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FICTION

The Old Neighborhood
By Michael Borshuk

 

When Sal Vespucci hit two home runs for the Detroit Tigers at Briggs Stadium on that magic Sunday back in August '54, all the Italians back on Erie Street in Windsor were smiling. Sal was their paisan, a neighborhood kid. They were crazy from the first homer in the third. When they heard the report over the radio—the ballgame always crackled in the background down at those Erie Street cafés—women clapped their hands and men banged their empty cups on the tables, knocking the fallen sugardust of canoli into the air like sweet confetti. "Sal," they shouted, as if to reach the stadium across from them, over the Detroit River. "Our boy, Sal!" Teenagers claimed him as a cousin. "Our granny's the same, I swear it," they said, but folks knew it was a lie. Sal might have been in everybody's family that day. By the time he hit the second shot, an upper-deck blast in the seventh, all of them wanted him for their own.

Over on Windsor's west side, my grandmother, Valeria Borocky (nee Rosa) also listened to the game, as she did religiously throughout the Tigers schedule. She sat in the backyard with a radio, and lemonade, and her son, Alan, two years old. The child was unconcerned about baseball, focused instead on a toy truck that he pushed across the terrain of the back lawn. Valeria's husband, Bill, a policeman, was gone for the day, patrolling the city on a motorcycle. When Sal hit the first home run, Valeria sat upright and raised her hands to clap. She looked to her son to celebrate, but he was oblivious. Feeling foolish, alone, Valeria sank back down into the chair. Later, though, when Sal hit the second homer, she was less reticent. Throwing her arms up, she rocked the lawn chair in her excitement, bumping it against the side table and overturning her lemonade. The baby started at the splash of drink on the ground, but she put her hands on his shoulders to reassure him. "He did it again!" she whispered to the child. "Sal." The baby, responding only to the brightness in his mother's face, relaxed. "That's right, Alan," she said. "He did it." And with a tear in her eye, she whispered, to nobody but herself really, "Mi amore, mi amore. Sal."

 

Reading over that scene, I see that I've done it again, exploiting what my mother has called "a flair for the dramatic," or crafting what other relatives in my family call, less delicately, "lies." While it's true that Sal Vespucci, an Italian boy from my hometown, Windsor, hit two home runs for the Tigers once in 1954, I've gone and inserted all kinds of ersatz family mythology and supposed secrets into the legend of the thing, making the story not so much about that forgotten hero, Sal, but about Valeria and my infant father and my grandfather, who, in my account, is conspicuously absent and sadly unaware of his wife's love for another man. And I've obviously tweaked the whole scene to play up some vision of "Italian grandmotherness" that, quite frankly, I never really knew. Sure, Valeria was Italian and could cook a decent meatball, but the only time I ever heard her lapse into the old country's native tongue was when, as a youngster, I'd picked up something I shouldn't have. She'd bark a phrase that sounded something like, "Losh La Font!" Italian, I was told, but have never verified, for "Put that down!" or "Leave it alone!"

What's untainted by my chicanery is this: Valeria loved baseball, and followed it unfailingly, as I do. I remember her wandering my grandparents' house, with a radio in every room, so that the house rumbled low with the sound of Ernie Harwell's gameday broadcasts on WJR. A Greek chorus of Tiger baseball reports chanting in the background as she folded laundry or wiped the counter clean. When I was a child, Valeria's house offered asylum for a ten-year-old boy fixated on baseball. Unlike my parents, whose patience had limits, Valeria never tired of listening to me chatter on about that generation's Tiger heroes, rambling incessantly about Jack Morris's split-finger fastball that dusted batters' toes, or Kirk Gibson's own flair for the dramatic—always, it seemed, striking out or hitting a home run when a game was on the line, but never settling for any of the infinitely less interesting possibilities in between. Some Friday nights in the summer I'd be sent to sleep at her house, presumably as a sacrifice, to keep her company after she and my grandfather finally split up in their fifties, but the arrangement was rich with benefits. Valeria let me stay up late. Valeria fed me junk food. Valeria and I played Yahtzee or Gin Rummy at the dining room table. More importantly, if a ball game was on TV, we sat watching with the life-or-death interest of bomb survivors in a fallout shelter, clamoring for news of the world beyond.

And it was Valeria who taught me how to keep score, at my first baseball game, my family amidst the fried onions and chipped paint at venerable Tiger Stadium on a summer Sunday afternoon. My father approaches a barking vendor and buys me a program, a glossy magazine of rosters and photos and trivia questions that comes with a sharpened pencil. The meaning of the pencil eludes me, at first, but when we get to our seats, Valeria shows me the blank scorecard inside, a grid of empty boxes and open spaces to record all the day's action.

"But what do I do?" I ask, unable to imagine how I might be able to take note of so many plays, outs, runs, hits, in a small graph that takes up less than three-quarters of the printed page.

"Like this," she says, as the game is beginning. "Each player on the field is a different number. One is the pitcher, two is the catcher, three is first base, and so on. When the batter makes an out, you show who got him with the number, and you record how it happened with a letter. ŽSeven' means he flew out to the left fielder. You put it in the little boxes."

"Where did you learn that, Grandma?"

She winks. "Something I picked up. Years ago."

 

I don't know where I collected this detail about my grandmother, but it stands unassailable in my memory. It is a sepia-toned photograph with tattered edges that I can hold in my hands. Valeria, as a girl, at the big radio in my great grandparents' front room. The radio is the only real luxury in an Italian home built on thrift and self-reliance, alien and decadent compared to the well-tended garden that swells over the tiny backyard, or the bottles of homemade wine stacked neatly in the basement. This young version of my grandmother listens intently. There is paper and a pencil before her. Her face is the only image that doesn't resolve in complete sharpness. My mind's eye can't make that adjustment smoothly perhaps, transposing Valeria's soft wrinkles onto somebody so young.

She is picking up the action of the game from a radio report, delivered by a broadcaster who long predates the Ernie Harwell of my own youth. And she is keeping score, capturing so many groundball outs and line drive hits in a practiced, compact handwriting of symbols and abbreviation.

Where did she learn this?

From her brothers, likely. She is the youngest of four, with three boys ahead of her. Tony, Nick, and John. I see them as granduncles, all variations on a grandfatherly theme. Men with deep voices who smell like pipe tobacco, whom I see once or twice a year. Uncle Nick slips a dollar into my pocket and calls it "running around money." Tony feels my slight arms and tells me that I'm putting on so much muscle that I could be an Olympic athlete. John is the one I don't know well. I almost forget throughout my childhood that he's the other sibling. He's not always at family functions.

In the sepia-toned days of Valeria's youth, the uncles are, of course, still boys, ranging in age from ten to fourteen. And in the bronze-hot summers of the 1930s they are as consumed by baseball as I am in the Junes that follow a half-century later. In those days they combine imagination and kinetic fervor, gathering with other Italian kids in the schoolyard a few blocks away, but transcending the paved courtyard and crabgrass of that humble arena. For them it is Yankee Stadium or the Polo Grounds. The chain link fence in the distance marks the bleachers. Beyond it sits a hungry crowd. For my great-uncles, as for me years and years later, there are never enough players in the neighborhood to field a proper game, nine on nine. So they improvise: a pitcher, a batter who stands before the schoolyard wall, a handful of fielders to cover the geography of their imagined stadium. The pitcher throws a scuffed baseball. The batter swings a broomstick. The boys who chase lazy pop-ups or blistering line drives in the field are mostly gloveless. This is not a neighborhood of wealth or luxuries.

I hear the banter of these boys in the schoolyard, the voices of immigrant children immersed in fantasy and swagger, imagining themselves the heroes of Brooklyn, St. Louis, or Detroit.

"Throw me the fastball, Nicky," barks one husky-voiced kid. "I'll hit it into the upper deck!"

Uncle Tony, who imagines me later as a brave Olympian, disagrees from center field. "Nicky throws the fastball better than Dizzy Dean!"

And this is why Valeria is at home by the radio. The boys' younger sister resolves a consistent summer problem: how to stay informed about the afternoon's game when there is only so much summer daylight to exploit for themselves. They conscript their younger sister, teach her how to keep score, plant her by the radio. The boys work on their hitting, try in vain to throw curveballs. Valeria records the day's events elsewhere, documenting Hank Greenberg's home run heroics, recording each play of the contest carefully, as she's been taught.

A funny development though, amidst this ordered task. She finds that she loves the game herself.

One Friday sleepover in the summer of '84, we play Yahtzee and listen to the radio broadcast of the ball game. The Tigers are running away with the pennant. For the zealots, life is good. At the table, we play a ragged game. Valeria frequently bends the Yahtzee rules, allowing me to take extra turns when I don't roll what I need. This is her specialty, to bend the rigidity of what's supposed-to-be, to open spaces and let me through.

Late in the game, she asks me this:
"If I could bring you to meet someone who played for the Tigers, would you like that?"

I put the dice down. It's as if she's offered the gift of invisibility or a briefcase full of comic books. "Who do you know?"

She smiles. "Would you like to meet someone who played for them?"

"Alan Trammell? Please say Alan Trammell."

"I didn't say someone who plays now, but would you—"

"Jack Morris?"

"Sweetie—"

"Lou Whitaker? Kirk Gibson? Lance Parrish?"

I run through the entire current roster, even working my way down to Marty Castillo, the backup catcher and sometimes third baseman. A guy who barely hits his own weight. Valeria lets me run through my breathless litany before making her point again.

"Honey, I said someone who used to play for the Tigers."

"From '68?"

The 1968 Tigers are the last to have won the World Series. I have studied this, have read about them, to see if the current team compares. I begin another litany:

"Grandma! Al Kaline?"

"No."

"Bill Freehan? Norm Cash? Mickey Lolich?"

And again, I run through an entire team roster, even working my way down to 1968's former pitching ace, Denny McLain, whom everybody knows is in big trouble right now, having been indicted on racketeering and cocaine trafficking charges in March when the Tigers were still in spring training. I have one of his baseball cards (Topps #150, from 1969), passed down to me from my Uncle Bobby. Maybe Valeria has connections, will take me to visit the fallen Denny. But Valeria remains elusive.

"Sweetie, I can take you to meet someone who played. Do you want to go?"

"Of course," I say. "Geez. More than anything."

She nods. "Okay, we'll go next week. And don't say, 'Geez.' It's sacrilegious."

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

—EFQ

MICHAEL BORSHUK is originally from Windsor, Ontario, but now teaches in the English department at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. His writing desk sits below an autographed photo of Alan Trammell and a painting of Tiger Stadium. Besides his love for baseball, he writes regularly on jazz for Coda magazine.

© 2006 Michael Borshuk

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