From the bottom mattress of my bunk bed — the one I slept on as an only child until I was 14 years old, the one which, when pressed for an answer as to who the top bunk was for, my mother glibly replied, “Nobody, one of you was enough!” — I can see my bedroom closet, its careening door ajar. It’s filled with the type of junk you’d find in a typical pre-teen closet: board games, electric guitars, trading cards and in the corner, baseball bats, the latter never far from view.
My Louisville Slugger of choice was wooden — small but mighty — and held the distinction of being signed by my favorite New York Mets player, shortstop Bud Harrelson, autographed personally at a day camp I attended for pale, nimble, somewhat athletic boys whose parents gladly forked over hard-earned cash to get them out of the house for the summer. A star player for a few years, I lunged onto my belly, saving balls from rolling into the outfield, and ran the bases as if my life depended on it. The Slugger also doubled as a makeshift ‘air’ guitar; this allowed me to jump about and contort my rubbery frame into rock star poses, all in the privacy of my 12’x12’ domain. At the time, I hadn’t yet realized the myriad other uses for the bat.
I grew up around baseball; my father was a devout, if not capricious, Mets fan. He was an enthusiast to an alarming degree; as if the television could hear, he would scream at players he otherwise admired when they didn’t heed his armchair managing. “You bum!” his resonant voice often bellowed, attracting the attention of neighbors on either side of us. Once, he recorded a cassette of himself preaching the Almighty Gospel of Baseball and sent it to WFAN, a local radio station replete with overly zealous sportscasters whose diatribe sprayed buckets of testosterone through the tiny grills of my transistor radio speakers. His valiant efforts never received airplay, but I managed to retain a copy of that tape and have given it a listen over the years when I’ve needed a chuckle. Nevertheless, my dad took me to games at Shea Stadium as early as age seven, sparing no expense for a few rounds of ‘dirty water dogs,’ salty pretzels, icy cola and souvenirs. When he was feeling especially emboldened, he would treat himself to a few beers, each spawning a string of tirades from the stands, as I recoiled in shock when fellow fans would glance at me with concern, making certain I was being properly cared for, given the vitriol my dad spewed. Eventually, I learned to laugh at these outrageous outbursts.
But my dad fulfilled his paternal duties and actually showed up for me. Throughout my childhood, he would sometimes go above and beyond, like rounding up my friends on our dead-end street in his Chrysler 300 suburban boat, carting us to the local ice cream shop for dripping cones and lively debate after games he would referee. Or jolting me awake at hours that no human should be up to join him for chilly pre-dawn bike rides on the Atlantic City Boardwalk where we spent a few early vacations. Or begrudgingly buying me some of my first rock record albums. And though he was rarely emotionally overt, I sometimes sensed his affection for me. Of course, it was during these fleeting moments of security when things went haywire.
Coming home from a particularly jarring day of fending off the bullies that permeated my Catholic elementary school, I opened the door to our modest two family suburban home and, like many other days, burrowed my head into my chest to avoid any contact with my mother. Apparently, she had installed on her body a vulnerability radar, which seemed to be pointed directly at me (and later, my father). Sensing the slightest hint of emotional trauma, this contraption would squeal a mayday-like alarm and blink crimson red in rapid succession, clearly signaling to my mother that it was time for verbal attack for merely being in her path. As a result, I unleashed a bevy of cuss words in several languages. Then, her familiar closing, “Wait until your father gets home!”
There have been pivotal times in my life that have acutely activated my senses: The squealing of the brakes on my dad’s car stopping just short of demolishing the garage door. The timbre of the heavy driver’s side door, its plastic lock reverberating having been pried loose by aggression. The agitated clanging of the lock to our front door when his keys didn’t fit quite right and the ensuing muttering of my mom and dad’s voices blending into the background of daytime television talk shows. The thud of his leather briefcase smacking the dining room table and the padding of my father’s spit-shined patent leather shoes slapping our linoleum tiled floor, picking up volume as he approached my room. The low register of his baritone voice as he summoned me to “open the fucking (cheap, hollow and plywood) door!”, the only barrier separating us — one that I am grateful for in hindsight in those fleeting moments, one that would eventually boast imprints of my fists — and the dull pound of my heartbeat becoming bolder, more sonorous, like drumming of the executed. Finally, the sound of metal splitting from wood, hinges ripped from the door jamb, as I forcefully held it closed while my father — who outweighed me by more than twice my heft, and towered over me by nearly half a foot — thrashed into me.
The fury on his face was palpable, grooves worn into his fragile skin from years of having to acquiesce to an emotionally compromised wife, an abandoned music career and a 9–5 life that never suited him, mortgages, bills, and the expense and burden of a child who disappointed him many times over (he sometimes told me that he wished I was ‘normal,’ as in, subscribing to his expectations of who I should be) — all coalescing in this one moment. It was then when he noticed my Slugger in the corner of the closet, standing erect, innocent, begging for play, having only swatted baseballs, kicked dirt loose from my cleats, and handled gloriously like a Gibson Les Paul in the spirit of rock and roll fantasy. Firmly gripping the bat at his side, he approached me, cowering in the corner, eyes wide and crazed, winding up for the swing and…
I wasn’t prepared for it as much as I should have been, miscalculating the batter’s stroke and flight trajectory, the ball loping into center field. Running furiously to catch it, I knew that it would take a small miracle to salvage this play, but I felt confident in my abilities as a fielder. At once, I dove to my right, stretching my left arm across my body in order to make contact, my belly and glove making simultaneous contact with the ground as I slid a few feet. I wasn’t certain of the outcome of my efforts but a few hearty cheers from camp teammates informed me that I had indeed caught the ball, saving the inning and a run or two but ultimately, losing the game.