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Sometimes, if I concentrate hard enough, I can still see them all. Mike, Al, Tom, Mark, and some of the guys whose names I cannot now remember but still see their faces. We wore bell bottoms sometimes, most had Converse All-Stars, the ones Dr. J wore or those old style blue running shoes Nike first produced. There was always some sort of t-shirt worn too, of the color variety, maybe even the little pocket on the left chest. There might even be a shirt with iron on letters, the white, Bookman Old Style letters that said, Zeppelin or Kilroy Was Here. If someone was really pushing it, they had a sewn on round patch with Wiley Coyote holding the Road Runner by the neck with the caption “Beep Beep My Ass”. I always loved it when someone would wear that. Swearing on someone’s jeans, that was so cool.
I was a young boy, eight years old, when I met all of them, except Mike and Al. They were my next door neighbors and were the first ones to befriend me all those many years ago when, as a shy boy of seven or eight I met them. It’s probably better stated that they met me. See, I was at my father’s house, it was his Sunday to have me, and I had a small plastic device similar to a periscope that I was using to spy on them from behind my father’s white Ford mercury.
Not being much of a spy, Mike saw me. He was all of ten years old, and asked me if I wanted to join them. Mike and Al were brothers, Al the oldest at eleven, and they would play every sport for every season. If it was summer, they’d play basketball, baseball, and even chip in their back yard which was somewhat connected to ours. If it was winter, street hockey. Football was a constant, so it didn’t matter what season it was.
On that day, they were putting in the back yard. It really wasn’t a yard as it was patchy grass, dirt, and some rocks between two garages and a large oak tree in the back corner of the space. I came out from behind that car a little embarrassed, with my periscope spy glass in my hand and we became instant friends. From then on, each Sunday when that Dad had his day and we were home, we’d spend part of the afternoon doing what little boys do, and a sport was always involved.
Eventually, the courts made the decision that it was best for me to live with my father, so he picked me up from the foster home and I became a regular fixture in Melrose Park, and on the sports fields with Mike and Al.
The first time I was invited to play “lob league”, was shortly after my arrival. Mike and Al would ride their bikes through the neighborhood and “pick up” guys to play. On a good day, we’d get nine or ten players, divide up the teams, and play on a ball field very close to our house. It was used for little league games run by the town, but it wasn’t used much and fell into a bit of disrepair, so we commandeered it for ourselves. It was perfect.
There was a fence that ringed the outfield, two hundred feet to dead center, with a building behind the fence so that if you hit a “dinger”, it might bounce off the building. To this day, I’m not sure what the building is, but it was rounded, looking like some sort of concrete cupcake on the other side of our ball fence.
Most times on those hot summer days, one of the fields had to be “automatically out” as we didn’t have enough players to cover each position. It was always right field, as most of the batters were “righties”. I was the odd one, as I batted “leftie”, so when it was my turn to hit, there would be an audible groan as players had to shift fields and now left field was automatically out.
“Hey! DiMatteo’s up! You have to move,” the yell came from the plate.
“OK,” came the reply, sometimes followed up with a “why can’t he just bat righty like the rest of us.”
“Just move,” Al would say. He was always the oldest and everyone did what he said, sort of like the biggest brother issuing a command. Players would move and that would be that. I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother me that I was a “lefty” batter, but it did at times. Everyone wants to fit in, especially little kids who are in a new environment. But, like everyone else, I adjusted. The funny thing is that I threw right handed. I was an enigma as a player because of that fact for a lot of those guys, and for myself too.
Pitching was the position no one wanted for that meant that you were probably a bad fielder, and no one wanted to be known as that. For a kid, being a bad fielder was almost like a curse or something, but, at least being the pitcher allowed you to play in the game. You also became the pitcher if you were the new guy. New guys always had to be evaluated. It was a strict process and you paid your dues by pitching until the process was over. If you could hit, generally you got to pick your position because hitting, especially if you had power, put you among the gods of lob league, and as a god, you got to play the position you liked best. If you were average, like I was, you pitched until such time as someone lesser talented showed up, then you were released from purgatory, to enter the realm of real baseball. Since we played “pitcher’s hand”, the spot was more important than we realized, but to play any of the infield positions was really the goal. You’d made it among us if you played there. Mike was always the shortstop as he was the best player among us, and Al, well, he could hit the cupcake building almost at will, so his status was that above Zeus.
I was close to the youngest, being allowed to play due to my friendship with Mike and Al, but, as such, I had to pitch. Lob the ball over the plate and see what happens.
Sometimes, a player would hit a screamer back at you, and you hoped that it didn’t hit you in the face. Other times, you served up meat balls to be jacked over the two hundred foot fence to bounce off the concrete cupcake. There was the rare occasion in which someone would take a poor swing and a dribbler right in front of the plate would happen. The ball would sit there as an unearthed diamond and then it would be a sprint to see how fast you could get to it versus how fast the batter could make it to first base. In “pitcher’s hand”, if the pitcher got to the ball, either by fielding it or having it thrown to him before the runner tagged the base, he was out.
If Mark was batting, it would be a tough play. He was always one of the fastest players on the diamond. A slow roller to either side of the pitcher might be a hit, especially if he had on his Converse All-Stars. We all seemed to be faster when we wore those, and I know we jumped higher for sure. Mark was the fastest of us all, so it was a regular occurrence that he’d be on base. He’d beat one out and we’d all marvel at how he got down the line so fast.
If it was Tom, well, let’s just say there wasn’t that much of a rush. He ran to the base as a newborn calf on unsteady legs. It was like his brain had a bad wire connecting it to his legs, with those lower limbs shorting out as he ran. Rarely did he beat a ground ball to the bag, the fielder almost always being able to throw it to the pitcher before he made it down the line. Out! In later years, he would become a dominant pitcher, possessing a curve ball that was almost unhittable in little league, pony league, high school and college play. In lob league? Didn’t matter, he had a hard time running.
For my part, I was a hit or miss hitter. I could run, for a nine year old, but couldn’t control my bat to direct the ball. I made a lot of outs hitting to the open field where I was an automatic out. Guys would grumble and groan as they’d have to chase the ball in the “out” field just so we could continue play.
Eventually, I was a part time pitcher, getting to play in the outfield. I was able to track a ball pretty well for some reason, so that made me a good fit out there. I’d always wanted to play the infield though, having dreams of Louis Aparicio or Ernie Banks, so I begged Mike to let me play shortstop. He always told me “No, Mike, you need to be in the outfield.” He’d say it with authority, so I always listened, walking each inning to my designated spot in left field. I’d graduated from the pitcher’s mound, but not before I had to earn my place among the players.
One day, I got my wish. Mike told me I could play short. I think he got tired of my hounding him, so he relented. I was not good, being afraid of the hissing ball popping off of the bat. The worst moment that day was when someone hit a pop up to short. I camped under it, put up my glove and promptly lost sight of the ball. It hit be square in the face, the audible thump eliciting the ever popular “OHHHH” that boys emit when something interesting or wild occurs. My nose bled, but I refused to come out of the game, taking my place the next inning in the outfield. So ended my days at short…forever.
Tom liked to intimidate the new guys, and since I was the new guy, I became the prime target. The first couple of times we’d play, he’d take the ball, jam it in my stomach and tell me, “You’d better pitch it good, kid.”
Needless to say, as Tom was older than me, I was intimidated. Neither Mike nor Al stepped in, so I’d take the ball after the butterflies were disturbed in my stomach, and then proceed to pitch. Each time Tom handled the ball, he’d bring it to the mound and tell me I’d better pitch it good, jamming it into my stomach.
After a couple games of this treatment, I was nearing a decision. It’s the decision that every boy has to make sometime, at least in my neighborhood. You are either going to continue to take it, or face your accuser and take a stand, damn the torpedoes. It was becoming clear to me that I had to make a stand.
I was not the biggest kid at eight years old, and Tom was bigger than me. Mike and Al were the biggest, but the way we grew up, you had to make your own way, either by standing up and being counted, or by being the victim for all time. In the modern day, it sounds cruel, but I think that it was necessary for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was teaching a certain amount of mental toughness. Stand up for yourself and you’ll be respected, win or lose. We all felt that way, and to this day I still believe there is a time to take a stand, defend what you believe in and be counted.
I decided to make my stand with Tom while we were playing a football game a few weeks later. We were playing tackle on a small patch of grass in front of one of the factories when Tom took a cheap shot at me while I was down. He landed on me, with his elbow hitting me between the shoulder blades when I was face down in the grass.
This was not a calculated decision on my part, but one born out of frustration and anger, and without thinking, I stood up started yelling at him and then began to punch him from every angle I could think of. I was throwing punches so hard that I lost my balance and fell to my knees, again face down in the grass, only to get myself up, continue to yell, and again, resume my assault from every conceivable angle available to me.
I was unaware, but the boys surrounded us and were yelling too, anxious to see who would come out on top. I think Mike and Al knew what was coming, and also knew that I had to make my place in the group, so they let it go.
When it was over, Tom and I were both breathing heavy, but Tom’s eyes were as wide as coffee saucers. He stood up, backed away, and that was that. I smiled on the inside, but kept my “don’t mess with me” face visible on the outside. I’d earned my spot and Tom never jammed a ball or cheap shotted me in any way again. In fact, as boys are wont to do, we became good friends, with me eventually helping him get a job working in my father’s restaurant in later years.
I learned that day that I didn’t need anyone to fight my battles, that I had it in me to do it myself. I still feel that way.
The days always seemed to end too soon. Despite the dust up our noses, fights, arguments over safe and out, wins and losses or admiring the towering home runs Al seemed to hit so often when he was at bat, the game had to end, and we’d all go our separate ways. Mike, Al, and I would walk home together with Mark joining us as he lived just down the street from us.
We’d talk about the game, the great plays we made, the hits or outs, and, of course, the home runs Al hit. We’d have dust in our hair, dust in our mouths, and an occasional fat lip to take home as trophies. We wore those injuries with pride, knowing that we played hard that day possessing the battle scars to prove it. We thought we were warriors, battle hardened veterans of the playing fields, and loved that we were bleeding, bruised and a bit battered.
Looking back on those days almost fifty years ago, I miss them. I miss them now more than I ever did. I think I miss them for the same reasons we all look back at our youth…we’re getting older. Seems simple, plain, and honest. When we get older, we tend to crane our necks and see what we left behind. As the road behind us gets longer, we squint our eyes to see what’s back there through the dust we’ve kicked up. It’s different for all of us, as there are good times and bad, but if we look hard enough, we can see it all. When I look in that direction, I can see Mike, Al, Tom, and Mark still on that ball field, with me still trying to fit in as an insecure kid whose father just got custody of him.
I went home after every game and talked to my father about how I did. It was one of the things that I remember most fondly. Dad always had something positive to say, whether it was to “keep trying”, “great job, I’m proud of you”, or something like that. I really think those moments helped us bond in those early days, just another way lob league contributed to my life.
Sometimes, if I’m back home, I’ll tour the neighborhood. It’s only a three block square that’s still ringed with factories on the edges, the factories acting as a containment of sorts. I’ll drive slowly knowing each square foot where we once ruled, as a deposed king surveying his once territories. I’ll drive by and mentally mark various spots recalling what occurred, and smile. Maybe it was the times we spent kicking the ball over the street light for field goals, or where the mailbox used to be, a gathering place for us to gossip about the teachers we did or didn’t like or the latest neighborhood rumors. It might even be remembering the apartment buildings in the middle of the block that we’d run through as we played hide and seek. No matter what they are, my face always hurts from smiling as I remember.
The neighborhood has changed quite a bit in some ways, the factories changing hands or no longer occupied. Home Juice Company, the biggest of them all is gone, so the sweet smell of orange is no longer in the air as you pass by.
The field is no longer there either. Some time ago, the village powers felt they needed another of the cupcake buildings on top of our field. Sometimes progress isn’t progress, but it doesn’t matter. I always stop my car and sit there for a moment and can see all of us still there, like ghosts running the base paths and arguing if we beat the ball to the pitcher’s hand or not. I am reminded eventually though that there is one constant…the passage of time.
Mike and Al eventually moved away, becoming baptist ministers. I’ve never heard from them again, but every so often, search the internet to see if I can find them. I think I do, but can never be sure and have never picked up the phone to find out.
Tom went on to be an outstanding collegiate pitcher. In fact, we both attended the same university, although our lives took completely different paths. I didn’t see him much in college, but when I did, it was like old times, and we’d laugh a lot about those days playing the various types of ball we enjoyed.
Mark? He and I have been lifelong friends since those days. We became inseparable with some calling us M and M, probably after the candy. We played on the same football team as youth players, winning the league championship together. I was with him when he got engaged, and at the hospital for the birth of both his children. Today, we get our families together just after the Christmas holidays. We tell stories, and laugh, with our kids getting as big a kick out of our tales told over and over as we do telling them. We’re joined at the hip all because of a game called lob league.
There is so much to learn if we just let kids be kids, let them find their own path, and realize the importance of play, real play, not the parent organized, uniform wearing, travel kind. It’s different, and in many ways, better.
Sometimes, I think, as I’m doing now, that just for a moment I’d like to go back. Not stay, just go back for a little while, to laugh, smile, and maybe take the mound one more time, letting the spirits of the past see if they can get the ball by me.