In memory of my mother
“Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing.”
June. School was done for the year. On weekdays, the shop across the street let out at 4:30. At 4:35 in the afternoon, the parking lot adjacent to our yard emptied out.
By 5:00, we were all there, most of the neighbourhood kids, two or three of my brothers, and usually, a bunch of their friends. Bases were put out (my older brothers had made those bases years ago). Mitts were distributed. Teams were chosen.
In 1978, the summer before I turned eleven (My birthday is in September), I had been trying everything I could think of to win my mother’s good opinion. I had been at it for about three years. Home life had not been great before my father’s suicide in 1976; afterward, it was sheer hell.
But earlier in 1978, I was inspired, watching my mother as she watched a Mets’ preseason game on channel 9 (WOR). Of course! Baseball!
How did I never think of it before?
My mother loved baseball. She had played stickball and softball as a kid in her old neighbourhood in Black Rock. When my older brothers played in school and Little League, my mother spent hours with them, pitching, throwing, catching, and batting… practicing.
My mom never missed a Mets game (later in her life, she became a Yankees fan, something to do with Mike Piazza and The Mets’ new management… It was weird… But for years and years, she was a hardcore Mets girl). When she was in labour with my younger brother, Tadpole, back in 1969, she disappeared from her room in the hospital. They found her in the TV room, watching the pennant race. When “The Miracle Mets” won the World Series that year, my mother called Tadpole her (and The Mets’) good luck charm.
My mother knew the game better than anyone I’ve ever known. She was knowledgeable when it came to the history of the sport, and she could spit out stats on almost any player that ever lived.
If I played really well, maybe she’d see me? Notice me? Like me (I knew she loved me, and I loved her; we just didn’t like one another much)? I wanted to be good; I wanted her to think I was good.
As soon as it started getting warm out, I approached Brother #3, The Professor.
“I want to be a pitcher,” I told him when we were alone.
I thought he would laugh at me. I was relieved when he nodded and said, “All right. I’ll teach you.”
I am left-handed. Everyone else in my family (and in the old neighbourhood) is right-handed. The years before 1978, I had played outfield and then first base; I was used to holding the glove in my left hand, catching the ball, dropping the mitt, and throwing the ball with my left hand; there were no lefty mitts.
The Professor suggested that I try to pitch right-handed. The first ball I threw with my right hand just missed my oldest brother, Tallboy’s head. He had been sitting on a bench at the picnic table (far, far away from my target), smoking cigarettes and watching.
“Sorry,” I called.
He picked up the ball and walked it back to me. “Why are you pitching right-handed?”
I nodded toward The Professor. “He says it’s easier.”
Tallboy laughed. He turned to The Professor. “Easier for who? She’s gonna kill somebody!”
Brother #3 shrugged. “She said she wanted to be good. There are no good left-handed pitchers.”
“Is that so?” Tallboy said, his arms crossing his chest, cigarette resting in a corner of his mouth (I call that his Billy Badass Pose). He squinted and said, “Warren Spahn.”
I had no idea who that was. Neither did The Professor.
Tallboy looked at me and said (cigarette dangling), “He’s a lefty pitcher. Won a lot of games. One of your top pitchers of all time.“
He lifted his chin toward The Professor and squinted. “Lefties make great pitchers, asshole. Everybody knows that.”
Every sunny afternoon after school, Tallboy, The Professor and I would go out into the back yard. There, they taught me how to pitch. I held a mitt in my right hand and pitched the ball with my left.
I was determined to be good. I went to the library on Saturdays and read any book I could get my hands on: anything to do with baseball and pitching.
I learned through reading and practicing that being a southpaw pitcher in a world of right-handed batters was cool beans.
When the neighbourhood “season” began in June, I was ready.
My mother sat in the window that faced the parking lot, as she usually did during the neighbourhood softball games. She had a comfy chair, a bag of Ruffles potato chips and a cold bottle of Dr Pepper. She was ready… until she saw me approach “the pitcher’s mound”.
“Hey! What’s going on?” She called out.
I smiled up at her. “I’m pitching this year, Mom!”
“Hm.” She seemed surprised, but she did not seem impressed.
Once the game began, she yelled out advice to me.
She had done that with a lot of the kids over the years, but she had never said a word to me. I smiled at her, thanked her, and took her advice.
My first time up at bat, I hit a good one and made it to second. When I looked across toward home base, where my mother sat in the window, she was leaning forward, eyes wide. She smiled and waved at me.
I glowed and waved back.
I barely noticed Tallboy (my captain that day) and The Professor (captain of the opposing team that day) both cheering me on, commenting on how well all of the practice was paying off.
The next time I was up at bat, close to the window, my mother called down pointers and encouragement to me. Again, I smiled up at her, thanked her, and took her advice.
I got tagged out and awaited some kind of… I don’t know, something negative from the window. Instead, as I made my way to the bench behind and to the left of home base, my mother called out, “It’s okay, Van! You’ll get ‘em next time!”
We barely spoke civilly to one another, but that summer, while baseball was “on”, she noticed me. I felt like she even liked me a little.
In August of 2008, my mother passed away (She had dementia; then, she broke her hip on June 28th and developed pneumonia while at the rehabilitation center.).
Cleaning out her apartment, I found her journal: the black binder no one was ever allowed to peek into. I later found out that the black binder kept only her latest diary; I now have seven boxes of my mother’s journals. I put them into chronological order.
Near the bottom of one box, I found a single sheet of yellowed paper. At the top, she’d written: VAN’S STATS 1978
My mother kept track of every strike. Every ball. Every home run (not that there were that many!). Every run batted in. She wrote “highlights” from a couple of games.
I smiled, reading it. Then, I cried a little.
Written at the very bottom of the page, in the left-hand corner, circled and underlined at least a half dozen times: SO PROUD!
I never pitched a no-hitter. Whatever team I was on did not always win. My “career” was cut short by an injury; I never pitched again after 1978.
Who cares? My mom was proud of me.