Rounding Off a Fly Ball

Published in Sport Literate, 2020

The big diamond at Leota Park–the one where the high school, legion, and home talent teams played, the one with the skin infield and wood snow fence that served as the outfield boundary, the field on which I was never old enough to play a real game before I left my hometown of Evansville, Wisconsin–is where my brother Kent taught me how to round off a fly ball.

It’s odd that what I remember about all those Saturdays at the park with Kent is him teaching me how to round off a fly ball. The Saturday trips began a few years after my father died when I was still playing tee-ball with the seven and eight-year-olds, and lasted through the fall before my mother’s death when I was twelve. For a while, my brothers Danny and Pat would come too, but they didn’t love the game the way Kent and I did and easily grew bored with shagging fly balls or chasing down batting practice hits scattered across the outfield. Instead, they preferred to go swimming at the park’s pool, or hang out in the snack shack playing foosball and pinball until Kent and I finished. Saturday afternoons were spent in a movie theater in Janesville or Madison, and then a trip to Burger King or Yankee Doodle Dandy (Kent liked flame-broiled burgers better than grilled). The whole idea of those Saturdays was to give our mother some time to herself, some relief from raising five boys on her own.

Kent was the oldest, and was already married and in graduate school by that time, but when he was younger he had been a centerfielder, and a good one. He was lean and fast and smart. He led Evansville’s American Legion team to a regional championship, playing centerfield and hitting .400 in the leadoff spot. He knew the game and loved it. When we weren’t at the park, Kent and I played home run derby with wiffleballs in the back yard. He was always the Milwaukee Braves and I was always the Cubs – epic battles that pitted Warren Spahn or Johnny Sain against the likes of Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Rick Monday, and José Cardinal.

As I got older and the time came for me to step up from tee-ball to fast pitch, I became a catcher. Unlike Kent who had my father’s physique, I had my mother’s genes. I was tall for my age but pudgy, with the nine-year-old body equivalent of Thurmon Munson and the same tenacity for the game. I was the only catcher in the park league with his own mitt, and while most coaches had to beg kids to put on the gear, I caught every inning of every game I played, and only gave up my spot if I was needed to pitch. I was comfortable behind the plate. It was home.

Soon I started bringing my catcher’s mitt to the park on Saturdays and using it to shag fly balls and take infield practice instead of the old Wilson that had been handed down to me. That glove was originally my brother Mark’s, who had been a pitcher up until my father died and he lost all interest in the game. My mother got him that glove by saving coupons from Raleigh cigarettes. She had always claimed that they were the worst-tasting cigarette on the planet, but they were cheap, and she collected the coupons. In the years after Mark had stopped playing, the Wilson was passed down to Danny, then Pat, then me, but was more often used as second base than an actual mitt. It was folded oddly, like a loosely wrapped tuna salad sandwich where the top slice of bread has slid off kilter–still edible but somehow not nearly as appealing to look at. When Kent saw me shagging fly balls with my catcher mitt instead of Mark’s Wilson, he let me use his glove, a Wally Bunker signature model that was perfectly broken in and closed on its own when the ball hit the web.

I think Kent must have seen the limitations of my being a one-position player, so he took me to a sporting goods store in Madison to get a new fielder’s glove for my eleventh birthday. It was the weekend after Thanksgiving and the stores were packed. Although we looked for a Wally Bunker like Kent’s, we couldn’t find one (Wally was five years removed from playing), so I gravitated toward a Billy Williams signature model with a bellows web that was made by Rawlings. The glove was immense, and it swallowed my hand as I dug my fingers deep into its leather wells. It took most of my arm strength to hold the top-heavy glove aloft, my elbow working overtime as a fulcrum to keep it balanced. “Think fast” Kent said, tossing a ball my way. I turned and instinctively opened the glove which snatched the ball from the air like a Venus Flytrap gobbling its dinner. The ball just seemed to stick inside that bellows web. My eyes grew big. The corners of my mouth turned up. It’s even better than the Wally Bunker, I thought. I stood there tossing a ball into the pocket, watching the leather bellow out each time the ball popped inside.

“Hey,” Kent said pulling an infielder’s glove off the rack. “I think this Wilson looks pretty cool. I kind of like this hinged web.”

“Whose is it?” I asked.

Kent turned the glove over. “Glen Beckert.”

“Let me see that.”

Kent tossed me the glove and I put it on. I snap-tossed a ball hard into the webbing a couple of times. “No. Not the same,” I said and tossed the glove back.

“What about this one?”

I turned to see another glove spiraling down the aisle. I caught it, turned it around in my hands to look at the signature (Willy Mays). “I think I’ll stick with the Billy Williams,” I said.

Finally, Kent cut to the chase. “I think it’s a little big for you.”

“I’ll grow into it,” I told him, harkening back to what my mother would tell me when she bought new jeans two sizes too big for me to make them last longer.

“Maybe by the time you’re in college,” he chortled.

I looked right at him. “It’s my birthday.”

Kent thought for a minute. “You’re right. It’s your birthday. Let’s get the one you want.”

By the following summer I had not grown into the glove. That was the summer Kent took me, Danny and Pat for a car ride to tell us that our mother was dying of cancer. She had been sick for almost two years, in and out of hospitals with a diagnosis that changed with the seasons. In the summer of 1976, when the diagnosis was changed to cancer, there was a finality that couldn’t be avoided, though we all did our best to try. Kent and I continued our Saturdays in the park as if by maintaining our routine we could turn back the clock, or at least keep the cancer from growing inside our mother.

As the leaves lit the trees with a last flame of autumn, Kent and I stood in the heart of centerfield at the big diamond on a chilly Saturday morning, the outfield grass painted with football yardage markers and the infield littered with weeds. The park had a stillness that came with the retreat of summer, with the pool and snack shack being closed for the season, as if the park itself was settling in for the winter to come.

“You need to run past the ball first,” Kent said, turning his shoulders slightly and taking a cross-step as if he were starting to break back on a fly ball. “I mean really run hard so you can get behind it.”

I nodded.

“Don’t float like it’s the last out of an inning,” he chided. “You need to be prepared when it arrives.”

Kent tossed a ball straight up into the air over our heads. He took three steps back moving to his right, planting his lead foot, waiting, watching, looking into the sky for the ball to begin its decent. I stood beside him and watched. He reached to the sky with glove and free hand poised for the catch. Then, all in a whir the ball popped in his mitt as his right leg motioned into a pirouette and he crow-hopped and unleashed a throw that bounced just south of the pitching rubber, crossing home plate knee high.

I looked back at Kent. He was bent over with his glove hand on his left thigh and his right hand pushing his glasses back up onto his nose, but he never took his eyes off the ball’s trail. I followed his gaze to where his perfect throw seemed to hang forever in the air eighteen inches above the home plate. A final throw. One hop. Centerfielder to catcher. A final throw.

Your First Funeral

Published online in Punchnell's, 2014
Chapter from my unpublished memoir

When you’re five years old you don’t know that you should file away memories in the back of your mind – the smell of your father’s aftershave, or the feel of his whiskers when he blows raspberries on your stomach until you laugh so hard that you can’t breathe, and think you’re going to pee your pants (and maybe you even do just a little because you don’t want him to stop).

When you’re five years old and your father just died, you put on the hand-me-down suit from three brothers ago, the one your mother was planning to have you wear to Easter Mass a week from Sunday. You put on a suit and tie and stand next to your mother at Ward’s Funeral Home, and you laugh when your Uncle Curly makes a funny face at you; and without knowing it, you ease his pain if only for a moment.

You go up to the casket and kneel beside your brother Pat, and make the sign of the cross (because that’s what you do when you kneel). You look at your father with his eyes sewn shut, and his hands positioned so that the gold wedding band he kept in your mother’s jewelry box shines for everyone to see. You want to reach out and touch him one last time just as you saw your aunts and uncles do, just as you saw your own mother do. But you are too scared and just close your eyes and recite the only prayer you know: HailMary fullograce thelordiswithee. Blestarthouamongswomen, and bleststhefruit ofthywombJesus. HolyMary motherofGod prayforussinners now andatthehourofdeath. Amen.

You open your eyes and look at your brother Pat. His eyes are still closed. You look at your father again and just stare at his lips, thinking that maybe they will speak. Pat crosses himself and stands. He takes your hand and leads you back to your mother where you cling to her skirt for the rest of the evening.

In St. Paul’s Catholic Church the next day you sit in the front pew with your mother and brothers and grandparents. Your father’s casket is brought to the altar. Your grandmother shrieks. She stands, exits the pew, and runs to the casket placing her hands and head upon it wailing. This seems funny to you, but nobody is laughing. Your grandfather walks slowly up to the casket and stands beside her, waiting. He places his strong hands on her shoulders and whispers something in her ear. He turns her around and walks her back to the pew. Years later you would learn that they had not been told of their son’s death until they arrived in Evansville, until the very last moment, giving them one extra day in this life without grief.

It is raining at the cemetery. Cold, March rain. When you are five years old and attending your first funeral you don’t know what to expect. You don’t know when it will be over. You just do what you’re told. You stand in the rain beside your mother. You look up to see a bit of snot drip from her red nose, tears trickle beneath her glasses. You know that all of this is sad, like when your dog Skippy died, but you are not sad yourself. You cannot grasp that this is different from when your father goes to the hospital for a week or a month. You don’t understand yet that you will never see him again, and as you watch the men lower his casket into the ground, you have no idea how much your life has just changed.

Car Ride with My Brother Kent

Published in Bluestem, 2013
Chapter from my unpublished memoir

If I had been in the car with Kent that day, I would have noticed that it still had a new car smell six months after he had bought it.

If I had been in the car with Kent that day, Danny would have been in the front seat and Pat would have been sitting next to me in the back. We would have been driving to nowhere in particular, much like that afternoon with my father when I was four years old, that afternoon that I opened the car door and fell out onto the road.

If I had been in the car with Kent that day smelling that new car smell and watching the houses pass one by one along a stretch of some county road just outside of Evansville, I might have thought about falling out of the car. I might have wanted to do it again, just reach down and grab the handle and pull it; reach down and pull and tumble onto the pavement to see if my brothers would drive away without me.

If I had been in the car with Kent that day, I might have heard him tell us that our mother’s cancer was incurable, and that she would soon be moved to the nursing home in Evansville where there were people to take care of her.

If I had been in the car with Kent on that October afternoon, I might have begun to wonder what was going to happen to me after my mother died. I might have wondered whether I would move to Madison to live with him and his wife, or whether they would just move in with us. I might have wondered whether it would just be Dan, Pat, and me, alone in our house, as it had been for the last year as our mother moved in and out of so many hospitals.

If I had been in the car with Kent, I would have looked over to see the tears streaming down the cheeks of my brother Pat, and perhaps I might have started to laugh as I did when my father died seven years earlier when I was five.

If I had been in the car that day when Kent told us that our mother was dying, I would have closed my ears, I would have shut my eyes, I would have pretended that I was not there in the car, pretended that my mother was going to get better.

If I had been in the car that day, as Pat swears I was, I would certainly remember all of this the same way he did.

Elephant Bones

Published in Caesura, 2012
Chapter from my unpublished memoir

My brother Pat stood tall on the middle rail of the white, always-needing-painted fence that surrounded the horse field behind our backyard. “An elephant is buried right there in Eager’s field,” he said confidently, as if he were the one who had buried it. Looking to where he was pointing, I shielded my eyes from the morning sun, but saw only a thousand dewy stars glistening in the tall grass. Pat was nine years old and I was six, and although I have three brothers who are older than him, he has always been my older brother.

“You’re nuts,” I said to him. “How could there be an elephant in Evansville?”

“It got loose when the circus was in town and went crazy. They chased it up Main Street and right through Mrs. Record’s backyard,” he said. “It trampled her fence and then came right through here,” he exclaimed, drawing a line with his finger from our neighbor’s house right past us, and out into the empty field.

I didn’t believe him. He was always telling me stories – the same stories that his older brother had told him. And this was four years before that Saturday evening Mass when Father Brechtl entrusted him to teach me how to be an altar boy. The Mass where Pat knelt next to me, making fart noises with his lips during the transubstantiation, just loud enough for me to hear; the Mass where he rang the bells for the blessing of the host, and instead of setting them back down in front of himself, reached over and placed them in front of me without my noticing. Father Brechtl raised the wine chalice, waiting for the bells. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. When he finally looked down to us for the problem, Pat shrugged his shoulders and pointed at the bells in front of me as if he didn’t understand why I had not rung them.

“You’re crazy,” I said again, and climbed down off the fence. “I’m gonna go ask Mom.”

“I’ll show you,” he said, jumping off the rail. Then, as if he were John Wayne leading the troops up a hill at Iwo Jima, he swung his arm calling me forward with an insistent “come on.”

I ran behind him along the side of the barn, and stood at the door while he dug around in the tool bin. He walked out dragging a shovel and pick axe behind him across the concrete floor, lighting up the barn like sparklers on the Fourth of July. “Here,” he said, handing me the shovel. “We’ll dig up the whole field if we have to, just to show you I’m right.”

It was still pretty early in the morning and we had all day to dig. We began walking back through the yard toward Eager’s Field, but stopped in our tracks when our mother shouted out the kitchen window at us. “Patrick Lee Lesandrini what are you up to?”

Whenever our mother used our full names, we knew she meant business. But I also knew that if I let Pat answer, there would be more hell to pay later.

“Pat said there’s an elephant in Eager’s field and we’re going to dig it up,” I shouted back.

“He’s just pulling your leg, again. There’s no elephant in Eager’s field,” she yelled. “Now put those tools away and find something else to do.”

“I told you so,” I said to Pat, the authority of our mother putting an end to the discussion.

I had forgotten about that elephant until almost forty years later when I ran across a book about the history of Evansville, Wisconsin. There is an entire section devoted to the Hall Family Circus. In 1910, George W. Hall, owner of the Circus, claimed that his prized elephant “Charley” had become deranged due to Halley’s Comet, so he killed Charley by injecting him with a large dose of morphine, then buried the elephant at the circus’s winter grounds in Evansville.


Published in Sport Literate, 2012

You break from third even before you hear the crack of the bat, its sound just an afterthought, an affirmation of what your eyes have already told you. The catcher stands with his mask in his hand, his mitt on his hip (you’ve seen that deke before – hell, you’ve even used it yourself). Your legs churn slowly down the line like the wheels of a locomotive leaving the station, and though you try, you can’t seem to make them move any faster. With each stride you expect the catcher to come to life, to toss his mask aside ready to make the play. Where’s the ball? you think to yourself. Why aren’t you closer to home yet? The catcher glances down at his wrist impatiently as if you or the ball or both are late. When he looks up again you recognize his eyes as your own, and are startled awake.

As you untangle the sheets from your shins at the bottom of the bed, you wonder whether that dream will ever go away. There must have been a time in your life when you were fast. A time you can’t remember now. A sliver of years before you became fat.

You get up and duck into the closet to put on your workout clothes. You slip down to the basement where each morning you worship in sweat at Shaun T’s altar of Insanity, believing him when he promises that butt kicks will make you faster. As the energy drips from your pores, you lose yourself in repetition and your thoughts turn back to that dream. You wonder whether you would have been faster if when you were eleven years old your next door neighbor, Mr. Wegman, had showed you how to crouch behind home plate without putting so much stress on your knees. You listened to him because he had pitched in the Cubs’ organization back before the big war (or so his son Pete had told you). Pete, the pitcher on your Little League team who popped fastballs one after another into your catcher’s mitt as you practiced in the back yard after supper each night, his father shouting advice to each of you. “Bend your back Pete. Follow through,” he would tell his son. “Don’t be lazy Jay. Stand up and give him a good throw. Don’t make your pitcher work so hard to catch the ball.”

Your own father had fought in the big war too – in the Battle of the Bulge in fact. And even though he never played organized ball, if he hadn’t died when you were five, he’d have been coaching you instead, and maybe then you could have been a pitcher too, like your older brother Mark had been. But that’s not how things worked out. You became Pete’s catcher, and you squatted like Yogi, resting your ass on your ankles, stretching the young tendons and ligaments in your knees for hours each night. But that only made you slower, it didn’t make you fat. Football made you fat.

It happened that day on the playground at recess when you were nine years old and running with the ball. Little Joe Brennan, all forty pounds of him, jumped on your back and you carried him five yards, ten yards, maybe more until Greg Kirkenbush dropped a shoulder toward your legs. With the extra weight you couldn’t juke, you couldn’t jump, all you could do was take the hit and tumble to the rock-hard dirt with Joe riding you down like a jockey on a falling horse.

The snapping sound you heard, the sound you thought was a twig you’d landed on, was actually your collarbone. You spent eight weeks in a harness. Eight weeks without recess or gym class or sandlot football after school. Eight weeks of sitting on the davenport watching Star Trek and Hogan Heroes. Eight weeks of keeping your shoulders aligned so that the bone would properly fuse together. By the end, there was little need to have the doctor tighten the harness – your own body was doing that work for him. In just two months you had shaped yourself into a catcher.

And you barely had time to get back to normal, to get back to being a kid again, before your mother got sick. During the days, the weeks, the months she spent in the hospital, you sought comfort in chocolate donuts, in Twinkies, in Hostess Ho-Hos. As the cancer ate away at your mother, shrinking her into a bone pile in a hospital bed, you took on her weight, your face and belly rounding into soft mounds of flesh that hid a child inside. But your friends and family seemed not to notice. It wasn’t until you were twelve, until your mother died and you moved to Michigan to live with Mark and go to a new school that you began to feel out of place in your own body; that you became the fat kid.

You learned how to play that role during the year you lived with Mark, so it was easier when you were sent away to a new town, a new home, a new school. By then you’d gotten used to being fat and slow. On the baseball team, you took advantage of the fact that everyone expected you to be last in sprints, last in running foul poles, last in the mile. But you still held on to the dream of playing pro ball some day. You held on until that scout at the tryout camp sent you packing after the forty-yard dash – sent you away without swinging a bat, without even throwing a ball.

By the time you were a senior in high school, when the fat began to fall away from your body (but never your eyes), your goal was simply to play baseball in college for Coach Alexander at Purdue. You listened to the stories of his greatness from your high school coach who had played for “Alex” back in the day. You made this your new dream until you learned that you would have to run the mile in six minutes to be a Boilermaker, so you went to Butler instead, where the coach cared more about your bat than your legs.

But still, you were slow. So slow that when Butler’s track coach showed up at practice one day to teach everyone how to run faster, he could offer you no help. He watched as you sprinted across the gym floor, and when you returned, he looked puzzled and asked you to do it again. When you returned the second time, he said “son, you have perfect form,” then he paused to chuckle, and added “you’re just slower than hell.” Everyone laughed, and you laughed too because you knew he was a cutup. You knew he was always cracking wise and meant no harm. You knew he was right.

Sweat oozes from every pore of your body as you begin the cool down portion of your basement workout. You’re exhausted. Not only from what you have just put your body through, but from the unsettling realization that woke you from that dream. You stretch in child’s pose for a minute, then roll over on your back and just lie there with your eyes closed not wanting to move. You lie there trying to understand why each time you dream about baseball you are never batting or fielding or throwing. Instead, you are running – you are always running with the belief that you will never make it home.

Waiting on Deck

Published in Sport Literate, 2010
- named a notable in Best American Sports Writing Anthology 2011

I’m kneeling in the on-deck circle with two outs in the ninth, and we’re losing again. Losing by a lot, and all I want is one more at bat. Eighteen years of playing baseball is coming down to this – one more chance to stand in the batter’s box. The sun is dipping behind the trees in left field, and what had been a warm Sunday afternoon in late April has become something much colder. If I were sitting in the dugout with two or three guys waiting ahead of me to hit, I’d already be past this. I’d be thinking about getting back to my off-campus apartment and drinking a cold beer, or I’d be thinking that I still have to read The American for my Lit final next week. I’ve been putting it off all semester. I hate Henry James.

Instead, I’m here in the on-deck circle and I reach down, grab the pine-tar rag, tacky the bat handle with optimism. The batter takes ball one. I shout at him. Tell him to make the pitcher work. Suggest to him that the pitcher’s getting tired. Urge him to make sure it’s a strike before he swings. But I know he’s not listening. And I’m not really talking to him, anyway. I’m talking to the pitcher. I want to get inside this guy’s head. I want him to be thinking about me instead of the batter. He knows the game is over. He knows he’s got a long bus ride home and wants to get started as soon as possible.

He throws a breaking ball that freezes the batter, and looks low and away to me. The umpire calls a strike. It’s getting cold out here for him too.

I look into the visitor’s dugout and they are all laughing at the call. They start to bag up their equipment. Everyone wants the game to end except for me—and the guy in the batter’s box. The pitcher reaches back and brings the high hard stuff, and I can see the batter’s eyes turn into saucers. There’s something about a high fastball that makes you want to take a bite of that grapefruit as it dances up to the plate.

A swing and a miss. The count is one and two, and I know that the pitcher’s coming back with another high fastball. I give the batter the benefit of my wisdom, but he still isn’t listening. The pitch is head high, right down central and I see that moment of hesitation in the batter’s knees right before his bat comes forward. I’m already walking back toward the dugout when I hear the slight ping of cowhide glancing off aluminum, and the hopeful chink of the ball hitting the fence behind us. There’s still a chance for one more at bat.

I pick up the pine tar rag and stand there wringing it in my hands like a widow at a wake. I think about the afternoon when I was four years old and my mother stood behind me and shaped my fingers onto a bat handle for the first time. I think about the first game I played in the twelve-year-old league when I was only nine, and how I was so scared that I bunted with the bases loaded. I think about all the nights after practice in high school waiting for the city bus to take me home, while my friend’s parents picked them up. I think about passing up the opportunity to go to Marquette because they didn’t have a baseball team, and about the day my high school coach told me that Butler University was offering me a scholarship. It all comes down to this.

It comes down to me waiting in the on-deck circle, hoping the guy at the plate, a junior who still has another year to play, will find his way on base and give me one last opportunity to hit a baseball. There is nothing in the balance. No record to be set. No game to be won to extend a season. This is it.

Eighteen years of playing baseball and I could never hit a slider. I could never pick up that tight rotation of the seams in time to recognize the pitch . . . until now. I see the ball leave the pitcher’s hand and watch the batter swing at a pitch that would strike me out.

The instant that the ball comes off his bat, I imagine the pitcher being undressed like Charlie Brown as the ball whizzes by his head. Then I hear the snap of cowhide on leather. Charlie Brown isn’t pitching today.

I feel the weight of eighteen years of baseball drop in my stomach, and I kneel down to catch my breath, using the bat as a cane to keep me upright. On his way to the dugout the batter pats me on the back and tells me that he’s sorry, and I know that he really means it.

As I think back now, twenty some years later, I don’t remember what happened during the last at bat of my baseball career, I only remember waiting in the on deck circle hoping that it would never end.


Out of the Dimness: Chapter 2

County Stadium might not have been the prettiest ballpark in the league, but it was easy to get to, had lots of parking, and was clean. Chance and Walt arrived early enough to watch the last few hitters take batting practice. The Braves players gathered near their dugout to sign autographs while the Cardinals took infield. Chance walked Walt down to box seat area with his oil-stained ball and a pen in hand. He told Walt to take the ball and pen down to railing and tell the players outside the dugout that it was his birthday and his first Braves game and see if they would sign the ball. Walt did as he was instructed, handing the ball to Joe Torre who signed it, then handed it to Bob Uecker standing next to him. Torre pointed at Walt and said something to Uecker who looked up and gave Walt a wave, then he took the ball into the dugout. Walt looked back at Chance and shrugged his shoulders. Walt stood for a moment, then became impatient and leaned over the railing to look inside the dugout but was blocked by the dugout wall.

Chance noticed that the usher was making his way toward Walt and the group of boys that had formed at the railing outside the dugout.

“Tickets. Need to see your tickets boys,” the usher said.

As Chance started down the aisle toward Walt, the usher put his hand up. “Can’t come down here unless you have a ticket.”

“That’s my son down there,” Chance said pointing toward Walt.

“Hey kid!” the usher yelled, pointing toward Walt. “Come up here.”

Walt turned away from the usher and leaned over the rail until he was balancing on his stomach to try to get a glimpse inside to see where his ball was.

“Kid!” The usher yelled.

“His name’s Walt,” Chance said, “and he’s waiting for his ball.”

“He shouldn’t be down there unless he has a ticket,” the Usher said.

“But Uecker took his ball into the dugout. He’s just waiting for his ball,” Chance said.

“Look, Mack. I’m just doing my job here. We let the kids come down until the season ticket holders start showing up, then the kids gotta go. I don’t make the rules. If it was up to me, I’d let the kids stay and send the old farts packing, but your kid’s gotta go.”

“Can he wait just another minute?”

“Look Mack,” the usher said again. “You won’t be here tomorrow, but I will, and Mrs. Kesselbaum will. And she’ll be ripping me a new one because I didn’t kick the kids away from the seat she paid good money for. Now, do you wanna call him back, or you want me to go get him?”

“Walt!” Chance yelled. “Walt! You have to come back up now.”

“But my ball!”

“I’ll buy you another one,” Chance said. “A new one that’s not all oiled up.”

Walt dropped his shoulders and started up the stairs slowly, glancing back after each step hoping to see Ueker appear before he got to the top.

“Sorry Mack,” the usher said to Chance.

“Sorry don’t make it right,” Chance said and put his arm around Walt.

He didn’t have any words that might console Walt at that moment. As the two of them made their way up the concourse to their seats, Walt continued to look back over his shoulder until finally he saw Bob Uecker standing outside the dugout looking up into the stands. Walt turned and waved his arms and yelled, but he was too far away. Chance turned around just in time to see Ueker hand Walt’s ball to a kid seated in the first row. Probably Mrs. Kesselbaum’s nephew, Chance thought. The little bastard.

The Braves jumped out to an early lead and Spahn threw a complete game, just six hits and one unearned run. Chance was happy with the win, but disappointed that neither Musial nor Aaron hit a homer. Chance bought Walt a new baseball and promised to bring him to another game to get it signed, but they never made it back before the Braves moved to Atlanta three years later. After that, Chance was done with the Braves. He should have never changed his allegiance from the Cubs just because Milwaukee got a team in 1953. You just don’t do that, and he learned the hard way. As for Walt, the next major league ballpark he would step foot in would be the friendly confines of Wrigley Field seventeen years later.

Out of the Dimness: Chapter 21

An embossed envelope from St. Jude College addressed to “Mr. Walter Schreiber” arrived about a week before Christmas. It was the first time Walt had been called mister since he was a little kid and he kind of liked it. Inside the envelope was a card with the photo of a snow-covered building on the front that Walt would later learn was Clement Memorial Union, and inside were the words “Merry Christmas from St. Jude College.” Below that, Walt read a handwritten note:

Merry Christmas Walt! Hope to get down to see you play this spring. Say hello to your dad for me.

– Coach Woodrow Sprague

Walt wasn’t sure what to make from it. He had met the St. Jude coach over the summer, but his name wasn’t Sprague. It was Guilford or Guilfoyle, something like that. And that guy didn’t act like he knew Walt’s father, either. He took the card into the kitchen where his dad was sitting at the table looking through the other mail.

“You know a guy named Woodrow Sprague?” Walt asked.

“Woody?” Chance questioned. “What makes you ask that?”

“He sent me a Christmas card. He said to say ‘Hi.’”

Chance reached for the card, read it, then chuckled. “Wow. He must be coaching at St. Jude now. I guess Gifford must have gotten that assistant job at Michigan.”

“Whose Woody?” Walt asked.

“I played with him for a summer back in the day in Janesville. He was a hell of a pitcher. A good arm, not live like yours, but good, nonetheless. I haven’t thought about him in years. I can’t believe he remembers me.”

“When did you play in Janesville?” Walt asked.

“After college. It was a summer thing, until I found a teaching job,” Chance said, still looking at the card, and mumbling to himself.

“I guess your father never told you that he played professional baseball for the Cubs,” Maggie said.

“If you could call it that,” Chance said, pulling his eyes away from the card.

“Did you play baseball?” Maggie asked, as if she were a prosecutor questioning a defendant, following with more rapid-fire questions. “Did you play baseball for the Janesville Cubs? Did you play baseball for the Janesville Cubs and get paid for it?”

“You know I did,” Chance said.

“Then case closed,” Maggie said turning to Walt. “Your father played professional baseball for the Cubs.”

“It was Class D ball,” Chance said. “The team doesn’t even exist anymore.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell me about that?” Walt asked.

“It wasn’t a big deal. Not worth even talking about. They needed a backup catcher, and I was available.”

“They asked him to come back and play the following year, and the Cubs even invited him to spring training,” Maggie said.

“Why didn’t you go?” Walt asked.

Maggie waited for Chance to reply. It was a question she had always been afraid to ask and was curious to hear his answer.

“Janesville High School offered me a real job and I took it. By the time I got invited to spring training, I had already made the commitment to the high school. I was never good enough to play in the majors. I was probably not good enough to play above Class D and I knew it.”

Chance then looked over at Maggie. “And besides, I wasn’t about to leave your mom here unmarried while I went off to chase a dream. I knew she was out of my league, just like the Cubs, and I was worried if she started dating other guys, she might figure that out for herself.”

Maggie laughed. “Don’t kid yourself. I always knew I was out of your league.”

Walt laughed. He laughed and wondered. He wondered why his father had never mentioned playing professional baseball, and wondered whether his father might secretly wish he had gone to spring training that year and given it a shot, instead of staying in Wisconsin and marrying his mother. And he wondered whether his mother would have waited for him if he had gone. He was also now wondering how good of a catcher his father might really have been.

“Earth to Walt,” Chance said.

“Huh?” Walt said coming out of his trance.

“I was saying that we should take a drive over to St. Jude and check out the campus during break. Maybe I’ll give Woody a call and we can get lunch with him.”

“Yeah, sure,” Walt said, still thinking about his father’s playing days.

“That is, if you’re interested in St. Jude,” Chance said. “I don’t want to waste Woody’s time if you’re not.”

Walt was interested, but not as much about playing baseball at St. Jude as he was in learning more about his father’s baseball career. He was hoping to pump Woody for some stories. As it turned out, Woody was heading to Rockford for the holidays to see his parents and wouldn’t be on campus when Walt and Chance had planned to go.

So, right after the new year, Walt and his father drove two hours northeast to the small town of Berlin, Wisconsin, and the two of them walked the snow-covered grounds of St. Jude College, entering any buildings that were open and peeking through the windows of some that weren’t. Chance said that it was like shopping for a car on Sunday when the salesmen weren’t around to pester you into buying something. You could take your time, kick the tires, judge for yourself.

Chance talked as they walked, and Walt could see his father’s words trailing in the breath that escaped his mouth on that cold January day. He spoke about the choices that boys make which determine what kind of men they will become. He told Walt that he needed to understand that not making a choice is actually a choice in itself and is accompanied by the same responsibilities and consequences as taking a direct action.

“When I was your age, I went off and fought in the war. A lot of people would say that I didn’t really have a choice, that we were all expected to go, but I did choose to go. Your mom and I want you to go to college, and we each have our own reasons for that. I want you to know that it’s still your choice. If you go, I want you to choose it, not me or your mom. You’re going to spend the rest of your life being faced with obligations. I want you to understand that your first obligation is always to yourself.”

Chance paused for a moment to let his words sink into Walt’s brain.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not talking about the day-to-day stuff like taking out the trash, or washing the dishes, or calling your mom on her birthday when you’re not living at home anymore. Those obligations don’t go away. I’m talking about the big things. I’m talking about where you want to go to college or whether you want to go at all. I’m talking about who you want to marry or whether you want to get married at all. There is an old saying that at the end of your life you’re not going to regret the things you did, but rather the things you didn’t do. You see, Walt, most people spend their lives bending with the wind and never once take the opportunity to find out how strong they really are. And I think at the end of life, that’s what a person will regret most, not knowing how strong they really are.”

Chance stopped talking and looked at Walt who was walking stride for stride, his head down, his hands in his pockets, his breath whistling through his nose and mouth into the frigid air. Chance had never spoken to Walt like that. He had always talked to him as if he were an adult, but never as a man, and that scared Walt into silence. He wanted to reach out for his father’s hand. He imagined pulling his own hand out of his pocket and reaching over, but knew it was too late for that. He knew he was too old for that now.

Chance didn’t know where those words had come from. He had not prepared them as he would prepare a lecture for his English class, but instead had summoned them in the moment, and wondered whether it had been the right time for such words. He wondered whether he might be able to take them back in way that would allow Walt to remain a boy for a little while longer.

Although there were still buildings they had not visited, the two of them followed the path back to the parking lot where the car sat alone, the beginnings of frost forming on the windshield. Chance started the car and cranked up the heat. He drove past the baseball field on his way out of campus, slowing down to give Walt a good look, but not saying anything or bothering to stop. About ten miles outside of Berlin, Walt reached over and pushed the fan control on the dashboard from high to low.

“I think the pizza’s done,” he said, and they both laughed.

“Actually, that sounds pretty good,” Chance said. “I haven’t had a Palace pizza in a while. What do you think?”

The Pizza Palace was the only place to get hand-made pizza in Evansville. It was a take-out joint located just across the railroad tracks on the edge of town and was anything but palatial. They served an incredibly crispy, thin-crusted pizza that held enough grease to lube your car, but for some reason you couldn’t stop eating it until you found yourself picking the grease-stained toaster-leavings and hardened cheese from the bottom of the box.

Chance and Walt sat in the car eating a sausage and mushroom pizza and drinking Cokes they had purchased from the gas station across the street. All the Palace sold was pizza, and perhaps that’s why it had stayed in business all those years, by doing one thing and doing it well.

“What did you think of St. Jude?” Chance asked between bites.

“I liked it,” Walt said. “More than Madison, that’s for sure.”

“It kind of reminded me of Beloit College in a way,” Chance said. “The smallness of it. Small in a good way.”

“Tell me about Coach Sprague,” Walt said. “What’s he like?”

“That was a long time ago, Walt. I only knew him for a summer. I’m sure you’ll get a chance to meet him this spring. Have you thought about what you want to study?”

“I don’t know,” Walt said. “English. Maybe history. I don’t know. Not math or science, that’s for sure. Maybe I’ll go to law school someday, like that guy on ‘The Paper Chase.’”

Chance laughed. He had been the same way. He hadn’t liked courses where there were right and wrong answers. He liked being able to interpret ideas, to shape them into his own thoughts and get credit for that.

“You might want to try your hand at philosophy,” Chance said, “or maybe even psychology, though I don’t know much about either of them.”

The pizza seemed to have put the world back in order for Chance and his son, and Chance was happy for that. He was especially glad because he would have to coach Walt during the coming season and was starting to regret the decision to replace Eddie. Perhaps he could talk Eddie into coming back to coach the pitching staff as he had before. If he knew Eddie the way he thought he did, as soon as the snow began to melt, he would be chomping at the bit to get back on the field. What he couldn’t have known was that Eddie had already replaced baseball with something else, something from the past that Chance would blame himself for reviving, regardless of how many times he was told he wasn’t responsible for it.

The video below includes me reading Chapter 21 from Out of the Dimness at an event at the IU Columbus campus in April of 2022. The video will start with my reading.