Thanks to my usual cast and crew of advance readers and editors, especially Dragonsweb, The Old Fart and WorldWanderer
And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green
And the people played their crazy game with a joy I'd never seen
And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer
Yes, there used a ballpark right here
And there used to be rock candy and a great big Fourth of July
With the fireworks exploding all across the summer sky
And the people watched in wonder, how they'd laugh and how they'd cheer
And there used to be a ballpark right here
Now the children try to find it
And they can't believe their eyes
'cause the old team just isn't playing
And the new team hardly tries
And the sky has got so cloudy
When it used to be so clear
And the summer went so quickly this year
Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here
Frank Sinatra: The Reprise Collection, Disc 4
Arranger: Gordon Jenkins
Written by: Joe Raposo
I never should have allowed myself to turn forty!
I knew that it was a really bad idea at the time, but somehow I went ahead and did it anyway. That'll teach me! Then to make things worse, I just turned forty-five last month and hated it so much that I just spent the day in bed curled up in a ball whimpering.
The aches and pains just get worse, particularly the knees. They held up nicely until I turned thirty-seven and then they went to hell fast. I kept playing ball on them for another five years, mostly now at the far end of the bench and then finally for a two year stint in Japan playing in agony on wobbly pegs just toughing it out for just one final big paycheck. I'd never been a top star player and sometimes during my career I earned closer to the league minimum than a fat star free-agent salary. It earned me enough money to finish paying off my overly expensive house in San Francisco and stick everything else in some high grade municipal bonds that pay enough in annual dividends for me to live very comfortably until I get my pension. I'd never been wildly rich, but I'd been mostly pretty smart about my money and had made some decent investments for my non-playing days.
Unfortunately those last two seasons probably brought me ten years closer to my eventual knee replacement surgery. And maybe my right hip too. Perhaps also my right shoulder, if I can get a bulk rate discount. Having played in the Major Leagues for 17 years and sixty-four days, I'm fully vested in the health care system, but the surgery co-pays are still a bitch.
Enough bitching. Baseball has been very, very good to me since I was drafted in the sixth round at the age of seventeen right out of high school. I progressed quickly through the minors and got my first call-up to the majors two days after my twenty-first birthday, and the next spring won a spot on the big league club as the everyday starting second baseman, and kept the job, more or less, for the next fourteen years playing for five different teams. After few more years riding the bench as a utility infielder for three different teams it was pretty obvious that it was time to hang up my cleats for good — and I should have ... maybe, but I loved the game too much to quit.
I spent the following year in serious denial playing for an independent league AAA farm club hoping for a miracle call-up to the show, but it didn't happen. The next year I accepted the fact that my MLB playing days were over and agreed to a two year contract to play ball in Japan. It was ok. They liked my hustle and my skill flexibility to play every infield and most outfield positions, but by that point I had nearly nothing left in my gas tank. I didn't quite embarrass myself on the field, but the results were at best just pretty mediocre to average. Still, it was a good paycheck and it certainly beat selling insurance or used cars for a living.
This time I didn't need any hints to know when to quit and walk away ... for good.
I'd had a good run. Since the day I graduated from high school I'd never worked a single day of my life at a real job, and for part of my professional playing career I'd even been a minor star during my prime, good for at least ten home runs and twenty stolen bases each season. Pretty darned good at times, especially for a middle infielder like me, but I would never get an invitation to the Hall of Fame, until they open a wing just for the rest of us mere mortals. I did earn two Gold Gloves and three All-Star appearances, and the awards look nice sitting on my fireplace mantle, but Cooperstown has never given me a call to put either my bat or glove into the museum, nor will they ever.
The bad side about having been a career professional athlete all of my adult life is that I had never gone to college and didn't have a lick of experience at doing anything else normal with my life. I didn't even have an off-season hobby that I could cultivate into a second career. Looking back on it, I should have done something useful with my six month long off-seasons. Something ... anything! Learned carpentry, collected antiques, gotten a real estate license ... anything to fill the time just a tad more productively.
I didn't. Now, retired for nearly two full years now, I was bored out of my rather empty skull and quietly going crazy looking at the ever constricting four walls of my house. Don't get me wrong, I love San Francisco and I probably played the five best years of my entire career here so sometimes older fans still remember me, but it was getting old playing resident tourist. Not to mention that some long ignored voices were calling to me, beckoning me to return back home to Chicago. My mother was getting too old to tend to my disabled father and she was almost begging for my help. I had no problems with sending her money — I had done so for over twenty years, the problem was that I had no intention of ever being in the same house with my father again. He'd had two heart attacks and a stroke, but the surly old bastard was just too mean to die.
My father was the only son of a Lithuanian immigrant who arrived in Chicago in 1938 and worked in the meat plants for forty years. My father did the same, in fact both men were carved from the same unyielding block of granite, and each treated their wives and children with the same brutality and insensitivity that they used while cutting carcasses. My father didn't like baseball and never once watched me play a game, either in my high school or major league career, but he loved the Chicago Bears football team with a passion. It was my mother who signed my professional baseball contract for me when I was seventeen so that I could leave home — hopefully forever. She knew then that she had lost me but the alternative was worse ... I was pretty good and ready, and quite able, to kill my own father the very next time he laid his brutish fists upon me.
I wasn't completely insensitive to my family. I called and wrote, occasionally, and I'd visit my mother every season when passing through Chicago, but I never once again set foot inside the family home. I would arrange to pickup my mother from the street corner or meet her elsewhere and then take her out for a little shopping and a nice dinner. I'd offered more times than I could count to buy her a home of her own if she would just leave my father — but she never would. She was catholic and divorce was unthinkable to her, then and still now. If not happy, she was at least content with her life and was prepared to live and deal with my father for another forty years, if necessary.
It was a miracle that I didn't inherit the family anger management problems. If anything, I'm too patient and count to at least twenty before I even think about blowing my stack. I can count the number of times that I've lost my temper since I became an adult on one hand, with fingers left over. Much too patient probably sometimes ... something my ex-wife took advantage of shamelessly. She was an expert at passive-aggressive manipulation and for four years she ruled the roost until I came home early from a road-trip three days early with a slight injury to find her our bed with her boyfriend. She'd been having an affair with him for nearly two years and had been supporting him with my money. She had been patiently waiting to divorce me after the end of this season when I would be a free-agent and would undoubtedly get a fat pay increase by moving to another team. It very nearly worked — I hadn't suspected a thing.
We lived in a no alimony state at the time, and after hiring a good PI to lock down all of the evidence, I escaped from the divorce without losing even a sock, let alone my shirt. I even received a default judgment for theft from her boytoy to recover the money she had lavished upon him. She loved him enough to marry him, and as far as I know they're still together. To stay out of jail, he sends me a check every month for $20, so I can't sue him for non-payment, but I know I'll never receive back anything close to the full owed amount. In some bad moods, I've considered selling my debt to the nastiest south side mob-owned collections agency I can find, for ten cents on the dollar just so I could enjoy the fun of watching the professional leg-breakers collect! Nah, I am over it ... and I guess everyone has a right to try and find a little happiness in this world.
Anyway, to make a long story short, Mom's health is none too good now as well and it's getting harder for her now to tend after dear old dad, who has been in a wheelchair since his third heart-attack. I really need to pay her a visit ... as soon as I can think of a way to help her that she would accept — other than moving in back home! About some things, she's as stubborn as my father.
Boredom makes you do strange things, like kick up your heels and yell out 'Oh, hell yes!' when you get an invitation in the mail to be the paid guest of a Caribbean cruise line for one of its regular "Legends of Baseball" cruises. Ok, the actual honorarium payment wasn't very much ... but I would get paid airfare, a 1st class cabin and VIP treatment. That alone was enough to make me accept their offer five minutes later over the phone.
I really needed a change of scenery!
The first cruise as a guest was actually a lot of fun. Most of my other 'so-called' "Legends" were other minor stars like me that had had long careers and some minimal name recognition, along with one or two borderline almost HOF'ers thrown in for name appearance. You can't get a real bonifide enshrined Hall of Fame player for the kind of peanuts they were paying, not when they can get at least fifty to over a hundred dollars for each and every autograph they sign. They are a commodity, and not to be wasted signing for free on a cruise only to see the signed photos and balls showing up on eBay immediately afterwards.
Unlike most of my veteran ball playing companions, I took the effort to show up for all of our scheduled events (mostly) sober, and I put on (and kept on) my best public relations smile the entire five days of the cruise. Surprisingly, it was the youth baseball skill clinics that I enjoyed the most. I hadn't before shown much if any interest in coaching, especially kids, but I found I had the patience to do it ... and sometimes even enjoy it! My other vets would disappear the minute their scheduled times were over, but increasingly I found myself remaining and staying until the last kid ... and older mature fans, were done.
The word got around that I was the 'nice' former ballplayer, and the cruise line happily signed me up for all of their following Legends cruises that year, both in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, Baja and even the Alaskan cruises. They even agreed to a very minor pay increase in my honorarium.
That year I spent about twelve weeks on-board various ships, and having the time of my life. At home, I began to become involved with the local Little League, acting as sort of a roving instructor for all of the city teams ... unpaid ... and loving every minute of it!
One of the very best things about Little League is Little League Moms, many of which are mostly certainly MILF's. Oh, yeah definitely. I've had more than one coach tell me that after they select the best players for their team they then fill in the rest of the roster by picking the kids with the hottest looking moms. The coaches might have their fun with the bored housewives looking for a little excitement, but there was no shortage at all of very pretty divorcees ... some of which were even nice to be around outside of a bedroom. Soon I was juggling two different ones that I sort of liked a lot, but didn't quite 'love' either of them. I think they both wanted a bit more from me, but were quite willing to accept what I was capable of offering. I think they even knew about each other too, but were polite enough to not discuss the competition.
Still, both relationships were sliding into 'friends with benefits' territory when I finally did meet a woman on a cruise that seemed to cover all of my bases, but with a frosty glare, struck me out on three pitches, looking.
Marcy Lynn Rutherford was an impossible woman to overlook. She was tall with long golden wheat colored hair that fell nearly to her skimpy bikini bottom and she had large round pale breasts that hardly slumped at all inside of her nearly equally insufficient top. Nearly at once, my stomach churned exactly the way it did during my playing days when I stepped up to bat against one of the game's premier fastball pitchers, a menace who could (and often did) throw a hundred-mile an hour fastball past me before my eyes had even blinked.
She was out of my league, as far as looks were concerned, and from the looks of some of the single men nearby she had already been singled out by the wolfpack as their preferred intended prey. Over the next hour, I watched better, taller and much more handsome men than me approach her to get shot down cold. Strikeouts, every one.
She was none too sober, even by the early afternoon, but she seemed to be quite in the mood to [celebrate], and often had her teenaged son and daughter with her. A little snooping (ok, stalking) revealed that she was a very merry brand-new divorcee who was here for a "Quilting Cruise", and most very definitely not here to dally with men, and very certainly not looking to start even a quickie short term romance.
I thought it was a rather clever marketing tool of the cruise line to have quilting events for the women while the sons and husbands were attending the Baseball Legends events, keeping everyone busy and happy. This is how I got to meet her rather troubled son, Jeffery.
Jeffery seemed to be about fifteen or so, lanky and nearly already as tall as I was. I never quite made it to 5 foot — nine inches and been slightly resentful for most of my life. I recognized the lad at every single Legends event, but he stuck to the back of the crowds, never asked a question, and never brought himself up to the front to receive any personal instruction.
I sized him up as a young pitcher, especially the way his fingers constantly gripped and adjusted themselves around a worn baseball in his hands. Unsigned; even three days into this five day cruise the young lad had not spoken to a single one of the former players or asked for any autographs.
As per usual, after our afternoon clinic was over at five o'clock, nearly all of the other players skedaddled, except for me and a semi-famous pitcher from the sixties and seventies. His career had gotten off to a HOF start but injuries, a reported sex scandal involving wife swapping with another player, and a fondness for the bottle shortened his career. Mostly sober at the moment, Pete the Pitcher stayed with me for another half hour until the last guests had received some time with us. Now, at this very last moment, young Jeff decided that it was now or never and he boldly gathered the courage to come up to us to ask his questions about pitching, and he had quite a few.
While showing the lad (slightly grudgingly ... it was definitely Miller Time for him) how to grip the ball to throw a four-seam fastball, Pete made the quite innocent but terrible mistake of touching his hand, to help adjust the finger grip correctly, and like a jackrabbit, Jeff became startled and suddenly moved back a good five feet away. It was pure fight or flight reflex, and I'd seen this look twice before, on kids that have been physically or sexually abused.
Pitcher Pete shrugged and shuffled off to the 1st class bar for the evening. We had one event, a meet and greet cocktail mixer at 7:30 p.m., but Pete liked getting an early head start on his serious drinking. Jeffery didn't quite sidle off, or even run, but he now looked at me warily. He was still burning with questions and I was the last pro left to talk to.
I helped an eight-year old (with his father) learn how to do second base fielding drills for another fifteen minutes until at last Jeff was more or less alone with me on the deck, albeit with lots of folks around on other parts of the deck. We had a rather large open area of deck fenced in with netting so that nearly anything was possible, including batting practice. There was even a pair of pitching mounds at both sixty-feet six inches (pro) and an adjustable one for the various Pony League and Little League official lengths.
Tired of the stand-off, I smiled and waved at him. "Jeff, that was your name, wasn't it? Do you still have any questions that I could answer?"
Nope. Like a shot, the flight instinct won and he ran off. This, I thought, was the end of it.
Two hours later while at the mixer, I saw Jeff once again ... along with his very drink fortified mother, who barreled straight for me like a screaming line drive.
"How dare you touch my son!" She screamed, loud enough that all conversation in the cocktail lounge stopped, and every eye was turned upon us.
"Pardon?" I replied, genuinely quite confused.
"Jeffery said he was at the baseball clinic and one of the drunk old players grabbed at him!"
"Mom!" Jeff interjected in a weak, very embarrassed tone one voice. "He wasn't that drunk, and he was only trying to help me grasp the ball ... it was ok ... really ... and this wasn't the guy!"
Well, thank goodness someone defended me, but Marcy was really a bit too potted to listen, or quite comprehend. She slurred something that I couldn't quite make out and decided to finish our conversation while she could still stand upright. By finish it, I mean she slapped me hard on the cheek.
She'd hit a man before ... I could tell that she'd had some practice.
Her thirteen year-old daughter Joni then arrived on the scene to grab her mom's right arm — hard, and Jeff was also now starting to tow her away from the scene when rescue sort of arrived.
Pete the Pitcher was nearly as wobbly on his pins as Marcy, but he had decades more experience talking and navigating while being utterly blotto. He came to my side and with more class than I gave the old perv credit for, he admitted his innocent crime and made a full apology t0 her, and everyone within earshot. In a few minutes the fuss was over — no harm, no foul. Marcy was escorted out and poured into her bed by a pair of polite but firm stewards, Pete had himself another five or six drinks and bought me four glasses of really good back-shelf private reserve caliber red wine in reparation for the misunderstanding, and then he tottered to his cabin to do some really serious drinking. I made myself scarce for the rest of the evening, and stuck to lemonade and a murder-mystery novel in my own cabin for the rest of the night.
During our morning skill session, I was surprised to see that Jeff was back, once again watching from the rear, but when his mother and younger sister joined him right before the session ended at eleven, they then waited until the last fan had left before they together came up to speak with me. This time, in a more peaceable mood.
"I'm sorry." She said. "I was drunk and way out of line. We've had some ... issues in the recent past and I've been a bit overprotective since. What I did was inexcusable and I can't say I'm sorry often enough. Will you forgive me?"
"Under two conditions, first that I can give your son Jeff his lessons ... with anyone around to supervise that you wish, and second that you and your family join me for dinner up in 1st class tonight."
Actually, I was pretty sure that the second condition wouldn't fly, and she did think at least twice about before accepting. We shook hands, agreed to be friends, and she and her daughter Joni left for their lunchtime quilting workshop while Jeff and I discussed the endless subject of pitcher throwing mechanics. Naturally, I had plenty of other fans to entertain with old baseball stories and kids to coach, but I did get some time, more or less alone with him to work on his throwing fundamentals.
After awhile, Peter the Pitcher even forgot that he was annoyed at the kid, and also at me for not drinking with him all night, that he came over to offer additional advice. Fortunately, one of my best friends on my first team was a pitcher. We'd been roommates in AAA together and during our four years in the majors together we'd hung out a lot and talked more than a little shop. I wasn't much of a pitcher myself, but I knew the basic mechanics about how to throw six different breaking pitches. Now I was teaching a couple of the gentler ones to Jeff.
Coaches have two theories about teaching the breaking stuff to kids. Some do, some don't. As a high school pitcher, unless you have a fastball clocked in the high nineties, you've got to have something other than the old 'number one' heater to rely on. Hitting is timing - and you just can't groove the same pitch over and over again. Some say curve balls and especially sliders put too much arm strain on a young growing arm. Others say that this is exactly the time to start developing that necessary arm strength. I split the difference myself. Every pitcher needs a good changeup and an acceptable curveball, but I saved the mysteries of the slider for another year. That pitch screws up even veteran arms.
By the time we finished up our final workout session of the late afternoon, even Pete the Pitcher was cheerfully giving advice and minor adjustments to Jeff's delivery. Already the kid had the arm strength to throw a nasty rising fastball and a slightly cut one that was a bit slower and had some nastily wicked movement that thought would make a good changeup. With some more work on his throwing mechanics he was going to be a very good high school pitcher hopefully next spring.
Dinner didn't turn out to be nearly as stressful as I had been concerned it might be. She was sober, but from what I could tell, both of her children had pushed her hard into turning up for this dinner date, and she was under strict instructions to talk about nothing other than the weather. It seems it had been awhile since she had been on a date, if having dinner in a large restaurant with ones children counts. Gradually, as she began to relax, we found that we could safely add quilting and even baseball to our discussion. She liked the sport and attended her son's Little League games faithfully. My mother had done hand-quilting when she was younger, before the arthritis in her hands became too limiting, so I found we actually did have quite a bit in common.
After dinner, 'we' even took an evening walk around the top decks. She had bought bargain tickets for this trip, so I took everyone on a nice long tour of the upper 1st class decks, and impulsively I invited her to dinner the following night at the fancy-shmancy French restaurant up top. Surprisingly, she readily accepted.
Marcie was indeed newly divorced, with the judge's signature on the decree probably still damp. Her ex-husband, Ed, seemed to share a lot in common with my father; he was an ill-tempered surly man who was equally quick to use his fists to keep his wife and children in-line. When Marcie heard her daughter scream out one night and discovered that Ed was about to initiate their thirteen year old daughter into the duties of sex, that was the final straw. She filed for divorce and filed to get a restraining order against him, which he constantly violated.
I was leading Marcie and the kids back to their stateroom quite late that evening when we soon discovered that Ed had been stalking her yet again, and had apparently followed her to this cruise. I guess Illinois restraining orders aren't particularly valid while in international waters in the Caribbean. He wasn't anywhere to be seen, but he had angrily tossed about everything in her small stateroom, carved up the sheets and pillows with a knife and had left an angry note on her night table. The kid's small cabin next door was undamaged.
We called security and I demanded that they move her to a new stateroom (they even upgraded her a little to a small suite with attached rooms for the children that was bigger and nicer, and with a ocean view) and a check of the hallway security camera confirmed that the intruder was indeed Ed. He'd apparently used a false name and passport, because his name was not listed as being a passenger. There was some thought that he might have joined the ship at our most recent Port, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, where he could have flown directly from the states to meet the ship and not needed any passport at all. Security said they would check this out, but we didn't have much hope that they would do much of anything else about the situation.
Getting everyone settled into their new larger cabin took awhile and I found myself getting more and more nervous, as if the opposing pitcher in the final innings was going to mow down our entire batting order and keep me away from that one last at-bat where I might be able to get the game winning hit to save the day! Silly, but my nerves were just like that.