After my father nearly died from a heart attack when I was around nine, he perfected the art of stationary exercise. That is to say, regardless of what physical activity he allowed himself to take part in, he taught himself to do that exercise with an absolute minimum of movement.
Once I saw him play handball against some Puerto Rican kids who were batting the ball around against the bare concrete wall in the school yard near our house. The Puerto Ricans were thin and wiry with long muscles and not a visible trace of flab. My father stepped onto their court and asked if he could play for a few minutes. The Puerto Ricans were startled. The races hardly mixed in those days, much less the generations, but they allowed my father in.
My father took position on the court and hardly moved from there. Maybe he took a loping step like a chess piece in this direction or that. But he never ran for the ball. He knew the angles and how to hit the ball just right so the Puerto Ricans would run their skinny asses all over the asphalt only to hit the ball to him just where he wanted it. He was uncanny like that and before long the Puerto Ricans would give up on him, throwing up their hands and speaking rapid-fire Spanish, not knowing how he did what he did, but unable to cope with his skill.
Growing up in New York in the early 1960s meant you were growing up with the Yankees. It was the same, or almost the same, I suppose, as growing up at the foot of Mount Olympus in ancient Greece. These were not flawed men playing a boys' game. The Yankees were chief in the Pantheon of heroes. Their names, their faces, their deeds were god-like. Mantle was Mars, war-like and strong with his 36-oz bat. Ford was Zeus, working with wisdom and guile and a sneaky fast ball to defeat the enemy. Maris. Berra. Gods.
There was a cigar and candy store two blocks away from our house. A reliquary of these gods. There they sold their images on small cards and also sold small, plastic versions of the Hall-of-Fame busts of earlier gods. You could buy these busts for $1.50 and build your own shrine. For 39-cents more you could by a little bottle of Tester’s model paint and bring these busts to life in living unshaded color, their skin orange or yellow because there was no skin-colored Tester’s.
Our lives revolved around these gods, like Ceres and Persephone, they came to life in April when the buds appeared, and they went away, they disappeared when the leaves fell in October, usually after fighting (and vanquishing) enemy gods in the World Series.
My father had an old baseball glove. A small one, with short stubby fingers, two or three shades darker than my glove, from years of use and years of oiling. On weekends he would take me into the backyard, our house separated from the neighbors’ by interwoven shrubbery and we would have a catch. Catch was the sport my father liked best. It gave him time to get out and time to call all the shots with no interruption.
He would announce a whole game while we played. “Pepitone, the batter” he would say, “And here’s the pitch, Pepi takes it outside for a ball. Oh, Joe gets under that one and pops it sky high down the third baseline.” With that he’d loft one high into the air for me to catch. “Ward, going back,” he’d announce while instructing me, “Ward circles under it and he makes the play. Pepitone is down for out number one.”
On a lazy Sunday afternoon, we could play a full ballgame this way, a game where the Yankees nearly always squeaked it out in the bottom of the 9th, with Mantle or Berra or the great catcher Elston Howard hitting a seeing-eye line drive that seemed to find a magical path around some phantom fielder’s glove. My father tossing the ball my way in tune with his announcing, me running back and forth in the too-small-yard like a field mouse then, again in time with his narrative, I’d wing the ball back to him and listen to crack into his glove, him moving hardly and inch and ready to have me once again go deep into the hole to try to toss out another player.
We would play like this for hours and a rhythm and routine would develop. Most outs involved a simple, loping “fly ball.” Still others would be Ford zinging in high hard ones and striking out opposing batters. These outs were the easy, metronomic portions of the catch. Throw, catch, throw, catch. However, that wasn’t enough of a game for my father and my father’s announcing. He wanted more. So there were the wild throws that represented base hits, liners and hard grounders. These balls were all my responsibility. My father stayed still, like an actor on a mark. Any uncaught ball was solely mine to chase after. Every base hit, every double, homer, triple, wild pitch. He’d stand and I’d pursue.
The back and forth of the ball and my father’s announcing went on for hours. The tossing and catching were as relentless as the traffic on the Major Deegan Expressway—the road that would take us from our little house to Yankee Stadium. On the way to Yankee Stadium, just a mile from the big ballpark was a blue brick low-rise building called the Stadium Motor Lodge. The O’s in name were baseballs. I always wanted to stay there. I imagined ballplayers always did when they were on the road. What with the O baseballs in the sign. Years later, after the crash of the Bronx, the Stadium Motor Lodge became the Stadium Family Center, temporary housing for homeless families. Its bricks which were once a sky blue are now grey like slate from the exhaust of the nearby highway. Today there is a rickety swing set out front. No ball player would dream of staying there now; the baseball O’s are gone as well, gone with the name change.
Every once in a while one would get away from my father and he would toss a ball high over my head or zinging hard past me. The ball would scream into the bushes and I would search for it. My father would hardly stray from his spot, though he’d take a break from his announcing and say things like, “I think it’s over to the left” or something like that. Though our yard hadn’t many bushes, the ones we did have were thick and tangled. The ground beneath them laden with mulchy old leaves and the tangle of litter. Occasionally while searching for a lost ball I would find a sodden and hardened ball lost in some other game my father and I had had. I would toss the balls into the yard, a sign of progress as I hunted for our current casualty.
“How’s it going, son?” my father would inquire from his spot. Usually I wouldn’t respond, not to his first question anyway. Being ensconced in the bushes was about the only time I didn’t have to answer to my father.