Baseball

I was delighted with jumping up and down delight when one Saturday my aunt Leah offered, “Let’s go watch some baseball.” I was seven, and she knew how much I loved baseball. Then came the best part when she said, “Your sister won’t be coming. Allison went with your father this morning.”

Allison always tagged along and spoiled any fun Aunt Leah and I might have had with her whining and her crying. What’s more I hated all those nights when my sister kept us awake with her squalling, her pounding on the walls, her never letting us get a night, or a day, off from her attention-getting. So you can imagine how glad I was that my father had taken her with him that morning. ‘Cause I hated Allison as only a brother can hate a sister.

It was a fine Florida April day in 1952, a day not too hot and not too cloudy but just about right. There was even a breeze to keep us cooled off from what might have been a warm spring day. Around about lunchtime, may aunt and I left the two-story house where my aunt lived with my father, my ten-year-old sister and me. We strolled over to the neighborhood ballpark several blocks away.

The field was empty. But we knew it would fill up with players soon. Kids always showed for at least one game of nine-inning on a Saturday afternoon, sometimes more. I ran up the bleachers two at a time till I reached the top, then plopped myself down onto the wood. Aunt Leah followed. She sat down beside me and reached into her big handbag.

“Guess what?” she asked, looking down at me with her warm, green eyes.

I shook my head. I didn’t know.

She pulled out a brown paper sack. “Peanut butter sandwiches,” she said, opening the sack. “Your favorite.”

Aunt Leah unwrapped a sandwich and passed it over to me. I bit into the sandwich. It filled my mouth with the creamy stuff. She took a thermos out of her handbag and twisted it open and poured water into its cap and handed it over to me. I drank the cold, delicious water, then had another bite from my sandwich. I looked up at her and smiled. She smiled back at me, then began one of the sandwiches herself.

What a day, I thought, looking down on that diamond. I felt like I was on top of the world, though I was just on top of some bleachers at a ballpark. Gobbling down a second sandwich. Drinking water out of a thermos. Ready to watch the neighborhood kids play some baseball. And best of all. I had my aunt all to myself. There was no sister there with us to spoil the fun.

Aunt Leah finished her sandwich, then poured some more water into my cup and filled a cup for herself. Then she said, “It comes from the world of Amador, this water. Taste how sweet it is.” We both drank, I gulping the liquid down, she taking a sip. “It’s the water the unicorns drink.”

Really? I said with my eyes. I finished off my second sandwich, took a final drink and waited for her to go on.

“Oh, yes. You know about Amador, don’t you?”

I knew about Amador. But I loved my Aunt Leah telling me the stories with her soft, musical voice. I shook my head no, then passed my empty cup, the thermos cap, back to her. She twisted the cap back on, put the thermos and the empty paper sack back into her handbag.

“Amador is a special place,” she began, “a parallel world to this one. In it, most places are green and there are flowers like you’ve never seen.”

As she told her story, two teams hurried onto the baseball diamond. They were teenagers, these boys, and they looked like they were ready for some baseball with their gloves and bats and caps. Man, I loved baseball. Just the sound of the names of Ted Williams and Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio on the radio gave me goose bumps.

A tall slim boy walked over to the pitcher’s mound, ready to slay any kid who came to bat with his fastball.

“There’s green everywhere, except in the Northlands. There is no green there–”

A chubby, red-headed kid with a bat in his hand stepped up to home plate and raised the bat to his right shoulder.

“–only cold and ice and snow in that forbidden place.”

The pitcher, taller than the others on the field, wound up his arm, then he released the ball.

“You know about the Snow Queen, queen of the Northlands.”

The ball rushed toward the red-headed boy.

I knew about the Snow Queen. I hated the Snow Queen and the icy Northlands she ruled.

Red swung at the fastball.

“She gave an order this morning.”

Strike one.

An order?

The catcher threw the ball back to the pitcher.

“She sent her evil minions south.”

The pitcher stuck his glove out and caught the ball and smiled.

I didn’t know what evil minions were but I knew I wouldn’t like them if I met them. Maybe they looked like my sister Allison. The thought made me giggle.

Strike two. The catcher sent the ball back to the pitcher.

“The evil minions were commanded to find the unicorns and murder them.”

Strike three.

The batter dropped his bat and left home plate.

“Way to go, Jack,” the third baseman called over to the pitcher.

Jack turned to his third baseman and grinned. But I wasn’t grinning. Tears filled my eyes.

“It’s okay,” Aunt Leah said. “There’s no reason to cry. The unicorns were saved.”

I wasn’t crying because of the evil minions. I was crying because I could never be a Jack or one of a gang of kids who got to play baseball. Instead I was just a sickly, pale shrimp of a kid, wearing his thick glasses, sitting with his aunt in the bleachers and not on the playing field. I slipped my glasses off and wiped the tears away, then they went back on.

“The Great Warrior,” she continued, “Smythicus stopped the minions at the border of the South. In fact, he said to those darn minions, “No evil minions will ever harm the unicorns of this land.”

Another boy, this one wearing a red shirt, walked over to the batter’s plate. He had a smile on his face like he knew something nobody else did. He reminded me of Bobby Thomson. I had the Scotsman’s Bowman card, and I’m telling you, this kid looked just like him. And I knew all about “The Flying Scotsman” and his “shot heard ’round the world.” I had listened to the game that won the Giants the National League pennant on my father’s Philco radio.

“Smythicus,” Aunt Leah said, “had a large broadsword. It was named Silver. Like the Lone Ranger’s horse. And it was a killer of evil minions.”

Bobby Thomson stepped to the batter’s plate on October 3, 1951. It was the ninth inning. He squinted at Dodgers pitcher, Ralph Branca. The radio announcer said he liked to squint. It made the pitchers nervous. But Branca wasn’t buying any of Bobby’s squinting that day. Branca wasn’t nervous at all. At least, that’s what the guy on the radio said.

Branca threw the ball a first time, then a second time. Bobby whacked that ball out of the reach of the left fielder and into the stands. That hit gave the New York Giants a miracle and a trip to the World Series. Boy, that Number 23, that Bobby Thomson sure could hit.

“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!” the announcer Russ Hodges screamed out from the radio. “The Giants win the pennant and they’re going crazy! New York is going crazy!” If I could’ve done cartwheels, I would’ve. If the Giants could win the pennant, anything was possible. A scrawny, sickly kid like me might even get to play baseball one day. Man, I loved those New York Giants that day, and I was glad they had beat “dem bums” from Brooklyn.

Though, if I had given them a chance, I would’ve come to love the Dodgers the next year just like I loved the Giants. I would’ve been a fan from then on till they picked up and betrayed everything that was holy by sneaking out of Brooklyn and moving off to California. You could not play decent baseball off in sunny California. Too sunny. That’s why Florida didn’t have a baseball team and never would, I reasoned. To play real baseball like the majors did, you had to be from Boston or New York or Philadelphia or Chicago. Not a sunny city among them.

The kid at the batter’s plate tipped his cap the way Bobby Thomson must’ve done before he hit that ball out of the park. But he sure couldn’t hit like Bobby. The ball flew by him a third time and he swung. He swung hard. The kid struck out.

“But Smythicus,” Aunt Leah went on, “he didn’t kill the evil minions. He wasn’t that sort of a Smythicus. He didn’t like to kill. He hit them with the side of his sword and they hated that. So these evil minions of the Snow Queen left the unicorns alone once upon a time. And everybody lived happily ever after.”

I had lost interest in Amador. There was no baseball in Amador and no Bobby Thomsons. I looked up at my aunt and grinned. She hugged me and ran her fingers through my hair and said, “Isn’t that Smythicus something. How he saved the unicorns?”

Another kid stepped up to the plate to bat.

She loosened her hug, then looked away for a second. When she looked back, tears were in her eyes. Could she be wishing that she could play baseball the way I wished it? “Nathaniel,” she said. My Aunt Leah never called me Nathaniel and there was a seriousness in her voice. Something must be wrong, but what? “Nathaniel,” her voice choked. “Allison is going away. She won’t be back…for some time.”

Did I hear right? My sister Allison was going away? I would have Aunt Leah and my father all to myself. No more Allison nightmares. No more screams in the middle of the night. No more pampering. Allison was always getting all the attention. She was going away.

I wanted to shout a big yes. But I didn’t. There was a sadness on my aunt’s face I had never seen.

“Your sister,” Aunt Leah said as the left-handed batter hit a home run. “She’s been ill for a very long time. Since the night you were born and your mother left us. Your father and I thought we could make her better. But we can’t.” She was almost crying, tears welling up in her eyes. “We can’t make her better. She is very sick.”

Sick? Why was she sick? She wasn’t sick. She was just trying to get her way with my father and my Aunt Leah. The showoff.

“Your father has taken her to a hospital.”

A hospital? My eyes grew bigger as I choked on the thought. Why a hospital?

“There are doctors there who can help her.”

Doctors? A hospital?

“Allison has awful nightmares and very bad headaches.”

But she was faking. I looked down at the bleachers. She was just faking.

“She goes for days with one of those headaches.”

Allison gone? No. No.

“We’re going to have to get along without her? At least for a while.”

I won’t see Allison? But why? She’s my sister. She may be a creep but she’s my sister.

“We think the doctors can give her some relief, maybe make her well. We just have to be patient. One day she’ll come back home. Okay?”

Aunt Leah took my hand and squeezed. Then I started crying. She took me into her arms and held me close. I pushed her away, then grabbed her. I bawled my eyes out, and she cried too. Allison was not going to be at home. Allison, screaming Allison, pampered Allison, sick Allison, my sister Allison. I just knew that I would never see her again.

Recovering from her crying, Aunt Leah said, “We’ll visit her at the hospital, you’ll see. And they might just let her come home for visits.”

I knew I would never see my sister, my only sister, ever again.

That was the day I went home and ripped up all my baseball cards.

Auditioning

Here’s something to think about. And it’s a big something too. From the moment you’re born, you’re auditioning. Sure, your mommy’s going to love you. But think about this. By the time you come out of her, you’ve been auditioning for nine months. After a lot of interviews, wallah,you’ve got the job. You’re her kid. I didn’t say her darling. That’s a whole other thing. That role may go to your older brother or sister. They may be the cute one. You may have the role of pain-in-the-butt. Remember the Smothers Brothers. Dick got all the goodies, Tom got the chicken.

What about Dad? you ask. You know we’re in deep doo-doo if he says, “I’ve got five others just like him.” And he always says that. So you’re going to have to do some cooing and goo-goo-ga-ga-ing for him big time. Smile when he comes into the room. Always smile. Smiling works every time.  Adults like smiling. Smiling will get you into Harvard. And don’t tell me your poop don’t stink. It always stinks.

You know you’re in for bad things if mom or pop turns to big sis and says, “Go change your brother’s diaper. “ The audition with big sis ain’t going to go well. You pooped. You do not want to do that at an audition. It just ain’t cool. Later in life, she will get even. When you’ve crashed your dad’s car and you want help, she won’t be there. Because she had to clean up your poop. Get on big sis’s good side and it will serve you in good stead.

Next thing you know you’re walking and getting into everything. You know things are going well if mommy says, “Ain’t that the cutest thing.” It’s a statement, not a question. But be careful. If dad comes in and says, “Hey, he just broke my favorite coffee mug. You know the one I won at the annual bean-eating contest. The one I got for beating the crap out of Marvin,” you know where that’s going to go. And he won’t be saying “crap” either. He’ll be saying that other word that stands in for poop. So don’t break any of Dad’s stuff. He’ll appreciate it and remember what a good kid you were.

Oh, you don’t think he’ll remember. You know how you’ll know. When he hands you the keys to that really cool car for your sixteenth birthday and says, “You’ve earned it.” There’s this big smile on his face. It ain’t because your grades are good. You’re a C student at best. No, it’s because you did auditioning well. Your poop didn’t stink that bad. You didn’t break any of his precious things.

Don’t get me started about table manners. You are going to have eat that baby crap for a while. So don’t make faces. They don’t like faces, unless they’re cute faces.

Then there’s that first class in school. You’re auditioning there as well. You can either audition for the teacher or for your fellow students. Go for your fellow students. Your teacher is only going to be around for one year. Your fellow students are going to be around for, like FOREVER. So you had better impress them big time or your life is going to be a living h-e-double-hockey-sticks. Look across the room and find the kid you like the least. Immediately walk over and hit him in the face. He’s going to say, “What’d you want to do that for?” Best say nothing. You’ve impressed the other prisoners. I mean, kids.

This kid you just socked will turn out to be your best friend for life. For life, man. You can’t ask for a better friend than that. He’ll watch your back when you steal that car. He’ll be there for you when you need a sponsor in AA. You  will be his Eddie Haskel and he’ll be your Wally Cleaver. Can’t do better than that, can you? On top of all the trouble he’ll keep you out of, his mom will be June Cleaver. And, man, June Cleaver could cook. Not like your mom.

So that’s your life. You will be auditioning for role after role. For that first date. For that college you really really want to get into. For that person you will eventually marry. For that boss whose position you want. For that bank that will give you a mortgage and a credit card. For those two-point-seven kids that will make you a real American family. For those neighbors who always keep their house in tip-top shape and their lawn well manicured. (You keep wondering how he can afford the maintenance and the really cool stuff. Embezzling would be my guess.) For that divorce lawyer you will need. And you will want a good one. Your spouse is about to take everything. For that coffin you will have to fit into.

And last, but not least. There’s God. That audition is going to be real scary.