By PETER KNOBLER.
MATTHEW CARLYLE HAD played softball pretty much all his life. In a T-shirt and jeans, in sweatpants, in double-knit polyester league uniforms with sanitary socks. He’d been a hot shortstop, one of those thin quick boys with soft hands and a strong arm who covered a lot of ground. He was no longer any of those. As Matt had grown older he had simply refused to stop playing. He had evolved from rookie upstart to team leader to graying eminence to wily veteran. In his fifties he had given away twenty-five, sometimes thirty years to teammates and opponents, and still held his own. Guys would ask, “So how old are you, anyway?” and Matt would tell them.
“Nawwww! Fifty-seven? Me and the guy in right field together are fifty-seven!”
Matt lived for that. He had told his son that, when the time came, he wanted his ashes scattered on his favorite ball field from behind second base to behind third, his full shortstop range. But in his sixties, when his knees went and ground balls that should have been in his pocket were zipping to his right and left, Matt decided he would rather be an asset at third base than an embarrassment at shortstop and made the move.
Matt hadn’t liked giving up shortstop. He had played the position since fifth grade, moving over from third base when his classmate Drew Turner had left for the suburbs. Playing shortstop gave him a command he possessed nowhere else, certainly not at home where his father rooted for the team with the most Black players, not simply the squad with the most fun guys. Dad supported the oppressed, unaware he was raising his own.
It upset him, not being able to reach what had always been within reach. Screwed with his entire sense of himself. He had spent a lifetime developing certainty, the knowledge that if he positioned himself properly and reacted with his own speed and acuity, very little would get by him. He prided himself on reading character as well as ability, on knowing not only the strengths of his adversaries – and there were so many! – but their tendencies as well. It helped him as an editor dealing with writers, though that was more like scouting his own team. But now, on the field at least, he was more than a step slow. His phantom limbs could field his position; he couldn’t.
Matt was a stalwart in a continuing pickup game with a fifty-year history and a rotating roster of regulars on Fire Island, a barrier beach about a quarter-mile wide that lay a quick ferry ride due south of mainland Long Island. No cars were permitted on the Fire Island National Seashore; the major means of transportation was bicycle. And while there was certainly wealth in abundance, the determined consumerism that gripped the Hamptons had taken hold only in small gestures. One brought groceries home from the local market in the ubiquitous wooden Janesville “Fire Islander,” an upscale, wide-load alternative to the low-rent little red wagon. There was no rush and nowhere to rush to. Many people lolled on the Island like a boy on a raft.
BEST KNOWN ON the mainland for its longstanding gay communities, Fire Island was actually populated with about two dozen villages and hamlets of varying cultures. His town, Fairview, filled with families, was pretty much paradise. The worst that could happen out there was you stubbed your toe, your wife went behind the shack with a lifeguard while you were in the city working, or you got called out on strikes in the weekend softball game.
Used to be, if you were going to play, a man had to be at the ball field each weekend morning—cleats on, ready for batting practice—by ten o’clock. Games began at ten-thirty like clockwork; you don’t get there, you don’t get in. Over the years, as its founding fathers aged and retired, the game mellowed. Kids who had grown up on the beach graduated in. Share houses began to proliferate, and young guys who had spent the previous evening prowling for women came by wanting to play before everyone else got out of bed. Fairview’s Ty Cobbs were replaced by Joe DiMaggios, then Mickey Mantles, then Cal Ripkens, then A-Rods, then Mike Trouts. The game’s lions tried to maintain discipline but while their cubs were better athletes, they were a little softer, they didn’t take losses as hard. And their kids, forget it.
The zealots arrived around ten-twenty, dragged the little red wagon that had been repurposed as an equipment transport from the shed down the left field line, clattered the bat bag empty to the right of home plate, tossed out the bases and began to stretch. These were the guys who lived to play. They weren’t sleeping past eight-thirty anyway—time had robbed them of that indulgence—and they’d been up weeding or reading for a couple of hours already. There was much creaking of bones and bemoaning of age.
The true athletes fanned out to their accustomed positions and the rest either accepted this natural selection or fought for recognition. This was softball Darwinism. Make an error in Saturday’s game and it was not a given that you would start the game on Sunday, or get into it, or even show up.
Players rolled up in inverse proportion to their age. The should-be-retired crowd, with few enough games left on their lifetime schedules, showed up first, followed by the fathers of teenagers who couldn’t get their kids out of bed but promised they would be there. The childless arrived at their leisure; many liked their wives and enjoyed spending mornings with them.
The guys fanned out in the infield and began to toss the ball around – six, eight, ten with their backs to the first base line, the others facing them at the edge of the infield grass. There was something soothing about warm-ups, small renderings of a perfect world.
Mostly guys threw with friends, but there was a pecking order that some players tried to crack, tossing above their station. Matt liked to throw with Tony Maselli, who was in his mid-seventies but could put a softball anywhere he wanted. Some guys liked to hurry up and gun it, throw hard, get loose and get on with it. Not Tony. He was like a black-and-white newsreel of baseball’s Golden Age. A second baseman, Tony had learned the game ten years before Matt, and everyone said he played it “the right way,” which was ballplayer’s shorthand for “with reverence.” You don’t betray the baseball trust, there are historic forms and you mind them. In the field, Tony’s tosses to second base for double plays were wondrous in their predictability. When Matt still had legs and played shortstop, he accepted those throws like he was being spoon-fed.
Younger guys straggled in with bar tales and uncombed hair. This wasn’t a game you took a shower for. Without bothering to stretch, they just grabbed their gloves and hit the field. Charles “Trop” Lagerman had decided long ago, for some reason now forgotten, that orange was his color. His baggy sweatpants and raggedy T-shirts, never exactly coordinated to begin with, had faded at varying speeds over the years, leaving him looking like a big smudged Creamsicle. He broke out a new pair of sweats about once a decade, an event much discussed upon his arrival. “Oooh, Chuck’s looking pretty spiffy.”
“Sunkist or Tropicana?”
“It’s Chuck Day at the Trop!”
So a nickname was born.
Lagerman pitched on occasion, caught more often, smoked his morning cigarette on the bench, and let his opinions be known at all times. There were rules, and he burned if they were abused. If he was down eight runs and a batter was up there taking pitches, looking for a walk, Trop would blister him. “What’s the matter with you? Hit the damn ball. Everybody else has!”
Didn’t matter if it was the middle of August and 100 degrees, Augustus Corto was showing up in black. Black T-shirt, black shorts, black athletic socks bagged just so above the ankles, black hi-tops. At least he wasn’t wearing his black socks with sandals, though Matt suspected that such a black sox scandal wasn’t above Gus at the Williamsburg studio where he designed his haute couture creations. A jolly presence, probably because on the field, for once, he wasn’t the center of attention, Corto played enthusiastically but not well. He was a chatty teammate in touch with his Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, roots who just happened to show in Milan every season.
Then there was Morton Irons. Mort the Snort. Bless his soul, but the man could not play ball. He was the kid in high school who hung around the athletes begging to get in the game, and who botched those rare opportunities when they arrived. The guy who shows up at sandlot pickup games in full uniform, new glove in hand, and drops whatever comes his way. Not that he was aware of these failings. God, in His infinite wisdom, blessed some folks with self-awareness; Morton was not among them. Mort made a lot of money in the market and nurtured in himself the confidence of the business wealthy, as if amassing a fortune had won him grace. He ignored the titters; at no moment did he wonder what was so funny.
Morton kept his own book. “I got three hits today. I’m batting four-fifty-seven.” Alan Famiglia, who kept such things in his head, told him, “Morton, you got on base on an error and two fielder’s choices. That’s oh-for-three. I question your statistics.”
“Ready? Somebody want to take some cuts?”
JOHN PAGLIARULO HAD a ponytail down his back and the easy air of a guy who liked to make people happy, the perfect batting practice pitcher. Pags took the mound as the field filled with men ambling to their positions and the lesser lights grabbed a bat. It was customary for the real hitters to play the field for a while, get warm, talk baseball, and shag some flies before getting up. They swept around the outfield with assurance and thick thighs, other guys only catching shots hit directly at them. Balls came hard and fast in the infield, so grade-school kids began the apprentice process by standing in patches of outfield where the ball might land if they were lucky and weren’t cut off by men who needed the practice. The men made a nice accommodation for the coming generation; little ones rarely got trampled, and there was good cheer all around when a fourth grader made a nice catch, or a severe intake of breath when a line drive came too close to a child who couldn’t handle it. Older men monitored the boys and girls without being parental, plus these kids would take a bit of instruction from a player in the lineup that they would completely ignore from Dad. Or at least some of them would; others were just little dicks on the way to being big ones. Matt had never done well with people who knew everything.
“Yo, Donny, lemme see it.” Matt needed to feel the ball before he took grounders. He examined the scuffed Clincher when his fellow infielder tossed it to him, then rolled it to the mound. This was just his way.
The base paths had been excavated this year and Matt was pleased to walk onto new clay crunching beneath his cleats. Having grown up in Greenwich Village, playing in sneakers on schoolyard asphalt, Matt came late to the game’s rural textures, and the sound continued to thrill him. He liked these first batters, they had untutored swings and routinely beat the ball into the ground, where Matt could sweep them up and groove his throws to first base. The quality of the hitters improved as batting practice continued, and only a few years earlier when harder hitters got in the box, Matt had simply positioned himself even with the bag, crouched lower and concentrated harder as he was tested. Recently, as balls began to go around and through him, however, Matt had taken a step further away from home plate, then two, leaving himself more time to react but more ground to cover. Apparently, that’s what age does to you. Now when he scrambled several steps to his left and nabbed a hot grounder, he heard a collective “Oooh, still got it!” which only made him more aware of the fact that he didn’t.
Danny, Donny, and Big Rich had been playing on this same field since they were toddlers, learning the game and vying first for girls and the cleanup position, then women and income. The competition continued even in their prime, and Big Rich seemed to be winning. You had to hate this guy. He had studied statistics at Stanford and finance at Harvard, made the killing on the Street, moved to Los Angeles, married the hot young second wife, retired, written the novel, and come back to Fairview to play softball on those weekends when he wasn’t on the links. Plus, his swing was so smooth he barely seemed to be trying, the sound of a click as he hit the sweet spot, like someone turning on a hallway light, yet the ball jumped off his bat. On top of that, he had the good grace to ask after your well-being. Well, fuck him.
Danny loved to hit like he loved to do business. He swung hard every time, torqueing his hips in full commitment, the difference between selling a case and moving a pallet. The ball off his bat sounded punished, like a tire iron banging against a barn door.
Donny got to the game when his wife would let him.
And then Caleb showed up, slapping down the pavement in his flip-flops, this season’s cap only beginning to get beat up by the sun. Caleb had a dancer’s waddle and blue tear-away gym pants with a white stripe down both legs, his glove tucked under his arm like a bag of donuts. “Where you been?” Donny asked.
“Oh man, you don’t wanna know.”
“Worse. I don’t wanna know! I don’t even remember how I got home.”
“Can you play?”
“’Course I can play.”
“Well, all right then, get on out there.”
“Mind if I tie my shoes?” Caleb worked double knots on both sneakers. No cleats for this boy, Caleb enjoyed the slippery feeling of abandon.
THE TRIP TO the outfield was always a local for Caleb, stopping to soul shake/shoulder bump/backslap with middle infielders, short fielders and whoever was scattered around right and center on his way. He was a friendly sort, skipping backward to his position so as never to take his eyes off the batter’s box and not to cut short a conversation. He would stop in mid-sentence to track a fly ball, taking off and then casually slowing to glove at the shoulder what no one else on the field would have gotten near, then returning to the topic at hand. Two throws and he was game-ready. Of course, he was only twenty-five, the son whom all the old guys had always wanted, the one who grew to be a force.
Alan Famiglia—Fami—was a keen judge of the meager talent that displayed itself on this particular diamond and had accepted the mantle of team-maker, the guy who chooses the sides. In his early forties but never far from his youth, Fami was a Fairview lifer. He had seen the greats, they were alive in his memory, and he could play. He knew situational hitting, when to sacrifice, when to hit behind the runner; and despite the fact that he was well over 300 pounds, he knew how to go from first to third on a single to right – that was a sight! Scanning the assembled, he came up with teams that were universally despised but usually quite competitive.
Fami was particular about his teammates; he didn’t like to play with morons, but occasionally he resisted the urge to stack the sides in his own favor. When the games were close, no one said a word. “Thanks, Fams”? Never. When they were blowouts, Fami took the heat. “Who picked this shit?!” was the summer mantra.
“This team in the field!” Fami called it out by position.
Since the regulars were intimate with not only the roster but the abilities of each player, immediate calculations were made as to what kind of game this was likely to be and how badly Fami had loaded his squad this time. “Look at this.” Donny scanned the field. “We’ve got power but no defense. We’re gonna score runs and still get killed.”
Morton, who had been shading himself on the bench under an umbrella, stood, pounded his new glove and unloosed his string of cliches. “Looks like it’s going to be a pitchers’ duel,” he said. Did he understand nothing? Fami looked past him. “Good pitching beats good hitting.” Guys shouldered by without responding. “Can’t hit what you can’t see.” This was slow-pitch softball. Trop watched Morton pick up a practice ball and walk to first base. “If I get like that,” he said, “just shoot me.”
In his twenties, his rock ‘n’ roll days, Matt had played shortstop for a radio station team in a media league. Double-knits, sanitary socks, stirrups, the throwback uniform before it was a throwback. The material didn’t breathe, it held smells like a hamper, but he had never played on a team with full uniforms before and was supremely pleased to pull his on. Matt had always chattered in the infield, pretty much saying what he was thinking without being quite aware that everyone else could hear him. “Humm baby, come on kid. Put it in there. Yeah, you got ‘im, you got ‘im, he ain’t nothin’. He’s yours, baby, he’s yours.” His patter was helpful support to his pitcher, who wrapped himself in the sound and delivered from that drone. It’s good to know your teammates have your back. Words streamed out of Matt like white noise; when he got back to the bench, if he’d been asked what he’d been saying out there, he couldn’t have told you.
Matt thought of himself as a rational human being, someone who talked out problems and searched for solutions, but he came to find that, on the ball field, his was a minority opinion. If a runner came in harder than necessary, brushed him in the baseline, or threw an elbow rounding a base, Matt became incensed. That’s not right! There was appropriate behavior for all situations, and if an opponent crossed that line – a line defined by Matt’s personal yet informed sense of human dignity and baseball history – he felt compelled to set things right. In his way, Matt believed he was upholding the essence of the game. Not only was he playing each individual contest the way it should be played – an earthy pursuit – he was serving a higher purpose. He was a participant historian – a caretaker scourging, purifying, sanctifying softball itself. He thought of himself as a keeper of the flame. He liked when they called him Matty Books; he was surprised to find his teammates thought of him as the Fighting Shortstop.
SOONER OR LATER, Matt knew, he would land at first base. Willie Mays was the best there ever was, and that’s where he’d ended up. At first base, most chances come from one’s teammates, and one need know not only their individual tendencies but how to cover for them. In the end, life tilted players to the right side of the diamond, where mobility was prized less than the ability to handle whatever others threw at you. Roger Kahn wrote, “A ball player must confront two deaths”: one when he perishes as an athlete, the other when he stops breathing. Matt was only going to die once.
When his keen softball analysis—and knee replacement surgery—determined that the time had come, Matt moved to first base preemptively. He didn’t want to, but playing poorly savaged his certainty and ate at his soul. And he kept getting smacked in the shins by ground balls from which he could not protect himself. Guys were surprised, they expected better, but Matt wasn’t; he could feel the reckoning coming.
More than the physical trial and the embarrassment, however, was the fact that if he stayed at third base he would be demeaning the game. Teammates depended on their third baseman to field his position, to hold the line. If he couldn’t, the team suffered. And not in silence. Matt knew the feeling, he’d groaned under his breath when outfielders dropped pop-ups or his pitcher couldn’t find the plate and walked in important runs. He’d razzed men who surprised him by failing, and he’d felt betrayed when they hadn’t played to their ability. You never get after guys who can’t play; what’s the point, they’re doing the best they can. But guys who played stupidly, or men who couldn’t meet the demands of their job, shouldn’t be out there. We’re having fun but we’re trying to win. We are keeping score. If Matt played badly he did violence to the men who peopled his team, he betrayed their confidence, he chipped away at the soul of each person on the squad. Didn’t matter if they didn’t care. He cared!
And you don’t abdicate lightly. Once he admitted to himself and the fellows on the field that he no longer had the chops, there was no going back. This was a mortal reckoning. Fielding a position requires timing, repetition, dedication, confidence. It’s a groove thing. He might revisit the position once in a while during batting practice, like a man returning to his childhood home, but someone else would have moved in, and while welcomed in the neighborhood, he would no longer belong.
First base played to his strengths. But Matt’s decision, designed to help teammates and create harmony on the field and in his own personal cosmos, upset a senior who had not planned on such an early retirement.
In Fairview, first base was a repository for old men, and a succession of legends in decline had extended their ball-playing lives by stopping there. First, Benjamin Travis held down the position until he up and died. Then Newton Fredericks, who at seventy was so old no one could remember when he had range, moved over from third. Newt caught each ball with two hands, the way it was instructed in the mid-century manuals Matt had read as a child. A former litigator, he delighted in expounding on the abject lack of fundamentals in today’s generation of ballplayers. “There is nothing right about these people. How do they sleep at night?!” Fredericks retired at seventy-nine when he didn’t have the strength to hit a ball out of the infield or the legs to beat a throw, and was replaced by Walter Voorhees, Wally V, who held the fort until taken down by illness. Parkinson’s Disease prevented him from holding onto throws, which truly pissed him off; he wasn’t ready to sit. Morton Irons, who had circled under fly balls in short field for forty years without earning a spot at a skill position, skittered to first at the first sign of Wally’s tremors and held it by virtue of being the fourth-oldest guy in the game and the only one who demanded the upgrade.
Morton never fully grasped the position. At seventy years old he enjoyed finally being one of the guys, the fellow who tosses grounders to the third baseman, then shortstop, then second each inning so the fielders can refresh their muscle memory, catch, and throw the ball back. He liked touching the ball on each batting practice play. In this way Morton engaged guys who had previously wanted nothing to do with him.
So thrilled was Morton to be included in infield life that he began calling guys’ names, clearly trying to strike up some sort of athletic conversation. He would cock his arm and shout “Howwwie!”—to be sure the fielder made eye contact and knew what was coming—then roll the ball to second base in expectation of return. And because every infielder can use a little more practice and wants a ground ball his way, Howie would crouch, field, and throw as he had since he learned how to play. “Donnnny!” The ball was sent skimming to Donny. Donny tossed it back. “Rubennnn!”
Who does this?! But ballplayers have peccadilloes, and announcing infield practice seemed harmless enough, so at first, no one seemed to mind. Until Big Rich stepped into the batter’s box. At that point anyone with a sense of the game stops throwing ground balls, turns and faces home plate in expectation of getting some high-velocity action, because Big Rich could pound the ball.
Not Morton. He kept on throwing. “Maaattthew!” The ball came bouncing to third base at the same time as Rich’s slashing one-hopper almost took Matt’s head off. Late to see the ball off the bat because his name had been called and a grounder was coming at him in his peripheral vision, Matt took a shot to the shoulder, then tripped over Morton’s ball at his feet.
“Morton,” he called across the diamond, “please don’t do that.” The Snort said nothing. The pitcher wound up to throw again.
“Fuck. Morton, would you stop!”
“Morton, for Chrissake, how many times do you have to hear it? You’re gonna get us killed! Don’t you get it? Rich will clock a ball while we’re trying to field this shit you’re throwing us, it will hit us and we will get hurt. Will you cut it out!”
EVERY GAME, SAME thing. No amount of explanation seemed to make a dent; Morton had finally found a spot in the inner circle and a little thing like his teammates’ health held less heft than their attention to him. This had been going on for a couple of years. Some guys put up with it, Matt didn’t. He stopped fielding Morton’s throws, let them roll into the street even when there was no one at bat, rather than encourage him. Morton, for his part, never stopped calling. “Maaattthew!” Ball goes by. Morton grabs another, does the circuit, gets back to Matt’s turn. “Maaattthew!”
Morton hoarded balls. Rather than roll them to the pitcher’s mound to be picked up and delivered, standard procedure for all other Island first basemen, Mort held to his waist all that were thrown to him. One ball, two balls, three, four, five. Only when he could no longer handle the load did he call the pitcher’s name—“Robbbbert!”—and stop everything while he plucked from his midsection one, two, three, four, five balls, counting aloud as he tossed them over. Robert could only pitch one at a time, and with the back of his glove tapped the final four to the ground, where they would already have been sitting, ready for action, had Mort rolled them to begin with. Meanwhile, the batter fidgeted, outfielders stood in one place, and infielders with hands on hips tracked each ball as Morton threw it. In that transaction, on that field, it was all Snort all the time.
Mort also had a problem staying erect. A brittle man, he had no idea where to put his feet, how to bend his knees, when to stay on the base or come off to field a wide throw. Morton was fundamentally unsound. Matt, who was often stuck on a team with the man, tried pulling him aside to demonstrate the basics of how to catch. Little League stuff. Didn’t take. At least once a game Morton would lean down trying to scoop a throw in the dirt and keel over, oblivious as his teammates screamed at him and opposing runners circled the bases. The scene was a riot if you were at bat and scoring runs at his expense, galling if Morton was your teammate.
Matt finally gave up. One morning Ruben, with whom he shared third base during batting practice, took his cuts and trotted out. “Maaattthew!” came the call. Another ball rolled past Matt’s feet. “Fucking dickhead,” he muttered. Ruben chuckled; Matt never knew whether Morton heard him or not. “Can you believe this guy?” Matt raised his glove and signaled for a throw. Mort brightened and obliged. “Watch this. Going for the knockdown.”
The grounder arrived and Matt threw straight and hard, the ball landing eighteen inches in front of Morton’s left foot. Morton bent, and Matt and Ruben could see his weight shift, not in a good way. Slowly – this was calculated so the man would know what was happening as it happened – Morton stretched, wobbled, and pitched forward like a crane falling off a building. He landed on knees and elbows, then rolled onto his shoulder, his new Yankees cap, neatly tailored shirt, and pressed athletic trousers now stained with infield dirt, the three softballs he had been grasping wobbling away like baby ducks.
Fairview games lasted seven innings, mostly because, on a good beach day, that was as long as the guys could remain focused. Sand and sea were softball’s daily competitors. One bright morning, Fami’s teams were well-matched and the game was in the balance in the bottom of the seventh. With one out, a one-run lead, runners on first and second base, and Big Rich at the plate, Matt’s team in the field was fully capable of pulling out a victory or blowing the game completely.
A hard ground ball hugged the dirt like a rat in the subway. Matt dove frantically to his left and short-hopped it into his glove with a solid thwock, then from his knees threw to second base without looking. If Matt was certain of anything, it was that Tony would be there for him. Tony’s throw to Fami was true, and Big Rich, who’d thought he had tied the score, was out at first base by two steps. Ballgame over.
“Oh my God!” shouted Danny. “Sixty-five, seventy-five, forty…that’s a hundred eighty years of double play!”
Occasionally celebrities showed up at the game as players’ houseguests. Artists, actors, on-air chefs. Often they were pleasant people, once in a while they could play ball. One Sunday Howie brought his childhood friend Shabazz, a seven-foot-two retired professional basketball player. Shabazz arrived, friendly but distractingly large, in gym shorts and his own Los Angeles Dodgers cap, all legs, ready to go.
THE LAST TIME most men looked up at a man more than a foot taller, he was their dad. There’s already the passion of fandom and envy of celebrity, the boundless curiosity about men who have mastered the games with which each guy longs to be intimate. We’ve all been taught the fundamentals; these guys know everything! And here they are, we can ask them! Factor in the velvet ropes, the Entertainment Tonight hobnobbing, the presumed wealth. Add to that the sheer physical intimidation of someone you literally look up to, the sense memory of knowing so little beside someone who knows so much, and it’s no wonder people say such stupid things to the tall men they admire. The conversation one might have with any other stranger goes out the window; the level of self-consciousness rises, the ability to find something worth saying declines.
Outsized athletes don’t often make it easy. First, the mere presence of a 5XL person entering a room alters its psychic balance. Whether they want to or not, pro athletes have been creating disturbance their entire adult lives and perhaps they have had enough. Then, because they are approached every hour of every day of their public lives, often by people with hurtful or insensitive things to say who are trying to leave a mark, they tend to avoid contact. How does a seven-footer avoid contact? Anyone else would cast his eyes downward, but when a man that tall looks down he sees exactly the people he is trying to avoid. So, he gazes straight ahead, and straight ahead for a fellow that height is above everyone else’s sightline. You’d have to jump to get a hand in his face. The practiced implacability one sees at sports arenas and on the news, that’s the physical translation of height into solitude. Very tough to crack.
Sneakers double-knotted, the big guy slipped on a borrowed glove. Matt watched him attempt to accommodate his long fingers into the small space, like a college kid trying on his old Little League mitt, and then jog onto the field. Everybody wanted to throw with him. Matt happened to have a ball in his hand, tossed it to him and lucked out.
This was amusing. A lifetime of playing catch had given Matt an absolute certainty of its rhythm. Around comes the arm, in comes the pitch, the glove goes up, the ball arrives. Throw it back. Repeat for decades—timing as predictable as one’s breath.
Except Shabazz’s arms were a foot longer than anyone Matt had ever thrown with, his release point a foot closer, so now that intimate calculation was completely undone. For a moment Matt’s sports world lost its gyroscope. He had to get his glove up earlier because this was a professional athlete and even the man’s warm-up throws had more zip than he was used to. Faster throw, shorter distance; the ball jumped on him. So this was what it was like playing with the pros.
Before he’d gone to college, won NCAA championships, and torn up the NBA, Shabazz had been a high school first baseman. He was eight inches taller than the San Francisco Giants’ legendary six-foot-six-inch Willie “Stretch” McCovey—where else would he play? You didn’t want to make the man bend but it was next to impossible to throw over him! He trotted to first and there wasn’t a guy out there who wasn’t preparing his bar-stool story about how he took infield with The Big Guy. Infielders routinely talk among themselves, and every one of them was ready to chatter and welcome him into their fraternity.
Mort shooed him away. “I’m here,” he said.
“Mort, let him take some throws,” Matt shouted from third base.
“Split it with him,” said Howie, Shabazz’s host.
“Come on, man,” grumbled Ruben and Donny and a couple of guys waiting to hit.
“I’m here,” Mort repeated. With Shabazz standing beside him, he tossed a grounder to shortstop and covered the bag. “Donnnny!”
If Shaquille O’Neal had been at first base maybe Shabazz would have jostled for the position, but this wasn’t worth the effort. Before a scene developed, he turned his back and jogged to short right field. No one sidled over to talk to him, there was no banter, he just patted his glove and waited for a ball to come his way. During the game he grounded a single through the left side and caught the one ball that came near him, but no one on the Island remembered the particulars. In the oral history that sustains so many athletic communities, this became The Day Morton Wouldn’t Let Shabazz Play First.
So it wasn’t a great surprise when Mort tried to prevent Matt from moving over; he could see the end of his softball life ambling toward him.
It pained Matt to no end to give up third base. His shortstop days were gone—he had no more wheels, knee replacement surgery had put him up on blocks. But he had lived on the left side of the infield, it was his ancestral home and he could map out every creaky floorboard. Yet seeing balls fly by him and hearing the beginnings of being patronized, he knew he had to move. As teams were being chosen one morning, he told Fami he couldn’t do it anymore.
“Yes, you can.”
“Can’t. It’s pissing me off.”
“Fami, don’t even pretend. I’m moving to first. I can still actually play there.”
“Okay by me.” He scribbled Matt in at first base.
Morton fancied himself one of the late-batting practice elite and made a point of hitting between Donny and Big Rich. Guys rolled their eyes but no one stopped him. What would be the point? When Mort went in to take his swings, Matt jogged over to take his place. The last time Matt had played first base was thirty-five years earlier, when he’d fallen while skiing one winter and found the next spring, trying to throw, that he heard what sounded like ripping plastic inside his shoulder and could not get the ball to the pitcher’s mound. He couldn’t not play – his summer league team, not to mention his mental health, depended on his being out there – so Matt moved to first during his rehab and found he enjoyed it. While shortstop was certainly the quarterback of the infield, first base was central in its own way. He got almost three times as many chances as the other infielders, was responsible for each play’s finality, and reaped a significant amount of gratitude when he turned his teammates’ mistakes into his own flashy successes.
RUBEN NOTICED THE difference immediately. Rather than having to be careful with his aim so as not to test Morton’s limitations, he fielded a ball at third and winged it in the welcome certitude that no matter where the throw went it would be in good hands. The ball hummed into Matt’s glove. Donny noticed too, adding a zing to his toss, the sharp slap when Matt caught it closing the deal. Howie gave him a quick flip. All of a sudden, the infield began to shape up. With Morton at the plate hitting grounder after grounder, unable as usual to get the ball out of the infield, what had been a laconic group waiting for the squads to be announced started to coalesce into a focused unit. Donny took two steps to his right, backhanded another nothing grounder, threw on a line to second, where Howie made the pivot and hustled the ball to Matt, who stretched as if some speedster were coming down the line. Got ‘im!
Matt rolled the ball back toward the mound. Oooh, this was going to be nice! Maybe he really could be a good ballplayer again. Wouldn’t that be sweet.
His hitting complete, Morton found his glove and walked up the baseline. “I’ll take over,” he said.
“Mort, I just got here.”
“I’ll take it.”
A throw came in and Mort intercepted it. “Morton, get serious.”
“I am. Go back to third base.”
“I’ve taken six throws, you’ve been out here all morning.”
“Howwwie!” Mort threw a ground ball to second base. When the throw returned he stood three steps in front of Matt and grabbed it.
“Come on, Morton.”
“Morton, what are you, four years old? Let the ball through.”
Another grounder, another interception.
Mort didn’t turn. He threw to shortstop. “Donnnny!!” Donny tried to throw the ball through him but Morton got in its way.
Matt stood on first, helpless as the throws didn’t reach him. “Hey. You gonna do that all day?” Morton was effectively eliminating him from practice. From the game. From life as he knew it. This was athletic homicide. Might as well have been wielding a machete.
“You are a fucking idiot,” Matt said. Morton kept his back to him. “Hey!” Matt stared at the man’s neck. “You child! You moron! I’m talking to you!” The pitching stopped and movement ceased on the base paths. Morton tried to catch an infielder’s eye. “That’s right, look out there.” Matt nodded to the players, who had begun to huddle up. “Guys are laughing at you.” Morton motioned to throw, but Donny flashed his glove and declined.
“Snort,” said Matt, “fall down for me.”
“I’m right here.” Morton still refused to face him, but Matt could see him cock one ear.
“You are! You’re an embarrassment. Don’t you get that? People laugh at you?” He looked around the infield. “They laugh at you, Morton. This fool who thinks he can play. They’re laughing now!” Ruben and Donny were convening on the left side. Clots were forming in the outfield. Morton held the ball by his belt. “There isn’t a guy out here who wants to play with you. Know that? Do you?” Mort’s back remained to him. “Do you know that, Morton?! You’re a walking three-run deficit!”
Matt addressed the field. “Show of hands, guys. Who wants to play with Mort?” Nobody moved. “Anybody? Who wants to play with Morton?”
Morton threw his down his glove, spun and took a swing at him. Swing-and-a-miss. Matt stepped forward and with two hands to the chest, flicked Mort backward, then slapped his own glove to the ground. “Are you out of your mind?!” A seventy-year-old had just tried to punch his lights out! “Are you out of your fucking mind?!” Morton stepped within a foot and looked up into his eyes. Matt leaned forward and found himself saying, “I’ll hurt you, Morton!”
In his sixty-something years on earth he’d never said that before. For all the talk, Matt had had one fight in his life—the first day he’d moved onto a new block. Matt and the kid he fought had ended up naming their sons after one another. He had boxed with a trainer in the gym once or twice, but since grade school Matt had never actually struck another human being in anger. Geez, Matt thought. How did that come out of my mouth?! And yet here it was again.
“I’ll hurt you, Morton!”
It struck Matt that, as close as they were, if the guy had ever had a street fight, now would be the time for a quick head butt to the nose, and Matt, having absolutely no experience in that regard, had no idea how to defend himself. He stared down into Mort’s eyes. Mort’s black mustache had grey roots.
Tony stepped between them, his back to Morton, his eyes on Matt to prevent him from doing damage. “Come on, guys.” Chest to chest he slow-walked Matt toward the baseline. One of the elders quickly wrapped his arms around Morton, who allowed himself to be shuffled out of harm’s way.
Flushed, Morton sat on the bench and muttered threats. Matt took throws at first. When the game began he and Morton were each at first base, on opposing teams, and that’s the way it stayed for the rest of the season.
Morton showed up the next spring wearing a football helmet. Apparently, wintering in Boca—where he swore he was an all-star—Mort had been standing on second base during a game, his head turned, completely oblivious, talking to a fielder who was ignoring him, when a line drive drilled him in the temple. Went down like a lox, had to be ambulanced to the hospital. Blood. Black eyes. Months of recuperation. Now his doctors wouldn’t let him on the field without protection. Guys in Fairview played as if their lives depended on it, but who was going to protect them from Mort?
Peter Knobler is a writer living in New York City. He has written bestselling books with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Carville and Mary Matalin, Gov. Ann Richards, Hakeem Olajuwon, Mayor David Dinkins, and Tommy Hilfiger, among others. He is the journalist who discovered Bruce Springsteen (an account is here). Knobler is the author, with former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, of The Profession: A Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America.