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DUST OF THE FIELDS BEHIND US

Hitting the Facade
By Ed Weathers

Editor's note: This past Memorial Day was the fiftieth anniversary of the game in which Mickey Mantle came closer than anyone else, ever, to hitting a fair ball out of Yankee Stadium. This essay is about that—and other things.

 

There was a pigeon among the pipes. I was ten years old, the second game was about to start, Dad and George were watching our seats, my mother had gone on to the Ladies' Room, and there was a pigeon cooing and flapping among the ceiling pipes. The floor—large black and white tile squares—had puddles even to here, just inside the doorless bent-maze entrance with its sign that said, simply, "Men." The usual vivid, bitter, human smell weaved with the smoke of cigars, and the pigeon flapped and cooed where the smoke rose to him. The room hummed like a machine. Outside, thirty thousand voices were worshipping the Yankees, who had won the first game, and especially Mickey, who had almost hit one out. I was standing in a forest of dark trousers and hairy arms, and my heart was palpable in my chest. We all shuffled ahead a few inches, and as the pigeon flapped and cooed, I thought about Mickey:

Mickey, grinning and slow-tongued, who could throw and run and hit. Mickey, young and driven, who could strike out with a fierce force and a dangerous drama exceeded only by his massive pop-ups and voluptuous home runs. Mickey, taut and impassioned, who kicked the dirt and threw his helmet and smashed water coolers with every out. Mickey, simple and mighty, whose beautiful, powerful knees were made of a tragic clay that would end his career when he was still young and untainted, before sportswriters became journalists and before ballplayers wrote confessions. Mickey, whom in my innocence I adored.

"How'd Mickey do today?" we would ask, George and I, when we got home late from school on an afternoon when there had been a day game. (Of course, most games were played in the sun then.) And Mom, who had listened to the play-by-play while ironing Dad's shirts or mopping the kitchen floor, would be expected to remember: a pop-up, a groundball single, a strikeout, a flyball.

"Did he strike out swinging? Was it a long flyball? Was it a major league pop-up? Any RBIs?"

But my mother sifted out such purely personal details. She loved the team—and made demands of it—in a way we never did, in a large, general, critical way. The first president she had ever voted for was FDR. And he was also, she'd joke, the second, and the third, and the fourth. She hardly knew what to do in 1948, when he was dead. In 1949, lucky for her, she discovered the Yankees, who were about to win five straight World Championships, thereby taking up where FDR left off. An upstate New York farm girl, small, with sad stubborn eyes and four years in a tuberculosis sanatorium not far behind her, she knew nothing about baseball in 1949, but she had had to learn, living with Dad and George and me, and the Yankees were soon hers: they won. My mother loved winners, and she came to love the game for the way it determined winners. But she was different from Dad and George and me. She loved Mickey when he hit home runs; she ridiculed him when he struck out with men in scoring position. We got mashed potatoes when they won, regardless of what Mickey did; plain boiled potatoes when they lost, regardless of what Mickey did. On a night in a later year, when they were not winning and she was suffering from undiagnosed gall stones, she once slid off the sofa clear under the TV table, trying to help Irv Noren stretch a single into a double. It was one of her rare acts of public passion. She loved the Yankees so much that she could never forgive them when they lost, but she could not stop loving them then, either. It was the team she loved.

But Dad and George and I, full of box scores, sports columns, and baseball cards, loved the details and the players—the clean, strong numbers, and the clean, strong boys playing like men (or was it men playing like boys?) in their pinstripes. It was as if the final result didn't matter to us.

"What'd Mickey do today?" Dad would ask, after the black, puffing 6:18 had come lumbering from Manhattan into the Farmingdale train station, where we awaited him every evening in the black '51 Ford. Wearily, he would take off the felt hat and the sweaty grey suit coat, throw them with the load of folded New York papers onto the middle of the front seat, get behind the wheel, kiss my mom, hug us backhanded as we leaned over from the rear seat, and ask again, "How'd Mickey do today?" And as he drove us home, George and I would tell him how Mickey had done: how Kaline had robbed him of a homer, or how Wynn had struck him out three times (twice after getting behind three and one), or how he'd tripled into the alley in left center ("It woulda been a home run anywhere else!"), or how he'd popped up in the third. "But was it a major league pop-up?" Dad would ask, smiling and exhausted behind the rimless glasses glinting at us in the rear view mirror. "Oh, yes! Major league for sure!" George and I would exclaim, laughing, as if it had burned the sky. Then he would ask Mom how the game had gone, and she would tell him about a shortstop error in the second, about the pitcher's wildness in the fifth, about how they left men in scoring position in the first three innings, about how they were lucky to win, 8–5.

 

The pigeon flapped to another pipe and cooed.

"It hit the goddamn lights, I tell ya!" said a voice up ahead, echoing off the concrete walls. Loud as the machine-like hum was, there was little talking here. One was, I knew, expected to be solitary and businesslike on such a line. This was a shared but isolated effort different from rooting for the team. The voice drew attention to itself: "I heard a guy say it. It hit the lights. The son of a bitch was down in the boxes and he saw it."

The heavy bodies around me bent left and right to see the argument. I looked around to the right of the fat man in front of me; his pale blue shirt was transparent with sweat and he had hair high on his back, under the shirt, and a mustard stain on the right buttock of his brown slacks.

The voice insisting it had hit the lights belonged to a small, dark man with a head of shiny black hair shaped to curl down over his forehead. He was seven or eight people ahead. He wore a thin, white, short-sleeved dress shirt with the buttons all undone and the tail untucked; his chest and stomach were hairless and very tan, and he had a dark finger-length scar next to his navel. He was turned around in line, pointing his index finger up toward the pigeon, and he looked angry as he spoke. "The lights!" he said.

"Jesus!" said the man he was talking to. "You're nuts! Nobody could hit the fuckin' lights!" This man, the listener, had his back to us and was very wide and tall, but not fat. The back of his head was large and square, with the thinning brown hair sheared down to an upright crew cut. He wore a white sleeveless undershirt and there was hair behind each shoulder blade and below his neck. (These were days when body hair, for some childhood reason, mattered to me.) Smoke from a cigarette or cigar—a cigar; the smoke was dense—rose from the front of his face. His voice was pitched too high for his body. "It must have hit the fuckin' front of the upper deck," he said.

"No, goddammit, the lights!" said the first man, now shaking his open palm in front of his face as if pleading. "You saw the bastard, it was goin' straight up! He almost hit it fuckin' out."

We all shuffled ahead a few inches. The pigeon fluttered to a new pipe.

"No way the lights," said the wide man.

Suddenly a voice right behind me said, "Hell, the way he's swingin', he could hit the moon!" And we all laughed because we knew it was true. Mickey could send it to the heavens. We wouldn't know until tomorrow's papers that Mickey Mantle's fifth-inning home run off Pedro Ramos in the first game of this Memorial Day doubleheader, in 1956, had hit the upper fa┴ade of the roof and had come within three feet of being the first fair ball ever to leave Yankee Stadium.

But we did know the swing of a god when we saw one. I turned around to look gratefully at the man behind me, because he had spoken the truth and because he had ended the string of words that I knew I wasn't supposed to hear. Thin and young, with his shoulders rolled forward, he had black permanent divots all over his sunken face and stringy brown hair hanging sweatily over his forehead. He grinned a brown grin at me and said, "Can he hit or what, kid?" I grinned and nodded back. And if George had been there, George and I would have told him all about Mickey, everything right down to the number of walks and strikeouts he had last year—the kind of numbers George remembered perfectly—and how many times Kaline had robbed him.

But George had gone right after the ninth inning and wasn't there.

 

"What about you, slugger? Don't you need to go?" my father had asked.

"I don't have to," I said. "I only had one drink"—referring to the thin watery orange drink that came out of the hose attached to the tank on the back of the thin watery vendor, who couldn't have been much older than George, who was fourteen.

"You sure?" asked Mom. "Your father and George are going now."

"Yeah," I said. "I'll go later if I have to, when it's less crowded. Can I have an apple?"

Mom and Dad looked at each other. Dad was nodding and seemed to be almost smiling. Mom wasn't. Mom handed me a small, slightly wrinkled apple from the brown grocery bag we'd brought: egg salad sandwiches, plums, peaches, apples, cookies, napkins.

"I gotta go," said George. Big, simple George, my half-brother, my father's son, product of a mistaken marriage my father fell into during his first year in New York City, when he was fresh from the small town in Kentucky where the Depression had ruined his family and his chance for college—before he had met Mom at the t.b. san. Earlier, George had left his glove in the back seat of the car and we were nearly to the stadium from the parking lot half a mile away, over the small bridge, when he remembered that he'd forgot, and he had to go back with the key. "I gotta have my glove," he had said with stubborn illogic, even though this time, because it looked like rain, we were planning to sit on the grandstand side of the Yankee bullpen—we always sat next to the bullpen—under the overhanging upper deck, which meant no home run could possibly reach us. So George went back for his glove. My mother looked disgusted—"Make sure you lock the doors," she'd said as he loped off—and Dad rubbed the back of his neck despondently for his son who forgot his glove and could not do arithmetic problems. ("Do I add? Do I subtract? Do I multiply? Do I divide?") While we waited in the loud slanted shade of the overhead subway tracks, I pounded my fist into the deep, lovely pocket of my own glove, which I never forgot.

During the first game, George had eaten a sandwich, a hot dog, four cookies, a peach, and an ice cream sandwich. His eating was a family joke, and I kept count. He'd also drunk a thin Coke and a large orange drink. "I gotta go," he said right after the last out of the first game, though Mom and Dad tried to make him see that that would be when it was most crowded. "I gotta go," he said, irrefutably.

"I think I'll go then, too," said Dad, rising slowly, slim and tall and stooped, from the hard green seat. "Sure you don't want to come?" he said to me. But I was figuring the box score, a bright, linear lad, and said I would stay behind. George and Dad left.

Thanks to my father and fourth grade long division, it was my first year of batting averages, and I wanted to know what Mickey's average was right that minute. He had dragged a perfect third-strike bunt for a single left-handed and smashed a line single right-handed in addition to the left-handed home run, going three for four. Sitting where we were under the overhanging second deck, we had at first thought the home run was a pop-up—a major league pop-up—because it had risen at such a steep angle, lost to our sight. But then came the roaring crowd, and the ball plopped back onto the perfect right-field grass, and there was Mickey, head modestly down and cocked to the left, elbows pointed slightly away from his body, taking his gingerly home run trot around the bases. George and I joined the yelling, me with my impossibly high-pitched scream that those who sat around us always agreed to endure because I was such a charming, innocent Yankee fan of a little boy. Mickey's average right that minute was .430. He led the majors in every category.

Mom, meanwhile, was working the Times crossword. She had taken up the crosswords that year and, not a college graduate, was surprised to find that she was good at them. The grounds crew was dragging the in-field smooth and raking around the pitcher's mound and home plate. While I was writing the second game lineups onto the scorecard, a firecracker went off, and a flurry of pigeons swung out from under the second deck and swung back in farther down the first base line toward the foul pole.

 

A feather swung slowly to the floor, as if on an invisible pendulum. Someone in the back of the line threw the ball of a crumpled paper cup at the ceiling, and the iridescent pigeon fluttered to a higher pipe, cooing loudly. The line was moving quickly now. A large puddle glistened between me and the row of hopelessly grimy sinks on the left wall, where cloth towels fell from their rolls like gray drapes. Words were written on the white walls. A cigarette butt swam in the puddle. Both the bitter smell and the cigar smoke had gotten thicker, even down where I was. The cascading sound of the trough had become louder.

The urinal—a single continuous aqueduct of chipped green-painted metal—ran the length of the right wall. High above it ran a bank of windows with heavy mesh screens. Thick sunlight, white in the smoke, slanted through the windows, and on the floor the long silhouettes of the men in line pointed toward the sinks. Some of the men shaded their eyes from the sun. I wasn't tall enough yet to have to fight the sun or to cast a shadow toward the sinks. At the urinal, facing it, side by side, a uniform two feet apart from each other, was a line of men. Most had their left hands on their hips and their right hanging below their bellies. Some held both hands below their bellies. Everyone looked straight ahead and said nothing.

A sudden crescendo came from outside, and the organ was playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." The Yankees, we all knew, had taken the field for the second game.

"Okay, jokers, let's speed it up!" yelled the divot-faced young man behind me, confident because his last joke about the moon had been a success. There were a couple of chuckles, and another voice, sounding like a teenager's, shouted, "But yus' make sure you hoffn't peed it up!" There were a few more chuckles, but the fat man in front of me turned around with a frown on his face. I was surprised that he had neat, regular, unfat features, with an even coating of five o'clock shadow. He looked down at me briefly without acknowledging my grin. Then he looked again toward the entrance, sniffed ambiguously, and turned back around to the front, presenting me again with the mustard stain. Suddenly my face had gotten very hot, and I looked down at the floor.

"Use it or lose it!" shouted the divot-faced young man behind me, giggling, and I realized that he was a little beer-drunk. I still looked at the floor. We all shuffled ahead. Wet wads of paper towel, deteriorating cigarettes and cigars, and somehow a bent lipstick case were on the floor around my feet. I wondered whether my mother was waiting for me outside. Successions of mild cheers told us that the Senators were going down in order. My mother, I decided, was probably waiting for me, gripping her white purse with both hands and looking stern and vulnerable. I looked up. On the ceiling, the pigeon had landed on the highest pipes and had grown quiet and still, except that he was nodding his head like an old man.

To read the rest of this story, click here to order a copy of the Summer 2006 issue.

—EFQ

ED WEATHERS teaches writing at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia. He has been a senior editor for Memphis magazine, Golf Digest, Tennis magazine, and The New York Times Magazine Group. He earned his letter in college as a pitcher whose fastball topped out, tragically, at eighty-three m.p.h.

© 2006 Ed Weathers

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