Monday, June 5, 2023


I don't know why but many days, as the modern world oppresses me with one thing or another, I get real live aches for some small relic of my past.

I get a craving to sit at an old-fashioned lunch counter on a vinyl stool and to read a good old-timey sports section from back when sports sections still had boxscores and standings in them.  Or I have a bit of an idea fixe and I can't get the thought of having a milk shake candy bar out of my head. Or I want a chewy fatty old corned beef sandwich, warm from the steam table with soft, caraway-seedy rye, moist and mushy.

Of late, though my client dance-card is overflowing with well-paid shimmies and dips, I've been simply burning to travel back in time five decades and visit a "smells-like-an-old-army-surplus-canvas-tent" sporting goods store. I can't seem to shake the desire to buy a new baseball glove, a can of neat's foot oil to 'break it in,' and a new Adirondack or Louisville Slugger ash-wood bat.

For many boys of my generation, Allen's was mecca.

I never did get all the butter off my fingers.

Sporting goods stores of the sort I am remembering would have a wall of gloves of all shapes and sizes. There would be kids' gloves--like my first Spalding Whitey Ford signed glove that was inherited by my little sister, Nancy, when I advanced to a Wilson, Ron Santo fielder's glove. These starter gloves were like the ones you'd see in old daguerrotypes of baseball photos. They weren't much larger than your hand itself and were plumply
padded like a cartoon character's hand. 

Nancy may still be wielding this in heaven.
Born at a different time. she might have been the first woman in the bigs.

Somewhere on the wall, usually off to one side were the ectomorphs--the long lean first basemen's gloves--looking sharp and reptilian. Next to them, their chubby endomorphic side-shows, the catcher's mitts. Fat and padded like the front seats of a Chrysler Imperial.

More of the gloves were the type I was looking for. Rawlings "Finest in the Field" Brooks Robinson models with a basketweave webbing between the thumb and index finger. That's the model my big brother Fred had. I still have his old glove somewhere, though I haven't used it for serious for four decades at least. 

I copied him one season and got one of my own. I kept that until I moved up to the apotheosis of gloves, a Wilson A2000 (it cost me $70, which was a week's pay when I was working for Frankie Moreno and Olindo Nocito in the aluminum-siding business one summer.) I gave my old Rawlings to one of my best friends, Jack, and went south to Mexico with my Wilson. When I returned to the States, it was, one end-of-school-year afternoon, stolen from my dorm room in Columbia's Johnson Hall. I still keep hoping it will turn up. I still curse the guy who stole it, though by the summer of 1977, he probably had more baseball left in him than I had in me.

I tried a thousand gloves on in stores like this. Sometimes, they were like girls you met or tried to. There would be nothing obvious about one or another, except that this was the "one," and I knew I had to have her.

My stolen Wilson A2000 was one such affair. I must have visited her every day for three weeks, riding my old bike 20 miles round trip to check in on her, hoping someone hadn't got her before me, before I mustered up the dollar bills and rolls of pennies to pay for it.

The rack or two of bats were arranged in a not-dissimilar hierarchy. The kids' bats on one rack. Short and cheap and light--they looked like one heavy fastball could snap them in two. 

The bats I looked at were polished and sleek, like Queequeg's harpoon, and with luck, as damaging to the other guys as his harpoon was to passing cetaceans. 

Bats were wooden in those days and made of ash. A blight killed all the ash trees some years ago; I don't know what they make bats of today. Except in some precincts they allow aluminum, which will always seem wrong to me, like a polyester leisure suit in a Brioni world.

The Babe, legend had it, wielded a 40-ounce bat. And nearly every store had one, if only to make mere mortals like myself feel puny. When I reached 15 years of age, I moved up to a 34-ounce bat, but by the time the season started, I realized a bat of such weight was a little more than an awful display of hubris--an affront to the ever-mighty baseball gods. I went down to my usual bat, a 32-ouncer, with a thin shaft at the knob that grew large and club-like toward the end of the weapon.

I don't know any other feeling in sport--or practically anywhere else--that compares with testing and finding the right equipment in a well-stocked sporting goods store where the help is quick to leave you alone, and even quicker to call you "sport" when it came time to check out.

There's no real point to all this today. Save to say in the modern marketing world we use the word "Experience" a hell of a lot and I'm not sure that anyone realizes what one really is. 

A website, or eating in a Chili's restaurant, or an airplane ride in a cramped seat is not an experience. Neither is applying for a job an "application experience."

An experience is putting your hands on something and seeing it somehow empower you and endow you with a touch of the divine, or if not the divine, then of Wally Bunker, who went 19-5 as a 19-year-old for the 1964 Baltimore Orioles, before he blew out his arm and wound up winning just 31 more games over the next seven seasons.

We've all had a lot of those experiences.

No comments: