Every team in the 30-and-over St. Jude’s Old-Timers Softball League is assigned one rookie in the general draft; at 61 I’m that rookie for the team now sitting in first, St. Clement, and like a recent call-up from the minors desperate to keep his spot in the “bigs,” I go the extra mile for the club. When out in the field, at second base, I sprint to back up throws to first from Brian, our shortstop, or Danny at third—unless there’s a possible force at second, in which case I’m covering that bag instead. Brian, Danny, and the rest of the infield, including our pitcher, Tommy Matola—all take note of, and applaud, my hustle. No other second baseman in the league bothers to back up first on a throw. My efforts so far have not been needed; every throw has been on target. But one of these days I’ll pick up the ball after it’s gotten past our first baseman and keep the runner from advancing to second. Such is the modest stuff of my dreams at this late stage of my softball career.
I strive to win acceptance off the field as well as on it. The week before last, in mid-July, our 70-year-old captain, Joe Sheehan, who always posts a short reminder the night before a scheduled game, appended the following appeal to the team: “One last note—I mentioned to you at end of our last game that a league-wide collection is being taken up for Ted Beckley’s children, who recently lost their mother after she was hit by a car while walking on Route 22 in Bound Brook. I’ll have white envelope on bench if you care to make a donation.”
I vaguely recalled playing against a team whose right fielder bore the name Beckley emblazoned on his shirt back—a shortish, burly, gray-haired man who cracked two doubles into the alleys. On a second reading of Captain Joe’s subtly-worded note, I gathered that the deceased woman was Beckley’s ex-wife. This was my first exposure to a ritual that was obviously dear to the men of St. Jude’s. Was Beckley aware of the plate being passed on behalf of his newly-motherless children? And what, exactly, would he do with the money—sock it away until his children were old enough to go to college, and use it then to pay their tuition? Or were “the children” merely a cover for a man who needed money to help defray the cost of his ex-wife’s funeral?
The following night, after our game, as I was changing out of my cleats, I saw the white envelope lying face down at the end of the bench nearest the plate. I rose from my seat at the opposite end and made my way toward it, walking along behind the bench. Captain Joe was standing nearby, in conversation with Phil Azzapardi, our resident slugger and number-one outfielder. I was gripping a crisp, open-faced $20 bill in the hand that was closest to Captain Joe, who was facing the bench but whose view, I feared, was somewhat obscured by Phil Azzapardi. It was essential, of course, that Captain Joe witness my donation. I’d placed myself behind the bench for just that reason. I wanted him to have a clear line of sight to the envelope at all times. With slow deliberation I picked it up and opened the flap with a crunching noise. The envelope felt thin in my hand, and now I saw why. There were only two other bills inside—a five and a 10. I’d had to miss our previous game, and it could well be that this was the second go-around for the envelope. Then again, maybe this was the entirety of the team’s contribution. In that case, Captain Joe would certainly appreciate the offering I was making. I stuffed my bill inside, making more noise than was strictly necessary, just as I do when I stuff a tip jar with a dollar bill at a food counter. My hand motion, too, was greatly exaggerated, the hand coming high up over the envelope before descending with its precious cargo. I pretended to take no notice of Captain Joe, but I was aware of him out of the corner of my eye. I felt somewhat cheated when I set down the envelope and he didn’t call out a thank you. When I stuff my dollar bill in a tip jar I like to hear a thank you from the server.
As I was driving home from the game that night, I wondered about the procedure for bringing the money to Ted Beckley. Would Captain Joe go with the team envelope to Beckley’s home and put it directly into his hands? Or did each captain go with his collection to Jim O’Brien, the league commissioner, and let him make the drop-off to Beckley? O’Brien was always ready with a quip, but for this he would put on a serious face.
A few days later, we of St. Clements were informed of a road accident affecting one of our teammates. Brendan Doyle, our quiet, likable lead-off hitter, posted the following email note on Tuesday evening at 5:48: “Guys, I’m sorry for the short notice, but I am going to miss tonight’s game. My dog was hit by a car a couple of hours ago and she is hanging on for now but we need to bring her to another animal hospital in a little bit. Good luck and see you Friday.”
Ebullient Billy Flanagan, our tall and lanky number-five hitter, dashed off a quick response at 8:40 that night: “Hope everything is OK.” This would have been shortly after our victory against St. Peter, at Brookside Park.
Tom Matola, our pitcher and clean-up hitter who has some kind of job on the docks in Bayonne, was next to weigh in, at 10:29 PM: “Sorry to hear about your dog, Brendan. Hope everything is all right.”
At 11:12 p.m. we heard back from Brendan: “Thanks, Billy and Tom. She is hanging in there. She is OK and staying at the hospital, but the next 12 hours will be crucial. So far so good.”
At 11:48 p.m., when the rest of the team was no doubt in bed, Bobby Columbo, our hard-living number-six hitter who lights up a cigarette at the conclusion of each game, offered a maudlin, drunken note in which he mistook the sex of the dog: “Poor thing. Hope he pulls through.”
I refrained from posting a comment of my own. Billy Flanagan, Tom Matola, and Bobby Columbo are established players, each with evident leadership qualities. It would look presumptuous for me, the light-hitting rookie, to add my voice to those of these veterans.
The following morning at 9:16, the stubble-bearded Mike Urbanski, a somewhat shaky utility fielder who generally bats fourth from the bottom, became the fourth man among us to address the subject of the stricken dog. It was a risky move for someone so low on the team totem pole. Is this why he’d waited till the following morning? Had he needed time to think it through? His actual message was eminently safe: “Hope everything works out OK."
After that, all was quiet for the next three hours. Did Mike see it as a comment on his lowly status that no one took up his chant? He must have felt some relief when the silence was broken by an update from Brendan at 12:27 p.m.: “Thanks, guys! Olive had a pretty good night—she is still depressed but her vital signs are OK and we think the worst may be behind us. She’s still in the hospital but her condition is stable. I’ll keep you posted—see you on Friday. P.S. I was happy to see we won!” Mike responded with a “Good to hear” at 1:39 p.m. Yes, I could well imagine his relief on not being met with total silence after putting himself on the line.
Nothing more was heard from the big boys. Had Mike Urbanski tainted the waters? At 3:22 p.m., little Chris Lazzeri, our third-from-the-bottom in the line-up, made bold to inject a note of humor into the situation: “Hey Brendan, happy to hear—sounds like she’s on the ‘road to recovery.’ Pardon the pun!”
Logic dictated that I go next, as the second-to-last in the batting order. No one could fault me now for presumption. With the big boys quiet, this was the time for all us low men to sneak in a word.
As I was mulling what to write, I found my thoughts straying to Mason, our middle-aged black lab who fritters away his summer days sprawled in our yard like a boat on its side. If I was the one who posted a note stating Mason had been hit by a car, would the big boys rush to buck me up, as they did in Brendan’s case? Would even my fellow peons respond? I imagined a curtain of silence falling, an absolute hush. Rookies are forbidden to sue for sympathy, at least in the case of dogs and cats. But what if something happened to Karen? What if she had been hit while walking on Route 22? “Guys, I’m sorry for the short notice, but I am going to miss tonight’s game. My wife was hit by a car a couple of hours ago and she is hanging on for now but we have to bring her to another hospital in a little bit. Good luck and see you Friday.” In that case, I think, even the big boys would have to respond, rookie though I be. “Hang in there, man,” Billy Flanagan would write; this to be followed by a “Sorry about your wife” from Tom Matola. And lastly, at 12:48 in the morning, this from Bobby Columbo in his cups: “Poor thing. What happened to your wife shouldn’t happen to a mutt.”
And what if Karen didn’t make it? Would our two children be in line for a league-wide donation? Was there anything in the bylaws of the league that expressly ruled out a collection on behalf of a rookie’s progeny? The board would meet to discuss the question. Certainly in light of the collection recently taken up for Ted Beckley’s offspring, it would look funny if nothing was done for mine. But did anyone even know if I had any children? All eyes would turn to Captain Joe, who would sheepishly admit that until my announcement of the accident on Route 22, he hadn’t even known I was married, never mind the question of whether or not I had children. If I’d ever brought my wife to a game, he had never noticed her. At this point Joe would excuse himself to telephone Herman Hinckle, the player from St. Emydius who’d recruited me into the league, but having no luck with the acerbic Herman (“How should I know if he has any kids?”), he’d try one of his own players, Brian Cuzak, my double-play mate at short.
“Does Kaplan have any kids, Brian?”
“Our second baseman? Whose wife just died? He’s never talked about his family, but I’ve noticed a college sticker on the back of his minivan, so that right there tells me he’s got at least one.” As it happens, Brian parks his car, a black Ford Mustang shiny as a shoe, in the same auxiliary upper lot favored by me at Brookside Field.
Joe would report back to the group that I was almost certainly the father of at least one child. That being the case, were there any objections to a collection being taken up for me by the league? He himself could vouch for the donation I had made at the time of the Beckley family’s tragedy. He had seen me stuff the envelope with his own two eyes.
At this point Len Fine, the captain of the St. Bart’s team, would speak up. The tall, regal Fine had enjoyed his status as the only Jew in the league until I came along.
“I hear the guy lives in Summit. If that’s true, he doesn’t need any financial help from us.”
Ed Phelps, the dapper little secretary of the league who had processed my application, would confirm that I’d listed a Summit address.
Jim O’Brien, the commissioner, who on draft night was often seen in Len Fine’s company, would acknowledge that although there was nothing in the bylaws that addressed this matter of league-wide collections, in his experience there had never been a collection for a rookie. His own recommendation would be to send out a condolence card and leave it at that.
And sure enough, a few days later I would get a card with a picture of a cross and angels looking down from Heaven.
I missed my chance to interject a sympathetic note of my own to Brendan Doyle about his dog. Before I could think of something to say, he posted what proved to be the final word on the subject: “Thanks again, guys. We are expecting to pick her up tomorrow morning—fingers crossed!”