I first saw Len Fine back in late April, at the St. Jude’s Old-Timers’ Softball draft night, held downstairs in the basement lunchroom of the St. Jude Parochial School for Boys. I didn’t know his name then, or anyone else’s (Ed Phelps, the secretary of the league, excepted), but had a strong feeling, based on his features, which broadly speaking were similar to mine, that I was looking at a fellow Jew in a room where we were the only two. The dominant breed of men in that room was the Catholic bruiser of the working class, proudly wearing a t-shirt or jersey stretched like a drumskin over his beer belly.
And then there was Len Fine, my brother under the skin: tall and slender and nattily attired in a pair of fashionably faded jeans and an oxford shirt of solid white, the shirt worn casually with the tails hanging loose and the unbuttoned cuffs folded back on themselves. A pair of readers in tortoiseshell frames lay at the ready propped at an angle on top of his head of graying curls. Despite his surface difference from the group, he sat up front, very erect, at the long head table with a half-dozen others. Among these six was Secretary Phelps, a small, trim man in a cotton-knit polo who gazed out over the assembled bruisers through owl-eye glasses in wire-rim frames. Also up front was the commissioner of the league, a bright-red, high-domed baseball cap perched on top of his head like a crown. Periodically throughout the evening, you’d see this red cap wander over for a private word with the seated Fine, who’d looked straight ahead and nod sagaciously, or throw back his curly head in mirth (though not too far on account of his readers). I’d think each time of Henry Kissinger, the only Jew in Nixon’s cabinet. And Len Fine’s authority didn’t end there. Once the actual draft started—the filling of team rosters—it became apparent that he was the wearer of two important hats: not just a member of the commissioner’s cabinet, but also a captain of one of the teams. For 90 minutes, Captain Fine and the other seven team captains passed around among themselves a red plastic beer cup filled with tiny strips of paper each bearing a name. Each time a captain pulled out a strip, he’d read out loud the name written on it. For this operation the tortoiseshell readers would clamp down onto the bridge of Fine’s nose, and then more than ever he’d put me in mind of Nixon’s Jewish secretary of state.
To see another Jew in the house, especially one so well established, gave me a feeling of relief in that crowd. Of course it was possible Fine was a convert who’d turned his back on the team of his forebears for the team of the Church led by the Pope. It made little difference to me, I decided. I was glad for his presence all the same. I once attended a midnight mass while spending Christmas with my future wife. The mass was held in the chapel of a convent, and across the aisle from where we sat were two rows of prim nuns, covered in blue habits. A dark-complected one on the aisle, a spare figure with tiny feet, was pointed out to me by Karen as the group’s head sister. Karen added under her breath: “She’s a Jewish convert.” For the rest of the service, I found myself glancing over at the Jewish nun. As a Jew who takes pride in his people’s achievements, I was no less proud of this landsman’s position as the highest-ranking nun in the place. With Fine now, too, I felt the same way. Whatever his religious status on paper, he would always be a Jew to me whose high office among the Gentiles redounded to my credit.
The name of Fine’s team, I learned that night, was St. Bartholomew, or St. Bart’s for short. All eight teams, like the league itself, are named in honor of Catholic saints. Mine is named St. Clement, after one of the earliest popes. We’re now almost four weeks into our season, but only tonight at Brookside Park when we face St. Bart for the first of three meetings do I finally learn their captain’s name—FINE, it reads in bold white letters across the back of his purple jersey; the name of the rabbi who married my parents. His given name I learn in batting practice when two of his players and one from St. Clement, the three of them standing clustered together on a patch of grass in center field like neighborhood cronies on a favorite corner, call him over from a nearby patch.
“Hey, Len, we got a question for you. Come on over so we don’t have to yell.”
According to the names on the backs of their shirts, the two from St. Bart are Bocchino and Vesi; the one from my team is Phil Azzapardi. The three greet Fine with smiles and handshakes, and a few moments later break into laughter in response to whatever it is he tells them. Fine appears to be loving it. He’s laughing with them, one of the gang, his shoulders jigging up and down. This is not the Kissinger of draft night, or the Jewish nun either. This is Bruce Cutler, the famous Jew lawyer to the Mob, having a laugh with the boys at the Ravenite Social Club at 247 Mulberry St. How exciting it must have been for the Jewish Cutler to penetrate John Gotti’s inner sanctum. I feel some of that excitement in the air as I watch Len Fine mixing it up on the grassy street corner in center field with Bocchino, Vesi, and Azzapardi.
Did Gotti’s minions at 247 show the Brooklyn-born lawyer certain old-world courtesies when he came visiting? Was a chair pulled out for him, a drink brought over? I feel some of that kindly fussing going on over the person of Fine each time a batted ball comes out to center field. Bocchino and Vesi do all the shagging, leaving Fine to chat at his leisure.
I’m not surprised when Fine walks out to the pitching rubber at the start of the game and begins warming up with high rainbow tosses to the superannuated old-timer behind the plate. This is a man who likes to be at the center of things. His long neck and frame look even longer with a baseball cap on top of his head. As he watches Fine take his warm-ups, Captain Joe, our own tall leader, has a word of warning for us.
“Don’t let him get ahead in the count. If he gets ahead, he’s murder—throws it 50 feet in the air.”
By the rules of the league, everyone bats. Our squad consists of 12 tonight, so one through 12 are in the line-up. Joe, as usual, has put himself last, ceding the prior spot to me; an act, on his part, of Christian charity.
When I finally take my first at-bat, something unexpected happens. It’s the top of the third and I’m leading off, with us ahead, 2-1. As I step to the plate and tap it with my bat, Fine, who’s never faced me before or even seen me take a swing—and to whom, as far as I know, I’m a total stranger—turns toward his outfielders and yells for them to move in, beckoning to each with his ungloved hand.
The batter before me, Chris Lazzeri, who fouled out to the third baseman to end the last inning, is a little guy with no pop who’s been in the league for three years and who certainly is not an unknown to Fine and his teammates. When Lazzeri came up with his granddad’s moustache, a thick, droopy fringe the color of pewter, did Fine turn around and order his outfielders, all of them playing at normal depth, to move in even a foot or two? Nothing of the kind; he simply pitched to him. He let him have his shred of dignity. I want my shred of dignity, too.
I’m not saying it’s wrong for an outfielder to play in shallow on a particular hitter; I just object to its being done so blatantly. Every Sunday in my town of Summit I get together with 20 others for a two-hour game of pick-up softball. The Sunday outfielders know me well. When I come up, they draw way in, almost onto the infield dirt, but generally speaking they do so quietly, as if to spare me further embarrassment. The only disruption comes when there’s a new player on the field who doesn’t know my habits. Someone will yell, “You gotta come in!” and the newbie out in right field, or wherever he happens to be, wanting to respect local custom but looking uncertain, will move forward gingerly through the scruff of grass, one high step at a time like a heron.
Two of our Sunday morning regulars, Herman Hinckle and Fred McFadden, are the ones to whom, for better or worse, I owe my involvement with the St. Clement team. Out of the blue they announced one Sunday that those of us 30 and over with an interest in league play should think about signing up with the St. Jude Old-Timers, whose four-month season started in May. I alone answered this general call, as I learned to my chagrin when I showed up on draft night and saw not a single soul there from the Sunday gang. On second thought, was this so bad? Part of my motivation in branching out was to make a fresh start in a place where I wasn’t known. I was like an ex-con who strikes out for a new town, in a new state. My “crime,” or “secret,” was my under-performing stick. In a league where no one knew my history, the outfielders, at least to start with, would have no choice but to show me some respect, leaving me wide-open spaces in which to dink with impunity.
But Herman knew me, Fred knew me. You can never escape your past. By the luck of the draw the two friends found themselves on the same team, St. Emydius. We played St. Emydius at Brookside Park this past Tuesday night, our sixth game of the season. I’d been dreading this encounter with my two associates from the Sunday morning game. Herman, I’d heard, did the pitching for St. Emydius. We of the Sunday morning gang know him as H-Bomb. He’s a big shambling fellow who can hit the ball a mile. When I faced him on Tuesday, would he expose me for the weakling I am, the “H” without the bomb? Would he turn on the mound in his big shambling way, like a trained bear on its hind legs, and yell to the outfielders to come in?
He did nothing of the sort. H-Bomb was a gentleman. He let me have my dignity. And short, muscle-bound Fred, who was playing third, was a perfect gentleman, too. Even after I dinked one over his head for a single in my first at-bat, neither he nor H-Bomb made any adjustments to the defense in my subsequent at-bats. I finished up with two dink-singles that game, which we won, 10-7. I was pleased with myself, and grateful to H-Bomb in particular. In our Sunday get-togethers, he and Fred tend to keep to themselves; a month of Sundays may go by in which I barely say a word to either one. But H-Bomb did me a kindness that night by keeping my secret to himself. Was he in turn grateful to me for being the only Sunday morning player to join the Old-Timers?
Immediately following the final out, as the two sides filed past each other for the customary exchange of high-fives, H-Bomb took me by surprise when the two of us met in the minuet. As I went up with my hand, and he with his, instead of smacking mine like a cymbal he caught it and held it for just an instant, curling his fingers over mine and giving them a squeeze. His face betrayed nothing, it was all in the fingers. He was not only grateful to me for joining; he was impressed with my show of guts as well. This was the message I took from his squeeze.
But now, in our very next game with St. Bart, exactly what I feared would happen with H-Bomb, who knew my habits from Sunday ball, comes to pass when I square off with Fine, who has never seen me swing before. With all eyes on him, he turns like a ringmaster and commands the outfielders to come way in, his voice imbued with the double authority of pitcher and captain both.
How does he know to bring them in? It’s precisely to avoid this humiliation that I’ve been ducking batting practice. Before I leave the house for the game, I take some swings in my bedroom instead. Five, 10, 15 cuts, until I’m lightly sweating in my jersey.
The sight of the Jewish name on my back will not have been lost on the keen-eyed captain. Does Fine resent me because as a Jew I threaten his singular status in the group? Lest I get too big for my britches, he shames me publicly in front of the Catholics, to whom his motives remain a mystery.
Long habituation to the practice has taught me to ignore the outfield’s tightening of the noose around me. Recalling the words of Dr. Abel, the sports psychologist to whom I came crawling a few weeks ago, I focus on the ball coming out of Fine’s hand. The men on the field have no idea of the battle being waged in my head between the good Jew (Abel) and the bad Jew (Fine). While Brian, our shortstop, roots me on (“Come on, H, a little bingo!”), I watch the pitched ball come tumbling down in the evening light and hit the back outer corner of the rubber mat behind the plate. A pitcher’s pitch. Strike one. Captain Joe had warned us not to let Fine get ahead in the count. Too late for that now. I choke up two inches on the handle of the bat.
Focus, Howard. Watch the ball. And sure enough, just as Captain Joe predicted, this second pitch, with the count 0-1, is a rainmaker, the ball heaved so high that I have to crane my neck to follow its flight. By way of initiation, I was greeted by just such a rainmaker in my first at-bat in the league by Vince Mabelli, the bearded postman who pitches for St. Peter. That pitch was well off the mark, however; this one by contrast is straight and true, and has the right distance. I wait and wait, and wait some more. And then I swing; I don’t try to kill it. I catch the ball on the sweet part of the barrel, and to my surprise it shoots out to center for a clean, hard single. I take the requisite turn around first, and quickly retreat when the ball comes into second base. As I retouch the bag, the righty first baseman, who hits fourth for St. Bart and who could easily pass for a lumberjack, mutters under his breath, “Nice hit.” Maybe I’m wrong, but I take this for a genuine compliment and not merely the humoring crumb tossed from a great height to the lowly malnourished peon.
In a game we win easily, 11-3, I wind up going two-for-two, with a walk on four pitches that aren’t even close. My second hit is not a dink but a sharply-hit single down the left field line. At no point in these final two at-bats does Fine call in his outfielders.
In the two days that follow before our next game, I love my life again. Among the eight teams that make up our league there is no St. Francis of Assisi, but I think of that namesake of my native city, San Francisco, as I climb the ladder to restock the two birdfeeders that hang from an eave outside our kitchen window. One is a clear plastic cylinder which I fill to the brim with striped sunflowers seeds; the other, a metal-barred holder which I fill with a greasy brick of suet. From where I sit at the kitchen table, I need only turn my head to watch the banquet taking place not six feet away at the two feeders. It’s true I don’t suffer the little creatures to alight on my shoulders and arms like the St. Francis of legend. I don’t think I’d like that. But I can see myself one day at the head of my own team in the league, a team I’ve named after the patron saint of animals.
And now I’m driving to Brookside Park for our 6:30 game against last-place St. Xavier. Will Captain Joe move me up one spot in the order? I feel it coming. Chris Lazzeri, whom I follow, has been doing very little at the plate. In my exultant mood, I’m singing along to Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” on my CD player. Darin’s real name, his family name, was Cassotto. Would this be of interest to my Italian-American teammates? Is there a way for me to work this into a conversation?
Brookside Park has two separate lots. Will this be the night that I join the majority of vehicles in the main lower lot? I will know I’ve truly arrived on the team when I can bring myself to park down here with the others. I feel that coming for me, too, like that hoped-for promotion in the line-up.
But not tonight, not yet. Force of habit, I suppose. I pass the entrance to the lower lot and turn in 50 feet beyond it. The driveway here curls around in a horseshoe, and as I turn at the heel of the shoe I see a player from the other team cross in front of me with his wife or girlfriend. I recognize this player from draft night. He’s slight of build, short, not one of the bruisers. He was drafted as a shortstop, and when his name was announced by Jim O’Brien, the commissioner, O’Brien made a joke at his expense. “Stand up, Tom, and take a bow. Oh, you are standing up.”
As I pass him now in my Honda Odyssey, I hear him call after me, “You’ve got a big stick.”
Can this be right? Bobby Darin is no longer singing. I’m fairly sure he said what I think he said. Was he at the game the other night when we played St. Bart? Did he see me hit those two sharp singles? There’s nobody else in the lot but me and him and his girlfriend or wife. Whatever it is he just said was directed to me, and I’m positive he said I have a big stick. My dream of making a fresh start is starting to come true, it would seem. Do I dare take batting practice tonight? I may just do it. I’ll jump in after Chris Lazzeri, my weaker rival. I can’t wait to tell Karen what this fellow Tom just said. I pull into my usual shady space under the bough of a maple tree, and as I step out of the car here he is coming toward me, and now I hear the rest of what he’d been trying to tell me.
“You’ve got a big stick under your right front wheel. If you want to back your car up, I’ll help you pull it out.”
I step around to where he’s pointing. A long ugly tree branch with dead brown leaves has wrapped itself around the front passenger tire. I get back in the car, and while I back it out slowly, Tom the shortstop bends down out of sight on the passenger side. This is followed by a violent rustling of leaves, then Tom pops up with the branch in his arms and heaves it off to the side like a dead animal.
I wind up not taking batting practice after all.