Nelson Street

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!

Going to church, dog wouldn’t obey my commandments

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Published in the Providence Sunday Journal, February 15, 2015.

“Johhh-neee!”

My best friend, Chris, was calling from the driveway outside my house, in Providence. I went to the bedroom window, knocked on the pane, and held up an index finger to let him know I’d be right out. I wished we were heading off to shoot hoops at Nelson Street playground or to buy candy at Wolcott’s five-and-dime on Chalkstone Avenue. But it was Sunday morning. We were going to church.

Pulling a sweater on, I tiptoed past my mother’s bedroom. Attending Mass at St. Pius wasn’t a family affair in my house or in Chris’s, either. Our moms told us we had to go, and Chris and I, ages 9 and 10 respectively, obliged.

Bunking church, however tempting, was not an option. Informants loomed everywhere: grandparents up the street, family friends around the corner, aunts and uncles waving from cars. This was Elmhurst at its close-knit best, and worst. If we strayed on our five-block pilgrimage and played hooky, word would get back to our mothers fast. Penance would be severe.

Chris and I had walked two blocks when Georgie, my dog, whisked by us, nails scratching the sidewalk, tail wagging like crazy.

“I have to take her home,” I said. “Be right back.”

I grabbed Georgie’s collar and scooted her back to my house. She was a 35-pound mutt with a shaggy black coat and watchful eyes. I pushed on the back door to put her inside, but it was locked – and I didn’t have my key. I knew our front door was locked, too. It always was.

The thought of ringing the doorbell and waking my mother was as appealing to me as Brussels sprouts. She’d see I was running late.

Our small back yard was bounded by a chain link fence. I left Georgie there, latching the gate behind me. I hoped she wouldn’t escape.

I caught up with Chris and we resumed our trek. We kicked a soda can up the street and relived our epic day at Rocky Point amusement park the previous summer – until a bark cut us short. I spun around and there was Georgie, half a block away.

“Oh God,” I said. “She got out.”

I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled, “Go home!” I don’t know what I was thinking. Georgie wasn’t Lassie; we were still working on the commands “Sit!” and “Stay!”

“Let’s just get to church,” I said to Chris. “It’s too late to take her back again.”

We picked up our pace. Georgie continued to follow us, keeping her strategic half-block distance. When we reached St. Pius, I convinced myself she’d just wait at the door outside. What could happen?

As Chris and I entered church, our footsteps on the marble floor announced our tardy arrival. We sheepishly made our way to one of the rear pews.

The second reading was just beginning. I caught the attention of a child two rows in front of me. As I twisted my face and crossed my eyes to his smiles, I heard a faint, familiar sound – like scratching on a door. I turned to Chris. He was already whispering: “Is that Georgie?”

I smiled nervously. Chris laughed. More scratching. I pictured Georgie pawing at the church door, just as she scraped the back door at home when she wanted to come in.

We stood for the Gospel – Luke’s account of the loaves and fishes miracle. But as I listened, something distracted my ear … the click-click-click of nails on marble. Somehow Georgie had gotten in! Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her pass our pew and head for the altar, tail wagging.

The woman next to us murmured, “Good Lord!” The priest continued with the miracle story from the pulpit, unaware of his newest potential convert. I instinctively stepped toward the aisle, but Chris grabbed my arm.

“You can’t go get her!” he whispered. “You’ll look like an idiot!”

Neither of us moved. Georgie was almost at the Communion rail when an usher, in his Sunday best, scooped her up and carried her out of the church. She was good about it – didn’t even squirm.

We waited for the Gospel to end, then hurried out to look for Georgie. She greeted us with leaps and licks of joy. Chris and I took quick turns hugging her and, thankful for our deliverance, started for home. At last, we had a legitimate reason for missing Mass – even our moms would agree.

In our book, that truly was a miracle.

Pictured above: not Georgie (I didn’t have a photo handy from years ago), but kindred spirit Buddy, former fabulous woofie of the Fuller family in San Francisco.

Play Ball! Wiffle Ball, That Is

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 1, 2014.

Baseballs and city neighborhoods don’t mix. Windows loom; shattered glass and lost allowances are just a line drive away. When I was a kid, we didn’t even think of playing hardball in my backyard on River Avenue in Providence. But we didn’t have to. We had Wiffle ball.

In 1953, in Fairfield, Conn., David Mullany came home to find his 12-year-old son trying to throw curves with a small plastic golf ball, to no avail. Mullany, a former semi-pro pitcher, knew that throwing breaking balls wasn’t good for adolescent arms. So he set out to design a ball that would let his son do so without harm.

Mullany found inspiration in an unlikely place: the hard plastic orbs that served as packaging for Coty perfume bottles. After cutting holes of various sizes and shapes in the re-purposed spheres, he arrived at an eight-slot design that made them curve and rise and sink when thrown.

While Mullany was the inventor, his son was the marketer. The 12-year-old came up with the name for the ball, a play on “whiff,” which is slang for “strike out.” (Whiffing batters was the whole point of throwing curves!) In an act of typographic economy — and branding brilliance — the Mullanys dropped the “h” in their spelling. Thus, the Wiffle ball was born.

In the early 1970s, Mullany’s plastic masterwork transformed our tiny Providence backyard into baseball heaven. We threw curves like Steve Carlton, with no fear of shredding elbow ligaments. We swung for the fences like Harmon Killebrew, with no worry of destruction.

Our playing field was quirkier than Fenway Park. The trunk of a maple tree and a clothesline post became our foul poles. An eight-foot concrete retaining wall, adorned top to bottom with a painted garden mural, provided a welcome backstop. We oriented home plate in front of one of the wall’s giant sunflowers. The span of its petals formed our strike zone.

And there were strikeouts — the curving, rising, sinking Wiffle ball lived up to its name. But there was plenty of contact, too. We rapped liners off den windows for doubles, dinged the dormer of my bedroom for triples, sent long balls over the roof for home runs. When a gutter swallowed the ball (ground-rule double), my little brother would climb out a second-floor window, creep down the crunching shingles, and pluck the ball from its aluminum holding pen. Don’t tell Mom!

The copy on the Wiffle ball package explained why the ball was a godsend to those of us playing in city backyards: “BAT IT! BOUNCE IT! SAFE ANYWHERE!”

Anywhere but our dog’s mouth, it turned out. A bouncing Wiffle ball turned Georgie into a canine Bert Campaneris. When she chased down a ball, we were one chomp away from disaster. We’d carefully pry the ball from her clench and then banish her to the house.

When a Wiffle ball did crack from all our mashing and Georgie’s gnawing, duct tape prolonged its life. And when a ball was beyond repair, we pooled our change and ran up to Wolcott’s five-and-dime on Chalkstone Avenue to get a new one. There is nothing better than pitching with a brand new Wiffle ball.

My brothers, friends and I all played Little League baseball, of course. I remember one Opening Day at Nelson Street playground: a blaze of sunshine and promise. Crisp uniforms bore the names of local sponsors: the Lawyers and the Medics, Quinn’s Funeral Home and Lions Cleansers, Fifth Ward Democrats, the Elms.

But as much as we liked organized baseball, it was Wiffle ball that we lived for. You could always get a game together — Wiffle ball accommodated various numbers of players. And best of all, like basketball, you could play one-on-one.

My best friend, Chris, and I squared off against each other for what must have been 60 Wiffle ball games in the summer of 1972. I know that the Yankees, my team, won the regular season and that the Orioles, Chris’s team, took the World Series. After the seventh game, we ran into the locker room (also known as the garage) to celebrate. I poured champagne (soda) over Chris’s head, and he took it as the honor it was intended to be.

A grainy Super 8mm film from 1967 plays in my mind: I see my father in Bermuda shorts, cigarette in one hand, Wiffle ball in the other. He pitches to me, and I hit a hard liner off his calf. “Ow!” he mouths, grabbing his leg. Then he grins at me in approval.

Cross-fade to a video from 1997: now it’s me as dad, throwing a pitch in the backyard to my 4-year-old son. I watch as the Wiffle ball, like the arc of my life, bends to his eager swing.

 

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