Friday, January 30, 2015

Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

By Bettyann Moore
Image Courtesy of WikiCommons

Brian McAllister loathed sports of all kinds, so he wasn’t about to do it. Besides, he was too busy on the farm. Thea, poor Thea, who’d once gotten beaned in the head by a foul ball while sitting behind home plate, had a pathological – though understandable – fear of the game, so that was out. And Grandpa McAllister? He, too, was too busy on the farm, but his secret reason had more to do with the fact that he was jealous of Joe DiMaggio. It was complicated. 

So, it was up to Grandma McAllister to usher her grandson, Porpoise, through the seasons of T-ball, Pee-Wee and Little Leagues and, with any luck, into the high school’s nationally-recognized baseball program. She was up to the task. It was she, after all, who bought the boy his first bat and ball – a huge red plastic bat and whiffle ball – when he was barely out of diapers. When her own farm chores were done, it was common to see her just a few feet away from Porpoise, patiently tossing the ball directly at the bat while her grandson, many seconds too late, swung wildly.

In time, the real estate between Maggie McAllister and Porpoise increased, while the bat and ball shrunk. Maggie’s reflexes were tested time and time again by line drives.

“The boy’s a natural,” she told her husband over dinner one night.

“Hmph,” was all Dolan McAllister said.

“Well, he is,” Maggie insisted, “and it’s time he got into the school’s feeder program.”

While the school didn’t exactly acknowledge the existence of such a thing, it was well known throughout the district that the feeder program was the reason why the school’s baseball trophy case was crammed full. The first step was T-ball where kids as young as four hit out-sized balls off a flexible pipe, a tee, and learned the basics of the sport. As far as Maggie was concerned, Porpoise’s skill was way beyond T-ball, but she knew the unwritten rules. The fact that the teams were “parent-coached” by the high school’s junior varsity coach assured her that Porpoise would be noticed. Maggie was sure that he’d be progressed into Pee-Wee in short order, though it pained her that he’d have to wait until he was five.

It wasn’t that she merely liked baseball, Maggie McAllister adored it – the smells, the sounds (when a ball connected to a bat’s sweet spot, she fairly swooned), the banter between players and in the dugout, the cheers as a ball sailed toward the wall, lost in the lights, even the hotdog vendor’s sing-song pitch. Take Me Out to the Ballgame was second only to Ave Maria in her heart. It was Joe DiMaggio’s fault that she loved it so.

The first time she’d seen him play, as a pre-teen, all knees and elbows, while visiting an aunt in New York, she knew she was in the presence of greatness. He was at the height of his career, smack in the middle of his 56-game winning streak, and it was electrifying for young Maggie O’Brien to see the reverence, the respect thousands of fans had for the gangly, weak-chinned star with the loping gait, and how much he loved the sport. When he smiled his lopsided grin at her while signing an autograph after the game, he stole young Maggie’s heart. Sure, he was married, but a girl could dream, couldn’t she? She kept a scrapbook with every bit of DiMaggio trivia and stats she could find. The day he retired in 1951 was the day she finally said “yes” to Dolan McAllister, her suitor of five years. And when Joltin’ Joe married Marilyn Monroe (that hussy) on January 14, 1954, Maggie McAllister was giving birth to her son Brian, dismayed into labor three weeks early. The romance was over, and none too soon for Dolan McAllister.

Maggie still had the scrapbook squirreled away up in the attic, along with DiMaggio’s autograph and other mementos. After Porpoise was born, she affixed a sticker to the box to assure it would go to her first-born grandchild. She fully intended to be there, though, the first time he was big enough to don the #5 jersey, still in its original wrappings. And she would make darn sure that the boy played center field.

When DiMaggio became the pitch man for Mr. Coffee, Maggie bought the product in bulk. They made great wedding gifts, she insisted, and brought one to every wedding, whether the couple drank coffee or not. The bloom might have been off the rose, but the plant thrived.

“Do I have to?” Porpoise moaned. His grandmother had burst into the house while he was enjoying Saturday morning cartoons. “Billy Doyle might come over to play.”

Maggie bristled and clicked off the TV.

“It’s the first day of Little League,” she crowed. “Justin Porter will be there. You like Justin, don’t you?” Maggie knew he would be there because he was the coach’s son.

“He’s okay,” Porpoise admitted, “but he cries a lot and his mom is weird.”

Maggie was familiar with the mom, Jean Porter. They’d sat side-by-side during any number of T-ball and Pee-Wee League games over the years. The boy was prone to tears, but he had a mean slider. The mother was prone to shouting invectives at umpires and coaches.

A horrible thought suddenly occurred to her.

“You like baseball, don’t you, Porpoise? It’s fun, right? And you’re a darn good hitter.”

Porpoise lay on the floor in front of the silent TV, looking up at his grandmother’s worried face. He sat up and reached for his toes, as if stretching.

“Sure, Gran, I like it okay,” he said.

It wasn’t exactly a glowing endorsement, but Maggie ignored that.

“All right, then,” she said, clapping her hands together. “Go get into your uniform and let’s get cracking!”

Porpoise rolled onto his knees with a groan and stood up. At the age of eight he was already nearly as tall as his grandmother. He shuffled off to his room.

“Come on!” Maggie yelled, clapping her hands loudly behind him, “hustle!”

The boy stepped up his pace, but rolled his eyes. His grandmother was spending way too much time with baseball coaches.

“What’s all the racket?” Porpoise’s mother said, coming out of her bedroom tightening a robe around her waist. She headed into the kitchen to make coffee. “You’re here early, Margaret,” she said to her mother-in-law.

“Little League starts today,” Maggie said. “I want that boy there early to run some sprints, show the coaches he’s on his toes.”

Thea frowned down into the empty coffee pot and went to rinse it out. “Is it that time already?” she said. “I was thinking of taking Porpoise and Billy Doyle to the zoo today.”

Maggie sank heavily onto a kitchen chair, wondering what in the world her daughter-in-law was thinking. Porpoise had the makings of an All-Star.

“You think you’ll come to one of his games?” she asked, just a tad wickedly, pretty certain she knew the answer.

“I’ve been to most of the games,” Thea protested.

“Watching from the car isn’t exactly the same as from the stands,” Maggie said.

“You know, I just might sit in the stands next time,” Thea said, surprising Maggie. “He’s good, huh?” Thea rinsed out a coffee cup and poured her first cup.

“He’s darn good,” Maggie declared. “Just needs a little more enthusiasm. If you and Brian were there cheering for him, that might help.” She couldn’t help rubbing it in.

“Hm,” Thea said, plunking herself down opposite her mother-in-law. “I don’t see posters.”

“Posters? What are you talking about?”

“You know, posters, of baseball stars hanging in his room, those kind of posters. Actually, he’s never talked about taking down the Winnie-the-Pooh’s he has over his bed.”

“Phffft,” Maggie said, with a dismissive gesture. “Maybe he just likes Winnie-the-Pooh.”

“Or maybe he only plays because he knows that’s what you want.” Thea couldn’t help getting in just one little dig.

“I’m ready, Gram,” Porpoise said from the doorway. Both women wondered how long he’d been there.

“Great, Sport!” Maggie said, slapping the table and pushing herself out of the chair. She corralled the boy around the shoulders with one hand and tugged on the brim of his cap with the other. “What say you and I stop at the sports store on the way back from practice?” she said. “Get some baseball cards? A book? Maybe some posters?”

“Uh, sure Gram,” Porpoise said.

Thea rolled her eyes as the two hustled out the door.

Porpoise was thinking about the Boston Cream Pie that his mother said she was going to make that night for dessert. Last time she’d let him have two slices because he’d emptied the dishwasher for her. Maybe if he did it again ...”

“Porpoise! Porpoise!” He heard his grandmother’s voice calling out from behind the dugout. “Porpoise, it’s your turn at bat!”

Graham Kolski elbowed him on the bench. “Geez, Porpoise, wake up, wouldja? Coach is giving you the stink-eye.”

Porpoise leapt to his feet, but got tangled in the glove he had lying between his feet. He stumbled against the splintered wall in front of them. All the kids laughed and the quick glance he got of Coach Porter’s face looked like double stink-eye to him.

Geez, he thought, it’s just a practice game. He grabbed a bat from the barrel and trotted out to the plate. Justin Porter eyed him from the mound. As usual, he was chewing a wad of bubble gum, chopping on it like the camels Porpoise had seen at the zoo. He took a couple of practice swings before he stepped up to the plate, thinking about camels and zoos.

“No hitter, no hitter,” the first base player sung out. Porpoise shot him a look; in a normal game against another team, Bobby was one of his best friends. Didn’t Porpoise always hand him a clump of paper towels every time he threw up before a real game?

As he waited for the pitch, Porpoise wondered what would happen if he just let strikes sail past him or just whiffed every time. He sighed and brought the bat up. He knew what would happen. His grandmother would hate him because his coach would take him out of the next game’s lineup, maybe all of the games. Justin wound up and smoked the ball toward him. Porpoise didn’t have time to think.

“That’s my boy!” Maggie screamed as the ball sailed toward right field, way beyond the reach of the boy who played there. Porpoise rounded the bases, getting high fives from the boys on each bag; they were his teammates, after all. Coach’s stink-eye had disappeared; he slapped Porpoise on the back as he headed toward the dugout.

“Good going, son,” he said while his own son scowled and kicked dirt on the mound. “You’ll be batting clean-up next week against the Ravens,” he added.

Maggie was thrilled by the news.

“I knew you had it in you, Porpoise!” she crowed. Then she chuckled. “Mrs. Porter was none too happy about how many hits you had off her son today, let me tell you. Practically made me deaf in one ear.”

“Yeah, I heard her,” Porpoise said. They were having a celebratory sundae at Mel’s Malt Shoppe. “I hope he doesn’t get into any trouble. It was just practice. He got grounded a couple times in Pee-Wee.” He licked his spoon clean and wished he could lick the dish, too, but Gram would have a fit. Still, it was a good day when a guy got a sundae and Boston Cream Pie.

Maggie scoffed. “Grounding the boy won’t do any good,” she said. “What he needs is more practice is all. Speaking of which, how about I toss you a few when we get home?”

Porpoise groaned. “I don’t know, Gram, I’m not feeling so good.” He rubbed his belly for good measure.

Gram cut her eyes at him, but didn’t argue. She took him home and before she left, stuck her head into the kitchen to let Thea know he was feeling poorly. There was no Boston Cream Pie for the boy that night.

The day of the game against the Ravens dawned cold and overcast.

“No rain-out, no rain-out,” Maggie muttered as she drove over to pick up the boy. She half expected to find her grandson still in bed or watching TV, but he was suited up and waiting at the end of the drive for her, his glove dangling from the end of his bat.

“Gram, guess what?” Porpoise said as he climbed into the car.

“What?” Maggie had seldom seen the boy so excited. Maybe her enthusiasm for the game was rubbing off on him after all.

“Mom, Dad and Grandpa are coming to the game!” he cried. “They’re gonna come after chores, but they promised, they did.”

“Why that old coot ...” Maggie said, “I mean, your grandpa never said a word about it. That’s wonderful, Porpoise!”

“Mom even said she’d sit in the stands,” the boy went on.

“Grand! They all can sit next to Mrs. Porter and me. I’ll be sure to save room.”

“Okay, Gram. I just hope Mrs. Porter isn’t too loud.”

“Well, I wouldn’t count on that ...”

“How come she’s always so mad?” Porpoise asked. “It’s just a game.”

Maggie bristled at the phrase, but held her tongue. “Hard to say,” was all she said. “I guess she and Coach Porter have high expectations for Justin.”

“High expec— I dunno, all I know is that Justin always cries before a game. He cries afterward, too, if we lose.”

Maggie took her eyes off the road and glanced at her grandson, who was picking a thread from his glove. She frowned and turned back to the road ahead. By the time they pulled into the parking lot, the sun had come out. It was a great day for baseball.

It was the top of the fourth and Bobby Meisner’s turn at bat. The Ravens were giving the Wombats a game; it was all tied at 3-3. Porpoise had just handed Bobby a wad of paper towels to wipe the vomit from his face. At least Coach had put a barf bucket in a corner of the dugout, but it was filling up fast. Porpoise glanced out into the stands and saw his family shuffle to their seats behind home plate. They were late, but at least they were there. Porpoise ignored his mother’s frantic waving. Waving at your mom wasn’t cool. He saw Mrs. Porter smile up at his mom, then turn back to the field, scowling. Justin wasn’t having the greatest day. The Ravens already had 10 hits against him.

“I wish Coach would bring in Joey Wolski next inning,” Graham Kolsky whispered to Porpoise, even though he knew better. The Ravens were their biggest rivals; no way would Coach take his own son out of a game against them, especially the first game of the season.

“Yeah,” Porpoise said, “but Justin would have to fake a broken arm or something.”

Kolsky hooted. “Nah, it’d have to be two broken arms and one broken leg!”

“Full body cast,” Jimmy Olson whispered from the other side of the bench. Kolsky had just taken a swig of Gatorade and it shot out of his nose. Bobby Meisner would have been barfing, but he was safe on first with a single. It was Porpoise’s turn at bat.

“Just a hit,” Coach said as Porpoise headed out to the plate. “A line drive to the pitcher’s breadbasket.”

Did Porpoise hear right? He came to a dead halt, head down.

Coach pounded his hands together a few times. “Ha! Just kidding, boy,” he said. “Just show us some bat.”

Slowly, Porpoise made his way, trying to shake off the words. He pounded the dirt from his cleats with the bat and squared up. He was so distracted he didn’t hear his grandmother whistling or his mother cheering.

Once. Twice. The ball whumped into the catcher’s mitt.

“C’mon, Lard Butt, swing already!” The voice came from the Ravens’ dugout. Porpoise hoped his grandmother couldn’t hear it.

“Whassamatta, Girly Boy?” the catcher muttered under his breath as he threw the ball back to the pitcher. “Them was puffballs. The good stuff’s comin’.”

“Screw you,” Porpoise said, with a little thrill. He’d heard his uncle say it once to a guy who’d called him a fag. It was the closest he’d ever come to swearing. He didn’t like it. His bat circled the air over his right shoulder.

Suddenly the ball was there, right where it shouldn’t be and Porpoise swung. He swung hard. He was about to head to first when he heard the sickening sound of air being sucked out of a void and saw the pitcher double over.

“Asshole,” the catcher swore as he was threw off his mask and ran out to the mound. It seemed like everyone was running out there. Porpoise didn’t know what to do. He looked to Coach, but just shot Porpoise an incredulous look before he tore off to the mound. Porpoise looked up into the stands, but no one was paying him any attention. He shrugged and walked to first base. It was all he could think to do.

The Ravens pitcher only had the wind knocked out of him, but was taken out of the game, just in case. Porpoise was glad the boy was okay, but Porpoise felt like he had a big target on him every time he stepped out onto the field.

“Watch out you don’t get beaned at bat,” Kolsky said. “The new guy might be aiming for you.”

“I didn’t mean to hit him,” Porpoise said for the millionth time. Kolsky winked. “Doesn’t anyone believe me around this place?” At least Coach seemed to believe him, but then he kind of had to after what he’d said. Porpoise wished the game was over and he could just go home. He wasn’t having any fun at all.

Finally, it was the bottom of the ninth. It was five-all. The Ravens had a man on third and their last batter, a lefty, had two strikes on him. Justin Porter was on the mound. Even in center field, Porpoise could hear Mrs. Porter screaming instructions from the stands. He could even hear his grandmother yelling. He guessed it was pretty exciting, but he found himself rooting against his teammate and his team. If Justin got the man out, they’d have to play overtime. If the Ravens managed to get the guy on third home, though, they could finally all go home.

Coach Porter, expecting a bunt, waved the field in closer.

Justin let the ball go and Porpoise saw the batter hold the bat parallel to his body. It was a perfect bunt. The ball struck the end of the bat and started bouncing between the mound and first. By the time Justin had corralled it, the third base runner was halfway home and everyone in the park was on their feet. Bobby Meisner, the catcher, had his body stretched out between the runner and the plate, his toe just touching the rubber, his glove ready for Justin’s throw.

From his vantage point, Porpoise couldn’t see what happened. It looked like the runner was safe, just like the ump called it, but he couldn’t be sure. He started trotting to the infield just as Mrs. Porter, screaming bloody murder at the ump, came sailing out of the stands. It was like she was doing a high dive. One second she was standing next to his grandmother and the next she was flat on her face in front of the bleachers, still screaming “He was out! He was out!”

The only other sound was Justin crying. Most stood with their hands over their mouths, shocked, while Mrs. Porter, the contents of her purse strewn over the hard-packed clay, scrambled to her feet and tried to scale the fence between her and the umpire. Suddenly a gasp went up and the spectators turned their backs on the embarrassing sight and moved as one toward something else in the stands.

Porpoise scanned the crowd. He saw his mother and his father; his father was bent over and his mother was standing behind him, her hands covering her mouth. He couldn’t see his grandmother or his grandfather, then there he was, standing and lifting. The crowd parted as he hurried down the aisle, carrying the limp body of his wife. Porpoise threw down his glove and tore off toward them.

“It was a mild heart attack. She’s going to be fine,” Dolan McAllister said the second he walked into the hospital waiting room. He looked gray around the gills and older than Porpoise had ever seen him.

It had been a long, tense wait for the news. Porpoise had never seen his father cry until Dolan came over to hug him to his big barrel chest. The sudden realization that his dad was a son, like Porpoise himself, made his stomach feel like it was sitting in his chest. He stared and stared until his dad was all cried out.

“Can we see her?” Porpoise asked.

His grandfather picked him up like he was a little boy. It felt good.

“Not just yet, son,” Dolan told him. “Your mom and pop can look in on her, but it’ll be a couple of days until she’s ready for visitors.” He nodded at Brian and Thea who left to see Maggie.

Porpoise clung to the big man’s neck. “I hate baseball,” he whispered in his granddad’s ear.

“It was just a really bad day, son.”

“No, I hate it to bits!” Porpoise insisted, clinging more tightly. “People are mean.”

Dolan held him away and peered at the boy’s face, then let him slide to a stand. He went to sit on one of the worn, bandage-colored couches, pulling Porpoise along with him.

“Competition does strange things to people, boy,” Grandpa said, shaking his head.

“Why do they even bother playing?” Porpoise asked. “That’s what it’s supposed to be, you know, play. And fun, it’s supposed to be fun! Doesn’t anyone ever have any fun when they play?” Porpoise scrunched up next to his grandfather and leaned against his chest. Dolan was quiet for a good long time.

“Yes, Porpoise, they do have fun. At least some do,” he finally said. “And I’ll tell you what. Next Saturday, after your grandma is safe at home, I’ll take you somewhere you can see it for yourself, maybe join in if you want to.”

Porpoise hung his head. “Can’t,” he said. “I have a game.”

“To heck with the game,” Dolan growled.

“But Gram ...”

“Don’t worry about your grandma. I’m pretty sure she’ll understand.”

He slept for most of the long drive, but when he woke up in his grandfather’s big, ancient Oldsmobile, Porpoise recognized where they were.

“We going to Uncle Stan’s?” he asked. He sat straighter and rubbed his eyes. The houses were tall and close together, the front yards tiny. Uncle Stan was really his great Uncle Stan, his grandfather’s brother, who still lived in the house they’d grown up in.

“Yep, he’s expecting us.”

Porpoise liked Uncle Stan. He did magic tricks sometimes and he always had a lot of treats. They turned off the narrow street and pulled around to the alley behind the house and parked. The yards were bigger back there and Porpoise saw kids running down the alley. Uncle Stan came out to greet them.

“Gerald McAllister, you get bigger every time I see you!” Uncle Stan never, ever called him Porpoise.

“Yeah, and you get uglier every time I see you,” Dolan said, hugging his brother.

Stan ruffled the boy’s head. “Whoa, lookie here,” he cried, pulling something from behind Porpoise’s ear. “The boy’s growing quarters in his ears! Have you ever seen the like?”

Porpoise laughed and took the offered quarter; he liked this particular trick. Just then a group of kids came running down the alley, laughing and fake-punching each other.

“Where are they going?” Porpoise asked his uncle.

“They, my young friend, are going to play the best game ever invented,” Stan said.

Porpoise squinted up at him. “Yeah? Is it any fun?”

“Fun! Fun? Why, it’s so much fun that your grandpa and I used to play the very same game. It’s so much fun that mothers don’t see their kids ‘til they round ‘em up for supper, way after dark.”

“What is it?” The little group had begun to follow the gaggle of kids down the alley, which opened up on a vacant lot. “They’re gonna play here?” Porpoise said. Looking at all the junk piled up here and there and the broken glass twinkling in the sunlight, he knew his mother would never let him play in such a place.

The kids were seemingly milling about until one of them picked up a stick and started swinging it like a bat.

“Oh,” Porpoise said, “it’s baseball.”

By now they were close enough to see that, instead of bases, there was an old tire, a hubcap and even a flat inner tube instead. Home plate looked like an old raincoat. The “ball” appeared to be unraveling until a kid pulled some tape out of his pocket and wound it around the sphere.

“No, not baseball, Gerald,” Stan said. “Stick Ball, the greatest game on earth. These are the true Boys of Summer.”

“Some of them are girls,” Porpoise pointed out.

“Indeed they are!” his grandpa said, gripping his grandson’s shoulder.

“They don’t have enough kids for two teams,” Porpoise said. “They don’t even have enough for one team!”

“Nope, they sure don’t,” Uncle Stan said. “But they don’t care. Three, four … heck, even one person can play if they want. It’s for fun, Gerald. For fun.”

Porpoise cocked his head and watched as the motley crew played. They laughed a lot. They rolled on the ground (his mother would definitely kill him), they played wherever they wanted.

“They probably wouldn’t let me play,” Porpoise said wistfully.

“Oh, I don’t know, kid, I bet they would,” Uncle Stan said.

And as if Uncle Stan was working some of his magic, one of the boys started trotting out toward them.

“Hey, kid!” he yelled. “Wanna play?” He was looking right at Porpoise.

“Go ahead,” Grandpa said. “It’s okay.” He gave his grandson the slightest shove and Porpoise took off.

“Have fun, boy!” Grandpa yelled after him. Then, more quietly, “Make sure to have fun.”

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