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The Fantastic Catch
I used to love playing catch with my dad. Thwack! The snappy slap of the Thwack! when ball hit glove smack in the Thwack! pocket was a godly sauce of sound always, whether I was receiving pitches from him with my Rawlings "Tim McCarver" model catcher's mitt Thwack! or just wearing my regular old Rawlings "Tony Conigliaro" model fielder's glove.
What was the magic of the Thwack! in a game of catch? Partly it was the give-and-take of me and my dad. And partly it was the non-action of it all, without goal, without rules, without intention, without winner or loser, without any predetermined end, without the garbage of artifacts, without reason or assertion or strategy. Just tossing the ball back Thwack! and forth Thwack! with my dad Thwack! Sometimes he'd fling a pop fly surprise over my head or deal me a tricky grounder ("Think FAST!," he'd shout), and I'd scramble to find the fly ball amid the branches of the sycamore trees on Citrus Avenue (we used to find it amusing that, in those days, Citrus Avenue was lined with sycamore trees, and Sycamore Avenue three blocks away was lined with citrus trees, kinda like that Greenland/Iceland thing) or try to snag the grounder before it veered under parked cars or went through my legs straight on out into the middle of Beverly Boulevard.
If I missed, he'd always admonish, "Don't try so hard! Let the ball find your mitt!" And when I got it right, Thwack!, the ball indeed found my mitt. THWACK! Just like that. And it was beautiful.
I wouldn't describe my dad as a Taoist per se, though one afternoon I found a book in his drawer, amid the meaningless slips of scratch paper, restaurant matchbooks, a deck of cards, a pack of Kent cigarettes, a 9-volt battery, those red rubber bands used to wrap the Herald Examiner, the keys to something or other, one stick of Juicy Fruit, my 4th Grade report card, the ticket stub from a Laker game against the Cincinnati Royals, a yellowed edition of the B'nai Brith newsletter, Canadian pennies, a bristle hairbrush, a copy of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask--the source of endless sneaky giggles whenever my sister and I would flip through it (one of our favorites was the chapter on "Bent Cock Syndrome")--, a few condom packets (before I even knew what they were . . . I remember in early childhood going into the bathroom to pee at dawn and seeing a jellyfish every so often floating in the toilet . . . I'd wonder what the globby creature was, pee, flush it down, and go watch cartoons), yes, amid all that racket of scraps Thwack! and doodads, I found a slim hardback volume called The Wisdom of Confucius and Lao Tzu, so I guess some of the advice my dad would impart about life and love had Lao Tzu as a basis, conscious or not. Thwack! Occasionally when my dad asked if I wanted to play catch I'd say no, usually due to some other meaningless pastime I preferred to pursue. Today I regret those missed opportunities to Thwack! sample dad's wisdom.
I remember one visceral wu-wei lesson I received when I was about 10 years old. The day I made "the fantastic catch."
That summer--it would have been 1971--I was having a great season in little league baseball at Gardner Park. Well, we all called it Gardner Park because it was on Gardner Street, but the official name was West Wilshire Recreation Center. Only the employees called it that though. Everybody else called it Gardner Park. There were any number of child molestors walking around that place. Also schizophrenic monologuists, Yeshiva buchers, and some crazy-ass dogs too, all mangy and stray. Dude, you never went in the restrooms at Gardner Park. You went into the Fairfax Branch of the Public Library just across the parking lot and used that toilet. You had to look at books for a couple of minutes first so the librarian thought you were a library patron, or if you were really in a hurry you could go right up to the librarian (who wasn't as nice as she seemed) and ask her where to find a book, like maybe Ball Four by Jim Bouton, and when she'd point you to the aisle you'd head that way but then detour to the bathroom, a hassle, yes, but it was worth it to avoid the rank smell and the drooling pedophiles and Manson Family canines in the park's facilities. Today Gardner Park has been swallowed up by the behemouth Pan Pacific Park, a fairly soulless splay of acreage.
It used to be a sanctified and dangerous place, Gardner Park. A funky haven for amateur athletes and moms with their toddlers and old Jews and weirdos from good homes and kids and adolescents of all colors, a real-life rainbow coalition occurring organically around the area's only public pool and the nondiscriminating bond of summertime and baseball and ice cream trucks and girls who talk dirty. A chain link fence separated Gardner Park from a vast vacant lot strewn with tumbleweeds and beer cans and abandoned lawn chairs. Bad-ass teenagers rode mini-bikes through the shrubs and wiped out on the broken glass and gravel and bled and smoked cigarettes and thought everything was simultaneously funny and meaningless. Across the lot you could see the Gilmore Drive-In at the south end--a favorite family oasis where my sisters and I would watch movies on the roof of our family's Chevy Impala station wagon (and later a black Kingswood Estate)--and the creepy, abandoned Pan Pacific Auditorium to the north.
Being 10 years old there, a child at Gardner Park, those were the first real independences, away from both parents and school, just you and the other kids, doing nothing, fucking around, being jokers, arguing about the Lakers or the Dodgers, using your allowance to buy stuff from the ice cream truck, like 50-50 Bars or Sidewalk Sundaes or Strawberry Shortcake or Kool Pops or Scooter Pies. I was often torn between enjoying the spectacle of the social scene in the Gardner Park parking lot and wanting to be back at home watching reruns of The Rifleman in the big black chair (it was its own world).
Sometimes I would sleep in the big black chair. If I got up before dawn, I'd amble into the living room, turn on the Zenith, curl up in my blanket and doze off while watching the early morning Farm Report, wondering who had a farm in Los Angeles. I loved that chair. My sister and I could both fit in it at the same time. Room for two during Saturday morning kid shows. You had to start your Saturday morning with H.R. Pufnstuf, the trippiest of tripped-out kid shows, and Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, which had its own brilliant witty weirdness, and Cool McCool, whose motto "Danger is my business" was repeated endlessly on the playground of Melrose Avenue Elementary School during recess and lunch where everybody wanted to be as cool as Cool McCool.
But my favorite memory of the big black chair was a strange night when the Angels were playing against the Oakland A's, on July 9, 1971, the night Tony Conigliaro freaked out during a 20-inning pitching duel. The game went on until 1:00 am, and my father let me stay up to watch it. We sat and watched the debacle together in the comfy-wonderful big black chair. It was the sweetest bliss. Even as Conigliaro batted his helmet into the stands and then flung said bat into the crowd before stomping off the field in some kind of psychotic episode. Vida Blue pitched a tremendous game for the A's, a 17 strikeout marathon the A's won 1-0. I didn't fully understand the Conigliaro drama being played out, only that it was kinda weird and that it had something to do with Conigliaro getting beaned in the eye years before when he was on the Red Sox, but the sweetness of the evening had nothing to do with baseball, rather it was the preciousness of sharing that comfy-wonderful chair with my father, two fleeting beings in holy concord.
I started out as a catcher in the Gardner Park little league. My father used to tell me the sad story of how he had coveted a catcher's mitt when he was a boy in Cleveland during The Depression, and then he got one, a birthday gift from his mother, only to have it stolen the same day he received it. I hated thinking about that story. And then one day I found myself coveting a catcher's mitt, an official Rawlings "Tim McCarver" model. The day I finally saved up enough allowance money, for some reason my parents weren't able to take me to Big 5 to get it even though they had said they would. I remember sitting in the big black chair watching professional wrestling on KCOP Channel 13 and crying quietly at the shattered expectation. The next day my dad took me to Big 5, and I plunked down $7.50 of my allowance money for my treasured catcher's mitt. I oiled it, strapped it shut with rubber bands, left it under my mattress for a couple of weeks, re-oiled and baked it. My father pitched to me Thwack! every night after the mitt had been sufficiently worked in.
At the first team practice I told the coach I wanted to play catcher, and the coach obliged. It was obvious; the position was mine; I had the mitt. I learned to strap on the gear, the leg guards, the chest-protector, the backwards helmet, the mask. I practiced crouching without cramping and making the throw to 2nd from that crouch and chasing down bunts and blocking the plate and giving the pitcher a reliable target. Once I got past the romance of the mitt, however, the reality was I didn't really enjoy playing catcher all that much. I could never get the timing of gear removal right when scheduled to bat in a given inning. If I took the leg guards off too early, inevitably the third out would arrive before my chance to bat, then I'd have to put the gear back on again, thus delaying the pitcher from taking his warm-ups; but if I left the leg guards on, for sure my turn at bat would come up, and the umpire would get impatient while I fumbled my way through unstrapping the gear and scold me about paying attention and being more prepared for my at-bat next time. I was pretty good at being a catcher, and I loved my Tim McCarver mitt dearly, but I wasn't feeling the fun. I wasn't feeling it. A recurring theme.
My baseball life found its groove when the team I played on, The Yankees, needed someone to fill in at shortstop, which I volunteered to do to get out of behind-the-plate duties. So, Ron took over at catcher, and I became the Yankee shortstop, a 4-year gig, ages 9-12, that earned me much reputation, and yearly placement on the all-star team as well as MVP status a couple of times. My first real niche. I became known for making diving-snags of line drives and tumbling stops of tricky out-of-the-way grounders and dead-eye throws to my pal Jeff on 1st base.
My first-hand lesson in the Tao came during one of those all-star games. That particular year, there was another good shortstop in the league who got the nod to play the position against Poinsettia Park, our arch rivals (a lot of my elementary school friends played there, and it always felt weird going up against them in such heated battle and then having to hang out with them at school a couple of days later). I was assigned to play right field, a position I was utterly unfamiliar with. It was pretty rare for balls to make it out to right field, so I took my place and hoped for no action. Alas, big time action came my way late in the game via the arc of a long fly ball with the bases loaded slugged by a corpulent left-handed hitter on the Poinsettia team, a kid who kind of resembled Boog Powell. The trajectory of the ball was clearly going to take it way beyond where I was standing, and so first I started backing up, keeping my eye on the flight, then, realizing I wouldn't gain sufficient speed quickly enough moving backwards, I turned, losing sight of the ball, and began running toward the right field fence of Gardner Park, an ivied tangle of vines. Turning my head over my shoulder and skyward, I re-spotted the ball in descent, though I had to negotiate between the ball and the approaching walll. The downward arc seemed just out of reach.
The Tao took over in that instant of hopelessness. I stopped looking at the ball, stuck out my mitt, and, just as I came up against the fence, in an event that came to be known around Gardner Park as "The Fantastic Catch," the ball simply dropped into my glove, THWACK!, just so, and the Poinsettia team and parents, who had been screaming with the presumption of a grand slam, fell silent, and the Gardner team and fans also fell silent, as I turned and held up the ball. No applause, just disorientation and flabbergast. One great big collective "Huh?" I made my way across the field and into the dugout from out in right field while a rumble of approval slowly grew as everyone realized what had happened. My teammates mobbed me, the coach hugged me, and parents shouted in the stands, "Holy mackerel, did you see the fantastic catch?"
I however stood numb and dumbfounded by the moment. Aware that I had done nothing. I let the ball find my mitt, that's all, Thwack!, a secret knowledge that made the moment bittersweet. I enjoyed the accolades, but I felt something of a sham for letting them congratulate me on this random grace of the cosmos.
And the game was not over; I was due up 4th in the bottom half of the inning. Not a particularly good hitter, though I walked a lot, I dreaded tarnishing the fantastic catch with a strikeout or some other game-blowing ignominy. Of course, when I arrived at the plate, the bases were loaded, the three batters before me having all walked. As I took a couple of warm-up swings in the batter's box, the Poinsettia catcher (whose long fly was in fact the victim of the fantastic catch) ribbed, "OK, Mr. Fantastic Catch, let's see what you can do at the plate," to which I didn't reply. "He can catch, but he can't hit!" shouted one of the players in the Poinsettia dugout (the dugouts were just standard issue wooden benches behind some fencing, nothing "dug out" about 'em). The dude who heckled me was this borderline tough guy I knew from school, Osvaldo, a classmate of mine in Mrs. Slattebo's class.
I took a strike and two balls, and before the next pitch, the Tao unwound me again; I stopped concentrating on the ball and the timing of my swing and simply met the next fastball on its own terms, sending it over the shortstop's head, deeply between the left and center fielders, allowing all three runners to score and landing me on third base. A triple. The next batter singled me in, and the Poinsettia catcher sweetly said, as I crossed home, "All right, Mr. Fantastic Catch, I guess you can do it all." I think I said thanks, but my shyness most likely made it inaudible as I trotted past him and into our dugout. He probably thought I was being rude. An ongoing problem of mine since childhood, one which continues to this day.
My parents didn't come to my little league games. They found it too stressful. That afternoon my dad arrived to pick me up near the end of the game, and later reported that, as he took an anonymous seat in the 1st base bleachers for the final inning, everybody in the stands was talking about "the fantastic catch," though he had no idea it was his son who had made it, until the dad sitting next to him pointed me out in right field ("that kid, right there, he's the one who made the fantastic catch"), bringing him a twinge of regret that he hadn't seen it, though he joked on the way home, "I probably would have keeled over anyway, so it's better I wasn't there."
When he asked me how I felt about the fantastic catch, I didn't know what to answer. I didn't give him the dad-satisfaction of hearing me say, "I did what you always told me, I let the ball find my mitt." The harmony of ball and glove and motion and flow converged to land that thing in my mitt. The sound of one hand clapping. I had nothing to do with it, other than providing the mitt and the suspension of will. I didn't interfere. I just allowed it to happen. I had enacted his lesson. It would have been so easy to give him credit for the magic he'd taught. Instead I sat inexplicably silent, defiant, a miserly bastard, withholding my gratitude, blasphemous Thwack! against fantastic catches.
"I don't know, I have to think about it for a while," I said.
"Well, think FAST!" my dad said and tossed a super-gooey Scooter Pie at me (which I bobbled and dropped). I picked it up off the car floor, unwrapped the cellophane, and chewed that Scooter Pie with joy and tears interior as we cruised east on Beverly Blvd through the bronze of August. The fantastic catch itself mattered less than the sublime drive home with my dad.
"Wait'll I tell your mom about the fantastic catch!" he crowed and slapped the steering wheel, "You like that Scooter Pie?"
Though I managed some other well-executed plays during my little league tenure, nothing ever quite equalled the moment of the fantastic catch Thwack! and the ride home munching that perfect Scooter Pie with the chocolate slightly melting on my fingers and my dad kvelling over the fantastic catch even though he hadn't actually seen it. The funny thing is, I can't even remember if we won that game.
© 2008 by Barry Smolin