The other day, as I made my way through various garage jewels while doing my annual deep cleaning, I came across my teensy weensy Willie Stargell-Pittsburgh Pirates baseball mitt, which was the first glove I ever owned. It is a petite thing because I was about seven years old when I got it. I don’t think I gave up using it until I was nearly a teenager and discovered that catching a softball with a hardball mitt was not an efficient arrangement. It’s beat-up, greasy-looking from all the oiling, and it smells kind of funny, but I refuse to throw that treasure away.
Lingering over my Willie Stargell mitt made me reflect upon my Godfather Joe. Maybe I’m off beam, but I thought back to a time when Godfathers really meant something, as opposed to being merely a secular stand-in at a Church ceremony.
Certain things go together, like beer and pretzels, women and shoe stores, or puppies and kids. So do baseball and Godfathers. At least for me they do. Both of these things taught me about individual achievement and Al Kaline.
My Godfather Joe was a bright beam in my life as I kid. I knew he understood me, adored me, and besides, we both loved baseball. Joe was a fan of the hometown Detroit Tigers, but he liked them Damn Yankees too. When everyone else hated them, he took me to some of the Yankee games at Tiger Stadium, where I learned to love them almost as much as Joe.
Joe was an inspiration for all-around achievement. He always pushed me to compete and succeed. My first memory of Joe was when he became the pool patriarch of the neighborhood, and taught all the kids how to swim in his pool. Since Joe lived next door, I quietly hung over the fence and watched the bigger kids swim, and wished I would be that liberated some day. I was five when I was whisked into that 15 x 15 round Medallion pool, and it was there that Joe set me loose. He would walk backwards around the pool, back-and-forth, side-to-side, while holding his thumb up above the water line, should I feel a need to grab it. I doggie paddled in desperation, learning to stay afloat, and that little thumb always seemed a mile out of my reach, yet it was inches away when I really needed to take hold of it. Joe would keep me from trying to grasp his thumb for as long as he possibly could. "Come on, come on, you can do it yourself," he coaxed. Joe just didn’t understand that I had fifty-pound lead weights connected to my torso, because to every five-year-old, sinking seemed inevitable after awhile. My mother always marveled at the sight of Joe with a pool full of neighborhood kids.
Then there was baseball.
When it came to baseball, my Godfather couldn’t make up his mind. Early on, he concurred with my silly dream that I would someday be playing in the major leagues. He encouraged me to play hardball instead of softball. He also taught me roughhousing: things like how to back a hitter off the plate with a high and inside one, and sliding into second base with my spikes steaming upward.
Later on, I remember Joe telling me tales that he was going to someday replace Billy Martin as the Tiger’s coach, and he’d hire me as the third base coach. My best friend Rob was to be first base coach, but I got the coveted third base line job. That never really happened of course, but at least I could imagine that it would someday. Joe’s dreams were my dreams.
Joe convinced me I was a born hardball pitcher, and maybe I was. I threw like the devil. Folks used to sit in the stands and shout at me: "What do you use for bullets in that rifle?" That always made my day. Mickey Lolich and Nolan Ryan, step aside. This kid’s far-fetched fantasies were taking over. Joe insisted that I play hardball and pitch in the boy’s little league, but Mom’s reaction was something like "over my dead body you will." I was a shortstop on the field, but in my castle in the sky, I was the next Cy Young-winning pitcher on the Tiger’s mound. I guess the problem of being a girl didn’t strike my reality chords at nine years old.
Joe did things that were taboo. He taught me, at a very young age, to throw a curveball, spitball, changeup, and yes, a knuckleball. I loved watching knuckleballer Wilbur Wood of the White Sox, and I wanted to throw knucklers just like him. Joe helped me to perfect that art. My arm was conceivably too young and tender for such advanced skills, but I was going to do it anyway, with or without Joe. Besides, back then we didn’t have cradle-to-grave, lifestyle decrees breathing down our necks. However, little did my pitching skills matter. Mom’s body wasn’t dead, and Godfathers don’t make the final decisions in a girl’s life, so girls’ softball it was.
One of the preeminent things about Joe was his aim to please. I collected baseball cards avidly, and Joe funded my passion almost daily. On summer days, when I felt baseball bursting through my veins, my best friend Rob and I would dash over to my Godfather’s house, hang around, give Joe a smile or two, and he’d give us some change for baseball cards. A quarter bought the luxury set — no gum, but it had forty cards! Ten cents got us the gum and ten cards. On some days Joe was more generous than others, but what a joy it was to go screaming down to the corner party store to buy some more baseball cards, with my throwaway cards rattling away in my Schwinn Stingray spokes. We always ripped the packs open before we even stepped out of the store. I always threw my gum away; it was hard and tasted like cardboard. We smiled all the way home because of Joe. I still wonder, to this day, if I was properly discriminating in deciding which baseball cards should go in my spokes. I can be confident there was never a Honus Wagner in those spokes, but maybe a valuable Roberto Clemente or two.
Properly trading baseball cards was an intellectual exercise, and Joe taught me that too. When other kids just wanted to trade for the cards with the cool photos, Joe taught me the value of the entire exchange process. I’d give up a card of a 3rd-string utility player, in a pretty pose out in the field, in exchange for getting a card with a close-up photo of a goofy-looking Catfish Hunter, or Boog Powell with a crew cut, and the other kids would go for it. They didn’t want ugly cards, so I got the better end of the bargain. The concept of diminishing marginal utility never seemed to apply to me in terms of baseball cards.
Joe would take me to some games at Tiger Stadium, and what bliss that was. We’d always sit on the third base side so I could watch one of my favorite Tigers up close: third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez. He’d take me to some Orioles games too, so I could watch my other hero, Brooks Robinson, the "human vacuum cleaner." I’d wear my musty, crinkled Orioles hat, and Joe would call me "Brooks," which always brought on a grin. Aurelio and Brooks were the only third basemen in the league; no one else mattered. Watching either of them stretch out to backhand a rippin’ line drive down the line was a beautiful thing. They had bullets in their rifles too.
At the games, Joe taught me the splendid art of scorekeeping. We always bought the scorekeeping program and penciled in every hit, every out, and we tracked all the fun stats. I always knew Brooks Robinson’s fielding average because Joe showed me how to figure it out. It seems that no one does scorekeeping anymore.
My best friend Rob and I acted out our fondness for the game in numerous ways. Besides the usual curb ball and running bases pastimes, we invented other renditions of the great game. The fence between Rob’s and Joe’s house was a chain link fence, and it was a real low-slung one at that. So we created a game where we’d start by piling up boxes on Rob’s side of the fence, and we’d put Rob’s yard hammock on Joe’s side of the fence. One of us would stand in front of the boxes as if we were in right field, then the other would toss the ball up and above the fence, and the fielder launched himself off the boxes, over the fence, making an extraordinary, diving snag, then landing in the soft hammock after making — or missing – the catch. We called this game "Al Kaline," because we watched him leap up against the right-field wall so many times. My godfather would see us two flipping and nose-diving over his fence, but he didn’t yell at us; he would pull out a lawn chair and sit nearby to watch us and cheer us on. In fact, he’d come over to show us how Al Kaline would make those catches.
Perhaps my happiest baseball memories were listening to the Tiger’s games on the radio. Joe and I would sit on his porch and listen. He smoked Marlboros and drank Pabst Blue Ribbon, and we’d cheer and yell at the radio. I never missed a Tiger’s game on the radio. Ernie Harwell was the one voice of baseball in all the land. Every night, I’d have my little transistor radio under my pillow, listening, sometimes staying up until the last pitch, but occasionally zonking out before the 7th or 8th inning. Ernie’s voice delighted me, and his love of baseball reminded me of Joe. My mother would come into my room every night, check u2018neath my pillow, and turn Ernie’s soothing voice off while I feigned sleep. She’d leave the room and the radio would go back on, of course. I told Joe that my Mom was trying to put the brakes on my late-night listening, and he told me I could listen if I wanted to. Surely my Mom wouldn’t understand Joe’s overrule of her laws, so we kept that between us.
I’m one of these baseball purists who think that the good, old days of magnificent baseball are gone. Baseball used to be showing up at the park two or three hours early to hang around by the home team bullpen, waiting for Al Kaline, Willie Horton, and Norm Cash to come over and sign your program. And they always did. The players were different then. The strategy of the game was more straightforward. The players were rugged men in the blue collar tradition. Modern baseball brings us metrosexual players wearing unwieldy jewelry, strikes, revenue disputes, dreary domed stadiums, the tearing down of spectacular stadiums in favor of taxpayer-subsidized fields, the designated hitter rule, four different categories of relief pitchers, and expanded playoffs where inferior teams get "a chance." It just isn’t the same anymore.
Joe, who long ago passed away, would never comprehend 7-14 lefty pitchers with 5.79 ERA’s garnering huge prices on the free agent market.
I miss Billy Martin throwing his hat, kicking the dirt, and spitting next to an umpire’s shoe. I miss the gas stations — like Crown and Sinclair – giving away free team glasses, plastic batting helmets, and authentic knit caps. They didn’t ask for much in return except for a few bucks purchase of gas. I pine for Tiger Stadium, ERA’s below 3.00, 20-game winners, and pitchers with 30-plus complete games per year. I yearn for the old Bob Uecker commercials ("I must be in the front roooow!"), affordable tickets, and the eradication of tasteless uniforms. Hold the dreadful teal, please. Same for the maroon.
Perhaps I ought to take out my smelly Willie Stargell mitt and teach the young boy next door how to play curb ball. He doesn’t have a Godfather like Joe. Come to think of it, I wonder if he has a hammock in his yard.