Monday, August 06, 2007
Time: Any Saturday or Sunday during the summers of 1965 through 1968.
Scene: The parking lot behind a realty office on River Street in Dorchester.
12 boys are playing baseball. The diamond is black asphalt. There is no outfield, really. Hardly any foul territory, either. Bordering the third base side of this improvised ballpark - the boys call it a field, without even the slightest hint of irony - is an apartment building. On the first base side, there are some sparse woods loaded with broken bottles and other city trash. The “outfield” fence is almost directly behind second base, providing scant protection to the triple-decker behind it.
The bases are drawn anew each week, outlines made with a piece of chalk (if available) or by continually scraping the asphalt with a sharp rock. Same for the scoreboard, kept on the driveway that leads out to River Street. Bordering the driveway are the realty office itself and, on the other side, a liquor store. Between games – but only on Saturdays, because these are days when the blue laws are still strictly enforced in Massachusetts – the boys buy ice-cold cokes and spicy (to their young white Irish palettes) Slim Jims at the liquor store. The liquor store is air-conditioned. It is a small piece of heaven after a game played on asphalt in 100-degree heat.
The games are played with a wooden bat and a sponge ball. Even though the boys range in age from only 7 to 12 – depending upon the year - one would think that a sponge ball would be stroked over that ridiculously short outfield fence, with a wooden bat, on too regular a basis to make the games anything but a travesty. However, the shortness of the field also puts the pitcher only about thirty-five feet from the batter. The layout of a baseball diamond always regulates its own physics to leave scant advantage for one side or the other.
Aside from the pitcher and his catcher, they array the diamond as follows: first base, second base, shortstop, third base; six to a side, as many games as can be played from noon on. Since they play a full nine innings, this is usually four games. As dusk comes on – or sometimes in the sixth inning of the fourth game, when a couple of Moms are heard calling their erstwhile Yastrzemkis and Lonborgs to wash up for supper – the boys leave reluctantly. Sweaty, scraped-up from SLIDING ON THE ASPHALT, with pride from hitting 125-foot home runs onto the third floor of the triple-decker, they head home.
If it is Saturday night, they go to bed dreaming of playing on the asphalt again tomorrow. If it is Sunday night, they instead go to bed dreaming of playing games on the large side yard of the Van Aken home. This is because there are actually cars in the parking lot on weekdays.
The Van Aken yard is not nearly as good a space to play in, despite it being actual grass and all. Huge boulders jut up at strange places, so the field is marked out to make these the bases. It is thus a slightly lopsided field, with the run to first base perhaps ten feet longer than the run from third to home. Also, the man who owns the house beyond the (still very short) outfield fence does NOT like having his back porch hit by the sponge ball. If the ball does not bounce back to the field, he is likely to come out of his door and take it inside, never to be seen again. In addition, he has a dog that bites. Even if one of the boys braves a climb over the fence to retrieve the ball, it is always with the thought that he may come back missing some vital part of his body. As a result, home runs are initially a cause for celebration, quickly followed by a feeling of dread. The hitter is the one who has to retrieve the ball.
Every day, barring heavy rain, the 12 boys play. For the full length of four summers – and a major part of spring and fall, after school – the 12 boys play. The habits and tendencies gained during this time will be with them for their entire ballplaying lives.
Since the fields are so stunted, they never develop a long-ball stroke. Who needs one? With a pitcher throwing as hard as he can from thirty-five feet away, and an absurdly short distance to the fence, they all develop a quick flicking swing. The boys are all singles hitters by the time they play on real fields.
Since the catchers call the balls and strikes, and other fielders call the outs at their positions, honesty becomes engrained early on. An outright lie is something rarely spoken since any devious advantage gained by one team can – and will - be returned, in spades, when the other team is in the field.
(The only ones who never call anything are the pitchers, so they complain a lot. This is par for the course in any game of ball, though. There’s never been a pitcher alive who doesn’t believe that he’s being squeezed.)
With the balls and strikes called honestly, and the pitcher hurling from thirty-five feet, the boys develop a tremendous awareness of their strike zones, as well as an ability to recognize bad pitches very early in the delivery. Those who would go on to play organized ball later in life would rarely swing at pitches out of the strike zone. They become patient hitters who draw many more walks than their contemporaries from other neighborhoods.
Since the fields are either asphalt or strewn with boulders, and the boys slide on these unforgiving surfaces, they never will be able to understand somebody NOT sliding on something as soft as actual dirt. They grow up with no fear of scraped and bloody legs.
Since there is really no outfield, none of them learn how to go back on a ball until they play CYO ball or in high school. However, with the distances so short and the speed with which a sponge ball could come off of a wooden bat, many of them develop extremely quick gloves – in self-defense.
(The boys also develop skills at climbing fences, distracting vicious dogs, and scaling the outside of triple-deckers. These skills are not really useful in later life, except for those of the boys who become burglars.)
Of course, as you’ve been aware of since the beginning of this piece, I was one of those 12 boys. And I’ve been playing that “Dorchester parking lot” brand of ball for just about my entire life. I don’t hit home runs. I’m very patient at the plate and draw a lot of walks. My stroke – when it’s on – is right back through the box on a line. I’ll slide anywhere, any time, and I get pissed when somebody else needs to and doesn’t. Until the past couple of years, my reflexes were excellent. It’s because they now aren't, that I’m quitting.
Tomorrow may be my final game (or games) forever. A couple of wins will extend things. Win or lose, I’ll still be playing the game like I did as a kid in Dorchester. It would be nice if they moved the fences in to about 125 feet for my final at-bat, but I’m not counting on it.
(In case you were wondering: We didn’t play Little League because we found it boring. We all joined teams for about two weeks one summer. Once the thrill of having actual uniforms wore off, we went back to the asphalt.
When you can play four games every day, getting 30 or 35 at-bats, never be on the bench at any time and not have to answer to any adults other than your Mom calling you home for supper, why would you limit yourself to two or three games and maybe 7 or 8 at-bats per week [because everybody rides the bench sometimes in order to provide equal playing time] and on top of those deprivations subject yourself to constant interference from adults? We weren’t idiots.)