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Fear Makes a Fielder's Choice
By Robert Rubino
Stephan knows people think he's quiet and shy. He prefers to think of himself as serious. And in the summer of 1963, when he's fifteen and in between his sophomore and junior years at Blessed Blaze Catholic High School, Stephan is serious about Catholicism, baseball, and sex. The serious problem for Stephan is he doesn't always think of those things in that order.
"Dear Jesus," Stephan silently prays as he stands at his shortstop position, "please don't let me make an error. No error. Please, don't even let the ball be hit to me. But if it is, no error. Please, dear God, dear Lord."
The score is tied but the bases are loaded with no outs in the home half of the last inning in the final game of the season. Stephan sweats through his flannel visitors uniform.
"Dear Jesus, I'll do anything. Anything! Just don't let me make an error," Stephan continues with his silent prayer.
Last year, he is one of the better players on his Babe Ruth League team. Now, as his confidence diminishes inning by inning, pitch by pitch, he isn't close to the bestthanks to late-blooming adolescence transforming his lithe boy's body into an awkward teen's and to these increasingly frequent panic attacks. Besides, he much prefers the pickup variations of baseball (softball, stoopball, punchball, and of course stickball, which has its own permutations) played on the playgrounds, streets, and sandlots of Glimmer Heights in New York City's borough of Queens, instead of the formality of the Babe Ruth League games, played under the supervision of benevolent but despotic adults on noise-filled fields hard by La Guardia Airport.
The benevolent despot who manages Stephan's Babe Ruth League team is Sal Pazano, whose neighborhood butcher shop features free slices of salami for his players and a sawdust-covered floor on which Stephan, like a kid, loves to slide in his shoes.
Manager Sal Pazano bellows: "Okay, men! They're loaded up! Infield in! Play is to the plate! No outs! Play is to the plate! You've got to throw the ball home. Gotta come home with it, men!"
Stephan hates that "men" business. He doesn't feel like a man; he doesn't think like a man. And he sure doesn't look like a man, standing six feet tall but weighing all of 120 pounds, with pimples covering his face and braces covering his teeth.
Stephan hears the babble from the thirty or so people in the grandstand, and he thinks he recognizes Kathleen Tulari's voice but he can't be certain and he makes an effort to block out the sounds of the crowd. He prefers not to know whether she's at the game, watching him, waiting for him. Throughout the game he exercises the willpower not to look to see whether Kathleen Tulari is among the fans. Until now. He doesn't see her, which makes him feel relieved and rejected.
"Dear Stephan," she writes to him a few days before the game. "I'd like us to kiss and touch. I'll come to your game on Friday night and if you want to kiss and touch me after the game, after everyone has gone, we can go under the grandstand and make out."
Kathleen and Stephan play together since they are six years old, from snowball fights and tag to hide-and-seek and kickball and bike riding. In the past year, though, Kathleen doesn't play kids' games anymore and Stephan really has nothing much to say to her. At parties, while many other teen couples pair off and become entwined in each other's limbs and lips, the most intimate Kathleen and Stephan get is slow-dancing to "Misty" by Johnny Mathis, pressing against each other, and inhaling each other's soap-scented waves of body heat as Stephan's erection emphasizes his feelings of desire and guilt. Stephan and Kathleen don't kiss, even though Kathleenvaguely at first, before writing her notesuggests she wants to at least kiss, maybe more. They don't kiss, even though Stephan holds the image of Kathleen's candy-apple-colored lips and ice-cream-cone-shaped breasts as he masturbates nightly before falling asleep, a sin of eternally damning proportion, for which he asks forgiveness from anonymous absolution-dispensing priests presiding in the closeted darkness of confessionals. Stephan figures two things hold him back: he doesn't quite believe a pretty girl, especially one to whom he hasn't much to say, is interested in someone as uncool-looking as he is; and he's wary of the words of the fathers of Blessed Blaze, who say God uses eternal fire to punish those guilty of impure acts.
When he reads the note from Kathleen, Stephan puts aside his uncool image of himself, just as he puts aside the confessional's threat of "the loss of heaven and the pains of hell" each night before falling asleep.
When Stephan doesn't see Kathleen at the game, he figures she's a no-show. But now he hears her voice again and . . . yes, there she is, lips and breasts and everything.
"Play is to the plate, men!" Sal Pazano reminds his players, three of whom are his own sons, including Vincent Pazano, the first baseman.
"Dear Jesus," Stephan says, "if I don't make an error, I promise I won't have impure actions with Kathleen. I won't kiss her. I won't touch her."
The ball is hit directly at Stephan on two brisk bounces. It doesn't matter that Stephan freezes with fear. The ball lands in his glove. And then in an instant, when Stephan does move, it's in a nonchalant rhythm, as if he were the best player on the field and almost bored with having to make such a routine play. And so without hesitation, Stephan throws the ball to Vincent Pazano at first base, the wrong base, and the winning run scores.
To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Summer 2001 issue.
ROBERT RUBINO is a copy editor and Sunday columnist for the Santa
Rosa (California) Press Democrat. He believes baseball needs more Jim Piersall-types,
and it still saddens him to reflect upon Harvey Haddix's perfect game defeat.
© 2001 Robert Rubino
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