When Men Were Boys

Posted on June 2, 2014


BaseballI can remember exact moments. It’s early afternoon on a Saturday, and we’re getting into our pale blue Chevrolet, a two-door Impala coupe. I turn sideways to squeeze into the back seat, then step onto the hump in the middle of the floor and drop next to the window on the far side.

My father is driving. My younger brother sits next to him, occupying the position of honor that rightfully belongs to me – for I am next in line to the throne — except that he called it first. I can’t see him, but his tiny voice bounces around inside the car, which reminds me that he’s up there somewhere. I stretch out, pretending that I prefer the back. Without turning his head or glancing in the mirror, my father tells me to get my feet off the seat. I am unbothered by any of it. Nothing can detract from the anticipation.

As we glide through intersections and past stores and bus stops, I peer out at the other people, in their vehicles or shuffling along the sidewalk. Some appear to be happy in a mild, bland sort of way. Some seem to be dreading their destination. I feel sorry for everyone, but wouldn’t trade places with any of them. We’re going to a baseball game and, I’m pretty sure, they aren’t. I wonder to myself if they even realize how lousy their day is going to be, at least compared to mine. And that includes my own mother, who claimed she didn’t want to come with us, but would rather relax in the backyard with my baby sister, a decision that I find impossible to fathom.

I consider myself the luckiest boy on the face of the earth. We’re headed for Yankee Stadium. Or maybe it’s Shea. It doesn’t matter. They’re both our teams, one coasting downhill after decades of greatness, the other still a kid, inexperienced and clumsy.

This is a chance to escape the black tar of the streets, and the red and beige apartment buildings, and step into another world. A throng of strangers exerts its gravitational force, drawing us into the largest structure I can imagine, where cigar smoke and mustard and popcorn mix to produce the incense of innocent childhood. We walk through a dark tunnel and out into the sunlight, and I get a glimpse of something so green and flat and immaculate that I can’t believe it’s really grass. Even unoccupied, the empty stage is a show in itself.

A short, irritable man holding a white towel leads us to our seats, wiping them off with a useless swipe and pretending to be pleasant just long enough for my father to hand him two quarters. We sit on hard chairs and peer out at the grounds crew pulling a hose and gently spraying the infield dirt, turning it from a dry tan to a dark brown, one misty arc at a time. Chalk dust rests in perfect rectangles on either side of home plate, and runs in opposite directions toward the left and right field foul poles.

The scoreboard blinks to life, filled with zeroes and the irrelevant progress of other games. Huge signs puncture the atmosphere with silent demands that we buy their beer and cigarettes and automobiles. The disembodied voice of the public address announcer, like that of my little brother in the car — only much boomier — echoes around the park, dispensing information that is, at once, essential and indecipherable.

Players appear in the outfield, stretching and running short races, and firing a ball back and forth. They don’t emerge from anywhere identifiable. Rather, they spring into existence, wearing immaculate uniforms and throwing in straight, taut cables. Our guys in white. The other team dressed in a dull gray, as though they already know they’re on the wrong side of the conflict.

Fans stand up and yell through circled hands when displeased, like when a batter strikes out looking, or when the umpire calls a close one against us, or when the opposing pitcher throws over to first base one too many times. A home run is sudden and quick – a loud crack and the ball disappears, like a shooting star — and you see it or you don’t. There is no instant replay, and if you miss it because you’re searching for the ice cream vendor, as I usually am, you’re left with only the memory of the crowd’s clamor in your ears and the dismal hope of a blurry black-and-while picture on the back page of tomorrow’s newspaper. One summer day at Shea, a triple play snaps by while I’m studying something in my program. On another, I miss a grand slam because I’m at the concession stand, waiting for a pretzel.

There is no showing off on the field. When somebody hits one over the fence, he puts his head down and trots around the bases, ignoring or oblivious to the cheers. No chest thumping and finger pointing and blowing kisses to the sky. When a pitcher retires the side in order, he walks off the field and into the dugout, like a construction worker going for coffee. No gloating or drama. It’s a game. And of course it’s also a business. It’s always been a business. But when you’re young and you have your glove, and catching a major league foul ball would be the highlight of your life, the game and the money are as far apart as those diverging chalk lines.

When it’s over, we step back into the receding flood of humanity and allow ourselves to be swept out into the parking lot. Back to concrete and manhole covers and broken windows. If our team won, I am happy. If they lost, I am less happy. But I still feel lucky. And as we approach the car and begin our drive home, I make sure to call the front seat.