Spring Training



Neighborhood: Westchester

Spring Training
Our Backstop at Columbus Park by Joe Antinarella

I spent a few days last week in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and while the beach season is still some weeks away, something beyond the college Spring Break assault is on the front-burner for many Floridians: Major League Baseball’s spring training. It’s on TV, in the newspapers, and I overheard hotel guests at breakfast talking about attending a slew of pre-season games played up and down the Gold Coast. So everyone is excited about the upcoming season . . . everyone except me. It’s true that as a kid in the 60s, I sat through many an endless losing game at Shea Stadium in Queens. And I finally watched the 1969 “Amazin’ Mets” win the World Series. Back then, I often kept score on those confusing baseball scorecards that required close attention to the game and the use of hieroglyphic codes to record each pitch, swing and play. What was I thinking?

If we require just a modicum of excitement and slight adrenalin rushes, considering these as essential elements for attending any sporting event . . . well, baseball at any level might just not satisfy the casual fan. I realize that to so disrespect the national pastime borders on sacrilege, but I have to be honest: watching baseball brings on a level of boredom that is unparalleled even in typically mundane lives. I will admit openly that perhaps I don’t fully understand or appreciate the nuances of the game, the primal battle between pitcher and batter, the intricate strategy that underlies every movement on the field, every facial tick, every spit of excessive tobacco juice, every embarrassing grab of the pants and the constant twitchy movements of every player on the field. This is absolutely true. Perhaps it’s because baseball is a game that must be played and tit fails as a spectator sport. It’s too slow, too long and has too many breaks. It’s the only sport in which fans need a 7th inning stretch. Are you kidding . . . a professional sport that builds in a break for the spectators? Is it to catch our collective breaths, refocus our attention on the action or to refuel for the last two acts for a primordial battle? Hardly.

So as much as I am not looking forward to another baseball season of somnolence, I mark this time of year as a reminder. When I was younger, I actually played baseball with the neighborhood kids in the park across the street from the apartment building where I grew up. We rented a railroad tenement flat—four rooms all in a row—that shook when the trains rumbled by. It was a time, before cynicism reigned, when baseball was my entire world, and playing the game taught me something significant about life.

During most summers as a kid, I played baseball in Columbus Park along with the other boys in the Flats—a neighborhood made up of mostly immigrant families. The park, in the shadow of the New Haven line, transformed every spring and most of the summer to become our ball field. Neighborhood kids of all ages and abilities met in the park to play right after breakfast, sometimes took a break for lunch, and then played until dinner. On many long hot days we met again after dinner to play again until the street lamps and swarms of moths warned us that it was getting late. The next day the schedule was the same. We didn’t spend endless hours practicing. We just played. Everyone played and uneven sides meant that the team with the extra man usually did something to make it fair: they got one less strike, one less foul ball, one less out.

In particular, I still remember one neighborhood player, Vito—or “Veets”—a severely handicapped kid who played with us every day in the park; he had a deformed arm and hand and wore an unwieldy metal brace on his right leg. We didn’t know the cause or name of his affliction, but Veets could throw, catch and hit one-handed shots without any problem.

He labored terribly when he ran the bases after a hit, so if we didn’t need an out and he was close at first, we didn’t call him out. We didn’t announce this silent deal nor did we meet to discuss the value of this. We just did it. Veets wasn’t the fastest player or slickest fielder, but he always played—almost always as the designated underhand pitcher for both teams. On the mound, he kept his glove tucked under his bad arm when he pitched and then deftly reversed the process after the ball left his working hand. Veets managed pretty well, and he always got picked to play. We never thought of him as anything else but another kid who wanted to play baseball.

Sometimes at bat, he would hit the ball just right with his one-arm lash and send it far out into our imaginary outfield—better identified as anywhere past the sidewalk that dissected our field. But even the longest drive meant only a double for Veets; I can still picture his wide grin, as he turned his head quickly from side to side just to make sure he had really beaten the ball to second.

The park where we played, Columbus Park, wasn’t actually designed as a ball field or recreation area for kids, so home plate was just a rough pentagon we drew in the dust in front of a huge rock emblazoned with a copper relief of Christopher Columbus, the park’s namesake. First base became a well-worn oak tree, second a bare spot in the grass, and third an old shirt that somebody usually remembered to bring. If we forgot, we improvised by making a trip to one of the steel-wire trash baskets, and a paper bag or a flattened can was called into service. The pitcher’s mound, an oval bare spot, was worn after days, weeks and months of someone—usually Veets—digging his Keds into what could never remain grass for long. We learned to make do with what we had and accept our situation—an attitude Veets modeled for us every day.

We loved to play baseball back then, and we learned to play with kids of all abilities. Instead of making someone feel bad for missing a ball or striking out, we learned quickly that it would be better to encourage him so that next time he might make the play. We won or lost, for what it was worth those days, with the guys we had on the field. So we tried to make major league plays, and if we failed . . . we just came back to the park the next day to play again. No one coached us in the ways of hitting, throwing, catching or sliding. We naturally acquired these skills by watching someone who could do them. And if someone didn’t show up, we didn’t forfeit the game; we just agreed that if you hit the ball to right, where we could not field a player, it was an automatic out. Everyone always agreed and understood. You had to know when to compromise if you wanted to play in Columbus Park, but we were always ecstatic when we’d see someone in the distance running to the field to join us.

The beginning of spring training reminds me of those days in the park and especially of Veets. Where is he now? Does he remember those days in the park? As kids, we were never overtly schooled in accepting others with differences or those with physical handicaps; it just seemed natural for us back then to accept a kid like Veets. We learned a lot from watching a boy who struggled just to walk, to keep up with this rest of us. I can imagine now how difficult life must have been for Veets. In my mind’s eye, I can still see him in the distance limping towards the field dragging his bat and glove—ever smiling his wide grin. We never faulted him for what he couldn’t do, and we never prevented him from doing what he could. We couldn’t play without him—he was our pitcher.

So, as spring finds its way to us again, I admit that part of me misses those halcyon days. I must further admit that I am not looking forward with any degree of excitement to another baseball season; I am overjoyed through, that all this talk of spring training has allowed me to reurn in memory once again to a time when the only reason I rode my bike to the park was to play ball with my friends — Veets included.

Joe Antinarella, a proud Native New Yorker, has been teaching Writing and English for thirty-five years. He has found talented writers in search of their voices in a middle school, an alternative high school, in a prison, at a university in St. Petersburg, Russia, and for the last eighteen years at Tidewater Community College in Virginia.

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