My left foot is aching again. It always does when the barometer is falling. For 26 years I've been able to predict the weather with my left foot, a very palpable memento of my brush with the legend.
It wasn't a mere brush, actually, it was a collision.
Even as a 14-year-old I knew about legends. They were the guys who hung around the playgrounds in the summer and the gyms and bowling alleys in the winter, high-school dropouts mostly, who had once been blessed, or cursed, with bodies that matured too early. They had been bigger and stronger and better coordinated than others their age, young men in a world of adolescents. They had once hit a baseball farther, scored more touchdowns and shot more baskets than their peers in high school. Later, though, they became big-gutted from too much beer and not enough exercise, full of stories of what had been and what, if it hadn't been for a bad break, might have been. Most of them could still dominate us kids. But we knew why they tried: they couldn't compete in the world of men.
My friends and I tolerated them, but we were wise enough not to be flattered when they boasted to us or frightened when they bullied us. We didn't admire them, we pitied them.
I assumed that Joe Bellino was another such legend. Oh, he had done it all for our next-town rival, Winchester (Mass.) High. In the state championship basketball game he stole the ball and drove the length of the court for the game-winning layup—in sudden-death overtime. All the big-time football powers were recruiting him. And as a catcher, he was compared by major league scouts to Roy Campanella.
I wasn't impressed. Another precocious jock—I knew about them.
Still, as I sat on the bench that sunny May afternoon in 1955, waiting to play third base in my first varsity baseball game for Lexington High, my nervousness was compounded by the prospect of playing against Joe Bellino, who was then a junior and already an established legend. I watched him as Winchester went through its infield drills. He had a stocky, Yogi Berra body. His throws to second, flicked so casually, seemed to be still rising when they arrived. He didn't chatter or yell, and carried himself with such grace, such sublime self-confidence, that he commanded attention. I was still skeptical; he was no hero, no legend to me. But the more I watched him, the more I began to feel that I, a skinny freshman, didn't belong on the same field with Joe Bellino.
I certainly played as if I didn't belong. The first ball hit to me was the easiest kind of lazy three-hopper. I grabbed at it too eagerly. It hit the heel of my glove, bounced off my knee and came to rest in the third-base coach's box. An inning later I threw a bunt into rightfield. I struck out. Twice My first varsity baseball game (my coach called it my "first debut") was becoming a nightmare. My teammates ignored me, for which I was grateful. The Winchester players didn't say much either. They knew a good thing when they saw it.
In the sixth inning we were losing by five runs, most of them directly attributable to my errors and my failure to hit. I slumped miserably by myself on the end of the bench. When my coach came to sit beside me, I figured he was going to take me out. He didn't look at me, and at first I didn't realize he was talking to me. He seemed to be studying the game from beneath the visor of his cap.
"Errors are part of the game, son," he mumbled, never taking his eyes off the Winchester pitcher. "Never blame anyone for an error. There! See how he twists the ball in his glove? Curveball coming."