In 1962 my older brother David growled at me, “What do you mean you don’t want to play baseball? What are you, a Communist?”
At ten, I didn’t know what a Communist was, but it sounded bad.
“You should already have a season or two under your belt.”
Believe me, there wasn’t room for much of anything else under my belt.
“How do you think Dad will feel having the only son in the neighborhood not trying out for Little League?” He glared at me harder than usual.
My older brother oozed athletic ability and I assumed he’d one day end up on a baseball card. People were always coming up to Dad, patting him on the back and telling him just what an All-Star his oldest son was. As a fat kid, I wasn’t interested in the humiliation that would inevitably come if I tried out for sports, particularly baseball.
Bob’s Glendale Pharmacy, the perennial champions of the league, had already scooped up David so he didn’t need to try out. As far as talent was concerned, Bob’s Glendale Pharmacy always claimed the cream of the crop. Their endorsement meant David was among the best. Like Dad, David was tall and thin. He could run like a high-speed locomotive and leap tall buildings in a single bound. When it came to sports, particularly baseball, David was Superman while I more like the Daily Planet’s cub photographer Jimmy Olson. He was thirteen; next year he’d be too old to play Little League ball and would be setting his sights on high school sports.
I told Mom I didn’t want to try out for Little League. “Don’t disappoint your father! Go out there and be a good son. How else do you expect to become a man?”
My energy wasn’t focused on becoming a man; I was just trying to make it through grade school. Dad caught wind of my reluctance to enter into the great American pastime. He took me outside and we put on gloves and lobbed a few balls in each other’s direction. He tried to hide his disappointment when I jumped out of the path of his slow ball. The only way he could have thrown slower would have been to throw underhanded. Even I knew that if a guy throws you a slow ball underhand you should stop hoping those things between your legs will ever grow into something you can be proud of and start shopping for party dresses. Dad did his best to be encouraging, but I wasn’t making it easy for him. He stopped helping me shag the ball when it kept rolling across the street.
When the day for Little League tryouts came, Dad told me to shoot for right field. It was the graveyard where fat kids were sent to scratch their butts and look for elusive four leaf clovers. At tryouts, I was quickly winnowed away from the important positions and finally ended up in right field, where I watched passively as balls sailed over my head. Amazingly, I found a four leaf clover that day.
Ron’s Pancake House was the minor league team unfortunate enough to be saddled with me. Unlike major league organizations like Bob’s Glendale Pharmacy, whose players received full uniforms like the professional leagues, we made do with t-shirts and one-size-fits-all hats sporting our sponsor’s name. We were all winners, we were told, no matter which team we played on, but everyone knew better. I only played one season but something happened that people still remember.
It came about because of a tiny marvel called a transistor radio. It was the early 60s, the beginning of that pop phenomenon referred to as the British Invasion. The cool kids were strolling up and down the street with tiny radios pressed to their ears. I wanted one of these passports to coolness in the worst possible way. My brother had a transistor radio and I was green with jealousy. As punishment for my unimpressive grades, my parents refused to let me have one.
Ron’s Pancake House was the designated home team for the last game of the season, and Ruth’s Fashions were the visitors. Both teams hadn’t won a game all season, and nobody was surprised more than me when we found ourselves ahead by one run. We took the field for the last time. Most of my teammates didn’t want to end the season having never won a game, so everyone pulled together to keep those bastards at Ruth’s Fashions from scoring. If successful, sweet elusive victory would be ours. David told me the night before that if we lost we’d probably get a ladies’ discount on Ruth’s summer collection.
The first two batters came and went. I think they struck out, but I was trying to add to my four-leaf clover collection and wasn’t really paying attention. Then I heard the crack of a bat and saw a ball hurtling in my direction like a comet. I’d never actually caught a baseball while in right field; whenever a ball was hit in my direction, I simply turned around and started to run after it. (This always proved an embarrassment when the ball ended up short, landing on the spot where I had originally been standing.)
But it was something other than the crack of the bat that got my attention. Someone was standing in the bleachers, waving and trying to catch my eye. It was Dad. He was shouting something. I strained to hear until I made out what he was saying.
“Catch the ball and I’ll buy you that radio!”
It was all the encouragement I needed. I entered what athletes now refer to as The Zone. My senses went into hyper-drive. I experienced a surreal awareness: I could sense every blade of grass, the shapes of the clouds, the other fat kids off in the distance cued up in front of the snack bar. I knew this was my moment, a time to be a son to Dad and end his disappointment. There was joy in Mudville that day as I thrust my mitt up into the unblemished sky and felt the force of impact as the ball found its way into my mitt.
No one was more surprised than me that we actually won. In the blink of an eye I had gone from nobody to hero, and all for the lust of a transistor radio. In their exuberance, several of my teammates attempted to lift me up on their shoulders to carry me around the diamond, but I proved too heavy for them. We collapsed in a heap somewhere between shortstop and third base. (At least I think that’s where we were because I always had a hard time keeping the bases straight.) We didn’t get any discounted dresses from Ruth’s Fashions, but we did get a great end-of-season breakfast from Ron’s Pancake House.
And I got my transistor radio.