Honorable Mention 2017 Brooklyn Non-Fiction Prize
"Baseball, A Game Of Strategy"
Brooklyn’s George Wingate Field was a large public athletic field divided into four baseball diamonds where we’d play Saturday morning pickup games. We had to start play at seven or eight in the morning so that we’d be finished before the bigger kids showed up and commandeered all four diamonds and anything else that might be lying around.
Rarely, if ever, did enough players show up to make two full teams. As a result, we had to improvise rules to allow for the missing players. We had no catchers. The team at bat would provide a catcher. The catcher's only duty was to act as a backstop and to keep the ball from rolling onto one of the other diamonds. There were no stolen bases. Since the catcher was simply a backstop and a member of the batting team, you couldn't expect him to throw out players on his own team attempting to steal bases. That was really pretty much a moot point anyway, since we didn't have any bases. If you were hit by a pitch, it was a ball. You didn't take first base and the runners didn't advance. We had no shortstops...
We’d been playing for about two hours and the bigger kids had started to show up. The score was tied at 12 to 12 and our team was at bat in the bottom of the fifth. There were two out. Tony Gargulio was on third base, in scoring position. Kevin Sheridan was coming up to bat. Timmy Flynn was catching. Sammy Berman was their pitcher. I was captain and playing first base. "I gotta go," Kevin said, looking down at his feet, kicking at the dry dirt behind home plate and tugging at the front of his pants.
"You're okay. You're just nervous is all. Try not to think about it. You can hold it for a couple of minutes anyway. We can beat these guys, " I said.
"No. I mean I really gotta go."
"If you really gotta go that bad, go under the stands. Nobody will see you. Just hurry it up, will ya?"
Kevin was one of those kids who it was hard to tell when he had to go to the bathroom. He was always pulling at the front of his pants. Kevin was the anthropological ancestor of some of today's best crotch pulling major league baseball players. He set the standard for crotch pulling years before crotch pulling became so much a part of our televised national pastime.
"I mean I gotta go. I gotta go home."
"Jesus Christ, Kevin. It's the last inning. We don't have any other players. You gotta stay. We'll have to forfeit if you don't."
The idea of forfeiting a game was anathema to us. Forfeiting was worse than losing. Forfeiting meant you didn't try. You couldn't be a dirty loser, but you could be a dirty forfeiter.
"Jesus Christ. Will you guys quit screwing around and bat? We gotta get outta here," Mikey Katz shouted impatiently from the pitcher’s mound.
We said "Jesus Christ" a lot. Even Mikey and Sammy, who were Jewish, said "Jesus Christ" a lot. Jewish kids didn't seem to have anything of their own to say so the rest of us let them say "Jesus Christ" - it didn't bother us.
"Son of a bitch. Wait a minute, will ya? Kevin's gotta go home and we don't have any other batters." Sammy said.
We said "son of a bitch" a lot too but unlike "Jesus Christ", none of us knew exactly what "son of a bitch" meant.
"So Kevin's gotta go home," Vinnie Farkas called back from first base, snickering. "So let the little kid bat. Let Joey's little brother bat.”
Joey Palermo had brought his little brother Robert along that morning. Robert was a couple of years younger than we were and a lot smaller. Robert had never played baseball with us. He had never played anything with us. In fact Robert's sole purpose in life seemed to be to tag along in search of our acceptance and doing whatever it took to gain even the slightest hint of it. In those days every neighborhood gang had a Robert. He was the one who ate the yellow snow. He was the one who touched his tongue to the frozen iron mail box. Robert was the only one of us who wore glasses and his nose, which he was almost constantly wiping either with the back of his hand or the sleeve of his shirt or jacket, always seemed to be running.
"You mean Robert?" Sammy called back. "You want us to let Robert bat?
" Yeah, Robert. Let Robert bat - or else you forfeit.
The rest of the team gathered around Robert. We looked down at him. We looked down at his glasses. We looked down at his running nose. I looked at the black George Kell bat I was holding. I wondered whether Robert could even lift a bat much less swing one. An idea occurred to me. Was it really necessary that Robert swing the bat? Did Robert really have to swing the bat?
I signaled the team, including Robert, to huddle up around me. I turned away from the pitcher's mound so that Mikey and the rest of their team wouldn't be able to hear me.
"I got an idea," I whispered, crouching down in the middle of the rest of our team. "Robert, do you think you can bunt?"
"Bunt?" Robert asked wiping his nose.
"Yeah. You hold the bat like this: flat, steady and chest high Mikey pitches the ball and you just push the bat at it. You just try to make contact and push the ball toward third base. OK?"
"OK. I guess, " Robert said wiping his nose again.
"Jesus Christ," Timmy Flynn said. Timmy would bat after Robert if Robert got on base and Tony didn't score from third. "Try not to get snot all over the bat, kid."
"But don't give it away," Sammy said ignoring Timmy. "Look like you're going to swing away until Mikey comes out of his windup. You'll be alright."
"OK," Robert nodded. He was standing at attention now - his arms straight and rigid locked against his sides - trying desperately to keep from wiping his nose. He was staring directly at Timmy.
"Then what?" Timmy asked.
"You're catching," I said. "Then you just stand there. You don't do anything. When he hits it, you just let the ball roll."
"I gotta throw him out. I gotta throw the ball to first base," Timmy hissed, looking around at each of us for support.
"You're on our side," I said.
"I'm the catcher. If he hits it, I gotta throw him out. That's the rule." Robert shuffled his feet nervously but didn't dare wipe his nose. Timmy glared at him.
"That's only the rule if he hits it," I countered. "That's the rule if he swings the bat. The rule doesn't say anything about if he doesn't swing the bat. The rule doesn't say anything about bunting. Nobody ever bunted before - for us or for them."
"I don't care. It would be cheating not to throw him out. It would be a sin."
"Thou shalt not bunt?" Sammy asked.
"Jesus Christ. Will you guys hurry up?" Mikey shouted again from the pitcher's mound.
"Son of a bitch. Wait a second. Robert's not ready," I shouted back.
"I don't care," Timmy continued. "It would be a sin. Let Sammy do it."
" Why Sammy?" I asked.
"Because he's a Jew. Jews don't have to worry about stuff like sins. They don't have to go to confession or anything like that. Jesus Christ. I’m an altar boy."
"I'll do it," Sammy said shrugging and rolling his eyes at me.
"OK, then. Everybody knows what they're supposed to do," I said. "Robert? Sammy?"
"Yeah," Robert said.
"Yeah," Sammy nodded.
"OK. We're ready," I called to the pitcher's mound.
"Jesus Christ. It's about time," Mikey called back. "Here we go, Robert. We gotta get outta here. Let's see what you can do with my fast ball. Take your best swing."
Robert relaxed his arms. I handed him the bat.
"I'm warning you, kid. Don't get snot on that bat," Timmy ordered Robert.
"Wipe your nose, Robert," I said, glaring at Timmy.
Mikey wound up and threw Robert one right down the middle of home plate. Before Mikey had even completed his windup, Robert had squared around to face him, holding the bat flat, steady and chest high as instructed. Unfortunately, chest high for Robert wasn't chest high for everyone else. The ball struck him squarely in the middle of his forehead. His cap and glasses flew from his head. He staggered and fell backward onto his back in the dirt.
"Ball one!" Vinnie Farkas called out, laughing, from first base.
We stood over Robert. He was motionless.
"He's dead! Am I gonna get it!" Joey Palermo cried, pushing through us to get to Robert.
"He's not dead. He's just in a comma," Timmy said.
"Coma," Sammy corrected.
"That's what I said. He's in a comma. Maybe he needs some artificial perspiration."
"Respiration," Sammy corrected Timmy again.
"That's what I said," Timmy insisted.
Robert opened one eye. He opened the other. Sammy and I helped him to his feet and handed him his cap and glasses.
"Jesus Christ! What now? What the hell was he trying to do? Bunt? Was he trying to bunt? Jesus Christ!" Mikey called to us.
"Robert? You OK? Robert?" I asked Robert.
"Yeah. I'm OK. I'm OK," Robert said, snuffling, shaking his head and looking around at each of us as though assuring himself as to where he was.
"OK, everybody move in closer to the plate. The little sucker's going to try to bunt. Jesus Christ," Mikey shouted, waving his infielders in toward home plate.
"Jesus Christ. Bunt! I can't believe it," Vinnie Farkas said, staring at Robert.
"OK, Robert. Forget what I said about bunting. Just swing away. Give it your best shot. Keep your eye on the ball and just try to make contact," I said.
"Choke up on the bat," Sammy directed.
"Choke up?" Robert asked.
"Yeah. Like this," Sammy said, demonstrating, holding his hands well up from the bottom of the bat,
Hesitantly, Robert stepped back into the batter's box.
"Robert, move in a little closer. You won't be able to hit it from way back there," I said.
"Wipe your nose, kid," Timmy added.
Robert moved in closer. Mikey wound up. Mikey threw. Robert swung mightily at the ball. Robert swung fearlessly at the ball. Robert swung deliciously at the ball. Robert completely missed the ball.
"Easy now, Robert," I called to him. "Take your time. Keep your eye on the ball."
"Hey, Robert. Hey, batter, batter," Sammy cheered Robert.
Mikey wound up and threw. Robert swung. Robert hit the ball. The ball squirted through the infield where the shortstop would have been - if we’d had shortstops. Before anybody knew it, the ball was behind the infielders who, as directed, had all pulled up closer to home plate.
"Run, Robert, run!" we shouted at Robert.
Robert ran. Robert flew. Robert was safely on first base before any of the infielders had recovered. Tony Gargulio scored from third base. We’d won.
"Jesus Christ," Mikey lamented softly from the pitcher's mound throwing his glove into the dirt.
"Son of a bitch," Robert called from first base, wiping his nose on his sleeve and straightening his glasses, "Son…of…a…bitch."