The "Do You Have Lots of Faults Too?" Issue
A View from the Stoop
by Joey Nicoletti
It was a sticky, hazy, mid-June afternoon, and all of the boom boxes and radios on Teed Street were crackling with the sounds of Prince and Bruce Springsteen. My neighbors and I were playing a not-so-friendly game of stick ball. There was one out in the bottom of the seventh. This was to be our last inning because the Yankees and Mets games were starting soon, and we wanted to get home to watch our respective baseball heroes on TV. Our teams were divided into the Teed Street Yankees and the Teed Street Mets. Although I was usually on the Yankees, my pal Timmy Cream Cheese was staying with his grandparents in Maine. I volunteered to fill in for him on the Mets, so that both teams had the same amount of players, and so that we could get a game in. I also volunteered because some of the real Mets players were winning me over.
I still loved Ron Guidry, Sweet Lou Piniella, and Willie Randolph, but most of the men from the late 1970's Yankee squads I adored as a child were no longer on the team, a sore spot most recently exacerbated by the fact that Goose Gossage and Graig Nettles were leading the San Diego Padres to their first National League pennant. What's more, Reggie Jackson had left the Yankees for the California Angels as a free agent. Worst of all, the untimely death of Thurman Munson in 1979 broke a window in my walk-up soul that no ballplayer will ever replace. In the shadows of these departures, I had become intrigued by the wheels and name of Mookie Wilson, and the uppercut home-run swing of the Mets' young right fielder Darryl Strawberry. The Mets were becoming the new Yankees to me. While the Yankees traded heralded prospects like Willie McGee and Fred McGriff for veterans whose skill sets were ill-suited for Yankee Stadium—known as Babe's house to me and my family—the Mets were committed to developing their young talent and trading it away selectively, for accomplished star players who were still in their prime and could serve as a collective compass needle that pointed the younger players in the direction of team success.
I was at the age where I was sure that my parents were idiots: whatever they liked, I was against it. I was terrified of embarrassing myself, whether it was by dropping a fly-ball, introducing myself to girls, or writing the incorrect answer on the blackboard. Some of my friends were great at Math and Science. Others excelled at every subject under the academic, athletic, and social suns. I could always hold my own in such endeavors, but I specialized in playing it safe: I was the Valedictorian of "I don't want to do it wrong."Perhaps my biggest fear was my mother, or more specifically, her retribution for my misbehavior, which came in the form of a wooden ladle she purchased from Sears earlier in the summer. She called it "Wonderboy," after the bat used by Robert Redford's character Roy Hobbs in The Natural. My mother swung Wonderboy at me for any infraction of her rules, such as forgetting to take out the garbage, or more often, when I failed to make the Honor Roll.
She had dreams for me. I had mine, and on this particular day, I wanted to prove my worth to my new team, so I imagined myself as the current Kansas City Royals right-handed slugging first baseman and former Yankee, Steve "Bye-Bye" Balboni. As a Yankees farmhand,
Bye-Bye led the league in home runs at every stop he made in the minors. For all of his power, he had an "average" glove and was prone to strike outs, which made the Yankees top brass nervous.Then there was the Don Mattingly factor. Don also played first base and could pick it in left field as well as he could at first. Further, Don hit for a high average as well as power, and his left-handed swing was well-suited for the short right-field porches of Babe's house, referring to Babe Ruth.. Thus, to the Yankees, Bye-Bye was expendable, and was traded to the Kansas City Royals on December 8, 1983.
While I am a fan of both players, I was, and remain more of a Bye-Bye guy, Don's illustrious career notwithstanding. I also feel that both men would have benefited from each other's presence in the same line-up. Although Don won nine Gold Gloves, Bye-Bye was a competent first baseman, and could have spotted Mattingly a day or two. In so doing, the back injuries that dogged Don at the end of his playing days might not have persisted as they did, which could have resulted in higher career home run and RBI totals. Bye-Bye's right handed power might have complimented Don's left-handed stroke.
Such is the nature of baseball: there is a long time between dreaming and knowing. The game takes as long as it takes, and all one can ever be sure of is that every player will fail more often than not. The great ones do so less frequently, and are more effective with the opportunities they are presented with. There are plenty of strike-outs in the game of baseball, and everyone does so, as Bye-Bye knew all too well, having led the American League with 166 SO's in 1985, the same year he hit a career-high 36 home runs and won a World Series Championship as the Royals' starting first baseman. One can whiff often and still be a triumphant, productive player. Perhaps this is another reason why I love baseball: players like Bye-Bye remind me
that even our best performances have flaws. What matters is how one works with their imperfections; how well they walk through the fire of their quirks and tendencies. Bye-Bye embraced his; always swinging away, knowing that he might not put his bat on the ball, much less hit a towering shot into the stands. In this respect, Bye-Bye taught me to believe in myself: to be as careless of failure when I step into the batter's box in the arenas of my dreams and ambitions as he was in baseball stadiums in the 1980's.
Bye-Bye accepted who he was and went for it, and I began to follow suit in the summer of 1984. My admiration of Bye-Bye is also due to matters of ethnicity, locale, and familiarity. I rooted for him because he was Italian-American, and came from a similar East-coast,
blue-collar background as I did; me from Astoria, New York, Bye-Bye from Brockton, Massachusetts. Bye-Bye also looked like a member of my family. With his bald head, bushy mustache, thick forearms, and portly build, he bore an uncanny resemblance to my Uncle Michael, who was an MTA bus driver. Uncle Michael was also a Vietnam Veteran, and like many of his brothers and sisters-in-arms, he had a difficult time adjusting to civilian life when he returned home. In addition to putting "the Nam" in "his waffle iron," Uncle Michael aspired to drive a bus for the MTA and get married. He passed the city Bus Driver's test on his fifth attempt, and married my Aunt Karen a few months later. Whenever I watched Bye-Bye on TV, I saw my Uncle Michael, grinning like a big cat behind the wheel of his bus in the Casey Stengel Depot; his necklace, cross, and Italian horn glistening in 10 karat smog.
Eddie was at bat. My friend Vito "The Armpit" Vendetto was pitching. He was called that because he always wore a wife-beater undershirt and sniffed his armpits — which were wiry, unkempt gardens of jet-black hairs — before he threw a pitch. It drove everybody bonkers, especially Eddie, who could hit the ball a country mile and rank you out with one swing of a broomstick.
"Throw the ball, you garlic-eating, Stallone-wannabe, grease-ball Dago!"
The Armpit was just as game: the Satchel Paige of Teed Street. "Yeah? You were the inspiration for twin beds!" "Your Momma's so fat, when she wears high heels, she strikes oil." "Banging your Momma's like driving a Toyota: oh what a feeling," the Armpit replied, quoting a commercial tag-line of the time. "Gangster boy!"
"Cacafuego!" "How does it feel to be a New Guinea, Armpit?" Sniff, sniff. "How does it feel to be a waste of sperm and eggs, Eduardo?
"Veins emerged from Eddie's forehead like purple canals. "Throw the ball before I throw you to the ground." "Are you ready?"
Eddie gripped the broomstick tighter. The Armpit smiled like a butcher's dog. "Are you sure you're ready?"
"This one's going to the Moon, Dago-Face."
The Armpit reached back and threw the handball sidearm; his knuckles grazed the pavement. Eddie made contact. A pop up. "Joey! That's you," the Armpit bellowed from the piece of white cardboard serving as our pitcher's mound. I got my hands under it, and pulled it in. It was the only putout I ever attempted or made while playing First Base. Thank the maker: I didn't do it wrong.
Eddie glared at me like a matador stripped of his red sash and dagger. The Armpit slapped my back, and then looked towards Eddie.
"The moon? Shiiiiiiiiiiiiit. That one didn't even make it past Jersey."
"Up your ass, Dago-Face! You're a failure!"
"So was your dad's condom."
Enter my best friend, Matt Fleming, who everyone called Matty-Ass. "My turn, Bitches."
Bruce Springsteen's vocals streamed down the block: Hey little girl is your daddy home Did he go away and leave you all alone I got a bad desire Oh, Oh-Oh, I'm on fire.
The Armpit smirked as Matty-Ass tapped his broomstick on the dented trash can: home lid. He bounced the ball on the pavement, and then stepped off the mound.
The Armpit reached back for a little something extra and released the ball from his hammy right hand, quick as a hiccup.
Matty-Ass took a healthy cut. To his broomstick, every sound was a cobalt-blue smack. This swing was no exception.
The handball cleared Mr. Muncaster's custom van, parked on the upper left side of the block. We called it the Gold Monster. Game over.
Matty-Ass rounded the bases, and jumped on home-lid, making the sign of the cross as he landed.
"Screw Bruce Springsteen. I'm on fire, Bitches!" The Armpit grinned in spite of himself.
"Nice shot, Jackie Robinson," he said, referring to Matty-Ass's all-time favorite player. "Never mind the moon. That one's headed to Ganymede."
Eddie glared at the Armpit, and then stomped up the block. No one went for the ball, so I went to get it.
By the time I returned, everyone had bailed but Matty-Ass. I slapped his back.
"Damn, Paisan. Eating all that wheat germ's paying off.
"Matty-Ass laughed. "Nah. It's all about timing. That's success, Joey — when preparation meets opportunity."
"Lemme ask you something. Do you make this crap up as you go along?"
"Somethin' like that. I think Mr. Stroker said it in gym class."
We burst-out laughing. Matty-Ass grabbed his boom box. Prince sang the post-game wrap-up:
If u don't like the world you're livin' in Take a look around u At least u got friends
Matty-Ass turned down the volume, and a voice drifted between the parked Buicks and Toyotas. It was a like a sprig of fresh mint in a glass of a sun tea.
"Good game, boys, especially you, Matthew. No one could have grabbed that. Josh would be proud.
"The voice belonged to Mr. Toporcer, affectionately known to everyone in my neighborhood as "Mr. T." Mr. T's existence was characterized by being blind and sitting on his stoop whenever my friends, enemies, and I played stick-ball. He otherwise kept to himself, and was something of an Obi-Wan Kenobi-like presence on our block. Mr. T had a full head of
white-hair, perfectly parted to the left side, and wore pressed, khaki slacks, black loafers,
and a rocket-red or nickel- gray short-sleeve, pressed dress shirt with a starched collar. He
also always wore round, clear-lensed Windsor Eyeglasses, the same ones worn by Groucho Marx and John Lennon, which only added to his allure. I thought that blind people always wore dark glasses, like Stevie Wonder.
I asked him who Josh was and he said, "Why Josh Gibson, of course. Lou Brock couldn't have picked that one."
"Matty-Ass swung his head in Mr. Toporcer's direction. "I dunno, Mr. T., Lou Brock could jump. He might've gotten it."
Mr. T grinned. He looked right at Matty-Ass, his clouded eyes tilted upward."Mr. T's an actor and superstar. I'm neither. I'm blind, but I listen pretty good, Matthew.
"Matty-Ass looked at me and grimaced.
"Also, please call me Specs."
"Okay, as long as you call me Matty A — "
"Follow me. You, too, Joey. Let me show you both something. "
The force was strong with Specs.
We followed Specs to his cotton-candy pink house. His gait was surprisingly graceful. Once we were inside, I noticed that we were all walking in-step. As amazed as I was with Specs' command of his faculties, I was surprised by the layout and décor of his digs. They looked like anyone else's: a sofa; a love seat flanking a Magnavox TV. A VCR was on top of the set, and a cassette tape of The Blues Brothers was a thick, black and white plastic tongue, sticking out of the silvery mouth of the VCR. Other than an opened book with Braille on the pages, there didn't seem to be anything different from a blind man's house as opposed to my mother's or Matty-Ass's. I was surprised not to see excessive padding on the corners of tables. Specs led us to his basement, which smelled like bubble gum and cardboard, as if we were walking into an enlarged, fresh pack of baseball cards.
"Almost there. Please hold the handrail."
Matty-Ass was in front of Specs, and I walked behind him. We made our way down the stairs, being sure to hold onto the handrail.
I looked at the wall above the rail, and my eyes widened like a baby owl. Framed pictures of Hall-of-Fame baseball stars followed one another like resplendent waves of polished oak. Among the waves: Rogers Hornsby, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Frankie Frisch, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe McCarthy, Lefty Grove, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, Roy Campanella, Ernie Banks, and Lou Brock, most of whom were posing with Specs.I was glad that I held onto the handrail. I was almost swept away by the undertow of the photographed tide as it continued to roll: Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, a picture of the DiMaggio brothers: Joe, Vince, and Dom, and, to Matty Ass's delight: "Jackie Frickin' Robinson!"
Specs nodded. "You choose your heroes well, Matthew."
Then we spotted the Mother Ship of images over the Devil's Tower of Specs' memorabilia mantle: A composite of the 1926 World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals, with each player's signature underneath each portrait, including George "Specs" Toporcer.
My mouth opened like a windblown screen door. Matty-Ass pointed at Specs' headshot.
"Is that you, Specs?"
Specs flashed the same little smile in his head-shot.
Forget Obi-Wan; Specs was now Yoda: the foremost Jedi Master. I was a baseball of unraveling stitches.
"You played against Babe Ruth?"
"I did," Specs said. "He was great. So was Lou Gehrig. They were the best; especially in defeat."
Matty-Ass and I spent the rest of the afternoon with our jaws on the ground as we looked at more photographs of Specs with major league stars of the past and present. When we came up for air, our ears were like satellite dishes at the Very Large Array near Socorro, New Mexico, taking in every transmission from stars and constellations; every word and sound of Specs' baseball stories.
As much as I enjoyed myself, I felt constellations rising in my chest as Specs spoke of his life in baseball. He got the nickname Specs from being the first major league baseball position player to wear eyeglasses, or "spectacles," in a game. He never played high school or college ball. The combination of his imperfect eyesight, skinny build, and short height had kept coaches from taking him seriously as a player.
"No one ever heard of wearing glasses when you played with a 'hard ball' in those days," Specs explained.
He was undaunted. He practiced, learned, and studied "everything he could, from every available source" and perfected "his craft" playing sandlot baseball. In 1919, he was playing semi-pro ball in Brooklyn and became friends with Charlie Niebergall, a catcher he'd played against. The Syracuse Stars signed Charlie in 1920, which had come under the ownership of the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of the year. Charlie had "insisted" that the owner of the team watch Specs play. He did, and this resulted in Specs signing with the Stars. Just before the start of the following season, Specs reported to Branch Rickey, who was then the Cardinals manager "at the training base" in Orange, Texas.
Specs served as a second baseman for Rickey, who liked the way he played, and wanted "to set a new style in ball players." Glasses, short, skinny build and all, Specs was in the infield of Sportsman's Park to open the 1921 season for the Cardinals at second base. On top of that, Rogers Hornsby, the defending National League batting champion and future Hall-of-Fame Cardinal second baseman, was moved to third base to make room for him. Specs played in "the show" from 1921-1928, mostly as a utility player. He spent his entire seven-year big league career with the Cardinals, including one season when he led the National League as a pinch hitter with a .409 average. He continued to play pro ball until 1941, winning four pennants and the international league MVP twice, in 1929 and 1930 as the starting second baseman for the Rochester Red Wings.
After his playing career ended, Specs continued to work in baseball, most notably as the director of minor league operations for the Boston Red Sox and as a manger of the Red Wings and the Buffalo Bisons. His eyesight had worsened each year, and he underwent multiple surgical procedures to save it, including a fifth operation in 1951, when he was managing the Bisons. It was after this last procedure that he went blind, which he referred to as "Strike 5."
Specs said that he was proud of his accomplishments, not for themselves, but because of the knowledge he acquired along the way: "I learned and I keep learning. Be persistent. As Branch Rickey told me, you must be willing to 'pay the price' if you want to be successful."
The moon rose like a fingernail in the twilight horizon when Matty-Ass and I left Specs' digs. He told us to come back anytime, and held the door open for us as we left. The smoky smell of hamburgers and hot dogs sizzling on barbecue grills drifted between the sycamores and power lines as I walked to my mother's house.
The rest of June and all of July raced down the chalky base-paths of summer like Mookie Wilson stealing a bag at Shea Stadium. I spent the remainder of the 1984 season as a Teed Street Met. Timmy Cream Cheese had been in a car accident and was bed-ridden in Portland. I played right field, the positional counterpart to Matty-Ass on the Teed Street Yankees. I was Joey Strawberry. Matty was, and remains, Matty-Ass.
We stopped seeing Specs regularly on his porch sometime around mid-August. Matty-Ass found out that he had taken ill, and that the dog days of summer had become gradually rougher on him. There was even talk of Specs moving to a Hospice care center. He came outside once briefly when we played a game towards the end of month, and waved in my direction as I stepped up to home lid. I struck out on three pitches, and grinned from ear to ear.
I never saw him again. My family and I moved the following winter, but Matty-Ass kept tabs on Specs in the years that followed. He died just weeks before our respective high school graduations, at the age of 90.
Earlier today I heard "I'm on Fire" on the radio, and I imagined Bye-Bye Balboni, Darryl Strawberry, Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, Charlie Niebergall, and Rogers Hornsby watching intently as Specs stepped into the cage for batting practice at Sportsman's Park. The Buffalo Bisons are currently the top minor-league affiliate for the Toronto Blue Jays, and play their home games at Coca-Cola field, located in the heart of the city, which is a 20-minute drive from my home; 10 minutes, if my wife is driving. Of all that I have learned in my investigation of what accounts for my love of baseball, my memories of Specs have taught me another lesson, this one from the unit of continuity: some players are born great, others persist, and make themselves into professionals, and some are born to be your neighbors, wherever you go. They look onward from the stoop inside you, cloudy brown eyes dilated by barbeque smoke and June moonlight.