Jun 17, 2015, 07:17AM

The Goat

A rookie's notes.

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It’s my first time ever at Brookside Park. When I drive here tonight for my 6:30 game, I miss the entrance leading down to the parking area adjoining the ballfield. The lot is crowded with arriving cars and men in ball caps headed for the field. On seeing all these strangers to me, in a place that’s equally strange to me, I feel a sense of dislocation—what am I doing here? It’s as if I’ve dropped in out of the clouds, and this is where I happen to land—a slowly-filling softball diamond in a quiet corner of northern New Jersey.

I take some solace in missing the turn. Fifty yards on, I come to another, this one feeding a smaller lot at a slightly farther remove from the field. Only two other cars are parked in the single row of angled spaces. I park at a distance from both these others, under the shady bough of a maple, as if to seclude myself even more. It’s the car itself I wish to sequester. I’m feeling self-conscious about the decal staring out from my car’s rear window. This decal, consisting of 12 green letters edged in yellow, or yellow-gold, spells out the name of my daughter’s college—one of the country’s oldest on record and also one of its most prestigious. This decal in hoity-toity Summit, my town of residence, is all very well, but I am not in Summit tonight, I’m a world away. This league of which I’m now a member—the 30-and-over St. Jude’s Old-Timers—draws   its Brobdingnagian players from the Catholic working class of the area. I blanch at the thought of these men of the people eyeing my green-and-yellow emblem, this modern-day heraldic crest, which I’d gladly remove from the window if I could get away with it. But Maddie proudly gave it to us and Karen proudly stuck it on. If it suddenly wasn’t there anymore, both of them would notice. Lucky for me I found this lot with only two other vehicles in it. I now have a place to hide my decal, and not just for tonight. Over half our season’s scheduled games are played right here at Brookside Park.

I go on down to the field with my grip and join my team on the third-base side. I know my team by the sight of our captain, the white-haired, six-foot-four Joe Sheehan, one of the men I met on Draft Night; Joe was selling tickets at the door. Since that night, my team, St. Clement, has had three Sunday morning practices, but since I play in a pick-up game every Sunday morning in Summit, I missed these practices, with Joe’s consent. And then last Thursday night at Parkside we opened our season against St. Peter, but I couldn’t make that first game, either; I had a family obligation.

And so, when I walk on the field tonight, I feel my virginal newness acutely. I don’t even have a jersey yet. Captain Joe and the rest of my teammates are all accoutered in pure white jerseys with the name St. Clement etched in blue straight across the pure white chest. Is it on account of my absenteeism that Captain Joe is coolish with me when I approach him behind the backstop to shake his hand and say hello? His grip is slack, his gaze averted. He barely has two words for me.

I fare a deal better with the rest of the guys. To each in turn, when the moment arises, I extend a hand and state my name, and each in turn receives me kindly. I know this dance of the rookie player his first time on the scene with the team. I’m soon playing catch in left-field territory with Danny, the team’s third baseman, from whom I learn we took St. Peter in last week’s opening game, 12-7. I make some approving noise at this, but as we continue to toss the ball I find I’m prey to a traitorous thought: I wish we’d lost the game instead. Because we won, the pressure is on. Now if we lose, will I be blamed? I have a friend in Danny at the moment, but that could change by the end of the night. Everything hinges on how I perform.

“You good?” says Danny, holding onto the ball. “I need to take some BP”—and he goes trotting in.

I turn to watch the 20 or so men in the field. It’s a loose, bipartisan batting practice, with members from each of the opposing teams—us, St. Clement, the men in white, and them, St. Michael, the wearers of black—sprinkled together like salt and pepper across the band of the all-dirt infield and over the carpet of outfield grass. The black shirts and white shirts jest with each other, and every so often from somewhere on the field a lusty cackle pierces the evening. In seasons past many of these combatants shared a common fate as teammates. The teams get shuffled every year, in the interests of fairness and group solidarity. Will I be one of these men one day, sharing a laugh with a former teammate? I feel stirring within me the glimmer of a yearning for this little piece of communality.

The man playing third, a lumbering black shirt, now trots in, vacating his spot. I wait a full minute for someone to fill it, and when nobody does, I fill it myself, crossing the freshly-coated white chalk line. As the batter, a white shirt, waits for the pitch, I crouch and wait, dangling my arms, my glove held open and facing the plate, my eyes locked onto the spot in the zone where the barrel is likely to meet the ball. I’m in my element here at third base, and thanks in part to the guy at the plate, a right-handed pull-hitter who keeps me busy, I’m able to show my stuff immediately, snagging balls to my left and right, and tricky bouncers hit right at me. Capped, of course, by the languorous toss back to the waiting glove of the pitcher. Danny, who has two bats in his hands and is loosening up in the on-deck area, calls out to me, “Are you a third baseman?” I haven’t forgotten that he’s a third baseman. I hear a note of concern in his voice, and I immediately move to allay his concern.

“Actually, I’m playing more second these days.” Yes, you’ll find me a wonderful teammate who has no designs on your job, my friend. This is the message I wish to convey.

I certainly pose no threat at the plate, as he will discover sooner than later. Danny himself, when taking his hacks, bangs the ball through the cordon of outfielders, some dozen black and white shirts combined. I stand and watch in awe and fear as each ball finds its way to the fence. Nothing comes to me from his bat. Nothing at all to any of the infield.

His hitting exhibition over, he picks up his mitt and starts for the outfield, but I make sure he doesn’t get far.

“Here, take third. I’ll take second.”

Danny tells me to stay where I am, but I don’t wait, I’m already gone, cutting across the ball-strewn diamond. Danny, accepting my obeisance, assumes his rightful place at the bag.

I trot to second, recently vacated, and the next batter up, as fate would have it, is a right-handed hitter who hits my way, his swing a natural inside-out, not unlike Derek Jeter’s. Once again I show my stuff, at one point ranging far to my right to snag a grounder hit up the middle and following up with a flip to the shortstop covering second as if for a force. This shortstop, Brian, is one of the white shirts whose hands I shook on my arrival. He wears his brown hair long and uncapped, and carries himself like a natural leader. As I go back into fielding position, and Brian goes back into his at short, he pays me a tribute across the dirt; a tribute of only five short words, but weighty in their significance.

“I like your glove, H.”

I suppress my impulse to point out to Brian that his use of “glove” is an example of metonymy—a word or phrase as a stand-in for another, like “the crown” for a monarch, or “skirt” for a woman; or, as in this case, “glove” for fielding. I don’t want to be the Professor again, as my baseball teammates dubbed me in high school. But I’m thrilled by Brian’s metonym in praise of my defensive skills, and I start to toe the dirt around me in self-conscious pride.

And then he called me “H”—how nice! A nickname for me within 10 minutes of my taking the field for the very first time, and by no less a one than this sparkplug, Brian. I may not have a jersey yet, but I have something better than that. A jersey is only the outward form symbolizing inclusion; I have a nickname, which money can’t buy.

At the plate, as in the field, the shirt colors intermix, black and white stepping up in no particular order. Batters rotate every minute, each new slugger stronger than the last, until by the end the ball is rocketing over the fence in straightaway center.

My new-found joy is somewhat dampened when Brian proposes I take some cuts. “You haven’t gone yet, have you, H?” he calls to me at second base.

I find myself in a catch-22. I’d only embarrass myself at the plate, and so my intention is to skip BP, thereby cheating myself of the very reps I need to improve my hitting.

“I’m good,” I call to Brian at short.

“You sure? We still have a couple of minutes.”

“Yeah, I’m sure. Thanks, I’m good.” After he sees the way I hit, will Brian think twice about calling me H?

A warning cry from the bearded umpire—“All right, gentlemen, bring it in!”—empties the field of balls and men. As I slip in behind our chain link barrier, Captain Joe is waiting for me.

“Your jersey’s on the fence,” he says, turning slightly and nodding behind him.

A four-foot-high chain link fence skirts the area behind the backstop. I see my new white jersey there, draped haphazardly over the top. As I pluck it off and put it on over the collared shirt I’m wearing, I feel affronted by Captain Joe—why didn’t he just hand me the jersey?

I do not point out to my Catholic teammates (O’Connell, Lazzeri, Rojas, et al.) that my jersey is an example of an oxymoron—Catholic saint name (Clement) in front, Jewish surname (Kaplan) in back. But maybe to Captain Joe at least such a yoking is all too apparent. Is this the reason he left my jersey hanging over the fence like a rag?

If Joe meant to sit me, it’s out of his hands. With the game officially due to start, we’re missing five of our 15 players. Joe calls all the men to attention for the reading-out of the line-up card, and the faithful quorum gathers around. Not since Serramonte High has my name been called from a line-up card. I feel the same old twinge of nerves as I hear it rattled off again— “ . . . Tenth up, Kaplan; second base.” Then Joe extends his arm straight out, palm-side down, and calls “hands in.” Nine hands shoot out, mine among them, and bury Joe’s in one big pile. For one split second, I feel again that earlier sense of dislocation. What am I doing with all these strange hands sandwiched one on top of the other?

“On three,” says Joe, and begins to count. On the fourth beat actually, not the third, the men shout, “Go!” and throw up their hands. I come in slightly late on the shout, but after all I’m the rookie.

The umpire, bent in two at the waist, is whisking the last of the dirt from home. “Play ball!” he cries as he rises up, and we of St. Clement’s, the so-called home team, dog-trot out to our spots in the field to the sounds of the dying spring afternoon. As a rookie making his league debut, I find myself, from the first batter on, the fussed-over object of placement instructions from neighbor Brian on my right and neighbor Carl on my left—65-year-old Carl Zimmer, our hulking monster of a lefty first baseman whose expert knowledge of each batter’s habits compensates for his limited mobility. I ponder neighbor Carl’s surname. Is he a fellow Jew, a landsman, or simply a German-descended gentile? During warm-ups he makes no sign to me except to hold out his glove as a target.

The game starts off with a flurry of offense, in equal measure, for them and us both. We’re down by three when we come up to bat, but get it right back with a three-run homer by our number-three hitter, Phil Azzarpardi. Every team is allotted one “slugger” in the player draft held in April. Phil Azzapardi is that person for us; a trim but muscular right-handed hitter with a textbook swing, level and long, who can also run, catch, and throw; our reigning prince by acclamation who holds himself in stately reserve. In the wake of his clamorous reception by his teammates for bringing us even with one swing of the bat, I watch him stooping over a child in the players’ area behind the bench and lift him out of harm’s way, behind the chain link fence.

“Go to Mommy,” father Phil commands, gently but firmly, and the boy goes toddling off up the knoll to the waiting arms of Mrs. A., a pretty blonde in pedal pushers, t-shirt, and sandals ensconced on a plaid blanket laid on the grass. Along with the home run, it’s all of a piece—the hero’s welcome, the upraised son, the fertile mother watching from the wings. My own day is past for lifting over a chain link fence the seeds of my loins.

In the bottom of the second, with nobody on, I step to the plate for my first at-bat. Fresh from my lesson with Eddie B., the batting instructor at Gappers & Moonshots, I’ve decided to bat right-handed exclusively, which after all is my natural side. Observing my different “sides” in the cage, Eddie remarked on my unhappy tendency to be “all arms” when swinging left-handed. Put to the test of which he preferred—my right-hand swing or my left-hand swing—Eddie declared for my right-hand swing.

A rubber mat sits on the ground right up against the back of home plate, creating an expanded plate, as it were, a rectangle roughly three feet in length. Because we play an unlimited arc, the calling of balls and strikes by the umpire depends entirely on where the ball lands—if it lands on the rectangle the pitch is a strike; outside the rectangle, the pitch is a ball.

On the mound for St. Michael is the team’s feisty captain, a stout little guy with a full brown beard who doubled to right-center to lead off the game. Everyone knows Vince Mabelli, it seems. For every bit of lip he gets, he gives it back in extra measure, capped by a dirty-sounding chuckle, a “heh-heh-heh” from under his beard. When I come up, he turns to my bench and shouts to the guys: “Is this the rookie?” He squawks again: “Is this the rookie?” He then skies a pitch to me 50 feet high—a “rainmaker” that eventually falls with a thud a good 10 feet short of the plate. I may be a rookie but I’m not so green as to offer at such a ludicrous pitch.

This is my personal welcome from Vince. His second pitch is a normal arc, which catches the mat for a called first strike. If I’ve been hoping that my lesson with Eddie will create a miracle in my first at-bat, I’m brought back to earth by pitch number three. I hit a tapper right back to Eddie, who casually turns and throws me out before I’m halfway up the line.

I redeem myself in the next half-inning with a play at second, to quash a rally. With a man on second, and one run in, the right-handed batter, another behemoth, smokes a shot to my backhand side, one of those scorchers that are on you so fast you don’t have time to move your feet. I pick it clean on an awkward bounce and gun the batter out at first, for out number two. From the enemy’s bench comes a chorus of “whoa’s,” led by Captain Vince Mabelli. The runner on second is now on third, but languishes there when the next batter flies out to Phil in deep left-center.

As I trot in from second, my infield neighbors reward me with a hero’s reception of my own, if not at the level of Phil’s, of course. He and the other three from the outfield stop to pay their compliments too, though Phil’s are restrained, like the man himself, as befits his princely stature among us. Of all my callers, only he withholds the tributes of physical contact—no fist pumps, high-fives, back-slaps for him. He doesn’t even deign to smile. Instead he tarries just long enough to catch my eye and do his duty. “Nice play,” he says with the slightest of nods, like a man who’s seen his share of great plays and made a few of his own in his day.

Lavish in his praise is Billy Flanagan, our tall and lanky starter in left whose jowl packs a gob of chewing tobacco. I can hear him cheering my play at the time and twice addressing me loudly as “Harry,” and now as we bat he sits down next to me and extols me again almost as loudly. What do I care if he calls me Harry? To me it’s like a second nickname that further cements my place in the group.

I come to bat for the second time in the bottom of the fourth, in a key situation. We’re down by one, 8-7, with the bases loaded and one man out, and two runs already in in the inning. As I always seem to do at the plate, I’m dwelling incessantly on my mechanics. One of the pointers stressed by Eddie was what he referred to as “squishing the bug”—the hard pivot made on the ball of the foot, with the lifting of the heel of the same back foot, as a way of getting the legs more involved. I’m telling myself to squish the bug as I stare at Vince, who is still on the mound.

My trial by rainmaker is now behind me; this is no time for Vince to be cute. He throws his first pitch over for a strike; it lands with a smack on the back of the mat. His next pitch has the right distance as well, but this one is tight and I take it for a ball. “That’s it, H, wait for your pitch,” Brian, who’s coaching first for us, calls. Vince’s third pitch comes in flat, and just where I like it—middle-in. I can feel my back foot squishing the bug as I meet the ball with the barrel of the bat. I hit it hard but right at their shortstop; a swift two-bouncer into his glove. I put my head down and start to run, but not before I see the shortstop wing a strike to second base and the second baseman come across the bag for the force. I’m churning my legs as fast as I can. “Come hard,” says Brian, spurring me on; no time now to call me H. I hear the spank of the ball on mitt just as my left foot touches the bag. A clear-cut tie, at least to me, but the lusty call from behind is “Out!” I choke back the protest rising in my throat like a bitter bubble from the pit of the stomach. I shut my mouth; I am the rookie. Indeed, I’d say the call itself is one of those rites imposed on rookies, like Captain Vince Mabelli’s rainmaker. And so, with a single swing of the bat, I make two outs, killing our rally. The score remains 8-7, with three innings to go.

And now this is it for us, the bottom of the seventh, with the score still 8-7 in favor of St. Michael, and the bottom of the order due up to bat: our oldest player, Captain Joe; our shortest player, a guy named Chris; and me, the all-field, no-hit rookie.

As our least proficient defensive player, five-foot-four Chris Lazzeri has been relegated by his own wishes to catcher, softball’s equivalent to a make-work position. And based on the little I’ve seen of his hitting, his ninth spot in the line-up seems somewhat high, notwithstanding my own poor showing. With the game on the line, he is suffering now. I see it in his eyes as he waits on deck: a stony look of naked fear. Do the other players see it, too, or just those fellow sufferers like me?

Captain Joe leads off with a ground-out, but then Little Chris, to everyone’s shock, including his own, plunks a dinker that falls for a single over the outstretched glove of the shortstop.

And now it’s me who walks the plank. As if unable to stand the pressure, I promptly swing at the first pitch offered and smack it right to short again for the start of a duplicate double play, from short to second and on to first, the last throw hitting the mitt with a spank just as my foot comes down on the bag. “Out!” is the call. Game over. I trudge off the diamond.

I join the others on the bench and change out of my cleats. As some of the men rise to go, I want to say goodbye, addressing each by his Christian name. But I can’t be the one to initiate this, not the way I played tonight. They’d be forced to reciprocate, and the last thing I want is to obligate anyone. No, it has to come from them, they have to give of their own free will. They have to say, “Later, Howard, have a good week.” But even just to sit with them, to change out of my cleats, might be construed as a plea to be noticed, a subtle forcing of social engagement; and so I hasten to pack my bag and discreetly remove myself from the bench. No one has a word for me as I go slinking off. I walk up the knoll lugging my grip and spot my lonely car up ahead. It’s dim up here under the trees. I pass what looks like the same two vehicles I saw in this lot two hours ago. I’m almost at the door of my car when I hear the steps of someone behind me—the owner of one of the remaining vehicles. From the silhouette of the head alone, I know it’s Brian, our friendly shortstop, the coiner of “H.” Does he recognize me in the fading light? I don’t call out to him; it’s not my place. I turn away, ever discreet. But he has five seconds to say goodbye before I vanish into my car. I grasp the handle of the door and pull. Four seconds, three seconds, two seconds, one. I’m in the car, with the door closed. He never said goodbye.         


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