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BASEBALL FICTION

They Don't Play Polo at the Polo Grounds
By Robert Rubino

Even though Stephan and me sit in the center field bleachers of the Polo Grounds, five hundred feet from home plate, pitcher Don Liddle don't look little. Neither does the batter, Vic Wertz. We're so excited just to be there, I swear we can see the players real clear, as if they are within arm's reach. It's September 29, a Tuesday, the first game of the 1954 World Series. I call in sick that day, and I let Stephan skip school. After all, it's his birthday and it's the World Series. And Stephan gets a kick out of us being a father and son out on our own while his mom and little brother are home. I love Stephan's mother, my Jenny, ever since we're both twelve years old living in the same building on Mott Street in New York's Little Italy, but she don't have the love for baseball that Stephan and me have and besides, Stephan's brother, Dennis, may he rest in peace, is only two years old at the time.

For me and Stephan, who is only seven years old, we're at our favorite place in the world. The Polo Grounds is magic. People talk about it falling apart and in a lousy neighborhood, but to me and Stephan it's this great, big, old ballpark with a funny shape to it, like a huge horseshoe. The foul lines seem as short as the distance you need to pitch pennies, but straightaway center field has so much green grass, it looks like it's in the country, but it's right there in Manhattan, right next to the Harlem River. And the bullpens are right there in fair territory, tucked away deep in the outfield, one in left-center, the other in right-center. And the clubhouse. Stephan gets a kick out of the clubhouse. It's this big thing right there on the field, too, in dead center field, 480 feet from home plate, with steps going up to each team's locker room, and windows high up, looking out on the field. The Polo Grounds has the greenest grass and the brownest dirt I ever see. And Stephan says it's got the best hot-dog-smelling air he ever smells. But the real reason the Polo Grounds is our favorite place in the whole world is that it's where the New York Giants play baseball.

The score is tied 2–2 in the eighth inning and two men are on base for the Cleveland Indians. It's so quiet, it's spooky. There is a full house, but we're all afraid something bad is going to happen. After all, Cleveland wins 111 games that year, an American League record, I think. They're supposed to kill the Giants in the Series.

It's a full beat after Wertz swings before we hear the crack of the bat. It sounds like someone coughing in church. The flyball just sails on forever, into the wild blue yonder, on and on, toward the center field bleachers, way over Willie Mays's head and toward Stephan and me.

What strikes me most, though, is the way Mays turns, with his back to home, and runs right at us. It's like he's jogging, full of confidence. And then, right before our eyes, Mays reaches out for the ball. And it seems that he doesn't catch it so much as he right away makes it go back to where it comes from. The way he twists his body, he looks like one of them discus throwers you see in the Olympics.

Now it's the year 2000—my God, a whole new century, more than forty-five years later. I'm eighty years old and I still think of Mays's catch and I wonder what it's like to feel nothing is over your head, nothing is beyond you. I wonder if Stephan—living out there not far from San Francisco, about fifty, sixty miles north, they call it the wine country, in some town I never heard of, Santa Raphaella or something like that, working for some magazine I never heard of, writing about movies I never heard of, and teaching a college class about horror movies, which I never heard of that as a way to make a living—I wonder if he ever thinks of Mays's catch. I could ask him. It's not like we don't talk. But we don't talk often, that's for sure, and when we do, we don't say too much.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Winter 2001 issue.

—EFQ

ROBERT RUBINO, fifty-two, works for the Santa Rosa (California) Press Democrat as a daily sports copy editor and Sunday columnist. A lifelong baseball fan who often enjoys a pretense of cynicism toward the crude banalities of the sport, he nonetheless is a sucker for its history, statistics, mythology, beguiling charms, limitless metaphors, and its pleasurable hold on the imagination. In other words, he's a curmudgeon who cries at every viewing of Field of Dreams.

© 2001 Robert Rubino

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