Tonight is our first playoff game in the St. Jude Old-Timers Softball League, but I won’t be suiting up. This morning at 11:55 I break the news in an email to our 70-year-old captain, Joe Sheehan: “Some bad luck to report. I just came back from the Urgent Care Center at Summit Medical Group; it turns out I broke the tip of my left ring finger in my Sunday pick-up game while playing third base. I have a follow-up appointment with an orthopedic surgeon at 2:30 this afternoon. I will see what he says, but the physician’s assistant I saw this morning advised against my playing for the next six weeks. If nothing else, I will be there tonight to cheer on the team. Sorry about this. I’m very disappointed.”
I hear back from Captain Joe less than 20 minutes later. “Thanks for the update,” he writes. “See ya tonight.”
His reaction strikes me as a little too breezy. Is he glad to be shed of one of his weaker hitters during the play-offs? But what about my glove? Won’t he miss me in the field? I think he should’ve said something like, “Hey, that’s some tough luck—for you and for us. Sorry to hear it.”
I hope he doesn’t think I’m making up a story. This is why the note I sent him is so circumstantial. I want him to know that I really did break my finger and that I’m not trying to duck the playoffs out of cowardice. Part of my reason for attending tonight is to let him see my finger with his own two eyes. It’s shiny purple from top to bottom, and swollen to twice its normal size. Before it started to swell in earnest, I held it under warm running water and twisted off my gold wedding band ever so gingerly. Should I mention this to Captain Joe, or would that be overkill? This is the first time in my 32 years of marriage that I’m not wearing my wedding band.
At 2:30 I return to Summit Medical Center for my consultation with Dr. Ortega, a white-haired man in a starched white lab coat who tells me, closing his eyes in concentration, as if in search of the mot juste, that the bone in my fingertip is shattered like a windshield. The good news, he says, opening his eyes again, is that nothing need be done except to fit the finger with a hard plastic sheath; Mother Nature will take care of the rest. My other piece of good luck, he adds, is that I did this to a finger on my left, not my dominant, hand. Any questions?
“Yes,” I say. “Can I still play softball? Our first playoff game is tonight.” My words have a juvenile ring to my ears. I have to remind myself that I’m not 16 anymore, but 61.
“That would be”—a pause here as the doctor shuts his eyes—“incautious,” he finally says, opening his eyes. “Root your team on instead. Over the next six weeks you want to avoid any activity that risks further damage to the finger. The bone right now, in spite of the fracture, is straight up and down. Push it out of place and you’re looking at surgery and a much longer recuperation period.”
I leave the building wearing the protective sheath on my finger. A strip of tape holds it in place. My fingernail peeks out from the ventilation hole at the top. On my return to the house I try to insert my left hand, covered finger and all, into my Omar Vizquel-model Spalding glove, but the sheath is too wide for the finger hole, so I pull the sheath off and try it again bare-fingered, taking it very careful and slow. This time the purple finger worms itself inside. It hurts, but the pain is not unbearable. I’m able to open and close the mitt with no more than minimal discomfort. It’s only when I flick a softball into the pocket from three inches away that I wince and cry out. I slowly withdraw my hand from the mitt and slip the protector on again.
At 5:45 in the afternoon, I leave the house for Brookside Park without my jersey, without my gear. I’m dressed in a pair of khaki pants and a short-sleeve polo, white with blue trim. It’s a 20-minute drive to the field. Along the way, while stopped at a light, I look at my finger in its plastic casing sticking up from the steering wheel. It’s not a very impressive sight. Will the men believe I’m truly injured? I wish I could show up in a cast or a sling. My covered finger is suggestive of a condom-sheathed phallus. A stubby, three-inch phallus, no more, which I must hold up for general viewing. If I had to break a finger, I wish it could have been my middle one. Then I would have one more inch to show. Well, at least it wasn’t my pinkie. Thank God for small favors. Had it been my pinkie, I might have stayed home.
When I arrive at the field, I’m faced with an awkward social predicament: do I sit with the team, or in the stands? We have the third base side, as always—a single, long aluminum bench, without a back, open to the sky. Past the bench the stands begin, with a chain link fence in between. In my undecided state I stand leaning over the chest-high chain link fence running behind the team bench. I am literally, and figuratively, on the fence. While I’m standing there Bobby Columbo, our hard-living No. 6 hitter who shares second base with me, arrives with third baseman Danny Beltramo, the host of our celebration party a few nights ago. As they stroll past me on the other side of the fence Bobby Columbo looks over, and, seeing me in my civvies, stops and says by way of greeting, in a challenging tone of voice, “What’s the matter with you?”
It’s the moment I’ve been dreading. With an apologetic air I hold up my left hand, showing him the back of it. “I took a hard line drive at third base yesterday. It broke my finger; I’m out for a while.” I wiggle the little phallus-digit encased in its sheath.
Bobby Columbo isn’t impressed. “This is the playoffs, man. Tape your two fingers together and suck it up.”
How should I answer him? I’m sorry, Bobby, but the doctor says that would be incautious. This is the same man who just three nights ago, before our last regular-season game with St. Michael’s, came up to me and told me to give him a sock in the jaw. “I’m really feeling flat,” he had said. “I can’t wake up. Go ahead, I mean it. Give me your best shot.” The word “incautious” is not in his vocabulary.
I wind up saying nothing at all and Bobby continues on his way, with Danny alongside him. As each of my teammates arrives, I go through the same rigmarole of showing them the broken finger and explaining how it happened. They listen, nod, make sympathetic noises. Only Brian Cuzak, my double-play mate, seems genuinely distraught. “I need you, H,” he says with feeling. I’ve played a solid second base for St. Clement’s all season, and three times substituted for Brian at shortstop.
I finally go slinking over to the stands, a tiny block of tiered benches, six in number and totally empty, and while I’m perched there up at the top, nestled in a corner, I catch the sound of my name on a breeze blowing in from down on the field, where Bobby and Danny are throwing together. It’s Bobby’s voice I hear on the breeze. He’s saying something about me to Danny, something that causes Danny to smile. Except for my name, I can’t make it out, but Danny, the smile spreading on his face, turns his head as if in search of the person being talked about, and suddenly catches sight of me up in the stands. Too late now to extinguish his smile. Our eyes meet for a full second, painful to both of us. His smile curdles on his lips, to one of guilt and embarrassment. I look away, but not before he looks away. And to think it was only three nights ago that he was smiling warmly at me for bringing two bottles of Prosecco to the team party at his home. I will never go to one of his parties again. Or so I vow in the first flush of anger.
I watch the men take batting practice. Afterward, when they come loping off the field, Brian among them, he spies me sitting alone in the stands and insists I come and sit with the guys. “You’re a member of this team, healthy or not,” he cries through the chain link fence. “Why aren’t you wearing your jersey?”
Our draw tonight, the weak St. Anne’s, takes the field for the start of play. Rallied by Brian, I come on down, the bleachers creaking under my feet, but instead of joining the guys on the bench, where the burly Bobby Columbo prowls, I claim the first-base coaching box, with Captain Joe’s permission, of course. Here at least I feel as if I have a safe haven, but even this refuge is ultimately denied me. As we come to bat in the top of the second, with Billy Flanagan leading off, St. Anne’s captain, Joey De Rosa, a notorious stickler for technicalities, stops the game with a formal complaint, challenging Billy’s presence in the lineup. His claim is that Billy showed up late, after the game had officially started, and according to the rules of our old-timers’ league (as I myself am just finding out), late arrivals may not be admitted into the game until the fourth inning. You can’t blame Joey De Rosa for trying. In us, he faces a powerhouse, the league’s Goliath, the hands-on favorite. And Billy is not just another player. He’s part of our lineup’s murderers’ row, a tall and lanky left-handed slugger whose long and sinewy octopus arms allow him to stand so far from the plate, it’s as if he’s still in the on-deck circle. He takes a vicious uppercut. I once saw him sky a ball so high to short right field with those octopus arms that he made it all the way to third by the time it fell to earth untouched. In what appeared a single bound, he then went hurtling across our vision and easily beat the throw to the plate. I’d seen plenty of bloop doubles before, but never a bloop home run. It takes a special ballplayer to hit a bloop home run. And now he does something else I’ve never seen on a ballfield. While Joey De Rosa and our own Captain Joe are thrashing things over with the blue-hatted umpire, Long Tall Flanagan, with a shrug of the shoulders, and letting his lumber drop in the dust, plops right down in the batter’s box in the guise of a protester staging a sit-in, his back to the trio arguing behind him. With his knees drawn up and his arms wrapped around them, he sits with his butt directly on the dirt and drolly looks out over the field. I’m watching all this from the first-base coaching box when I catch sight of Bobby Columbo, a yellow softball clenched in his fist, coming around behind the backstop and the opposing team’s bench with a determined set to his gait. He curls around the end of the chain link fence along the first base side until he’s standing three feet from me. Is he going to upbraid me again for not suiting up?
My fears are groundless. Looking past me, he calls out in an insouciant voice to the other team’s lefty first baseman, “Hey, Frank, here you go. Keep the guys limber. We may be here a while.” He tosses the yellow ball to Frank, and such is Bobby’s air of authority, that Frank starts throwing grounders to his infielders, as if the order came from De Rosa and not from one of the enemy players.
At last we have a ruling, which goes against De Rosa, who henceforth plays the game under protest. And now Billy Flanagan gets to his feet, and as he awaits the pitcher’s first pitch, I see coming toward me, along the same route previously taken by Bobby Columbo, our clean-up hitter, Tommy Matola, moving stiffly on his two braced knees. Tommy is married to Captain Joe’s daughter, and functions at times as a second captain. He’s clearly wearing that mantle now as he curls around the end of the fence to have a tête-à-tête with me inside my first-base coaching box. A sheepish smile plays on his face as his words tumble out.
“Listen, Howard, I’m sorry to have to do this, but because you’re not wearing a team jersey we’re thinking you probably shouldn’t be out here coaching first base. You see what this asshole De Rosa is like. We’re afraid he might call us on another technicality. Anyway, we just don’t want to take the chance.”
As I follow Tommy back to our bench along the third base line, I wonder if I’m the first person in the history of the league to be relieved of his first-base coaching duties. I don’t disagree with the decision to pull me. Even before this De Rosa character brought the game to a standstill, I worried about the fitness of my attire out there.
And so at last I find myself sitting on the team bench. Over the next couple of innings some of my teammates politely ask for details about my broken finger, and while I’m telling my story for the second or third time, Captain Joe, standing off to my right and apparently overhearing me, turns and says to me over his shoulder, in his characteristically quiet way, “Same thing happened to me once.”
“Did you play or sit out?” I ask.
“I sat,” he mumbles, turning away, as if he doesn’t like to admit it.
“Thank you,” I say, my heart full of gratitude. But his voice is so low, only a few of us hear him. If only he would proclaim it for the whole team to hear, especially for the likes of Bobby Columbo. “I sat, my friends—just like Howard. I wanted to play with my broken finger, but the doctor said it would be incautious.”
With me out of the lineup, Bobby Columbo has taken over sole possession of second base. In my traitorous heart, I would like to see us lose the game because of Bobby’s defensive play. Afterward, in private, out of Bobby’s hearing, my teammates would lament the absence of my glove. “Having Howard out there might have made all the difference.”
As it happens, in what everyone considers a staggering upset, we fall to St. Anne’s, 7-5, but not because of Bobby’s defense. For once, we simply fail to hit; and certainly no one misses my bat. But upon our coming off the field as losers at game’s end, Bobby shouts lustily, “It’s all Howard’s fault.”
I laugh along with the other men (as much as they can laugh after suffering a monumental defeat). But later on, back at home, I start to worry about the reaction I’ll get from Bobby when I show up for our next playoff game. We are still in the running, even with our loss; it takes two losses to get knocked out. We now go into the losers’ bracket, our next opponent to be announced. Needless to say, I won’t be caught without my jersey again. I’ll ask to coach first base, or maybe even third. But will Bobby turn nasty? I can hear him saying, upon my arrival: “No one wants you here, man. You can’t play, don’t come.” The whole team will fall silent as they wait for my response. I can’t just leave. I need to make a stand.
I go to bed without the matter settled in my mind. But the following morning, restored by sleep, I have my answer for Bobby Columbo. It comes to me as I’m washing my face at the bathroom sink. I look in the mirror and say the words out loud: “Let’s put it to a vote, Bobby. If more than half the guys don’t want me here, I’ll go right now.” They would never vote to put me out. At least I don’t think they would. But even so, how could I stick around after that? The mood would be ugly. I would have to go of my own accord, like a public official under a cloud. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” says the vilified official in a prepared statement, “but I no longer wish to be a distraction.” My own statement will be no less final. I will strip off my jersey, crumple it in a ball, and fling into the dirt at my feet. And just so my skinny ribs aren’t exposed, I’ll have a t-shirt on underneath.