Fall Ball

Published in structo, 2011

On the 158th day of a tortuous 162 game baseball schedule, Mike and Hal’s grandfather cussed, fussed, and at one point even threatened to turn the channel. The four of us were  plopped down in his dusty little condominium, drinking iced tea that was flat, and doing what most Braves fans in Alabama did when a game was on: sit and watch.

The 1988 Atlanta Braves were cemented in a seven year slump, the gutter-dwellers of Georgian sports, outright lousy, and there was no bigger fan than Grandpa. The Braves were battling the Cardinals but were losing, of course, and as we cheered them on our loud living-room chatter allowing Mike to gradually bring up the point of our visit with Grandpa. Mike and Hal were cousins, neighbors of mine who lived together, and they’d basically roped me into coming along, even though I’d planned on staying home to look over my college applications. There was only a week left before each school’s deadline and I’d been trying to get a little closer to making a decision.

It wasn’t until Mike asked Grandpa for the third time if he wanted a refill of his tea that the old man began to get wise. He fiddled with his rolled-up TV Guide and looked at his grandsons with suspicion. Hal remained fixed on the game, characteristically silent, his short red hair complementing his red and blue Braves cap; but Mike was on a mission, and his determined eyes returned the gaze of his grandfather. Grandpa must have finally deduced what they were getting around to, for he snarled and stood up out of his chair.

“You ain’t been here to see me all summer. And now you decide to come!”

Dusty, unwashed coveralls covered his skinny, five-foot- eight frame, and a sweaty John Deere hat was pulled down over almost half of his brown, creased face, which, I surmised, had seen a lifetime of outdoor labor. I sat back and took him in, still trying to determine exactly why I had come along, for I was now stuck.

“We would!” Mike countered, almost shouting due to his grandfather’s hearing. “But you never pick up your phone when we call. We don’t know if you’re here or not!” Mike had red Kool-Aid stains across the tattered front neckline of his white T-shirt, and I had to fight back a laugh as I watched him.
“Aw, hell,” Grandpa muttered, as he walked towards the hallway, “I’m always here.”

“And also, Grandpa,” Hal chimed in from where he sat, “we’ve had summer school every day.”

“What the hell are ya yelling for?” he said with a half-turn. “I can hear you just fine!”

Hal shrugged his shoulders with an I can’t win look, and leaned back in his chair. He’d made a good point, though, I thought, as I sat back in my own seat and glanced at the little bowl of Milky Ways on the coffee table. Unlike my two comrades, I’d declined to dig into the chocolates, and was instead saving my relish for mom’s last piece of pecan pie that lay in wait back home. But more importantly, there were those college applications I had to look over. I’d spent all week thinking about my decision and soon had to narrow them down to one.

Baseball. We were bonkers about the game, and it was what the three of us did in the grassy lot at the end of the street a good three to four days a week. It was the reason Mike and Hal were barely passing summer school, and it was the reason that I’d missed the fall deadline to attend college, and was instead looking to begin in the winter semester.

But I was now ready, or at least, once I decided on where I was going, I’d be ready. Mike and Hal, well, they still had baseball on their minds. Younger than I by a few years, they were about to begin playing in the fall ball league, and dues were due. But they were broke, hell, we were broke, all of us, we base-ballers of Nicholas Lane, Mike, Hal, Denis, John, Laverne and I, every one of us the product of single-parent working-mom households. Yet here I was, about to fulfill the dream of attending the university, my neighbors attempting to prolong their dream of one day being drafted.

“Grandpa,” Mike plugged on, running his fingers through his stringy, brown hair. “It’s just thirty dollars. We could work it off.” He’d gotten up and crossed the outdated red rug that covered most of the living room floor, in pursuit of his grandfather. I assumed that Grandpa asked how because I then heard, though barely, Mike say something about yard work and laundry. Although I couldn’t see down the hallway I worked up a good visual of the two, an amusing pair, little Laurel and young Hardy, walking and talking.

For a moment all was quiet in the dingy little condominium. A colossal, black cloud moved in outside the window, and the even-inflected low monotone of the sports announcer rattled on as Hal and I sat in silence, he most likely with anxiety over whether the fall league thing was going to happen, me and the decision that I soon had to make.

I had the freshman butterflies, for sure. Recently I’d taken the Greyhound bus one-hundred miles to Hattiesburg to visit the University of Southern Mississippi, my first taste of campus life, and it was daunting. Thousands of milling students, the enormity of looming concrete academia, the simple intimidation of it all. I was much more in control when I visited Faulkner State Junior College, basically just a stone’s throw from my house, over in Baldwin County. Faulkner would be easier, I’d been telling myself. Community college. I could carry on my comfortable little schedule, continue to live at home, work my little part-time job at K-Mart, commute to class every day.

But Faulkner didn’t have the Spanish program that Southern Miss had, and learning a foreign language was essentially the reason that I wanted to attend college. Nor did they have the leggy Dixie Darlings, those five-foot-tenners who kicked up their muscled, fishnetted legs at every home sports game. The Dixie Darlings were Southern Miss’s dance team, and they were what really caught my eye during my visit to Hattiesburg, every bit of the wrong reason to want to attend a college.

The sky rumbled a low murmur, and the rain was now coming down in soft-slanted sheets. I stared out at the rain, hoping that it wouldn’t get in the way of my pie since we had to walk home. But then Hal was excited over something.

“Hey Joel, they tied it up.”

That’s right, the game. There was some joy left, apparently, for the Southeast’s only professional baseball team because the game was tied. Hal was now rambling on, something about a double, single, double when I heard Mike calling from the hallway. “Joel, man, you’re tall. Come here and see if you can reach this.”

It was an old Buster Brown shoe box, ancient, high up on the top closet shelf. As Hal relayed with jubilation the game’s on-goings to the others, I walked over and glanced up at the shelves of the closet, all of them weighted down with the clutter of probably forty or fifty years of hoarding. Grandpa was now sizing me up, and I could see the fire in his pupils. I wondered how many cities, people, and situations those eyes had seen. “Can you reach that box there, slim?”

“Uh, yeah, Grandpa,” I said, instantly feeling stupid. I stood tip-toed, the box just out of my reach, my fingernails whisking the bottom corner.

“You got it, college boy?” asked Mike. “You don’t need a chair, do you?”

I shook my head, stretching my fingertips as high as possible, fighting the stench of what looked to be an enormous stack of forgotten record albums, jars of coins and clothespins, Fish and Wildlife magazines and Lord only knew what else.

“He’s got it,” said Grandpa. “He’s tall.” And then he added, with a shift in his voice, “Sonny, Mike here told me you’re about to go off to college.”

My plan to pull the box back with the top of my index finger backfired, and instead it  tipped over, the Buster Brown puppy logo barking at me as the box somersaulted once or twice before crashing to the floor. Mike and I dropped to our knees and began cramming the items back inside, everything from old Halloween napkins to Dixie cups to a rusty naked lady pen.

“Knew I shouldn’t have left that checkbook up there,” Grandpa muttered, as we finished the little task. I stood up and handed the box to him and he looked at me and grinned. “Ain’t wrote a check in a month of Sundays.”

I remembered what he’d asked me, and as he picked through the box I shuffled my feet. “Yessir, uh, that’s right. Hopefully be starting college in January.”

He located the checkbook, and then after yanking the naked lady pen from amidst everything else, he wagged it at me. “Well, sonny, good. If you have the means, then go for it. Just make sure you go for the right reason.” Mike looked on, fighting back a snicker at this grandfatherly moment. But gramps was as serious as a train wreck.

“You don’t have time to be horsing around,” he lectured, now jabbing me in the chest with the pen. “I attended a trade school in Biloxi, which was unheard of in my day. But I did it. And it helped pay for things.”

“Did it?” I answered weakly.

“Damn right it did. Bought me this little house. Paid for our groceries. Helped my kids out. Hell, it helped,” he said, looking around, trying to locate Mike as he finished, “it helped everybody out. So you keep that in mind, slim. Get what you can out of it, and don’t horse around.” He glared at me from under that great big John Deere hat, his eyes sparkling with time, and he jabbed me with the pen once more, though lightly. “And you know what I mean.”

The little lecture had come out of nowhere but I was grateful. I was but a skinny seventeen-year-old kid that wanted to become fluent in Spanish. And I did know what he meant.

****

It was the ninth inning of the 158th day of the 162 game baseball schedule and Atlanta was now up by one. Grandpa’s frustration with the financial woes of his grandsons had ebbed, his mood lifted by the game’s turnaround. Mike’s mood was certainly in a better place, what with a crisply-folded check tucked away in his back pocket. Hal was calm and pensive as always.

The rain had stopped but I hardly noticed because the Cardinals suddenly had two base-runners on; we all honed in even closer to the fourteen-inch RCA, aggravated and nervous. “Strike the sumbitch out,” belted out Grandpa, and I looked over and saw him gripping the arms of his old armchair; I realized he’d probably been a Braves fan for longer than any of us could ever hope to be.

As it turned out a strikeout was just what the doctor ordered. The Cards were down to their last out, and we were hooting and hollering like it was game seven of the World Series. Atlanta’s closer, big Roscoe Roberts, was on the mound, and I had an instant visual of another game, a game not too long from now, me sitting out in the right field bleachers rooting for the Southern Miss Golden Eagles, maybe a few friends sitting beside me, the people of my new world. I clapped a few times, trying to rally the Braves, and noticed Grandpa holding the rolled-up TV Guide like it was one of those cheerleader pom-pom sticks. Yep: junior college would be too convenient, what with living at home and commuting to class. My own grandfather had always said there was an upside to escaping one’s comfort zone. The strike zone, though, was what big Roscoe was having a hard time finding because out of nowhere the bases were loaded.

Clumpy, black clouds moved in outside the window, and the rain-rattled branches of a crape myrtle tree pressed up against the window, the wind lightly whipping the leaves against the glass. We sat in the dark little room, fit to be tied. There was something about a game that late in the season, a game the Braves were winning, that meant something. I could be just as excited, though, I decided, sitting out in the right field bleachers, in the heat of Hattiesburg, cheering the home team on. The toc of the bat, though, brought me back from right field, as this ball was apparently headed for right field. Back, back, and well, gone. Grandpa hurled his TV Guide across the room, yelled out the most bloodcurdling GD I’d ever heard; Mike threw his head back and moaned; and Hal, poor ol’ Hal, just stared blankly at the screen, perhaps the most affected one out of all of us.

As if on cue the rain returned, this time coming down in dark, heavy sheets and it didn’t look we were going anywhere for a while. As the Cardinals circled the bases I resigned myself to  the high likelihood that little brother was at home decimating my piece of pecan pie. Then I glanced over at Mike and Hal and knew that though it might be another twenty years, they would one day laugh and cheer as the Atlanta Braves battled it out in the World Series. My elderly counselor continued to grumble and cuss, swatting his old John Deere hat against his knee. I didn’t really know what he’d said to help me make up my mind; but sometimes the simplest things said in the simplest way is all we need. And as Grandpa vented to a nodding Mike over the idiocy of the losing pitch Roberts had thrown, Hal and I exchanged a look worth ten-thousand words: despite the grief of the loss and the close of yet more agonizing season, there was a humorous beauty here, a moment that resounded throughout this quiet afternoon in this quiet little town.

Fret not, neighbors mine, all is well: fall ball is just around the corner, and life is good.  You’ll soon be hitting your own home runs out to the right-field bleachers, circling the bases with nary a thought of how the Atlanta Braves are doing. And as for me, I’ll be hanging out at the Golden Eagles ballpark, looking for that home-run ball to catch, in between those long dorm-room hours of deciphering irregular Spanish verbs.

Oh yeah, and here and there, sneaking a peek at the Dixie Darlings. Right, Grandpa?