It happens every summer. It might be the smell of fresh-cut grass wafting through an open window that brings it on, or the sunset spreading out like a wine stain across the sky, or the distant voices of a ball game about to break up. Suddenly, in my mind's eye I see my mother standing on the front porch. The porch light has drawn moths that beat futilely against the screen. My mother is calling me home for dinner, her voice rising. Wordsworth was wrong: "...nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower." Something can, something does. Every summer, as inevitably as the tides, I am thrown back again onto the shores of memory. I am a child again and in love with a game—the game of baseball—and my mother is on the porch, calling me home from play.
Before girls were allowed into Little League, before Title IX, before adolescence would bring new games, the ones I still seem to be playing, I was an eight-year-old tomboy growing up in a New Jersey suburb, Scotch Plains. I came from a family mostly of girls, and so I was on my own much of the time, looking for things to do besides playing dress-up. (My older sister, Eva, could whip up a Princess Di gown with accessories before there ever was a Princess Di. I preferred the Barbara Stanwyck Big Valley look, and I would tromp around the house in my boots.)
The sport I wanted to play most was baseball. Lucky for me there was Mike Marshall. Not the current Red Sox malcontent but a boy younger than I by a year who lived down the street. He had a big open yard and, if such were possible, he loved baseball as much as I did.
Mike and I did everything together. We wrestled, we rode those bikes with the banana seats and the high handlebars, we blasted Germans out of their foxholes with our cap guns and, yes, we collected baseball cards. We would quickly discard the stale slab of pink gum in each pack and search for whichever Yankee or Mets star might be inside. The term "star" is used loosely as regards the Mets. Mike collected Mantle and Maris. I collected, to my everlasting chagrin, Ron Swoboda and Horace Clarke.
I often watched games on our old black-and-white Emerson TV, turning the channel quickly if some guest of the family happened in. I was afraid, with a childlike fear, that someone would find out my secret: that I loved baseball, that I breathed baseball, that I wanted to be a baseball player digging in at home, looking for the slider, swinging for fences.
Every summer Mike's father would let us use some of the lime he had bought to cultivate the lawn. With it, we would draw our own baseball diamond by the side of the house. We would assemble what kids we could, but we were always short of players, and so we would double up on positions. I played first and second, David Eerie played third and short and, if Paul Sturm wasn't practicing the trumpet, we would banish him to the outfield, since he was two years younger and didn't have the skills we did. Don't scoff. I can still remember the flying catch I made when I had to play outfield because Paul was practicing. Mike's older brother, Tommy, who had a few pounds on us and had a mighty swing, had hit a hard shot. I chased, dove, made the play.
Tommy never stayed to play very long. He looked upon our seriousness with a wry humor that I didn't appreciate at the time. After hitting a few, he was off to older chums and, we suspected, older girls.
That I was a girl never seemed to mean much to Mike, thank god. Even my parents could occasionally look the other way, as they did on my eighth birthday. It fell right in the middle of the preseason, and my parents finally gave in to my pre-pubescent desires. In fact, so generous were they that year, that I thought I had entered baseball heaven. I received:
1) a glove ( Norm Cash model)
2) a softball (well, they were close)
3) a softball bat
4) a catcher's mask
This last item was a gift of pure inspiration on my parents' part. The black, metal mask weighed heavy in the hand. It had the feel of the real thing. It had leather cushioning around the inside and a wire mesh through which the world suddenly was new. It gave me the look of a true baseball player, and I knew this from inside the mask.