At 60, I am the new boy here, the unknown joiner of an established group. It’s a Friday night in late April, a few minutes past seven, and I’m standing alone on the edge of a crowd of fleshy-faced he-men who briefly eye the skinny-looking stranger in their midst. Nobody bothers to wear a nametag. The men all stand around conversing in cozy cliques of three and four, and now and then a husky laugh erupts from one of the cliques.
I’ve made the gaffe of wearing a tie. Of the 70 or 80 men in the room, nobody else is wearing a tie. Open-neck sport shirts are the limit of formality, with cotton-knit polos in the tier right below. But far outnumbering either of these, in a class at the bottom of the heap, are the workaday sweatshirt, t-shirt, and jersey, none of which take a tie, of course. A majority of the cliques consist entirely of some combination of these last three garments.
Mounted high on the room’s front wall is a copper cross with beveled edges. Our meeting place is the cafeteria of a Catholic school for boys, and it hits me now that I’ve stumbled into a den of Catholic working men. They look so at-home that I imagine them all as having once eaten in this lunchroom as students, with the same long tables stretching its length—tables topped in yellow Formica, with built-in benches topped in the same. The terrors of school are with me again. It’s my very first day of junior high, and I see right off that my clothes are all wrong.
There’s also the matter of where I live. If the question arises, what do I say? Do I come right out and mention the town whose name in these parts is a byword for money? I feel like Little Lord Fauntleroy on a slumming visit to the servants’ quarters. I peer into each of the fleshy faces to see if I recognize any of the workers who’ve called at our front door gripping a toolbox while scraping their boots on the welcome mat. To all these workers I extend a hand in friendly greeting over the threshold, but as soon as I’m alone again I wash the hand well.
What possessed me to join this group and throw in my lot with a bunch of strangers? Wasn’t I happy with what I had had for the last 20 years, and continue to have? On Sunday mornings in well-heeled Summit, the town whose name has the ring of money, I meet my neighbor outside his manor (done in the Dutch-colonial style) and stroll with him over to our local park for a serious game of pickup softball, with 15-20 other regulars. I’m one of the gathering’s recognized veterans. Of the active players, only three others have more seniority in the group than me. When I take the field at the start of a game, I trot out to third as a matter of course. My glove has earned me the right to this spot, but also my status as an old campaigner. Nowhere else would I get this respect; or so I reflect when I’m stung by envy of the guys among us who play in real leagues and who casually discuss these leagues in my hearing, like high school boys discussing a party. I’m never invited to join these teams, for which I blame my woeful hitting. And so, throughout my 40s and 50s, I sought contentment in my Sunday game, making all the plays at third while trying to find my way at the plate.
Then, last season, out of the blue, two of our regulars, Herman and Fred, made an announcement to all the guys that the St. Jude’s Old-Timers Softball League was seeking new players 30 and over for next year’s season, starting in May. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who thought it a bit curious that an invitation of any sort should come from Herman and Fred, who never sit with the group on Sunday but take up quarters on the opposite bench. Is it class resentment that keeps them apart? They are not of hoity-toity Summit up on its hoity-toity hill. They come from somewhere down below, deep in the thickets of aluminum siding, where neighbors post signs saying: CURB YOUR DOG. Do the two of them feel like traitors to their class by mixing with us in our Sunday frolics? They are both habitually late, and I think I know the reason for it. By arriving after the start of the game they miss the general throw-around, thereby limiting their fraternization with the enemy.
Of all the guys, I alone filled out a player’s application for the St. Jude’s Old-Timers Softball League. The sight of that form, the day I received it, started me dreaming of a new beginning with a group of guys who didn’t know my habits. Among my normal Sunday crew, whenever I come to bat in a game, all four outfielders play me so shallow they’re practically standing on the infield dirt. If I dink one over the head of an infielder, as I’m known to do with regularity, the ball inevitably gets picked off by one of the maddeningly shallow defenders. Let any one of my other teammates dink one over the head of an infielder, and the ball drops in for a hit every time. My luck would change in new surroundings, or so I let myself believe. Opposing outfielders, with nothing to go on, would have no choice but to give me some room, leaving me free to dink with impunity. Instead of my current measly production of a hit every four or five at-bats, I would become a singles machine, to the tune of two or three per game. As a 60-year-old rookie in the league, I might even win the batting crown, to the utter shock of the Sunday crew, who would hear all about it from Herman and Fred.
I submitted my application to the league while deep in the spell of this wishful thinking. With that decisive, regrettable step, I made my bed, as the saying goes. The league approved my application and added my name to its list of players, and although my heart was no longer in it, backing out was not an option. I couldn’t have it going around the league that the guy from Summit had taken scared.
And so, through no one’s fault but my own, here I am on the edge of this crowd, with not a soul I know in sight, waiting for my team assignment. A fellow named Ed Phelps, secretary of the league, wrote to me personally to urge my attendance, and now as I ponder who in this place looks, and acts, the most secretarial, a roly-poly guy in his 50s comes up to me and sticks out his hand.
“I’m Jim O’Brien, commissioner of the league. You must be one of our rookies,” he says. As if in token of his high position, he’s wearing a bright-red baseball cap.
I shake his hand and give him my name, but refrain from telling him where I’m from. We both have a smile but his is a smirk that may be another token of office, to go with the pomp of his bright-red cap. “How did you hear about the league?” he says. I’m pleased to be able to drop the names of my two talented contacts right at the outset. “I play ball with Herman and Fred, two of your regulars, every Sunday.”
“Herman Hinckle and Fred McFadden?
“In the Sunday group, we know them better as Big Herman and Little Fred. At the end of last season they mentioned the fact that you needed players, so here I am. I wondered if they would show tonight, but so far I haven’t seen them.”
I’ve given O’Brien all that he needs. When he next runs into Herman and Fred, he’ll mention my name and our meeting tonight. “He’s thin as a rail and was wearing a tie. Is he any good?” he’ll ask with that smirk. I fear what Herman and Fred will answer, but for now I bask in the reflected glory surrounding the names of these two fine players.
No one has yet explained to me how the draft works, so while I have O’Brien here, I ask for some details. “Well,” he says, “it’s pretty straightforward. We sort each player by position, and then it’s simply the luck of the draw. There’s a pitcher draft, a first-base draft, a second-base draft, and on it goes. This way every team is assured of at least one player at every position. We also have a slugger draft. This way every team is assured of at least one power hitter as well. Herman Hinckle is in that group. Herman hits the ball a ton, as I’m sure you know from your Sunday game. Finally, we have a rookie draft. I don’t know what position you play, but tonight you’ll go in the rookie pool. And who knows, maybe by next year’s draft you’ll graduate to the slugger division.” I smile on cue, but just for a second I imagine myself in that company of heroes.
Before we part, I tell O’Brien I’d like to meet Ed Phelps. “Is he here tonight? Can you point him out?”
“There he is up front. Under the clock.”
With his wire-rim glasses, thinning gray hair, polo shirt, and trim physique, Phelps has an air of refinement about him; he could easily pass for one of my neighbors. I go up and introduce myself, this time feeling no compunction in mentioning the name of the town where I live. “Oh, sure,” says Phelps, “I’m glad you made it”; and he gives my hand a few extra pumps.
It isn’t until Phelps and I actually start talking and he gives me a thumbnail history of the league that I realize each of us is mistaken about the other. Despite his looks, and title of secretary, Phelps, it turns out, is one of the guys. Meanwhile Phelps is under the illusion that I’m just one of the guys as well, despite the fact that I live where I do. This all becomes apparent to me when I ask him how long he’s been playing in the league, and he tells me his playing days are over.
“I’m 63, I’ve had my time,” he says with a sigh of resignation. “The league has changed since I first joined; it used to be more of a social thing. After a game, no matter who won, both sides would get together for a cookout and lots of drinking in the parking lot. Some of the wives would come as well, and players from other teams in the league. There was plenty of food to go around, and always plenty of beer. The cops were all friends of ours and left us alone, but then a few years ago we got some complaints, and the township’s director of parks, a real jackass, banned the drinking, and that was that. The cookouts stopped, and we lost some players. For years and years we had 12 teams, but now we’re down to only eight. The league is still a lot of fun, but for some of us old-timers it isn’t the same.”
In secret shame, I feel only relief on hearing the good old days are gone and with them many of the hardened carousers. In the clash between the town and players my inmost sympathies lie with that pillar, the much-reviled director of parks. I can only hope that Phelps doesn’t notice my flinch on his calling the man a jackass. So deep is my identification that I feel the word applies to me.
I now begin to understand Herman and Fred’s recruiting efforts as driven by the larger group’s struggle for survival. In desperation the two of them cast their net wide, and all they managed to snag was me, an aging player of the chattering class. I see my involvement as symptomatic of Phelps’ lament of a league in decline.
And now begins the main event, presided over by O’Brien, who stands relaxed at the front of the room, microphone in hand. Facing him, gathered around three sides of a table, sit the eight captains of the league’s eight teams, like Mafia chieftains awaiting their orders. Every few minutes a red plastic beer cup travels around the table of eight, and as each man takes the cup from his neighbor (neither one of them saying a word), he reaches inside with averted eyes and pulls out a tiny white strip of paper, folded in half for the added drama. Holding this little strip by its edges, just as you would a Chinese fortune, he reads out loud the name written on it and promptly passes it up to O’Brien, who announces the name to the room at large: “At shortstop, Biff Barnes to St. Vincent De Paul.” Each of the teams, like the league itself, is named in honor of a Catholic saint.
Arrayed on the wall behind O’Brien, below the copper crucifix, is a set of eight team charts still in the making, each one showing a sketch of a diamond labeled with the name of one of the teams. The strip of paper with the name Biff Barnes, once O’Brien reads it out, is handed by him in turn to Phelps, who walks with it over to the appropriate chart and pins it up in the shortstop position.
One of the captains is a fit-looking guy in a Yankees cap with the bill turned backwards. I suspect him of being one of those baldies who hide their condition by shaving their heads. Not a single hair peeks out from underneath the rim of his cap, which comes down low and tight on his skull, further pointing up his condition. To go with the navy-blue of his cap, he’s wearing a t-shirt of navy-blue with the name De Rosa embossed on the back in bright white letters forming an arc.
Captain De Rosa is not a couth man. From where I stand, I see him in profile. He is chewing a wad of gum at the table, and while I’m watching his jaws go at it, I see him furtively go to his mouth, discreetly remove the wad of gum, and stick it under the lip of the table, all in one motion. Then, with studied nonchalance, he casts his eyes around the room and meets those of the only man present wearing a tie. As we stare at each other I’m suddenly embarrassed, as if I’m the one who’s been caught red-handed. It’s not my hands but my face that betrays me. I’m wearing the scandalized look of a man for whom the wedging of gum is a crime. I can see that wet little gob under the table in all its naked loathsomeness; can see it lying in wait for the day the hand of a schoolboy recoils at its touch. This poor guy De Rosa has no luck. Had anyone else in the room locked eyes with him, he would have been given a wink and a smile. Instead he gets Lord Fauntleroy, who shoots him a look of outraged disgust.
I’ve never been able to let go of trifles, or what most people would think of as trifles. If I soon let go of Captain De Rosa, it’s because I get myself in a fix with the potential to pit the whole room here against me.
At 8:15 by the clock on the wall we break for a meal of pizza and beer, at a cost passed on to the guests up front as an admissions charge of five bucks a head. The man who took our money at the door was also offering tickets for sale from a big red roll’s worth lying next to his till. When asked about the roll of tickets, the man kindly explained to me that there was to be a drawing tonight for half the tickets’ sales receipts. The purchase of a ticket, which cost a dollar, entitled the bearer a chance at the jackpot. One could buy a single ticket or as many as one wished. Or one needn’t enter the drawing at all.
I bought one ticket and put it in a pocket, without giving the matter a whole lot of thought. I only bought it to humor the seller, a white-haired man in an old blue sweatshirt. “All it takes is one,” he had said as he tore mine off from the big red roll.
And now, as we’re sitting down to our slices at the long yellow tables in the middle of the floor, O’Brien, who’s seized the mike again, reminds us all of the “50-50,” whose winner, he promises, will soon be announced. “So nobody here should leave,” he warns. “I’m told by our man Joe, who took all your money, that we have a good-sized pot this year. Good luck to you all, except our rookies”—he flashes his smirk as he surveys the crowd. “Any rookie who wins the pot, has to return it—you got that, rookies? All right, then, please go back to your steaks, and thank you all for your attention.”
His threat to the rookies is meant as a joke, but this is a joke that gives me a turn. When I bought my ticket I never considered the possibility of winning the drawing, but now I see what a curse that would be, and not just because of my rookie status. To be a rookie—and from Summit—would earn me the hatred of every man present. Please, God, let me not win the 50-50. Please, God, let it be somebody else. I fish my ticket out of my shirt pocket for one brief instant and give it a glance. Other men are doing the same, but they have links of multiple tickets that dangle in a flutter of red from their hands.
Ten minutes later, O’Brien returns with the official results of the 50-50. “I have in my hand here—listen up, ladies—the number of the winning ticket,” he says. He proceeds to intone a six-digit number—then waits for the happy shout from the victor. When no such shout is immediately forthcoming—only the rustle and riffle of tickets—O’Brien scans the crowd impatiently. After a pause, he repeats the number—and once again he scans the crowd. Some of the men have put on glasses to read their tiny ticket numbers, but the only sound now is these glasses snapping shut. The cry of triumph is not forthcoming.
“Did somebody duck out early?” says O’Brien. “Is there someone out in the can right now?” The white-haired ticket-seller heads for the lavatory, his footsteps echoing down the hall. All is quiet in the cafeteria as the men sit waiting. Is the winning ticket in one of the stalls? But on his return the scout merely shrugs and calls to O’Brien, “Nobody’s there.”
At this point, the big chiefs gather in a body to discuss what possible steps to take next. I count an even 10 in the group: O’Brien, Phelps, and all eight captains including the wedger of gum, De Rosa. I go on eating my slice of pizza, but all the while my stomach is churning: I am the holder of the winning ticket, which sits in my shirt pocket over my heart, whose pounding no one can hear but me.
It came as a thoroughly nasty shock when the winning number was first announced and an offhand peek at my ticket revealed a match. I made not a peep on my hard yellow bench. I dropped the ticket into my shirt pocket and folded my hands sedately on the table. The other men, with their fistfuls of tickets, had checked all these and were now all watching for the lucky winner to rise to his feet. They waited and waited but nobody stood, and still they waited and watched some more. I felt the blood in my temples throbbing from the pressure of all these expectant faces. It was as if a murder had come to light and I concealed the murder weapon. I desperately wanted to ditch the ticket, to tear it up and throw it away, but with so many eyes watching I didn’t dare move.
And now, thank God, the chiefs have decided to draw a new number without delay. An ordinary brown paper bag with handles is brought in ceremoniously from the wings. The bag is filled with the loose red tickets. While one of the captains holds it open, O’Brien sticks his hand inside it and rustles the tickets like autumn leaves. At last he pulls one out of the pile, and, holding it up in front of his nose, reads out the number on it in a loud, clear voice. For appearance’ sake, I do like the others and check my ticket against the new number. The room is quiet for several moments, but then to my immense relief, a nearby voice gruffly calls out, “Got it!”
The speaker’s back, solid and broad, is squarely to me at the next table over, but now as he heavily gets to his feet and slowly turns about, I get a better look at him and see a face I recognize. It’s an old man’s sallow, hangdog face with baggy, cynical eyes. An hour ago in the parking lot, as I was just arriving, I saw this same man emerge from a van with the words ACME PEST CONTROL splashed across its side door and a license number splashed below that. Lying flat on the roof of the van was an extension ladder with orange legs. At the time I assumed he had come on business and not because he was a player like me.
And now here he is, the lucky winner, lumbering forward to collect his earnings. If ever a person was right for the part, it’s this man here in his plaid flannel shirt and Honest Laborer’s pair of old blue jeans, which serve as a check against the crowd’s envy. They’re heavy-looking and studded with rivets, worn in the seat and streaked with dirt. You see those jeans and you think of their owner trudging up to the top of his ladder to plug some colony’s hole in a gable. You don’t feel bad about his winning the pot.
It would not have been the same for me. I, like him, am wearing jeans, but mine belong to a different species. Had I been the one going up right now to claim my share of the 50-50, the sight of my jeans would only have served to inflame the envy and spite of the crowd. Where his are made for the roughest work and proudly display an American label, mine display a French label and are too fine for the lightest work. The dollar amount of the pot tonight will very likely not exceed the price I paid for these softest of pants. At the lovely New York store where I found them and where I shop on a regular basis, they hung full length from a blond wood hanger with shiny brass fittings in lieu of dull wire. It is one of those ultra-modern boutiques that adhere to the ultra-modern principle of creating space and a feeling of airiness around each garment placed on a rack. Instead of a hundred items, say, jammed altogether, they put only 20 out, giving each its due.
Yes, no point in inflaming passions for the sake of a little extra money. I did the right thing by lying low. Or did I? As Acme Man, looking self-conscious, shyly accepts a small white envelope, O’Brien, enjoying the fellow’s discomfort, draws the moment out: “Let’s hear it, ladies, for Barney Schaefer, our winner tonight of the 50-50.” O’Brien, whose smirk is gathering force, waits for the smattering of applause to cease, at which point—and just when I think I’m home free—he lets loose a zinger I don’t see coming and that catches me flush between the eyes. “My hearty thanks to the rook here tonight who ate the original winning ticket.”
No sooner is this wisecrack out of his mouth than my hand flies up before I can stop it and pats the spot where I have my ticket, like the guilty motion of a character in a farce. Falling deeper into the role, I vigorously start to rub the spot, as if I have a pain there and not the recently mentioned ticket. On Acme Man’s return to his seat, the draft resumes but I don’t even hear it. I’m thinking about O’Brien’s “joke” and just how much he really knows. Is it simply one of those wild shots that end up hitting their mark by accident, or has he taken aim with precision? What I can say for sure is that, if given the choice, I would rather be hated for winning the pot than laughed at and mocked for passing it up.
Why, oh why, did I join this league?