun to form a team to play stoned, with absolutely no intention of winning. We’d get to smoke some weed, enjoy the great outdoors, work on our tans and get free T-shirts. It sounded like a good plan.
What I didn’t plan on was turning out to be a “power hitter,” a “home run king,” just like Mickey Mantle.
I found no joy in running around the bases, or catching balls hit by the opposing teams, but I loved to whack those balls as far as I could.
My teammates thought I was a traitor to the cause. The team fell apart, and it was many years before I picked up a bat or saw another ball game.
Around 1995, my nephew and nieces nagged me to take them to a ball game at Yankee Stadium, the site of my long-ago—but never forgotten—abuse.
I really didn’t want to go, but I liked the kids, so I agreed. I packed a radio with a headset and plenty of reading material and glumly resolved to pass the hours as pleasantly as possible.
When we arrived at the stadium, the butch-bitch rent-a-cop at the gate searched my bag and seized my plastic bottle of Diet Pepsi so her co-conspirators upstairs could sell me $8 drinks. She would not let me drink it before entering the stadium, or take it outside to drink or reclaim it after the game. She slowly and sadistically removed the cap and poured the soda into a trash barrel while I watched helplessly as my money and refreshment dribbled away. It was not a good omen for what was to come, I thought.
When we got to our seats I tuned my radio to WCBS, allegedly an all-news station, and was both disappointed and shocked to hear a play-by-boring-play description of the ball game in front of me. For some unknown reason, I didn’t immediately select another station, and soon, for the first time in my life, I understood what baseball was all about.
In baseball, it always seemed to me that the hitters were the heroes. People like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Mantle (and even me) hit the home runs that drove up the scores that won the games and the pennants. But what I learned from listening to the radio that afternoon was that it was the CATCHERS and PITCHERS, not the hitters, who were really in control.
Balls—not bats—made the big difference.
Throwing was more important than hitting, and it was the sneaky, stealthy, silent catchers, squatting in the dirt behind home plate, who signaled secret instructions to the pitchers who caused hero hitters to strike out.
Because of those good pitchers, even really good hitters seldom got a good hit. And when they did, the balls were usually caught by really good fielders and the hitters did not score home runs.
I actually enjoyed baseball that day.
If someone had properly explained baseball to me in 1950, my life might have been very different. I might have liked baseball enough to become a home run king for the New York Yankees.
As Marlon Brando said in On the Waterfront in 1954, shortly after I left the Bronx, “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”
photo by Philpottm, www.flickr.com/photos/potthole