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At the age of seven, I batted .292 for my hometown Pee-Wee baseball team. I had a three year .327 Little League average. A four year .384 Babe Ruth stat. Fifty-eight homeruns. Ninety-two triples. One hundred sixty-three doubles. An eight year .352 ERA. Eight years. No errors. No cup. All of little matter.
For eight years, I was first baseman!
Spring of '65. My Junior year of High School. I had one wish. One dream. One desire. Skip JV baseball try-outs entirely and try-out to play, to be, first baseman on the Varsity baseball team.
I have my first baseman's glove. I have my first pair of cleats. I have my first cup. I have more confidence than a dwarf with a full-length mirror. I'm calm. I'm confident. I'm cocky. Glove, cleats, cup, and seven sticks of Black Jack chewing gum packed in my jaw!
Watch out! I am first baseman.
"Outfielders, pitchers, catchers, third, shortstop, second and first basemen, good luck."
I'm already good and I don't need luck. No ego in my family, I got it all! I took to first base like a baby takes to his mother's teat. This chiclet's mine!
My only competition? The one and only obstacle standing between me and Varsity first baseman? One person. Stanley Dumbrowski. Equipment Manager, three years in a row. Dork! I am golden!
Try-outs began. I am pumped! Do it freakin' to it!
I took screaming line-drives, 1-2-3! So did Stanley.
Routine infield pop-ups, 1-2-3! So did Stanley.
Fireballs to my left! Cannons to my right! I'm a human freakin' vacuum! So was Stanley.
The final shot was launched. A towering heads-up fly ball. I mean towering! That ball lofted so high I swear I heard God yell, "I GOT IT! I GOT IT!"
I gazed to the heavens and waited and waited and, that ball was up there! Finally, the ball broke through the clouds. As the ball fell, the clouds parted. As the ball descended, the sun appeared. Ball became bigger. Sun became brighter. I thrust my gloved hand skyward, eyes shielded from the brilliant orb. Just as ball and glove and sun aligned, just as my fellow teammates-to-be froze in hushed anticipation, just as I grabbed at my cup, ground in my cleats, bracing for sudden impact, just as ball and glove and cup and I would be one, Stanley Dumbrowski broke wind, and I caught that ball, right in the mouth!
There I lay, dazed and bleeding. The ball rolled from my swelling lips.
My soon-to-be fellow teammates clamored to my aid. Stanley arrived first. I know it was Stanley, I caught his drift. As I was removed from field of play, Stanley assumed the position. A weak puffball was lofted his way. One, two, three. Try-outs ended.
"LF, Hajjar. CF, Barry. RF, Comee. Catcher, pitcher, third, shortstop, second and first baseman, Stanley Dumbrowski!"
Stanley went ballistic! He didn't know whether to s**t or go blind! So, he broke-wind, again. I was down-wind. In my life I have sensed Stanley's presence many, many times.
As I left the field, I gave my glove to a homeless child. Offered my cleats to a man with no shoes. Sold Stanley my cup. I walked home alone, absorbed in defeat. A pitiful lump of personified failure!
A note awaited my return. "Call Coach."
"Yeh, listen, you still want in as first baseman?"
Swollen lips could not lie. "Yebth!"
"Good. Stanley's a senior, his last year. I need a back-up first baseman."
"Back-up first baseman? Back-up first baseman? Back-up first baseman!?!"
"Be my back-up first baseman this year and next year, you are first baseman."
"How buch wiw I pway?"
"You'll play every game Stanley misses, if he's sick, or, whatever. Back-up."
"Firth batheban netht year?"
"Yep, next year."
"I'w doob i!"
"Are you sure?"
"Yebth, I'm thur!"
"Great! Drop by Stanley's in a coupla days, pick-up the Equipment Manager's gear. Welcome to the team."
I hate him.
Stanley's dad used up his fifteen minutes of fame when this story made front page headlines: LOCAL MAN FALLS DOWN UP-ESCALATOR FROM 11:15 AM to 12:45 PM. As luck would have it, Stanleys mom caught the entire incident on video. All ninety minutes!
Bumidy... bumidy... bumidy... bum... (pause...) bumidy... bumidy... bumidy... bum... (pause...)
The tape had a certain Felliniesque, Woody Allenish, George Romeroie quality to it. The video was rushed to America's Stupidest People and promptly returned. Rejected from competition. The powers that be at the station claimed nobody could be that stupid! But, the townspeople knew better and mounted a letter campaign to the network. The network wouldn't back down. But, to quell the negative publicity surrounding the write-in, the station sent the Dumbrowskis a lifetime supply of Citrus Suckies, a candy new to the market.
"Hi. I came to pick up the Equipment Manager's stuff."
"Hi, I'm Stanley's dad."
"Hi, Mr. Dumbrowski. I didn't recognize you." Oh, like a face-full of escalator stair treads weren't a freakin' give-away.
"Name's Sydney. But, you can call me Sydney."
I hate him. "Enjoyed your video."
"Thanks, son. Stanley will be right down. Have a seat." He reached over for a bowl of hard candies and broke wind. "Citrus Suckie?" Obviously this was a family issue.
Folks who break wind in my air-space and don't say, "Excuse me," really irk me. My dad used to say, "Where 'ere you be, let the wind blow free!" This saying was a family tradition, passed down generation to generation. My Grandma Millie even crocheted those words on a pillow. My mom'd say, "How in hell did I get stuck with a loser like you?" This saying also took hold as family tradition. Fortunately, we had used up all the crocheteable pillows.
"You suck Citrus Suckies. Don't chew."
The front door opened and slammed shut.
"And who have we here?" said Mr. Dumbrowski. "Oh, hi hon. You've never met the little woman, have you?"
Little Women, sure, I thought, required reading. But who's this cow? She's enormous!
"Terry, Stanley's teammate."
"Yes, Stanley's good friend. Hi. Citrus Suckie?" She was the shortest woman I had ever met, yet the biggest I had ever seen! I sensed her toes, feet, ankles & stubby legs all crying out for relief from the tonnage. They deserved a Citrus Suckie! I couldn't help but stare as she backed up, taking aim on a velvet wing-back chair. Whoomph! Crushed velvet!
"Stanley talks so much about you," said Mrs. Dumbrowski. "Tell me, are you trying out for the Senior production of Cyrano? Cyrano de Bergerac? Cat got your tongue? Okay, you tell me something."
Okay, Mrs. Cow. Cyrano de Bergerac gave Roxanne a nose job, caught a yeast infection, and died!
"Well, are you excited to be the new Equipment Manager?"
"Oh, yes, very." D-uh! Then she broke wind! I knew she would. I don't know how I knew, I just knew. Slowly, I became aware of the air quality of the Dumbrowski home. The air was tart, not nasty. In fact the air smelled like a citrus grove. "Terry and Sydney in a citrus tree. Cutting loose big ones naturally. Sydney cuts a lemon, Terry cuts a lime, Stanley cuts an orange in 4-4 time." I like the meter. Five stars. I need fresh air. Lots of fresh air!
Stanley appeared. "Here you go." And, with a thud, he dropped at my feet a large over-stuffed duffel bag and a smaller cotton bag. A baseball rolled out. All Stanley said was, "That's your ball bag."
"Your ball bag."
"My ball bag?"
"Your ball bag."
His words found their way into my brain. Perched, displayed in flashing neon, ever so brief, in mind's eye. Slinked about my imagination. Festered for a mini-moment on my funnybone. Wormed around and through my laugh canal. Inched along slowly, tickling parts unknown. Then... EXPLODED! Laughter consumed my very being! Every pore in me burst open! It was one of those moments, those rare personal moments that come to pass every three to five years. Explanation? None. Years of proper breeding, of social grace, to the gutter! One fleeting moment of lone vulgarity, for you, only you. Yours and yours alone. I snorted, I gagged, I heaved, I cried, I sweat, I died!
Then, I stopped.
Neither the world, nor the Dumbrowskis, laughed with me. They just sat. And stared. Sucking Citrus Suckies. Suddenly, I knew what it was like to tumble down an up escalator. All alone. I hoped one day, one day soon, someone, anyone, would tell the Dumbrowskis to chill out! But, not me. Not today. Not ever. I don't like Stanley. I don't like his mom or dad. They're the family from hell!
Shove 'em up your arse, Stanley! "No, thank-you, Stanley."
Baseball season came.
I was able to play in every game. I was able to, but I didn't. Not a single one. Stanley played flawless first base. With every grounder, pop-up, line-drive, with every out Stanley made, I died just a little bit more. He didn't miss one game. He never got sick. Never got hurt. He did break wind a lot, though. I never got my chance to play.
"Be ready," Coach would say. Well, if "Be ready" meant lugging nineteen assorted size baseball bats, twenty-four baseballs, three bases, home plate, a full set of catcher's gear, two water coolers, assorted clipboards, and one small American Flag on a six foot pole to all fifty games, if this in Coach's mind defined "Be ready," then by gum, I was ready!
That season the closest I came to playing ball was when I got jock itch.
Baseball season went.
During the off-season I kept in shape tossing baseballs on the barn roof, catching them as they careened and catapulted in every direction off the roof's jagged edge. I also kept busy nursing Mitzy, my ailing cat, back to health. She had tried catching one too many barn roof roll-offs in her little mouth. She missed every one. But not one missed her little head.
The one she almost caught, the one close call, the exception, was the double-ball barn roof roll-off. I threw two balls on the roof. By some freak of fate, both balls rolled straight down the roof's pitch, one behind the other, and flew off the edge without careening left or right. Both balls led a straight shot, right at Mitzy. Ball one knocked Mitzy out cold. Ball two landed square on her left eye socket and stayed there.
She didn't lose that one.
However, she did lose her left eye, so that really didn't count.
Winter passed. Spring sprung. The smell of baseball was again in the air. The smell of oil on leather mitts. The smell of pine-tar on wooden bats. The smell of Black Jack chewing gum. The smell of Coach's stogie breath. The smell of Citrus Suckies.
The smell of Stanley Dumbrowski!
The stink of lies! The stench of deceit! There was only one explanation, so ridiculous, so impossible, even I, with my keen but tortured imagination, could not ever have imagined!
STANLEY HAD STAYED BACK!
Somehow the big goober had managed to doom himself to repeat his Senior year!
There he was. His hand full of leather, his mouth full of Citrus Suckies, at my try-outs, with my cup!
If the ball was hit in the air, I managed to let it hit the ground. Liners, grounders, bloopers, all of them passed through me like a cheap laxative! Once again, Stanley was flawless.
Coach's advice, "Be my Equipment Manager again this year. Earn a two year Varsity letter. And maybe, just maybe, as back-up first baseman, you'll get a chance to play. Or, quit! Get nothing! Have nothing! Be nothing! Finish high school a nothing!"
Decisions, decisions, decisions.
I ran home. Wee echoes whispered from deep within twit mental recesses, "'Tis far better to run the race and find a loser, than quit, and find a failure." Oh, shut up!
I needed time to think. "Fifty games." I needed my space to decide. "I will get a Varsity letter." I went straight to the barn. "Stanley could get sick." I bet I caught a zillion barn roof roll-offs. "And die!" Mitzy caught one and went totally blind. "I'LL DO IT!"
The first half of that season went remarkably, incredibly, no, amazingly well. We were 25-0.
Team comraderie, player bonding, was never as strong as on that year's team.
Mitzy was chosen Team Mascot and given the nickname "Ump".
Black Jack chewing gum was replaced by Citrus Suckies.
Stanley and I became friends. I no longer hoped he would die. Sick, yes. Die, no.
Coach was in heaven. He knew we had the ability and talent to go all the way. He had never coached a team to the play-offs. He knew we were unbeatable. My decision to stay on as Equipment Manager, this, my final Varsity year, was the right one.
At 32-0 my thoughts of playing were unimportant. I reveled in belonging.
38-0. As a team, as a unit, as buds, we couldn't do enough for each other. Stanley insisted I be named Interim First Baseman for all batting practices. What a guy!
43-0. Word had spread. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, started coming to the games. They had caught "The Fever!"
45-0. Never before had there been such a team. There would never be again.
47-0. Win, lose, or draw, whether we won the Finals, or Regionals, or the Nationals, was a minor issue.
48-0. To play the Chinese in the International World Series did not concern us.
49-0. To win all that and be invited to the White House and shake the hand of the President of the United States, well, even that didn't matter. All that mattered right now? Be the only team in Varsity Baseball History to go 50-0, a perfect season! Absolutely unheard of! Personified perfection! A classifiable phenomenon!
"OH... GO TEAM... GO TEAM... GO TEAM GO! OH... WIN TEAM... WIN TEAM... WIN TEAM WIN!"
Two PM. A beautiful, balmy, sunny Sunday, October afternoon. History was about to be written. The FIFTIETH Game. THE 50th. The last and final hurrah was an hour away.
Since "The Fever" struck, I'd come to acknowledge my importance to the team and the team to me. Even the Equipment Manager's Bag, ball bag too, had become lighter to the touch. I had long ago stopped trudging to the ballfield dragging equipment behind me. The once despised dirty deed, I now did with delight. With verve and bounce.
Parents, relatives, and friends, arrived early, picnic baskets and blankets in hand, to claim prime viewing space.
Players milled about, laughing, joking. They waited for gear. They waited for me.
The opposing team arrived. They filed off the bus, lambs to the slaughter.
A short distance beyond third, Coach and Stanley sat. Alone. A curious sight. Coach beckoned to me. I dropped the Equipment Manager's Bag and hustled over.
Coach said the words I had waited two long seasons to hear. "So, you ready to be a hero?"
All I could say was, "Huh?"
Stanley sat totally motionless. He had burst a hemorrhoid taking a dump. He cried.
I had no idea what to say. I had no idea what to do. I had no idea what a hemorrhoid was. Suddenly, I became very scared. I gave Stanley my last Citrus Suckie and, because Coach knew everything, I asked, "What's a hemmorhoid?"
Coach just shook his head and told me to, "Get ready." Stanley just sat, and sucked, and cried. Stanley's parents, Mr. Escalator Stair Tread Face and Mrs. Cow, gave me the thumbs up as I raced back.
2:45 PM. The American Flag was run up the pole. Proudly, we as a bonding congregation, representing every Smalltown USA kid whoever laced up a pair of cleats, proudly we fumbled the National Anthem.
I found some cleats. Stanley offered his glove and cup. Glove, yes. Cup, no.
3:05 PM. Game time! Players' names were announced, one by one, as we took our positions.
"And playing first base..." Gawd, what a rush! I am First Baseman! Yes!
Coach was rummaging through the Equipment Manager's Bag when his words washed over me again and again. "So, you ready to be a hero?" I stood at first base, all goose-bumpy.
The Umpire stood behind homeplate. In a very officious voice he bellowed, "BATTER UP. PLAY... Play...?" Hold it, something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong.
Infielders looked to the outfielders. Outfielders looked to the basemen. Parents looked to each other. The Dumbrowskis looked like they each cut one. The air was thick with something. The silence was deafening.
Then Coach, in a most memorable, unnerving, disembodied monotone said, "Hey, kid?"
"The balls! The balls! The balls, kid, the balls! You don't have the balls!"
"Uh-hee," I heard myself squeak.
Snickers and sniggers and chuckles and chortles and coughs and gasps filled the air.
"I do too!" I proudly overstated.
"WHERE?" Coach yelled.
I yelled right back, "IN MY BALL BAG!" Humiliation to the 1000th power!
Coach up-ended my ball bag. Zip. Zero. Nada. No balls. Nowhere. Not a one.
It was then I remembered, last night, I used the bag to carry Mitzy to the vet to be put to sleep, after she had chased the sound of her last barn roof roll-off right into the path of that hay baler. I had left the balls in the field. That's why the Equipment Manager's bag was so light!
We forfeited the game.
The season ended, 49-1. I never played first base that day. I never played first base again.
I was never a hero.
Oft times I ponder those good ol' days. And, for the most part, I look back and smile.
But, the question, the one unanswerable question that has plagued me to this very day? I can't help but wonder, I really can't help to wonder what would've happened...
I only had the balls?
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