little league

The reassuring plink of spring

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 17, 2015.

I live within earshot of a Little League field, and the sound of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball – plink! – brings me back to the days when I was the one swinging the bat, in Providence. Here are the highlights:

I’m at my Little League manager’s front door, having missed the practice when he gave out uniforms. To my disappointment, the white flannel jersey he hands me unfolds to reveal a red number 13 – far from my lucky number. That’s what I get for missing practice.

I put the uniform on at home and stand in front of my mother’s full-length mirror. The short sleeves reach my elbows, the ample waistband of the pants is scrunched under my belt, and the crotch falls to an inch above my knees. I could be running away to pedal a unicycle for Ringling Brothers. Superstition and supersizing notwithstanding, I am thrilled. I have my first official, head-to-toe sports uniform. Play ball!

Later that season, I’m standing in the on-deck circle at Nelson Street playground and notice my girlfriend watching from behind my team’s bench. She has brown eyes, short brown hair, and a self-assurance that sets her apart from the other girls in fifth grade. I shoot her a knowing look, which she acknowledges with a smile.

Earlier that day, we had walked home together down Jastram Street and ended up in her garage. The air smelled of gasoline and newly mown grass until she pulled me close. Her breath was bubblegum sweet, her lips soft. It was my first kiss, and almost certainly not hers. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

With her looking on, I step up to the plate. The pitch sails in and, for once, the ball looks as big as a honeydew melon. I drive it between center and right, and slide into second with a double. It’s my first extra-base hit … My girlfriend’s cheering … All on the heels of our moment in her garage. Standing at second and surveying the scene, I’m positive life will never be better.

Two years later, my CYO team gathers in right field at Davis Park to go over signals before a game. “Pay attention!” our manager barks. He motions us closer and lowers his voice: “When I say ‘Father Murray is here,’ I want you to bunt.”

Father Murray is a kindly, diminutive priest from our parish. He wears horn-rimmed glasses and speaks softly from the pulpit. Kids love him because he keeps his sermons short and his theology simple.

Walking back to our dugout, my friend Johnny is incredulous: “Father Murray is here?” he says, eyebrows arched. “What kind of sign is that?”

Sometime in the early innings, our team has a man on first with no outs. “Father Murray is here!” our manager shouts. Kevin, our batter, looks at him as if he’s speaking Swahili. The pitch comes in and Kevin swings away. Strike one!

Our manager repeats the signal: “Father – Murray – is – here!” But Kevin is too busy adjusting his batting helmet. A mom behind our bench says, “Father Murray is here?” Another adds, “Where is he? I need to talk to him about my niece’s baptism.” The pitcher winds up and throws. Again, Kevin swings away. Strike two!

Our manager stands apart from us, just inside the dugout’s chain-link fence, as rigid as a foul pole. Parents, the umpire, and players on the other team are all searching for Father Murray.

“Oh, right!” Kevin says at the plate, sheepishly. “Father Murray!” But his revelation comes too late. With two strikes, he has to hit away. He whiffs on the next pitch and slinks back to the bench, avoiding our manager’s gaze.

“Where the hell is Father Murray?” a dad asks no one in particular.

“Told you that signal was lame,” Johnny says to me.

These memories and so many others come back in a rush whenever I hear the plink, as I do on most evenings this time of year. The batter connects and so do I – to a world that is forever springtime new and bubblegum fragrant.

Play ball!

Home Away From Home At Academy Field

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It’s after midnight, but I can’t sleep. I leave my house and head up Peirce Street to Church Street, and then up to Rector. That’s my usual route when I walk or run. Habit tells me to turn right at Rector and proceed to Division Street… But tonight, home plate trumps habit.

The night is fair, the neighborhood quiet. Mist floats through a streetlight’s glow. I see the silhouette of the bleachers at Academy Field. And then I am drawn to the baseball diamond.

Is it the memory of games past that tugs at me? A yearning for simpler times? Academy Field lies dormant on this cool, late-autumn night, but as I walk its base paths, ghosts come alive…

> I’m a catcher in Little League and there’s a bang-bang play at the plate, the ball and the runner hitting me at the same time. The ump yells “Yer out!” and he’s right: my head bounces off the rock-hard dirt behind the plate and the game floats away… Next thing I know, my manager’s splayed hand is in front of my face, and he asks me how many fingers I see. “Five,” I say. “Wrong,” he replies. “There are only four – this one’s a thumb.” Play ball!

> I’m in left field at George J. West Junior High in Providence and – CRACK! – a monster drive soars over my head. There’s no fence at West – it’s free-range baseball. The ball hops twice before disappearing into a thatch of tall grass, a rabbit’s tail gone. &%@#$! What if I can’t find it? I sprint to the thicket and thrust my hand in – got it! I throw to the cutoff man, grass blades and all. Whew!

> I’m in the dugout at Davis Park, my CYO team at bat, when our manager calls out, “Father Murray is here!” We all know what that means: it’s the signal to bunt. Well, everyone knows except Steve Ferri, who happens to be at the plate. The pitch comes in and Ferri swings for the fences. Strike one! Our manager stares at Ferri: “Father Murray is HERE!” A mom behind our bench says, “Have you seen Father Murray? That’s nice he comes to the games.” The pitcher winds up and throws: again, Ferri swings away. Strike two! Our manager is incredulous. “FERRI!” he screams. “FATHER MURRAY IS HERE!” Now everyone is looking for Father Murray – moms, the umpires, even Ferri. Our manager calls time, waves Ferri over, and asks, “Do you know what ‘Father Murray is here’ means?” Ferri doesn’t have a clue, but now the other team does. Next inning, our manager changes the bunt signal.

I stand in the infield at Academy Field. It’s 46 feet from the mound to home plate, 60 feet base to base – same as it ever was. My memories are equally fixed. On this still night, I recall with affection days when five fingers became four, when a baseball vanished and reappeared, and when everyone at Davis Park wondered, where the hell is Father Murray?

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