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Authors: Michael Steinberg

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Still Pitching

BOOK: Still Pitching
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Still Pitching: A Memoir

Michael Steinberg

 

for Carole
.

with love and admiration

Contents

Prologue

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

Epilogue

Nothing flatters me more than to have it assumed that I could write prose, unless it is to have it assumed that I once pitched baseball with distinction.

—Robert Frost, in a letter to a fellow poet

There is nothing greater for a human being than to get his body to react to all the things one does on a ball field. It's as good as sex; it's as good as music. It fills you up.

—John “Buck” O'Neil, Kansas City Monarchs

[Baseball is] America's game; it has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere; it belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly as our Constitution laws; [it's] just as important in the sum total of our historical life.

—Walt Whitman

Prologue

1950. An overcast Sunday
morning in early June. I'm ten years old and I'm standing in our driveway on Beach 132nd Street in Belle Harbor: Our two-story, slate grey, wood frame house sits between Jamaica Bay, only a hundred yards to the west, and the Atlantic Ocean, four blocks to the east. Most of the other homes are brick two-stories, like the Ellerstein's next door, or split-level ranch houses, like Frieda Bergman's and the Sloan's across the street. In years to come, these houses would be the backdrop for the marathon stoop ball games my younger brother Alan and I would, play all summer long
.

On this particular morning, my grandmother Tessie, a rotund, stern woman, has just finished serving breakfast. My grandfather Hymie has already left to open up the pharmacy. This being Sunday, my mother is typically still asleep
.

Out in the driveway, I'm playing catch with my dad. I'm dressed in an oversized New York Giant baseball suit, a uniform I will soon renounce. My father is wearing his own Sunday softball uniform: royal blue tapered cotton pants with white trim down the sides and silver snaps on the bottom. His middle-aged paunch bulges slightly beneath a gold and navy nylon jersey with “Jerry's Esso” scripted across his broad chest. A sky blue cap crowned with a white J covers his bald spot. He looks a lot more imposing than the father I know who dresses in a suit and goes out on the road to sell table linens
.

As we toss a grass-stained baseball back and forth, I watch our neighbors pass by. They're heading to early Mass at St. Francis de Sales. The men and boys are wearing dark suits and ties, the women and girls have on tasteful, conservative, long dresses—their Sunday uniforms. I'm feeling smug now that Hebrew School is out for the summer. While Frankie Carney and Billy Creelman are sitting through boring church services, in a few minutes I'll be headed for Riis Park to watch my dad's team play its customary Sunday doubleheader
.

A half hour later I'm on the home team's bench at the Riis Park men's softball field. As the guys on the team slowly gather, in the distance I see families in terry cloth robes and bathing suits eating hot dogs and cotton candy as they stroll the raised boardwalk that runs parallel to the expansive, sandy public beach
.

My father's teammates are warming up for the first game. Most are in their late thirties and early forties, and they're all wearing uniforms like my dad's. Playing catch and pepper, laughing and kidding around, they look to me like the major leaguers I see on TV. They're so easy and intimate with one another—like they all belong to an exclusive club—a club I ache to belong to
.

Just before the first game begins, my heart's racing with anticipation. This week it's my turn to be batboy. Last Sunday, Smitty Shumacher's son, Eddie—a pudgy kid with perpetual smudges of dirt on his knees—sullenly performed that chore. To Eddie this is an annoying obligation. But not to me; when I hand a pine tarred Louisville Slugger to my dad, or to Lefty Benton, our stocky, blond first baseman, I feel all tingly inside. And when I watch Smitty glide into the hole between shortstop and third base, smoothly backhand a grounder, straighten up and plant his spikes in the dirt, then rifle the ball to Lefty at first base, I'm overcome by a catch-in-the-throat sensation that rivets my rubber spikes to the ground
.

This is the seed
of a dream, the beginning of a passionate obsession with baseball that would dominate my childhood and adolescent years and that—for better or worse—would inform many of the choices and decisions that ultimately shaped my adult self
.

1

I came to love baseball
in a roundabout way. Until age nine, I had an active distaste for the sport. And for good reason. In grade school pickup games, the neighborhood clique of guys—Louie Mandel, Freddy Klein, Allen Nathanson, and Frank Pearlman—and the top athletes—Rob Brownstein and Ronnie Zeidner—always chose each other first. I was one of the last to be picked. When I did get to play, I batted last and got shuffled out to right field, as far away from the action as possible. I also recall being ridiculed by the clique for “throwing like a girl” and for swinging the bat “like a rusty gate.” I was so afraid of making a mistake that I'd stand out in right field praying that the ball wouldn't be hit to me.

I was so ashamed of my incompetence that for years I refused my father's offers to play catch in the backyard and his invitations to watch the Sunday softball games at Riis Park. He didn't let on to me how disappointed he was. But I found out one day when I overheard him talking to my mother.

“It's unnatural, Stell,” he said. “I don't want him to grow up to be a sissy.”

“Don't push him Jack,” my mother said. “He'll come around when he's good and ready.”

It was an off-handed remark, but a perceptive one. No one understood me or my idiosyncrasies better than my mother did. She knew exactly how I operated. Perhaps, it's because for the first nine years of my life, I spent more time at home with her than I did with my father.

For as long as I could remember
, my mother, an ex-pre-school teacher, was a voracious reader. I recall that a lot of books, newspapers, and magazines—like
Reader's Digest
condensed editions, dictionaries and encyclopedias,
Sunday Times, Life, Colliers, Harper's, New Yorker
, and
Saturday Evening Post
—were always strewn around all over our kitchen table and living room floor.

According to her I was an avid reader and a bright, curious kid. Maybe that's how I seemed at home. But in school I was shy, scared, and withdrawn.

My aversion to school began in kindergarten, when Mrs. Buckley, our blue-haired teacher, singled me out because my finger paintings didn't look anything like the models she'd posted on the blackboard. From then on, I felt light-headed and nauseated every time we had to paint or draw. One time, she tacked my drawing up on the wall. I knew she'd be using it as an example of how not to draw. I felt a deep, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. So before she could say anything, I threw up all over the floor. After that everything became a blur. All I recall is my cousin Doris escorting me out of class and walking me home. I was so embarrassed by my behavior that at dinner I begged my mother not to send me back to school the next day.

My mother and Mrs. Buckley met a few days later. I don't know what transpired, but when my mother came home she told me I didn't have to go back to kindergarten that year. As soon as my father found out, he as much as ordered her to send me right back to school.

My mother stood her ground, and as it turned out, I didn't attend kindergarten. But all year I felt ambivalent and guilty that I hadn't “toughed it out,” like my father said I should have. I don't remember much else about that year except that until summer recess I went out of my way to avoid facing the neighborhood kids who were in my kindergarten class.

It was with much apprehension, then, that I started first grade. Every morning before I left for school I felt so sick to my stomach that I couldn't eat breakfast. It took a week or two to get over my fear of what I imagined the other kids might be saying about me. After that, I began to enjoy first grade. I even recall winning a class spelling bee and receiving a “word wizard” button from
Junior Scholastic
magazine.

Then it happened again. When Mrs. Krisberg was teaching us how to hold a pen, I got nervous and began to panic. After that my penmanship was so bad that at parent-teacher night Mrs. Krisberg told my mother that I had a motor skills deficiency.

Once more, over my father's objections, my mother pulled me out of school. I couldn't face the prospect of being at home again while the other kids were in class. I whined and pleaded, but it didn't matter. My mother was determined to see that the school system wasn't going to get away with miseducating her son.

She did, however, propose a compromise. She would work with me at home until the mid-year break—after which, I could go back to school. I wasn't happy about it, but at age six what were my options? That fall, we did my school lessons every day at the kitchen table—the same reading, writing, arithmetic, arts and crafts, and drawing assignments that everyone else was doing in class. When I tried to play with the other kids my age, they taunted me and called me names like “momma's boy” and “retard.” So I withdrew deeper into myself. That's when I discovered my first real passions: reading and writing.

It was my mother who
introduced me to books. Every night, before sleep, she would read to me from her collection of children's stories. At first, she read me the usual fairy tales and kid's books: Uncle Remus, Hans Christian Anderson, Grimm's, Winnie the Pooh. Most of these blur in my memory, though I vividly recall being enthralled by outcasts like Cinderella, Jack from
Jack in the Beanstalk
, and Pinocchio. It wasn't just their misfortunes that attracted me. I admired their resilience, their determination to overcome all obstacles. The seven-year-old “schlepper” that I was, I wanted to prove to all the kids in school that I could be as persistent as those characters and as tenacious as the Little Engine That Could.

What I remember best, though, is what it felt like to read: the exhilaration of discovering kindred spirits—authors and characters alike; the thrill of finding secret joys and hopes that I shared with fictional beings; the colorful pictures I could conjure up in my imagination; and the sense of being fully absorbed in the moment—suspended in time and space. I can remember times when I would start a book in the afternoon, and I would be shocked to find when I picked my head up that it was dark outside and that I'd forgotten to turn on the lights or take my afternoon nap.

At home I read wherever I could find a spot to hide out—in the bathroom, my bedroom, the basement. I was intoxicated by language and stories. When I didn't understand something, I loved looking it up in the dictionary or the encyclopedia. Often I was lonely and sad for days after I finished a book. It felt as if I'd lost one of my closest friends. On the other hand, it was so satisfying to struggle through a story until I reached the end. It soon became a matter of pride to finish everything I read, no matter whether I loved or hated the characters or plot. Over time, the compulsion to finish
anything
I started would become a habit that would carry me into adulthood.

As I got a little older, specific books and characters—like the Hardy Boys and Chip Hilton, Speed Morris, and Soapy Smith—the star athletes in Clair Bee's Chip Hilton series—felt more real to me than the neighborhood kids I knew. In fact, it was those Chip Hilton books that first made me aware of just how much attention and recognition you could get from being an accomplished athlete.

BOOK: Still Pitching
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ads

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