Why can't I play, Stooie Schachter? I have a bat. I have a glove. You even use my A.J. Reach Official American League ball. For two hours every Saturday I have to sit there on that big rock in that empty lot and watch you and the other kids play nine innings, and when you're finished you flip me my ball and say, "Thanks, kid." Two hours watching you when I could be reading The Official Encyclopedia of Baseball. Two hours for a lousy "Thanks." O.K., so you're 9½ and I'm only eight, and you're the best ballplayer in the neighborhood and I'm only the second-best in my class. But I'm still better than half the guys you play with. So why can't I play?
It always started at 12:30. I never knew whether game time was determined by lunchtime or lunchtime by game time, but at 12 o'clock the 9-year-old ballplayers in my neighborhood in Queens would eat lunch, get their things and go to the empty lot for the game. Stuart (Stooie) Schachter and Norman (Normie) Geller ate at 12:15. They could afford to, because they were the stars. In fact, it was impossible to have a game without them, seeing as it was always Stooie's team against Normie's team.
I ate at 11, and not because I was a slow eater. How could I be? I had the same thing for lunch every day, a plate of Chef Boy-ardee ravioli, so I knew all the shortcuts—slicing one piece while chewing another, eating the hot pieces last so I didn't have to waste time cooling them off by sucking in air with my mouth wide open. I ate at 11 so I could rest up for the game, so I'd be physically prepared, mentally alert, totally ready for a game I'd never been in. But I had to do it. What if I did get to play? It might be my only shot, and I wanted to be at my best. So I finished eating at 11:02 and sat on my bed checking lifetime batting averages, in case they came up in conversation with Stooie.
I would get to the field at noon. It was early, but there were things to do. Like clock myself around the bases. "Go!" I would yell to myself, already halfway into my first stride. "It's over short and into leftfield for a base hit!" I tore around first. "It's in between the outfielders and rolling to the wall!" I turned on my speed. "He's rounding second and heading for third." Dust flew off my pounding spikes as I steamed for the hot corner. The Old Crow gave me the stop sign, but there were two out and I wasn't about to let some .260 hitter ground out to end the inning and waste my triple. No, I was going for all the marbles this time. "He's rounding third and he's going to try for the plate! Here he comes. Here comes the throw. He slides...and he-e-e-e's...safe!"
I looked at my watch. The second hand was on the six. Had I started when it was at the one or the three? I couldn't remember. It was important, though. If it had been the three, it meant that I had circled the bases in 15 seconds, only a few seconds off Willie Mays' time. Reluctantly, I rejected that possibility. "Twenty-five seconds," I said to myself. "That's less than twice Willie Mays' time, and he's at least twice as old as I am." I let that reasoning stand, realizing it implied that an 80-year-old man could run the bases in a shade over three seconds.
But there was more to do between 12 and 12:15 than run bases. I had to hold batting practice, which consisted of my hitting the ball out of my hand and walking 300 feet to pick it up. (That's 100 feet on the fly, 200 on the roll.) When this got boring I'd throw the ball up in the air as high as I could, wait until it was almost halfway down, then run two or three steps and make a spectacular diving catch.
Around 12:15 the first 9-year-old would usually appear, and we'd loosen up our arms throwing the ball back and forth. To most of the kids this was a routine warmup and they'd be very casual about it, not bending too far for the grounders, not throwing as hard as they could. But to someone who'd never been in the game, everything was a test. Maybe if I caught all the balls that were thrown at me, maybe if one of the catches required a leap or a difficult scoop, maybe if, at that moment, Stooie or Normie were looking in my direction....
But it was hard to keep my attention on my fielding when my mind was on the players. Not who they were, but how many there were. They needed 18 for a game, so if they were a kid short, I'd be in. As I warmed up, I watched and worried. If an old face, a regular, appeared, it was all right. There were only 17 of them. But if a new face came it meant trouble. Saturday after Saturday my hopes were crushed by somebody's cousin from New Jersey or Long Island. Some kid without sneakers, some dope without a glove who didn't even know that Yankee Stadium was in the Bronx and the Polo Grounds in Manhattan.
But they played. If they could see, breathe, walk, smell or make any kind of noise, they played. If they ran from first to third on a pop-up—even though everyone within 30 miles was yelling for them to go back—they played. If they stepped on second instead of tagging a guy who was sliding in for a double, they played. If they swung at a 3 and 0 pitch in the dirt two seconds after they'd been told not to swing at anything, they still got to play.
And I got to watch. I sat there on that rock, an audience of one whose only thought was that maybe someone would break his leg and be unable to crawl from home to first and they'd be forced—out of necessity, out of embarrassment, out of something—to put me in the game.