This is the eighth pre-publication draft in my series of pieces (many of them memoir) about Buffalo, my hometown, that will be released in 2013. This one’s a little different in that only about half of it takes place in the city of my youth. If you liked this, you can find the other memoirs in my blog archives.
Baseball is my strange bedfellow. My Buffalo-area hardball statistics both at bat and in the field, stank. As a kid, whether it was Mang Park in Kenmore with Billy and the boys; or over on Hinman Avenue as Chesterfield-smoking Rico managed me through my dismal, half-season Little League career; or as a thirteen-year old in the Police Athletic League on a team we called “The Rummies,” I pretty much knew that I stank. My baseball inferiority complex was already well-developed back when I was ten, and someone’s kid brother showed up during a pickup game with six on a side, and my team voted to option me down to the minors to make room on the roster for the little kid. I have every reason to hate baseball.
By age fifteen, I was converted to softball. As a batter, I could just about always put that bigger ball in play; and I learned how to slo-pitch. I used to brag that I could toss any one of four different kinds of slo-pitches to keep batters off balance. Looking back, I don’t think my grip on the ball or the different variations of my underhand pendulum motion really mattered. But among beer-drinking guys who for various reasons weren’t playing hardball, being willing and able to slo-pitch makes one a hot commodity. So I earned my spot on some rosters of various Buffalo-area slo-pitch teams.
Then I left town and joined the service. I got to my first duty station right after July 4, and the squadron slo-pitch team needed a couple of bodies. “Lieutenant here says he can pitch!” advertised one of the seargents to our squadron commander within about 48 hours of my arrival.
Commander takes one look at me and says, “Lieutenent, you’re a damn big bruiser. Could hit the ball a long way. I’m makin’ you the captain of our squadron softball team – you’re pitchin’ tomorrow.”
Gulp. Yes, sir. Didn’t take but two innings or so for all to understand that I was one of the least talented players on the team. That was the tough summer of my twenty-first year.
But I got better with age all thorugh my twenties and well into my thirites. Used to take really good care of myself back then, and I was actually getting faster throughout my twenties. Didn’t have the lightning reflexes needed for the infield, but between pitching and chasing down hot flies in the outfield it was getting to the point where I wasn’t so much of a liability anymore.
The culmination of my softball career came in September, 1990, more than eleven years after busting out of Buffalo. It was a quick, over-and-done-with flash of brilliance – or maybe potential brilliance – all compressed into less than eight seconds. That season, I was doing my bit for the church softball team: Pitching, playing in right field, and punching the ball my fair share of the time for singles and doubles. I actually had the best batting average on the team in 1990. But that has little to do with my big moment: The consistency with which I “punched” balls into play was actually part of the problem.
“You’re all arms and shoulders up there, man! Too stiff – what about breaking your wrists?” coached Tom, our player-manager that year. “You’re big enough, you should be putting it over the fences!”
Yeah, that’s what everyone used to think when they saw me. For years, it was the same thing, especially if we were facing a team we’d never played before. My first time at bat, the outfielders moved way back and “played me to pull,” meaning they expected me to jump on the pitch and knock it to Kingdom Come, which was located somewhere beyond the left field fence. By my second or third at-bat, fear of the big guy “going yard” had all but evaporated.
The night my moment arrived, I was pitching. The opposing pitcher, a wily old guy, had roughed me up when he batted against me, working me for two walks and smiling this dirt-eatin’ grin the whole time. Don’t think he ever swung at a pitch. Guy looked old enough to be my dad, grinning at me and calling me “rookie” as he trotted to first base after ball four. Outstanding.
My third at-bat of the night, I wanted to play his game. The bases were loaded, we trailed by a run or two, and I was determined to wait him out and let him walk me so we’d score a run. Just to get even. The problem was, the umpire was not cooperating. After two pitches, the count was no balls and two strikes. There were two outs. And I hadn’t swung the bat.
“DiGrazie!” Tom yelled from our bench. “You better do something now. No one strikes out in slo-pitch!”
“Yeah, DiGrazie,” mocked Old Man Pitcher from the pitcher’s rubber, smiling. Tremendous.
My stomach was in my throat as I relived every embarrasing moment I had ever suffered in my baseball youth. That pitcher knew he was in my head, and he was relishing it. And here came the ball. More out of panic than anything, I swung. The ball headed in a straight, brisk line for the little section of metal bleachers behind my team’s bench.
“Foul ball!” yelled the ump.
“Patience, Dave,” yelled a teammate. “Don’t swing so early. Wait on it.”
When I was fifteen and playing first base for the parish CYO softball team, I chased down a shallow fly ball that was headed toward the bleachers. Tracking down that ball was, I’m sure, the fastest twenty yards I had covered in my life up to that point. Totally focused on the pop foul as I sprinted, I dove horizontally without thinking and caught it in the webbing of my glove maybe a foot before it hit the ground. Batter out. Except, it was only practice, not a game. My collision with the aluminum bleachers might have made for a great highlight replay, had anyone been filming. They’d have preserved a shriek of pure pain, spurting blood, and a confused, tearful limp to the first aid station, for posterity. But I hung on for the catch and won a little respect from my teammates.
My other big baseball highlight had been in a pickup game during college, when I worked at The Rainbow. “We” were a bunch of bouncers and bar room regulars, and “they” were a municipal league slo-pitch team that was sponsored by the bowling alley across the street from the bar. I was pitching, and had already taken some flak from a couple of my more hoodlum-ish teammates for fielding a ground ball hit to my right when the bases were loaded with one out and I threw the runner out at third base instead of trying to get the ball home to prevent a run. “Thought you were supposed to be smart! Thought you were in college! You’re nothing but a stupid shit!” yelled Crazy Carm. Who did he think he was, my dad?
An inning later, this guy blasted one over my head with runners on first and third and one out. No way an infielder behind me was gonna get this one. I’m sure it was my highest vertical leap ever. I knocked it down, chased after it, threw from my knees to second base, and our shortstop threw to first to complete the double play. Inning over, and a heartfelt “That was pretty damn awesome, Dave,” from Donny Bono’s sister between innings.
Baseball has been very, very good to me. Nowadays I take my son to watch the local major league team. We talk about the players’ strengths and weaknesses at the plate, how many innings and pitches the guys on our starting rotation are good for, and the best places in the ballpark for sausage or barbecue or India Pale Ale (root beer for him). No place better to be, if you’re a male DiGrazie, than the ballpark. But I’m a strange baseball guy; who ever heard of being a lifelong Red Sox fan who also truly respects the Yankees?
It was my moment. The count was 0 and 2, that cagey old pitcher who had worked his way into my head was grinning at me like he owned me, and I had just hit that foul ball. “Be patient, wait on it,” echoed my teammate’s advice as the next pitch began its descent to earth and across the plate.
I stood there, patiently. In fact, I froze. And then, every nerve in me jumped. I had waited too long to swing.
“No one strikes out in slo-pitch!” Tom’s chiding from a few moments earlier shot through my inner world like lightning.
I acted quickly, more out of shame and panic than anything, because no one strikes out in slo-pitch. Especially, no one strikes out in slo-pitch without even swinging, with the bases loaded, and your team losing by a single run, and being a single guy with girls watching. This was the circumstance in which my shining moment, the one I’ve replayed in my mind nearly every day since, was forged.
My eyes were glued to the ball as if it were suspended over the plate, and that bat was whipping around to meet it as fast as I could make it go. I was aware of imagining my teammates’ disappointment in my failure to help our cause. Then I felt something happen in my hands that I don’t think I had ever felt before. The top hand was flying ahead over the bottom hand, which was pulling back.
My wrists broke. Just like the wrists of those big bad pull hitters who strut around saying things in deep voices like “Chicks dig the long ball.”
I felt, heard, saw, the contact the bat make with the ball as if I’d just busted down heaven’s gate and all the people waiting to get in were cheering me. I instantly knew this was different from the base hits I’d often dumped into shallow center field, occasionally hitting the gap between fielders and allowing me to sprint safely to second base. I saw the ball rise into the crisp September night like it had been launched from Cape Canaveral.
I began to run toward first base, but I only took a few steps in that direction before I just had to slow to a jog and watch that little white dot in the night sky attempt to become a satellite in orbit. I was filled with unspeakable satisfaction as I noticed that the left fielder had turned his back to the rest of us and was on a dead sprint toward the fence. I had never before in my life made an outfielder do that. I didn’t realize that this shining moment in my softball career would become a metaphor for so much of my striving throughout adult life.
I have only hit a baseball the way I did in on that autumn, 1990 night one other time. I was picnicking with my wife and two kids about fifteen years later. That summer, both kids were into playing catch and hitting the softball with Dad. We had only two small bats, one about the right size for a five year old boy and one for a nine year old girl. I took my daughter’s bat – it was the bigger one, but still pretty puny for a grown man – and told my wife, who had a fielder’s glove, to just keep moving back. It was a joke for all of us. She was standing an impossible distance away, definitely over 200 feet – anyone who knows softball knows that is a pretty awesome poke – daring me to hit it that far. I held the ball in one hand, tossed it up for myself, and conjured up my moment. That softball shot right at her straight, and true. I recognized that beautiful feeling in my wrists as they broke and the bat accelarated straight through that poor ball and sent it on a long journey. Despite the undersize bat, that fly ball reached her in the air and she didn’t have to move a single step to catch it.
All of my teammates were up off the bench, standing, pointing, watching the ball as it began to come down. Everyone was watching to see how far over the fence the ball would carry. All stood still except for the left fielder, who was still running toward the fence in vain. I was filled with excitement.
The umpire was the next voice I heard. The ball had cleared the fence with plenty to spare. No one could argue with what the umpire said about it.
“Don’t swing so early! Be patient!” I heard my teammate repeat from the bench.