Tom has to park at the back of the dirt lot. Good; means there are some fans here today. He unfolds himself from the old Corolla, takes a camp chair from the trunk, and walks to the rim of the grassy slope that embraces the field like a river dike.
There are groups scattered along the bank toward first and third bases, but a cluster – several dozen groups of parents and grandparents – have spread out blankets, coolers and picnic baskets on the hillside behind home plate. Mostly women, even on a Sunday. Mouthwatering smells of cilantro, garlic and aji caballero pepper drift up. A United Nations of fragrances.
Their bird’s eye view through the high batting cage is not his accustomed perspective; he pauses to enjoy it. The afternoon is sparkling, the sky a cloudless blue, the grass bright green, mowed properly short. In the late May warmth, the distant trees set back from the outfield foul lines are in full leaf, mottles of lighter greens.
The boys played on a Little League field last year, sixty feet between bases. Now 13 and 14, they’ve moved up to big-league dimensions, ninety feet. They look too small on such an enormous diamond: How many kids that age can peg a ball hard from third base to first, or home plate to second? Must be 125 feet, for God’s sake. But that’s what coaches are for: Help them develop the strength, teach them how to cock their arms, instill the discipline to keep at it until they’ve mastered hard, flat throws.
Kids playing in city parks like this don’t get big-league dugouts; the players have benches protected by more chain-link fencing. Apart from the openings that boys slip through to get onto the field, the head-high fence stretches unbroken to just beyond first and third bases, where a few more family onlookers are setting up folding chairs.
Tom is only a few minutes late: The Tigers, in blue-and-yellow uniforms, are on the field, and he recognizes Raoul Menendez, surely the Falcons’ lead-off hitter, at the plate. His pretty mother Carmen, unmistakable with her long jet-black hair, is on the edge of her chair behind first base, hands cupped to her mouth. She must be shouting to her equally dark-haired son some word of encouragement that Tom can’t make out from up here. He walks down the slope, still not recognized, and sets up his chair behind the Falcons’ bench just as Raoul belts the ball into left field.
He can hear the mother this time: “Come back, Raoul!” Her son has taken a wide turn at first, thinking of stretching his hit to a double, but the ball was well-fielded; he would have been thrown out at second. His teammate Jean Sablon in the first base coaching box should have been the one to call him back, but it’s hard to teach kids this age how to perform that role well.
Little Willie Perez is the first to look back from the bench and recognize him. “Coach!”
Paul Smith, who is their new coach, sees him and walks back; a handshake turns into a manly hug. “Good to see you back, Tom. You’re good to come.” And suddenly the boys are lined up like a receiving line, stepping up one at a time to look up at him and shake his hand. He marvels at the solidity of this diverse inner-city bunch of kids.
“Good to see you back, Coach.”
“Sorry about Tommy, Mr. Donovan.”
“We miss Tommy, Mr. Donovan. You must miss him too.”
By now unashamed tears run down their faces, and he blinks his own back with difficulty. “Thank you, Peter. Thank you, Manny. Thank you, Chris. Nice to be back, guys. Go out there now and win a game.”
“We’ll win this one for Tommy, Mr. Donovan!”
Vinnie Zito, already in the on-deck circle with his batting helmet on, slips through the fence opening to shake hands. Raoul is fairly dancing on first base, trying to call a time out to join them, but Al Simpson, today’s umpire, gets the game under way again: “Play ball!” He gives Tom a little salute, though, and waits while Paul huddles the boys briefly with Tom himself in the middle. “Let’s win this for Tommy!”
“Go get ‘em, Falcons!” he says, and sits down on his folding chair. Paul steps back to him.
“You want to take over, Tom?”
“No, thanks. I’ll just kibitz. I’m not sure I can stay the whole game. Not sure I can take a whole game.”
“Okay. Glad to have you give the kids some pointers, though. Great to have you back.”
The Tigers’ pitcher is good: He gets Vinnie on a called third strike, and makes Chris Stone an easy ground-out, advancing Raoul to second. The next Falcon up, Manny Gomez, is a match for the pitcher: big for his age, well-coordinated. A lefty, he hammers the third pitch into right field.
The dimensions of this big field overwhelm young outfielders: A long-legged seventeen-year-old might have caught the ball, but these youngsters must chase it down and relay it back to the infield. Manny easily makes it to third, sending Raoul ahead of him for the first run of the game.
Bruno Kasimir singles, sending Manny home, but is thrown out trying to take second, having had no warning from a first-base coach. Two-nothing; the Falcons take the field. Got to talk to young Sablon, Tom thinks, about coaching runners at first base; he probably never even saw a baseball until his family arrived from Haiti. But that will have to wait; Raoul finally gets to come behind the bench to say hello.
He and Tommy were best friends at school and on the Little League team. “Glad to see you, Coach.” His eyes well up. “We miss Tommy.”
Tom gives him a solid hug. “You pitching, Raoul? Remember to keep that elbow up.” If the boys start throwing sidearm, they’re more likely to damage their shoulders. Even throwing overhead, the 85 pitches a week that a kid is allowed under current rules seem to him a lot of strain, especially throwing the longer distance on a regulation field.
“Right, Coach.” Raoul wipes his face on a black-and-white uniform sleeve, re-sets his cap and goes out to the mound for his warm-up pitches.
The boy is throwing better this year; he must have worked at it. Tom wonder who catches backyard practice for him. His mother, maybe; he had a sense last year of a troubled family. Half the kids on this team must be from troubled families. Now that he’s single again, Tom must take care not to invite entanglements; it would be predatory, wrong, taking advantage of his importance to the boys.
Carmen Menendez leads a cheering section behind first base as Raoul strikes out the first two Tigers. He walks the next kid, but gets the last on a ground ball to second base. Tom steps forward to greet him as he gets into the bench area, stooping to wrap him in a big hug again. “Nice job, Raoul.”
“Thanks, Coach.” He beams at the praise.
Paul Smith, consulting his batting list, comes over to ask a favor. “Carlos Ortiz is second one up. His grandmother, down behind first base, is a motor-mouth. In the blue dress; see her? Suppose you might park down there and try to restrain her? Teach her?”
“Sure, Paul.” There are unwritten rules aimed at instilling good sportsmanship: Don’t complain – aloud, at least – that a pitch looked good or bad; don’t criticize the umpire; try not to groan when a kid strikes out or fumbles a catch. Laud the good plays; encourage, encourage. Too many of these kids don’t get enough masculine praise or discipline; too many being raised by doting mothers or grandmothers.
Harriet, before she left him, used to complain about living in the city, in a home-owning neighborhood that shared schools with these kids. He’d insisted that Tommy would be a better person growing up with different kinds of kids, different backgrounds.
And he’s worked at making the fans here better-behaved than some of the demanding parents out in the suburbs. A carpenter who works with him occasionally said he gave up umpiring suburban Little League because he couldn’t stand the harassment. I’d hate to coach a team, Tom thinks, with every boy’s father or mother on a white-picket-fence ego trip.
There’s space for his chair between Raoul’s mother and the older woman in the blue dress. He smiles to his right at Mrs. Menendez, restraining an impulse to linger, then turns to his left. “Hello, there! I’ll bet you’re Charlie Ortiz’ grandmother.” She too is dark-haired; doesn’t look old enough to be a grandma. “Mrs. Ortiz, is it? I’m Tom Donovan. Terrific grandson you have there.” He shakes her hand, earning a smile, and turns back to his right.
“Good to see you again. Raoul’s getting to be quite the player.”
“He misses Tommy. How are you holding up?
“Thanks. Harder some days than others. You okay?”
“Okay. He misses his favorite coach, too. You’re important to him.”
“Thanks. He’s a special kid. I’m sure you get credit for that.” They turn to watch the game. Peter Schuster is quickly struck out and Charlie Ortiz comes to bat; Tom turns back to the grandmother. She complains loudly when the first pitch is called a strike, and he sets to work educating her. “We want the boys to be good sports, Mrs. Ortiz. The game isn’t only about winning, you know.”
She grumbles, but holds it down until Charlie draws a walk, then applauds him as he trots to first base. “Bueno, Carlos!”
“That’s looking ‘em over, Charlie,” Tom adds, reinforcing the lesson that praise is within the rules. “Good eye! Now you be careful stealing second.” Charlie, although little, is the fastest kid on the team. He immediately takes too wide a lead, and has to belly-flop back when the pitcher tries to pick him off.
“What’s he trying to do,” Mrs. Perez demands loudly, “throwing the ball at Carlos?”
He pats her carefully on the knee and tries to explain a pick-off play. “It’s a game, Mrs. Perez. The boys play hard, but no one’s trying to hurt anyone.”
Jean Sablon, who will bat this inning, has been replaced in the first base coach’s box by Willie Perez. “You have to help Charlie,” Tom calls to Willie. “Extra pair of eyes, you know?” At the end of the inning he excuses himself from the ladies, takes his chair back to behind the bench, and gives a pep-talk to some of the boys, a lesson on coaching base-runners.
It is a good afternoon, probably good for him to be back with boys this age, but not easy. The Falcons win. Suddenly wanting to skip the high-fiving, he beats the others back up to the parking lot, folds the chair into the trunk, and gets into the driver’s seat.
The car won’t start. Damn. Probably a dead battery, but before calling Triple-A he should look in the engine compartment; could be a loose wire somewhere. He is still poking around under the hood when Paul Smith, having finished his post-game pep talk and sent the boys home, calls from across the parking lot.
“Hey, Tom. It was good having you with us. Uh-oh. Car problem?”
“Dead battery, I think.”
Paul peers in with him. “I have cables; I’ll give you a jump-start. What are you doing with this old heap, anyway? Insurance wouldn’t spring the price of a new Buick?”
“No, they did. Took a while, though, persuading themselves Harriet didn’t deliberately veer in front of that truck. Checking blood alcohol level. Looking for a mechanical failure, for God’s sake, in what was left of the car. Deciding it was the trucker’s fault. When they finally came through, she bought a car, told me she was filing for divorce, and drove west to Oregon.”
“Tom, I hadn’t known. Sorry.”
“Thanks. Anyway, by that time I had funeral bills to pay, and figured I could make do with a clunker.”
“Hang on while I pull my car alongside.” Leaving Tom to tamp down memories, he is back soon, getting cables out of his trunk, popping his hood. “You couldn’t have gotten by with just the panel truck?” he asks as he squeezes the clips onto his battery posts.
“With a couple thousand dollars’ worth of tools in it? I keep it locked in the garage when I’m not on a job. Even with an alarm system I can’t afford to leave it on the street, let alone an unwatched baseball parking lot.”
“I suppose not. I’ll rev my car now and see if yours will start.”
It does. “Better keep it running for a while,” Paul says as he retrieves his cables. “Hear anything from Harriet?”
“She doesn’t talk to me; I hear from her lawyer.”
“Tough. Squabbling over who gets what?”
“Nothing to squabble over. She cleaned me out when she left. Took a U-Haul trailer, full.”
“You’re still in the house?”
“Not for long. Got it on the market. Can’t afford a big empty house.”
“Tom, it’s a tough time. We all feel for you. Anything we can do, you know.”
“Want to come back to the house for a bite with me and Susan?”
“Thanks, but no. I don’t handle domestic bliss very well yet.”
“Okay. Listen, I’m no shrink, but I think working with the kids is good for you. Must hurt like hell, but good. You going to come again?”
“When’s the next game?”
“I’ll try to make it.”
“Tom, you know you can have the team back whenever you’re ready. I’d be delighted to be your deputy again.”
“Thanks, Paul. Not likely, though. See you Thursday.”
The good thing about solo carpentry, he thinks, is being able to set your own hours. He knocks off early, locks the truck away, and is at the field – with a new battery in the Corolla – when the boys arrive. They come straight from their middle school. Family fans trickle in; not as many, of course, on a weekday.
He sets up his chair behind first base, wondering whether Carmen Menendez can get off work, then scolds himself for the thought. He’s not here as a suddenly-lonely man looking for company; he’s here to coach the kids. He goes back to the batting cage.
Raoul won’t start today – too near his 85-pitch limit; he’ll be at first base – but is throwing batting practice. Tom borrows an umpire’s mask to stand behind the catcher, coaching batters. “Keep your feet farther apart, Bruno.” “Don’t swing too early, Angel; try to see where the ball is headed.” “Don’t swing at bad pitches, Howie; wait him out.” It feels good. The kids respond to him.
But Raoul is beginning to throw sidearm. When the other team takes the field for batting practice, Tom takes him down behind the right-field foul line to remind him how to position his body, place his feet.
It’s also an occasion for teamwork advice. Raoul not only plays first base; he’s sometimes sent there to coach a teammate who’s gotten on base. “You’re a pitcher, so you know how you shift your weight if you’re thinking of a pickoff throw?”
“When you’ve got a runner at first, you keep an eagle eye on the pitcher, warn your runner to get back. Your Dad play baseball?”
“He’s . . . he doesn’t live with us anymore, Mr. Donovan.”
“I’m sorry, Raoul.” He hesitates. “You want to talk about it?”
“Mom had to get a restraining order, Coach. And I told him if he ever laid a hand on her again, I’ll kill him. He’s still bigger than me, but I would.”
“Raoul, you shouldn’t even think that. Call the police. That’s heavy.” God, he thinks, what we adults inflict on children. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“I don’t think so. Seems like he’s left town.” They both see his mother arrive. “Is it okay if I go talk with Mom, Coach? She likes to hear about my day.”
“You bet.” Tom walks down to get today’s pitcher, Greg Moody, to warm him up. Big for his age, muscular, his Afro crammed into his baseball cap. “How’s school, Greg?”
“Having trouble with math, Mr. Donovan.”
“Got to keep at it, you know. I have to use math every day, or the houses would fall down.” He should bring his carpenter’s square to the next game, show the boys how many calculations can be done with it, show them why math matters. “Meanwhile, walk down there and peg me a few. Twenty-five paces.”
Greg isn’t as good as Raoul, but close. Good control most of the time, tends to throw a bit wide when he bears down. Tom walks up to show him how to compensate. They get in a half-dozen more practice pitches before Paul whistles the team back for a huddle and the game begins.
The first inning is uneventful. Raoul gets a lead-off hit, to his mother’s “Bueno, guy!” and steals second, but gets no farther. When the other team comes to bat, Tom makes himself stay seated; Raoul plays first base well without coaching. Greg gets three in a row on ground balls to the infield. On the last, Howie Siegal at third base heaves the ball wide – that damned long throw on a bigger field – but Raoul snags it and steps over to the bag to end the inning.
When the Falcons come to bat again, Paul sends Raoul up to the first base coach’s box. Charlie Ortiz is at bat. Tom gets up and goes to the fence. “Remember, you’re his eyes and ears. He can’t see as well as you whether it’s safe to turn toward second.”
Raoul doesn’t look back, keeps his eye on the field. “Right, Coach.”
Charlie hits a blooper into left field, and is running hard as he nears first base. The shortstop has the ball quickly. “No second base, Vinnie!” Raoul hollers, standing at the very edge of the coach’s box line, pointing to the sideline. “No turn!”
“Good work!” Tom calls.
Chris Stone comes to bat, and Vinnie takes a long lead toward second. Raoul stares at the pitcher. He sees what Tom told him to watch for, and shouts: “Back, Vinnie!” The pickoff play fails.
“Attaway!” Tom calls, and goes back to his folding chair. “You see how he’s watching the pitcher?” he says to Mrs. Menendez, and explains the weight shift. The pitcher tries again, and Raoul easily gets Vinnie back safely again. Good; lesson learned.
“Good work!” she calls to her son. Raoul waves over his shoulder but keeps his gaze on the field.
In the next inning the Falcons get a rally going, score a few runs, and come to the top of the order. Paul sends Jean Sablon down to coach first base. Raoul comes to bat with the bases full. A ball, a strike, a ball, then he mashes a pitch over the right fielder’s head. Paul Smith, in the third base coach’s box, waves him around for a home run.
His mother has been on her feet, cheering wildly. She sits down and turns to Tom. “Raoul and I have a deal, Coach. Or can I call you Tom?”
He hesitates. “Tom’s good. What’s the deal?”
“If he hits a home run, he gets a fast-food dinner instead of eating in the kitchen at home. You want to come with us?”
A welter of hesitation: Is he taking advantage? No, dammit, he enjoys talking with the mother, but he’s here for the boy. Fair enough. “Can I call you Carmen?”
“That would be very nice, Carmen. I’ll buy.”
Published by Atlantic Northeast, July 2023