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When the kid sat down next to me on the train, I could tell right away that he was a ballplayer. After all, it takes one to know one.
It was funny. Although my last pro baseball game was over two days old, I still considered myself a player. Officially, of course, I was not.
Forty-eight hours earlier I had been cut loose by the Triple A New Jersey Spartans, a minor league affiliate of the Yankees. They gave me the usual speech directed to a 30ish, over-the-hill backstop who had had one decent year: "You really don't know how much this is going to hurt us, but we are going to have to let you go. It was a difficult decision for the management, but you are getting on in years, and we happen to think that your best days are behind you. You've been a big contribution to the team, but it has to be done. We're sorry." Short, distant, and to the point. They could have been reading from cue cards.
I guess everybody has different reactions when they're axed. Some burst into tears. Others take the nearest object they can find and hurl it as hard as they can (as if to say, with an arm like that, how can I be fired?). Personally I felt relieved. Being 35 in the bush leagues is kind of like a turtle stuck in a 50-yard dash with a bunch of rabbits: you just keep falling behind. I wasn't exactly losing games for the team, but the occasional missed ball and bad throw to second didn't help. Besides there were a few good-looking catchers in the league below me waiting for a chance, and young blood was always needed. So I just smiled, thanked them for being straight with me, cleaned out my locker and left.
That night I got drunk. I wasn't exactly feeling sorry for myself, although maybe I should have. But it was tradition to kick back a few after getting the boot, and you don't mess with tradition.
And then I was on a train, heading back to my hometown, back to the boonies. Was I a failure? No, not really. In my family's mind I was a hero. I had ceased to have a name; in my town I was called THE ONE WHO PLAYED BALL. THE KID WHO HAD MADE IT. Not quite.
"What position you play, kid?"
It took a few minutes for the kid to realize I was talking to him. He had just boarded in a smaller than small haven called Gardner, 11 miles south of Boston. He put his duffel bag on the ground.
"My guess is first base. Am I right?" I gave him my nice guy smile, trying to convince him I wasn't a con man or anything.
The boy grinned. "You're right. How'd you know?"
"That you play ball or you're a first baseman?"
"Well, you're tall, good-looking, lanky, oh, yeah, and your first baseman's glove is hanging out of your bag there."
The boy looked down and laughed out loud. He really got a kick out of that one. The train began to move through the countryside, the part of Massachusetts that remained untarnished by the industrial waste of the city.
The kid spoke up. "I'm heading up to Rysberg, Northern Massachusetts, Double A division. They got a spot for me on the team. Next stop , Red Sox, they say." His voice was a little edgy.
"Double A," I sat up and turned to him, "is one tough league."
"How would you know?"
"I've been there."
The kid's eyes brightened. "You're a player?"
"Was. Past tense." I pointed to the Spartans cap on my head. "As of two days ago my career ended."
The kid was suddenly uneasy. I could feel it. "I'm sorry."
"No need to be."
The kid thought for a minute. "Did you move around a lot, play for a lot of teams?"
"I've been in Chicago, Washington, tons of other iplaces, but only once was I in the big leagues."
"Where was that?"
"St. Louis, '34."
I saw the boy's eyes literally pop out of his head. "You played with Dizzy Dean?"
"The one and only."
"Holy Shinola!" The kid was ecstatic, almost bouncing off the ceiling.
"He's one of the best ever. Tell me, is he as swell a guy as they say he is?"
I paused. Dean was a cruel bastard. A mean spirited hick on a constant ego trip.
"As nice as apple pie," I said quietly.
"Hot damn! That's great!" The kid sat back and just smiled, as if I'd just given him Betty Grable for Christmas. The he remembered his companion.
"Ahhmm, how did you do that year?"
I laughed. "Not as good as him, I can tell you. Couple of R.B.I.s, a few homers. I didn't play a lot. It was an honor to just sit on that bench."
The kid seemed disappointed. He then turned to me again. "Your first home run, that had to be a thrill and a half."
I smiled and thought back. Back to that warm day when I stepped to the plate in the sixth inning. "June 29th. We had a big lead so Frisch, Frankie Frisch, the manager, threw me in there to see what I could do. I had played a few times before that, but when I got up I could feel something was about to happen. I dug into the batter's box, took two balls and," I made a swinging motion with my hands, "whoosh, over the left field fence. One home run for the rookie."
I glanced over and saw the kid had lost interest. Maybe if I'd added that there was a full count, or a tie game, or a dying boy in the hospital who had asked me to hit one out for him, now that would be exciting. But slamming one off a no-name greenhorn in a 12-0 rout just didn't cut it.
"And then, long after the game was over, Dizzy came right up to yours truly and said, and I quote, AOne hell of a game today, son.' And then he took me out for my first major league beer with the rest of the guys. Now that was a great day in my life."
The boy grinned. "Good ol' Diz. What a guy."
We talked for a little while longer, basically comparing the older players to the new generation. The time flew, and soon the train ran into Canton Junction, my stop. I wished the kid good luck and got off into the cold New England air.
I guess I could have told him the real deal, how the minors really are. I should have told him the food stinks, the transportation is horrible, the hotels lousy. That you're treated like an outsider until you do something positive for the club, whether it be a game winning hit or a nice catch in the outfield. That the women are fast and often looking to get pregnant, hoping to latch onto an unsuspecting guy and grab him with a baby. That no matter how good you are, you may never get that call to the big leagues.
That instead of congratulating me like I said, Dizzy Dean had sauntered up to me and screamed, "Now why the hell couldn't you have done that three days ago!" referring to a game where I had struck out with the bases loaded. Baseball for a rookie can be a cold world.
The kid's dream is to play ball with the big boys, I thought as I got on the next train and watched him speed off into the blackish, cloudy night. Telling him those things would be like waking him up.
"Good luck, kid," I said to myself. You're gonna need it. n