Immediately following our close-shave victory tonight over St. Michael, 11-10, we meet at third baseman Danny Beltramo’s home to celebrate our regular-season first-place finish in St. Jude’s Old-Timers Softball League. We now go into the play-off rounds as the league’s top-seeded team, and Danny has promised to host again if we end up hoisting the loving cup. I pull up in front of his property on tree-lined Berryhill Rd. in the town of Scotch Plains. The ample, two-story red-brick house has a prosperous look on its rise of green lawn with its fresh-cut smell. Little Chris Lazzeri and his wife, Susan, are struggling up the drive together, lugging a blue-sided beer cooler by its handle-ends, when I arrive with my two bottles of Prosecco in a plastic bag. I insist on taking over for Susan, whose tight blonde coif looks freshly made up. I must say I’m surprised to see her here. The last time Danny Beltramo hosted a party for the team, she was the only wife present, other than Danny’s. I found it hard to look at the stiff, fixed smile on her face as the men told their ribald stories in between gulps of beer. I thought she would’ve learned her lesson after that experience. Then again, one might say the same of me. Hadn’t I worn the same fixed smile while listening to the ribald stories of my teammates? And yet here I am again, just like Susan Lazzeri. And unlike her, I can’t steal away under pretext of helping Laurie Beltramo in the kitchen. I don’t even think the two women are friends necessarily, but being the only females they’re grateful for each other’s company in the midst of these men having their fun.
As I lift my end of the load up the drive, Chris tells me again about his ailing right throwing shoulder, as if to excuse himself for needing his wife’s help, and now my own, with the heavy cooler. “I’ve had the problem for 35 years. I hurt it playing football in high school. What I really need is a shoulder replacement. My left is actually worse than my right, so if I get the operation I would probably start with the left.”
Whenever you toss the ball around with Chris before a game, he gives you the same story about his aching shoulders. I’ve no doubt that what he says is true, but it’s also his way of excusing himself for having been relegated to the lowly position of catcher. In our league the catcher position is a kind of dumping ground for the oldest, fattest, most broken-down players. I understand Chris’s need to make excuses. I look for opportunities to let my teammates know that I’m past the age of 60, as if to excuse myself for my feeble bat.
Danny Beltramo seems genuinely pleased with my two bottles of Prosecco. “Hey, this is great,” he says. “We’ve got plenty of wine and beer, but now we’ve got something to make a toast with. Thanks, I’ll put these both on ice.”
Like the last team get-together here at the Beltramos’, we gather outside on the big open deck that extends off the kitchen at the rear of the house. I’m not the first, nor the last, to arrive; no one as yet has claimed a seat at the long glass table with wrought iron legs or on one of the inviting wicker settees. I shake the hand of all those present, making my way around the deck. When I come to slugger Phil Azzapardi, who’s busy talking to somebody else, a bottle of beer clutched to his chest, he turns and kindly throws me a bone with the noblesse oblige of the natural-born hitter.
“There he is! The hero of the game!”
The hero of the game? Hardly that. We led, 11-5, going into the final inning when St. Michael’s pounded out five more runs before we choked off the rally with an unconventional double play. Yes, I had a part in that game-ending double play, but only a part. After stepping on second base for a force, and having no chance to double up the batter, I made an accurate throw to the plate to nail the lead runner breaking from third. A good throw, a clutch throw, but not, I think, the stuff of heroes.
One of the social traditions of our league is for the opposing teams to mix after a game. Still, I’m somewhat taken aback, as I make my way around the deck, to shake the hands of two of the players we beat less than an hour ago. One of the two is the feisty little captain and starting pitcher of St. Michael’s, Vince Mabelli, who greeted my debut in the league back in May with the 50-foot-high rainmaker he gleefully reserves for all rookies. The other is his battery-mate, Charlie Chumski, one of those broken-down players whom it’s considered bad manners for an outfielder to attempt to throw out at first. At least this is true during the regular season. All such courtesies are suspended during the playoffs, or so I’ve been told by some of the veterans.
As I’m shaking hands with old man Chumski, Bobby Columbo shouts out, “Hey Charlie, tell Howie that story about the game you and your brother used to play as boys.” Bobby adds, turning to me: “Phil, his brother, pitches for St. Anne’s. Phil is the homely one, isn’t that right, Charlie?”
“Ugly as sin,” Charlie says.
“Go ahead, I don’t think Howie’s heard it before. You know the one I’m talking about.”
I think of the beefy, hard-living, fast-talking Bobby Columbo as my polar opposite. Before tonight’s game at Brookside Park, he sidled up to me with an odd proposition. “I’m really feeling flat,” he said. “I can’t wake up. Give me a sock in the jaw, Howie. Right there, man. I mean it. Give me your best shot.” He leaned in with his big fleshy face and turned his cheek. He seemed in earnest. But I saw nothing good in it. I could hurt myself, break my hand. What fun he would have telling the story over beers with his drinking buddies at the Legion. Or he might call me a pussy for not hitting him hard enough and insist that I hit him again. And what if I popped him so hard this second time that I angered the beast in him and he wanted to fight me? Who knew what to expect from Bobby Columbo?
In a calm, flat voice I said, “I’m not going to hit you, Bobby.” He seemed surprised, and disappointed. “You’re not going to hit me?” He straightened up, shrugged, and sauntered away. I noticed he did not try anyone else.
I have a pretty good feeling now that I’m not going to enjoy this “true” story Bobby Columbo is so anxious for me to hear. Sure enough, as old Charlie takes over the floor, and Susan Lazzeri discreetly slips out to help Laurie Beltramo in the kitchen, I feel myself starting to drip under the armpits when I realize he’s serving up an obscene joke. He and his brother, he says, grew up poor, without any toys, and so one of the things they did for amusement was to play a guessing game with household objects. “Phil would stick things up my ass and I would try to guess what it was. One day he sticks a lamp in there, bulb first. ‘Is that the living room lamp?’ I says. Then he sticks a bat up my ass and I know right away it’s one of our Louisville sluggers. ‘Right,’ says my brother, ‘but which Louisville slugger?’ He gives it a quarter-turn and that’s all I need. ‘The 30-ounce 1962 Mickey Mantle model No. 5542.’ Then he sticks one of those whaddyacallits up my ass—you know, the thing you use for a clogged toilet?”—and here old Chumski begins to make an up-and-down motion with one fist resting on top of the other.
I look at Chumski without saying a word. I know the object he has in mind, but acute self-consciousness prevents me from opening my mouth even after he attempts to prompt me for a second time. Finally Bobby comes in with, “Howie, you didn’t give him the line. Have you heard this joke? You’re supposed to say ‘A plunger.’ And then he says, ‘Oh, you’ve played this game before?’ You know this joke, right? Or are you just slow?” And with that, he bursts out laughing, and the other men with him.
The strong smell of meat cooking fills the night air. Our host stands round-shouldered over his large grill tucked away in a corner of the deck. He stands with his back to us, like a conductor; he waves his flipper like a baton. When the meat is done, Laurie and Susan carry it off in batches to the kitchen, and the men soon follow on Danny’s directive. I wait outside for the crowd to thin. As the men come out, each one carries a paper plate with double portions of hamburgers on buns or hot dogs on buns. I noticed the same loading-up back in late April, when the players met on “draft night” for pizza and beer in the basement cafeteria of the St. Jude Academy for Boys. The men all grabbed two slices of pizza straight from the cardboard boxes they came in. They ate them off a paper plate that that was just big enough to hold one slice but overmatched by two together. The cheesy tips drooped onto the yellow Formica of the cafeteria tables. The men didn’t care. So what if their food made contact with those old dirty tabletops? But why, even if they knew they were hungry enough for two slices, did they take the two slices right off the bat? Were they afraid of the pizza running out? (It didn’t run out.) Were they too lazy, or too impatient, to go back for seconds? Didn’t they understand that there was a price to pay for their laziness or impatience? The price was that their second slice would grow cold. Was that a matter of complete indifference to them? And now out here on Danny’s deck, I see the second hot dog on a bun, or the second hamburger on a bun, sitting in reserve on each overcrowded paper plate, and I know it’s getting cold in the coolish night air.
Of course, I can’t say anything. It would look unmanly. “Excuse me, don’t you mind that your second hamburger is getting cold?” Maybe this is the reason for the double portions in the first place—it looks manly. If that’s the case, then I fail abysmally. When I finally go in to get my food, I come back out with a paper plate on which can be seen but a single hamburger on a bun and a small helping of pasta salad. I hadn’t even known there was any pasta salad at all until I entered the kitchen and saw a big glass bowl of it sitting on the granite countertop, right next door to the platter of cooked hot dogs and hamburgers. It was fusilli pasta dressed in olive oil, with chopped black olives, green pepper, roasted red pepper, red onions, diced tomatoes, and crushed garlic. I’m the only one to emerge from the kitchen with pasta salad on his paper plate. I don’t know what is worse in the manliness test—my single hamburger on a bun or my predilection for pasta salad. And because I’ve chosen the pasta salad, I’ve brought out a fork. Even this, I feel—my use of a fork—lowers me in the eyes of the men, who plunge their hands into bowls of potato chips and pretzels when they have need of a side dish.
At least I eat my hamburger with a bun. Laurie and Susan, when they’re finally ready to eat with us men on the deck, both come out from the kitchen with a naked hamburger patty on their plates. And because picking up a greasy patty with the fingers isn’t done, they both use forks to cut their meat and bring the pieces up to their mouths. I pick up my hamburger with my hands, like the other men, even if I only have the one portion.
On the downside, both women have taken helpings of the fusilli pasta salad, like me. We’re the only three eating the pasta salad, which tastes homemade. I would like to pay my compliments to hostess Laurie, but can’t bring myself to call out the words “pasta salad” in front of the men. If one other man would join me in having the pasta salad, that would make all the difference. Not Chris Lazzeri, though—one of the other men. Phil Azzapardi? That would be the other extreme. Then there’d be no holding me back. I would sing my praises for all to hear. “Laurie, this pasta salad is amazing!”
As it turns out, even with my ladylike decisions over food, I’m not the biggest wimp at the party. I forget how the subject comes up, but after we’ve eaten and are all sitting around, Danny tells about the time he wanted to buy a John Deere hat or cap at a flea market down the Shore for $5, but Laurie wouldn’t let him. Those are his actual words—“Laurie wouldn’t let me”—spoken like a little boy denied by his mother. I have to remind myself that this is a man in his 50s speaking about his wife. He didn’t have any pasta salad; he polished off the two thick hamburgers on buns that lay side by side on his paper plate, and plunged his hand into the heaping bowls of potato chips and pretzels. And yet he makes this comment with a hurt in his voice that belies his robust appetite. He is sitting in one of the wrought-iron chairs that belong with the outdoor dining table. The chair is turned about so he can face the larger circle of guests on the deck. Laurie sits across from him on a wicker settee with Bobby Columbo, who puffs away on the stump of a cigarette.
“There’s no way he’s wearing that hat,” Laurie says, pursing her lips and shaking her head in disgust.
“I’m an accountant,” Danny explains to the men. “Sometimes you want to let loose a little, right? I think that’s why I wanted that hat.”
Laurie shudders and makes a guttural noise. In the awkward silence that follows, Bobby blows a stream of smoke out the side of his mouth away from Laurie. “Dude,” he says, addressing Danny. “You got your own car? Put the hat in there. It’s simple, Dude. She’ll never see it in there.” It’s as if he’s not even sitting next to Laurie. If he finds himself sharing the wicker settee with her, it’s only by accident. He’s like a character in a play making an aside to the audience. His advice is intended for Danny’s ears only, and Laurie for her part pretends not to hear it, just as the convention of the aside demands. He has one further bit of advice, delivered in the voice of long experience.
“You can either do good time, or bad time.” He’s looking at Danny, but the remark is meant for all us other married men, too. As for Laurie, she again shows no reaction. Bobby has just insulted her and all her sisters in marriage by alluding to wives as prison-keepers, but she obeys the convention of the aside by pretending not to hear him even when he repeats himself for good measure.
“You can either do good time, or bad time.”
I look at Laurie with her arms crossed over her chest and her face set in a scowl at Danny and wonder what it is about the John Deere hat that so upsets her. Is it because she comes from a working-class background and the John Deere emblem is a reminder of something she would like to hide? I know Danny will never get that hat and hide it in his car. The men, when they first arrived tonight, stopped and stared with covetous eyes at the size of the house and expanse of the deck and the deck’s array of furnishings; and I along with them. But now all envy is quenched from our eyes as we look from poor, beleaguered Danny with his half-hearted mustache to Laurie perched with offended dignity on her cushioned half of the wicker settee.
Not long after this I go back into the lighted kitchen to see what there is to drink. Inside I find Danny and a couple of the guys huddled around the granite island discussing a dubious decision on the part of Captain Joe in tonight’s game with St. Michael. The two guys are having a friendly disagreement when one of them accidently knocks over an open bottle of beer left standing on the granite countertop. The bottle comes down with a clank on the granite and the pale brown liquid splashes onto the floorboards. In the blink of an eye Danny lunges for the paper towel roll standing upright on its special wooden holder in the middle of the island, rips off six or seven large sheets, and pounces on the spill like a man possessed, bending all the way over from the waist, just as he does when fielding a grounder at third base. A bald spot gleams on the crown of his head. If he were wearing that John Deere hat he wanted, we wouldn’t be seeing that bald spot now. He attacks not only the puddle on the floor, but also the streaks left by the cataract on one of the lower cabinet doors. His furious speed is something to behold. Is he afraid of Laurie coming in and seeing the spill, or is he acting out of his own need to clean up messes? Whatever his reasons, it’s a sorry sight. I look at the other two men for a reaction, but it’s impossible to know what they’re thinking. Neither one meets my eye. I quietly turn and retreat to the deck, without the drink I’d come in to get.
On my return, the feisty Vince Mabelli is holding forth with a story about a hardball team he plays on with our own Phil Azzapardi, ensconced in one of the wicker armchairs grouped around the deck. Vince is complaining about the captain of the team, a big heavyset guy named Anthony, who takes the game too seriously for Vince’s taste, and who carried things so far during a recent game that Vince was moved to shout, “You’re all a bunch of idiots on this team!” Anthony later came up to Vince and asked him meekly, “Vince, were you talking at me?” Vince rounded on him. “Yeah, I was talking at you!”
A number of the men here tonight play in other old-timer leagues and enjoy nothing better than to talk about these other leagues in the presence of their compeers. Taken altogether we fall into three categories. At the top of the list are those like Vince Mabelli and Phil Azzapardi, who can brag of playing in a hardball league in addition to their activities with the St. Jude’s Old-Timers. Then come those like Bobby Columbo and Billy Flanagan, who can only brag of playing in a second softball league. At the bottom of the list are those like Chris Lazzeri and me, who have only one official jersey to our names. The men of two leagues play three, four, five times a week, and in talking about their abundance of games, are gloating over us lesser men who are tied to the apron strings of our wives.
In what might be called the climax of the evening, Danny Beltramo comes out from the kitchen holding my two chilled bottles of Prosecco by their necks and takes his place in the middle of the deck. He raises the bottles and makes an announcement. “Look what Howard brought to help us celebrate our first-place finish.”
When I bought the bottles for the party, I hadn’t reckoned on the presence of an outsider like Vince Mabelli, who greets Danny’s announcement with a froggy-voiced message of doom. “Uh-oh, now you guys are in trouble. That’s the kiss of death right there. The premature celebration. Big mistake, big mistake. Heh-heh-heh. And by the way, how many top seeds wind up taking home the trophy in this league? Never happens. Never. No, it’s all over for you guys. Might as well pack it in.”
“We’ll see about that,” Danny replies. “Everybody in for a glass of Prosecco?”
“Yeah, everybody’s in for a glass,” says Vince. “Pour me one, too. I want to drink to your demise. Heh-heh-heh.”
Have I made a faux pas by bringing the Prosecco? Will my teammates blame me if we fall in the play-offs? Vince insists on opening one of the bottles himself, and as we all stand with our two fingers of the sparkling white bubbling in clear plastic cups, Vince takes pictures of the scene with his lighted cell phone.
After the party, as I’m driving home, I remember the ridiculous gaffe I made in the middle of May at Brookside Park on the night of my second game with St. Clement’s. The game hadn’t started yet, and Danny Beltramo and Brian Cuzak were tossing the ball on the infield dirt, the two in line with the third base dugout. Along with little Chris Lazzeri, I went out to join them, but instead of going around the pair, in keeping with sound policy, I made a dash between the two, ducking under the ball.
“Whoa!” cried Danny as the ball just missed me.
“Rookie mistake,” said Brian, summing up. Of all my rookie mistakes this season, that was my worst—until tonight. Why, oh why, did I bring the Prosecco?