He just brought it home one day after work and presented it to me. No set up. Not born of a previous request or conversation.
Reggie Jackson model, waffle-pocket Rawlings. The Finest In the Field.
Said he’d bought it from an acquaintance. Some guy he knew from the store. Paid $25 for it, used. I remember him feeling shrewd about the deal.
It was huge. The finger holes were like catacombs. My 10-year-old digits barely reached.
And, oh, it was really used. The traditional method of breaking in a glove is to place a baseball in the pocket and tightly tie the glove closed with string so that you preserve a sweet spot for the ball. The Glove must’ve been given a Swedish Massage and then placed, empty, under the tire of a dump truck. Its pocket folded over its fingers like pages in a book. Its leather soft and pliant. It was so broken in I could clap with it. What padding it had was massaged into sweet surrender (presumably by the Swedes). But given that my fingers barely filled 25% of its real estate, padding wasn’t really relevant to the equation.
Dad’s timing was impeccable. The summer after sixth grade our township was admitted into the recreational baseball league across town, and all the neighborhood dads couldn’t resist signing us up.
Not to over-romanticize, but it was the 10-year-old-boy equivalent of eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Up until then kids in the neighborhood had spent summers on the asphalt of Areford playground — just kids, no adults (and therefore – blissfully – no coaches). Self-procured rubber-coated baseballs, shared bats, slow-pitch. Every afternoon. Every day of the week. If we were short players, we’d improvise – opposite field automatic outs, pitcher’s hand, ghost runners, all-time catchers (mostly reserved for little brothers). The biggest argument always over which of the two teams got to be the Pirates, the other usually picking the Reds (who were great) or the Mets (who were awful, but whose lineup we’d memorized courtesy of WWOR Channel 12). We’d play all afternoon either until dinner time, or — as was more often the case — we’d run out of baseballs. Balls usually met one of two fates – either they carried over or rolled under the barbed-wire fence of the football field in deep right, or, if they were the cheap, $.99 K-Mart specials, they were beaten into unplayable, lopsided submission.
However, in the summer of 1981 we traded all that for grass fields, uniforms, coaches, organized practices and pitchers who tried to get you out themselves, and helmets, for when their attempts missed high and tight. My friend Andy and I got drafted by the Angels (sponsored by Parks Moving and Storage). After a couple of practices, I remember the head coach instructing his son, one of the stars on the team, to show me the basics of playing first base: how to reach for a throw while keeping a foot on the bag, where to stand with a runner on first and when no one’s on base, and how to hop into position once the pitcher goes into his windup.
Pretty sure I earned the audition for one reason only: The Glove.
I was a scrawny 10-year-old, which made my Rawlings seem even bigger. When I stood straight The Glove comically hung below my knee, almost to my calf. But it shortened my learning curve at first base, compensating for my lack of stature by extending my reach for errant tosses by several inches. And it swallowed – absolutely swallowed – the invariable short hops from third or deep in the hole from short.
I fell in love with scoops. Secretly hoped throws would bounce in front of me so I could stretch and rescue them from the dirt. My favorite moment was between innings, throwing grounders to the infielders while the pitcher warmed up. I especially liked when Bobby Madison played shortstop. He’d throw big looping curve balls back to me, and I loved tracing their glorious arcs into short hops that I’d sweep up in a plume of infield dirt.
In full disclosure, fielding was pretty much my only appreciable skill. I had a rag arm, and owing to my stature, zero pop at the plate. Without The Glove, I was pretty much Bruce Wayne.
The Glove, though? A veritable vacuum cleaner. I held on to everything.
At Hutchison Park, first base was close to a set of bleachers where all the dads would sit. They got a kick out of the skinny kid with the big glove. I remember one of them yelling, “Hold on to your cigarettes, or that glove’ll suck ‘em right outta your hand.”
Ah, the days when bleacher dads sat and smoked under summer suns, watching their sons re-enact the Greek Tragedies of their own youths.
My Dad’s investment in my Little League career didn’t end with forking over $25.
Unquestionably, my best times with The Glove were shared with him, after work during the week. We’d drive up to the junior high so he could arch fly balls over my head, and far to my right and left for me to chase down. I’d catch my breath from the last one and yell for another. “Make me run, Dad.” He had this knack for perfectly timing and aiming his launches to allow me just enough time in full sprint to snatch ’em from the air or just before they’d hit the ground. I can still hear his voice pitching up into an exuberant, “HeyyyyyYYY!” when I’d pluck one from my shoetops or snow-cone one destined for beyond.
He got as much joy as I did from what The Glove held on to.
We’d always outlast the sun – “Last one….” — and then celebrate with ice-cold, glass-bottled Pepsis in the darkened Dairy Mart parking lot off Dixon Boulevard.
As far as Little League went, the Angels were a pretty decent team. We had two bona fide stars — Doug and Mike — who took turns pitching and playing shortstop, and a bunch of really solid players. Our head coach was fair and a pretty nice man. If I remember correctly, we finished in first place during the regular season. We beat the only undefeated team — the hated Red Sox — in dramatic fashion when the coach’s son launched a game-winning homer into the pond behind the outfield in the last inning. That set up a rematch between our two teams in the playoffs for the league championship.
The Red Sox were like the Yankees of Little League. They were stacked, and they took things very seriously I remember. My 10-year-old-self recalls their coaches yelling a lot, and their players mostly sneering (except for my friend Jerry, who, like me was a stature-challenged Areford asphalt alum), where I remember a lot more smiles and laughs coming from our dugout. In retrospect, I’m sure the Red Sox had as much fun as we did, but that’s how 10-year-olds see the world.
Anyway, I distinctly remember an added gravitas to our pre-championship practices. We knew who the Red Sox were going to pitch – their ace. He was that kid from central casting who was literally a head taller than the rest of us, and whose early-maturing frame could launch puberty-grade home runs. On the mound, he fired fastballs that popped like thunder when they hit the catcher’s mitt, missing often enough to put the foot in the bucket of, and fear of God into, lower-in-the order hitters like me.
As a result, our coaches came with their middle-age velocity during batting practice. Discussed where and how to play in the field when certain Red Sox came to the plate. Went over the signs again and again. I was told to keep an eye out for the bunt sign, since (a.) it was assumed that base runners would be precious, (b.) I was left-handed, and (c.) otherwise unlikely to do much damage against The Puberty Express. The coaches even discussed some situational strategy with some of us, me included.
The game itself played out as expected, tight and low-scoring. We were tied going into the top of the seventh and last inning. The Red Sox managed to get a guy on third with the potential go-ahead run and only one out.
As fate would have it, the kid from central casting strode to the plate.
Our coach called time out and huddled the infield at the mound. He made a defensive switch.
He ordered me to centerfield.
This was one of the situational strategies that came up during our pre-game practices. I was ready for this moment. I had The Glove. I’d logged countless hours under fading suns chasing balls in every direction and rescuing them before they found the ground.
Our star pitcher went into his windup. Central Casting swung with all his might and made good contact.
A roar swelled up from the Red Sox fans as the ball rocketed into the sky….
For literally decades after that, Dad would delight in bringing up the story, with David and Goliath relish, of Central Casting launching that ball — Central Casting, the team who thought they were so great, who treated Little League with such Major League fervor – and me tracking it down and silencing the Red Sox faithful in a heartbeat. The Glove — the best $25 he ever spent in his life – coming through when it mattered the most.
He got that part right.
I held onto the ball.
But, in truth, I held onto it a couple heartbeats too long.
In the ensuing micro-moment, I registered the right-to-left soundtrack swell of the Red Sox faithful going silent and the Angels’ smoking Greek Chorus section erupting in euphoria when The Glove swallowed the ball in its waffle pocket. I’d never been responsible for a cheering crowd like that before, and it promptly filled my 10-year-old heart full. For a moment I basked in it … just long enough for the opportunistic Red Sox third base coach to send his runner home. When I finally broke from my reverie and launched the ball with my rag arm to the plate, it was too late. The runner scored standing up with the go-ahead run.
We failed to score in the bottom of the inning and ended up losing the game and thus, the league championship.
The winning run scored because I held on to the ball too long.
In his re-tellings over the years, Dad never remembered how the story actually ended.
I cringed every time he brought it up.
Never had the heart to correct him.
What you find has an awful lot to do with what you’re looking for.
That was my Dad, though. Without fail he always looked for the best part of the story. He raised his son to do the same.
I just wish it hadn’t taken me all these years to realize that I had it all wrong.
Me holding on to the ball was how the game ended. How the season ended.
Not the story.
The best part of the story is a Dad who remembered that I caught the ball.
In the end, he got as much joy from what The Glove held on to as I did.