Aug 12, 2015, 06:40AM

Bottom Feeders

A rookie’s bittersweet notes on improving.

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As a 61-year-old light-hitting rookie in the St. Jude’s Old-Timers Softball League—and the only Jew on my team to boot—I never complained when the captain, Joe Sheehan, had me batting second-to-last, as he did every game for the first third of the season. I was 14th-up on the one occasion we had our full squad of 15 players; I got only two at-bats that game. Then as always the batter before me was Chris Lazzeri, our shortest player; while white-haired Captain Joe, our oldest, altruistically brought up the rear. The record would show that Captain Joe, despite the stiffness of his stork-like trot, was a better hitter than Chris and me both, in every offensive category. But what would the record show in a contest that pitted me against little Chris? Wasn’t I the better hitter, if only by a hair? But as a rookie, and the only Jew, I had to keep mum.

And then I finally got the promotion. It was a Friday night at Brookside Park, our second meeting with St. Ignatius, our ninth official game overall. We were up at bat in the top of the third, with a runner on second and nobody out, when Captain Joe looked down the bench and roused me from my seat with these words: “You’re up after Rojas, Howard.”

“I am?” I said from the far end of the bench. Until that moment, little Chris, with his hair and mustache the color of pewter, had always followed Alex Rojas. In my utter confusion, I thought Captain Joe had made a last-minute change to the line-up and not told anyone. Or he was making the change right now, in mid-stream. I had actually taken a peek at the line-up card moments before the first pitch in order to see which innings I’d be out in the field: hard-living Bobby Columbo and I routinely shared duties at second base. He usually worked the odd innings, while I took the even. Sure enough, Captain Joe had me down for the second, fourth, and sixth innings.

That was all I needed to know; I gave the card no further attention. I took it for granted I was in the number 13 hole; our squad that night was 14 strong. I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.

But now even little Chris confirmed the words of Captain Joe. “You’re up next,” he said, giving me the nod. I searched his face for signs of hurt, but detected nothing—he hid it well. Nor did I pick up any hurt in his voice. Had the shoe been on the other foot, would I have covered up as nicely?

The line-up card, made out in blue pen in Captain Joe’s scribbled hand, and weighted down by his ring of glinting keys, lay face up on the end of the bench farthest from me. As I walked past it on my way to pick out a bat, I paused to take a closer look at the column of names running down its length. Only then did I truly believe in my promotion. I didn’t know how I had missed it the first time, but there was my name, Kaplan, in the 12th position, three up from the bottom, with Lazzeri behind me, in 13th place. A small step, but a cherished one. I took my place in what would have been the on-deck circle if there had actually been a circle in the dirt. Alex Rojas, with his herky-jerky swing, was at the plate. He always gave me a hearty greeting, sticking his fist out for me to pound with mine, so I felt somewhat guilty now as I regarded him critically from the on-deck position. If his on-base percentage was better than mine, it was only because he drew more walks. As the season progressed, would I move up ahead of him in the order as I had just now leapfrogged over little Chris? To be among the bottom three in the line-up is like being in the dungeon. I’d advanced one place, but I was still in the dungeon. Did Alex realize how lucky he was not to be in the dungeon, or was he too close to its festering exhalations to draw real comfort from being above ground?

Once again, he worked out a base on balls. It was a regular habit with him, and some of the men cheered for him on the principle that a baserunner is a baserunner however he gets on; but personally I saw this habit as starkly at odds with his manly fist-pumping and five o’clock shadow. On his way to the base on balls, he took two called strikes right down the middle. He was looking for the walk. Say what you will about little Chris and me, the two dungeon hitters, we don’t look for walks. We take our cuts, for better or worse.

So now we have men on first and second, nobody out, and unlike Alex Rojas, who never takes the bat off his shoulder, I swing at the first pitch I see and promptly pop it up to the shortstop for an infield fly. “Infield fly, batter is out!” shouts the umpire with gusto, delighted to have something to do besides call balls and strikes. And I was so keen on making good in the wake of my sudden promotion. I even thought I’d heard a special note in our shortstop Brian Cuzak’s voice (“Come on, H!”), as if in recognition of my advancement.

My disappointment is all the deeper when little Chris immediately follows with a clean single up the middle, scoring the lead runner. Do my pricked-up ears deceive me or is the cheering for Chris more raucous than it would have been if he hadn’t just been handed a demotion? As it turns out, this RBI single marks the emergence of a brand-new Chris Lazzeri. Over the next four games, he goes on a hitting tear the likes of which none of us ever thought possible from him. Almost every batted ball of his finds a hole, and although he never hits the ball far, or even particularly hard, his batting average during this stretch hovers near one thousand. It’s downright uncanny. His every at-bat becomes an event, with Tommy Matola, our clean-up hitter, who easily doubles Chris in weight, rising heavily from the bench on his two rum knees to lead the men in a lusty chant of “MVP, MVP!” The star of the hour eats it up, even the rough teasing the men go in for over one of his signature items: a skimpy pair of white silk shorts that show his thighs to an inordinate degree. “Your shorts are on backward!” Tommy exclaims as Chris steps into the batter’s box, and Chris can’t stop his hand in time from probing the front of the silky whites. He jerks it back, but too late—everyone has seen. The men guffaw, led by Tommy, and Chris laughs with them, with a wry shake of the head.

The shorts become an in-house topic in online postings during the week. “Great win tonight, boys. Gotta bronze those white shorts of Chris’s after the season.” “You really came up big for us tonight, Chris. Put those shorts on eBay.” “No, Chris, whatever you do, do not sell the shorts! Whatever you can get for them on eBay, we will match.” “All St. Clement players to wear white shorts for the remainder of the season. In Chris’s size only.” “Chris’s shorts headed for Cooperstown. Stay tuned.”

Chris, for his part, responds in kind. “Told the wife not to put the shorts in the wash. Shorts are now standing up by themselves.” “May need to miss next Tuesday’s game. Have instructed my son to bring you the shorts.” “In discussions with Nike over a new line of shorts.” “Cooperstown called. The shorts got in on the first ballot.”

Then comes a post in which he attempts to parlay his newfound popularity: “I’m going to the batting cages tonight—Gappers & Moonshots, which is just off Route 22. Helps me stay loose. Anyone want to join me?” I watch to see if he gets any takers, but the only response to his naked appeal is a smattering of jokes from Tommy and others. “Chris barred from Gappers & Moonshots last night. White shorts ruled in violation of dress code.” “Chris returned to cages in decent attire, but closed the place early. Hit a screaming liner back to the machine and busted it.”  “Chris the Destroyer now barred for life from Gappers & Moonshots.” “In light of Lazzeri’s recent property damage at well-known batting cages, league officials are demanding a urine sample.”

My guess is that Chris goes alone to the cages. His naked appeal to the guys has flopped, but he covers over his private hurt by holding up his end of the badinage. “Have made full restitution to Gappers & Moonshots. All charges dropped.” “Gappers & Moonshots to reopen today. I will be on hand for the ribbon-cutting.” “League officials have cleared me to play. Urine sample tested negative.”

Do I feel sorry for Chris, or secretly pleased? During his torrid batting streak, which kicked in with his demotion, I, who switched places with him, immediately began to stagnate. Over the next three games Chris amassed nine hits, while I in that same period notched only one. After those three games it came as no surprise when Captain Joe, when we next played again, called my name out after Lazzeri’s when reading out the line-up card. Once the game started, when no one was looking, I checked the line-up card myself to make sure I had heard him right. There was no mistake. I had been demoted. I was batting second-to-last again, one behind Chris, who proceeded to rap out three more singles to shouts of “White-Shorts!” while I took an O-fer.

Did Brian Cuzak, our number-two hitter (and thus my mirror image in the line-up), perceive my chagrin at being usurped? Later that night, out of the blue, I find a note from him posted on my screen. “Hi, Howard. Thanks for all your positive comments. I appreciate the attention to details you pick up. Your head is always in the game. Huge thanks for your back-ups to throws efforts.”

It’s true that my head is always in the game. I may not hit, but I know what’s going on. In the absence of more sustaining nourishment, I gladly take the offered crumb. Before the night is over, I read the little missive 15 times. Meanwhile Chris comes in for another effusive round of raillery from Tommy and company. His recent disappointment at finding himself alone at the batting cages is forgotten in the welter of this new batch of postings. He responds by promising to supply beer for a get-together in the parking lot at Brookside Field following our next game. “It’s on me, boys.” The next 24 hours see a flurry of inter-team jocularity on the subject of the promised beers, culminating with Chris declaring, “Tomorrow night’s game will be another blow-out for St. Clement’s. You heard it here, boys.”

Spirits flag the following day when the game is called on account of rain. Chris attempts to rally the troops—“Have no fear, boys, the beer is on ice!”—but aside from a couple of listless ripostes, the boys for once are oddly quiet. The make-up game, played two nights later, is a depleted affair, at least on our side, with only nine of us reporting for duty. Among the missing are Captain Joe and Chris’s patron, Tommy Matola. But I have a patron, too, it would seem, in the person of shortstop Brian Cuzak, who is taking over as captain for the night. Perhaps from inexperience, he neglects to announce the batting order, and not until the second inning, when Alex Rojas is at the plate, and Chris Lazzeri, as I believe, is due up next, does it come to my attention that it’s I who follow Alex. It’s little Chris who sidles over to inform me of this fact. “You’re on deck,” he says, “and I’m after you.”

He’s right, as I see on checking the card scribbled over with nine names. For this one evening, thanks to my patron, whose note to me was such a comfort, I’ve jumped ahead of Chris again. I wind up with two singles in what proves a losing effort, while Chris goes hitless in three at-bats.

After the game, he stands forlornly in front of the open hatch of his car at the upper end of the parking lot. His wife, Susan, with her tight blonde coif, stands beside him on his right, while Paul, his 20-year-old son, short like Chris, flanks him on the left. At their feet is an open cooler piled high with bottles of beer. In the fading light, the three Lazzeris make a cheerless picture, like three kids stuck behind a dead lemonade stand. Will no one have a bottle of beer on this hot July night? Apparently not. I scurry to my car and quickly get in. But I have to pass him on the way out. Impossible to pretend not to see him. He calls to me through my open window.

“Howard, how about a beer for the road?”

Would it kill me to take the beer? I don’t drink beer; it bloats my stomach. But so what?  I could bring it home and store it in the basement refrigerator for the next time my brother-in-law wants a cold one. I glance at Chris’s wife and son. Their awkward smiles are pleading with me. Am I really going to disappoint them, and embarrass Chris more than he’s been embarrassed already? Apparently so.

“Thanks,” I say, waving him off, and slowly continue on my way.


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