FIRST SPRING SEASON
by Daniel Picker
My father disappeared in the dark that late winter when the nights still ran long into the mornings and the day still ran short with darkness falling before dinner. I could sense at that time when the house stood cool and dark at night that our family and life would never be the same as it existed before that first spring season without him in the house.
I still saw my father on occasion; he had not moved very far away, to the next large township that surrounded our older, smaller, colonial town on several sides.
One late evening when he drove me back home from a dentist’s appointment, as I sat beside him in his old Scout truck, and we bounced over some railroad tracks, he explained to me, “Your great great Uncle Bill played for the old Philadelphia Athletics; they called him ‘Yaller.’ Billy, I’ve already registered you for Little League for your first spring season.”
As we drove over the bump of black macadam just beyond the railroad crossing downtown dad turned left down the narrow street that led to Tulip Poplar Avenue. The sky had already turned dark and he turned on his headlights. Although March had arrived spring seemed months away. A faint rain speckled his windshield and dad pressed in a small silver button on a dark grey round box above his side of the front windshield to turn the wiper on his side on.
The same contraption rested high above the rectangular rim of the windshield on my side.
“Turn yours on son.”
I reached up as high as I could reach and pressed the button in to hear the faint hydraulic hiss before the wiper started moving back and forth across the pane. He turned left at the stop sign and headed down our street. He stopped in front of our house and the rain began to impinge more persistently in the dark. We sat there in the dark, his headlights fighting through the rain with the motor quietly rumbling.
“I’ll pick you up next Saturday at 9:30 in the morning to drive you across town for the first day of tryouts when they assign you to your first team in the T – Shirt League.”
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks.”
Then he looked over toward me as he looked down at the same time, and said, “I still love your mother.”
Silence stood in the mostly dark car, then he said, “Pull the handle toward you to open the door, and be careful climbing out, the seat and truck are higher than the old station wagon.”
“Okay dad; mom probably has dinner ready.”
My first year I had played with an old dark brown leather mitt with fat fingers and a fat thumb. I found it in the bottom of the wooden flower box at the first landing down the cellar steps. I don’t think even my oldest sister, a high school softball player, had used it for years. Perhaps it had been my uncle’s. With the ancient family relic from the dusty depths of the cellar flower box on the landing, where my oldest sister’s old softball mitt still collected dust in the shadows I awaited dad that next Saturday morning. To my surprise the sun shone in a pale blue sky and the maple flowers in pale green had sprung on branches before our house. I sat on the front steps and waited for dad.
That morning out in front of the house, under the same sky, across the two rectangles of our front lawn my little brother came out to join me. He had an old baseball and my sister’s oversize softball mitt. We threw the baseball back and forth in a catch.
But this morning as I caught the ball, I loved the weight and sound of leather in leather and the wonderful heft of the ball. I tossed the ball back and said, “That was a nice throw; you’ve got a good arm . . .” (I thought to add “for a little guy” but held my tongue at the last moment. I knew I would most likely stand as one of the smallest players on my Little League team.
My little brother, stood still even shorter than I, and as only a first grader was still too young for Little League. I threw the ball back and then he hurled it back and I heard the familiar smack of the ball in my glove. Having a catch! What could be better?
My first year, shorter than every boy on the team, and one of three who wore glasses I seemed apart from my teammates. After the first week of practice, and a few days before our first game our coach distributed fresh, new deep crimson t – shirts and wool felt caps. Each shirt had Flynn Realty printed across the chest in block letters. Some caps had a simple, square black F above the brim; others did not. Every boy pulled on his cap and bent the brim as we kneeled in a semi – circle around the coach. Those caps seemed one of the best things about Little League.
The season started that early spring with the days, short and cool and the nights still long and cold. My T – shirt team, practiced behind one of the distant elementary schools in town. My school, which I attended with my younger brother stood just seven blocks from home, but both schools stood stately in brick and stone with large grassy playing fields behind them with fenced backstops for baseball.
I rode my bicycle to practice after school over strange streets and neighborhoods. By the time practice ended late in the evening in early March, the sun had set. The sky grew a deep purple over the thick deep grass. The wind lifted, whisked through the large dark trees that stood around the edges of the outfield close to the streets.
After practice, I had slid my mitt over the handgrip of my handlebars and slid it down near the stem of the handlebars above the front wheel. The bike, old and black, with some rust, dad had pieced together from old bikes in our garage, one from a neighbor. Dad had shown me several times how to move the wheel back in its slot on the frame, how to tighten the wheel to the frame if the chain got too loose, and how to adjust the back wheel so that the chain did not scrape and clank against the chain guard. He had also taught me how to patch a flat tire by patching the inner tube too.
One evening after practice before the start of the season, I set out riding my bike home, pedaling parallel to the back of the field behind the school. I decided to cross the street and kept pedaling anxious to get home but a little unsure of the best route. I knew I was on the other side of the big highway and the other side of town, far from where I lived and far from my neighborhood, my school, and far from downtown even, and any place familiar.
At the next block, I turned right, thinking I was pedaling in the right direction toward home. It was just past dusk; the sky was a deep grey and purple – black beyond the heavy, dark limbs of trees, which creaked in the wind above me; it seemed more like a fall night than a spring night. Then I heard a loud scrape and clank and my left pedal stuck and I slowed to a grinding halt. I looked down and could see my chain had come off the front sprocket and was lodged between the chain guard and the back sprocket, close to the back wheel. Part of the black, greasy chain was loose and part was caught. I tried pulling the left pedal backwards after dismounting the bicycle; I tried pushing the pedal forward with my hand. I even tried pulling on the greasy links of the chain with my bare hand to try dislodging it from where it was stuck, all with no luck.
By now, it was dark and I was standing in the middle of a deserted street with homes on both sides, with lights on behind bushes and drapes as families were enjoying the last of their dinners. The air grew even colder. I could not pedal the bike forward; I tried; I got on and pushed down hard repeatedly; I tried lifting the bicycle by the seat and letting it drop down on the pavement to clang the chain loose without any success. I dragged my bike closer toward the curb and sat down, not knowing what to do or whom to ask for help, not knowing anyone in the strange neighborhood, and then I started to cry. My right hand was half covered in grease. I just sat on the cold hard curb; darkness surrounded me, and I cried, alone and abandoned in the world.
After what seemed ten minutes I lifted the bike, bent over it, and tugged on the chain, but the chain didn’t budge, then I just dropped the bike on the ground and sat beside it whimpering. Then I heard and saw a shadowed figure walking toward me; it was someone taller than I was, but not a grown up. I heard a voice ask, “Hey, what’s wrong?”
Sniffling, but trying to hide that I had been crying, I said, “My chain came off and now it’s stuck.”
“Let me see; maybe I can help you,” the older boy said.
“OK,” I said.
This boy took the bike and turned it upside down, then cranked the pedal first in one direction, and then the other, and miraculously this seemed to dislodge the chain from the chain guard, and also get it back on the back and front sprocket.
“Wow,” I said quietly, smiling for the first time in an hour, “You fixed it.”
“It wasn’t that tough, now was it?”
“Thanks,” I said as my nose still ran a bit.
The wind was moving cold through the tree branches and limbs above us, but I could see somewhat clearly the boy’s face in the moonlight; I saw grey – white clouds racing past the moon above and his face above mine; he seemed about five years older than I was, and taller and stronger. He never told me his name, but simply said, “I’m glad I could help you; now you can ride home.”
I never did learn his name.
In my first year in T – shirts our games began in the late afternoon after school that spring. I was proud to pull on my deep crimson t – shirt over my plaid, button – down long sleeve school shirt. I put on my cap too and told mom, “Today’s our game.”
“Good luck!” she said from the kitchen. “Get a hit!”
“I’m not sure the coach will even put me in; I’m one of the shortest kids on the team.”
“Let me give you some change for candy after the game,” she said. “Now be careful on your bike; that’s a long ride; stay on the sidewalk on the busy streets,” she implored.
She handed me five nickels and I slid them into my pants’ pocket.
“OK, mom,” I said. “Thanks for the change.”
This night, I walked out our front door and down the steps and slid my baseball glove over the handlebars, swung my leg over the seat, and started pedaling. I rode across town to the Little League fields, but I didn’t have to cross the busy highway as I did when I rode to practice. I pedaled past my elementary school, then past a classmate’s house, she with the long dark hair who looked like Pocahontas from our Social Studies book. Then I rode past another friend’s house; his white stucco porch stuck out toward the sidewalk, then I rode below the end of the football field. The goal post towered atop a slope above the sidewalk as I rode down the hill. Then I reached the bottom of a busy street, which ran out of town. The bridge down to my right, surrounded on either side by overgrown brush, which grew wild around Cooper Creek, down below the outfield of the Minor League Field; the T – Shirt Field lay further back in the shadows. Both fields were below a steep slope and the Major’s field, the Refreshment Stand, and the bleachers for the Majors.
I pedaled hard across the street and made it to the opposite sidewalk, and rode my bike along and around the point where the end of Pottersfield Street ran down into Elysian Street. I saw a run – down white house to my left; I could see a tattered lace curtain torn in one corner behind the cracked glass, the home dark and unlit. I knew a kid from my grade, one of the three black kids in my class lived there. He was as short as I was and even skinnier, with a small round head and short patches of gnarled black hair. His name was Cecil. This was his neighborhood.
I rode up the sidewalk of the adjacent street and found a place where I could run across the street with my bike, and pushed it up the grass slope on the opposite side, just below the Refreshment Stand. The deep dull green – painted box was still locked and closed, but it would be open after the game I knew.
I propped my bike in the bike rack and walked past the Major’s field; I could see the green, thick, manicured field grass, and see the dugouts sunken part way below the field, in between first and home and third and home on either side. At the T – Shirt Field the dugouts stood above ground with wire fencing at the ends and they were painted the same dull green shade as the Refreshment Stand. I walked past right field, then down the path of railroad ties for steps above the Minor League Field named for Governor Driscoll. A few families with dads sat in the rickety bleachers above the Minor League Field above third base. I walked past them toward our field, which stood at a distance with tall gnarled trees behind the third – base side and beyond left field. As I approached, I could see a few kids tossing baseballs back and forth in right field and around the sandy, gravel infield; our coach stood behind home plate with a bat over his shoulder. He hit grounders toward the infielders.
I crouched down and tied my left sneaker tighter, then picked up my glove, straightened my cap and ran out toward right field to field some grounders or pop ups, but I sometimes dreaded pop ups; fly balls I sometimes lost in the sun; most of the grounders that made their way into the thick outfield grass I could handle. The coach soon called us in toward our dugout just beyond first base. The opposing team warmed up in bright gold t – shirts which said Winner’s Dodge; we called them “Loser’s Dodge” since we heard they had already lost their first few games; but we had lost one too; this was our second. But a teammate said, “They were the worst team in the league last year; we should beat them.”
Soon the coach strolled back to the dugout, unhooked a clipboard with a notebook in its dull silver clip, and leaned his bat against the wooden dugout. The coach read from his white, oblong notebook the starting lineup and batting order. I did not hear my name as a starter and along with three other kids I hovered around the backside of the dugout as our team took the field.
“When our team bats, you kids clear out the bats from the batter’s box, and replace them in the wooden rack near the on – deck circle,” Coach said. “You can’t leave them lying around home plate. That’s important.”
Surprisingly, an older kid on our team made a clean play getting the ball back to second on a hard grounder that skipped past our pitcher and shortstop, and their batter ran too far around first base and was caught in a rundown; Tim, the tallest kid on our team, hurled the ball back from second to our first baseman Nat, then they both moved closer toward the runner who tried to run by Tim, but Nat got the ball back to him fast, and Tim tagged him out. Our pitcher struck out the next two batters, and now we were up.
I watched as one of older kids hit what seemed a long fly ball that landed about thirty feet beyond their shortstop and even skipped over the leftfielder’s outstretched mitt; he spun in a circle with no idea where the ball went, and soon we had a man on third base. Our next batter hit a grounder past their second baseman and our runner scored, and we were winning.
One of my teammates yelled from the on – deck circle, “You need a pitcher, not a belly – itcher!” before our coach frowned at him.
Nat hit the ball just over their shortstop’s head in a blooper fly ball and ended up on second, as their shortstop retrieved the ball and sent it sailing with a wild throw over the second baseman’s head; Nat ran to third. Our next batter struck out, but then Big Harmie was up, our chubby catcher. He swung and smacked a fly ball over their first baseman and Nat scored, and Harmon chugged his way, huffing to a stand – up double; his helmet fell off backward when he stomped on the bag.
“He’s as big as Harmon Killebrew,” our coach said, “and just as fast.”
Our next batter was Ted, who lived close to the practice field and went to school there too. His dad sometimes attended practice in his dress slacks and shiny business shoes. He had watched us lose our first game.
“Come on son, you can do it! Just like we practiced,” he called from beyond the backstop.
Ted swung at the first pitch, sent a shot straight over the pitcher’s head, and soon rounded first base as Harmon scored our second run. We scored twice more that inning, and by the fifth inning, we were winning 6 – nothing.
Later, in the bottom of the fifth I heard Coach yell to me, “Yaller, grab a helmet and a bat, and take some swings; you’re on deck!”
I picked up a helmet, which was a deep blue, hard plastic and tried to find a bat I could swing, but they were all too long or too heavy for me; I took a few swings and walked toward the plate; I was up. When I took a practice swing, the helmet flopped down in front of my brows. We had two outs already, but Big Harmon was on base again, this time on second; he looked tired and sweaty from hitting and running, and catching too. He already had two hits this game. His T – shirt, half covered in dusty gravel, and his curly hair, matted to his brow below his cap and helmet.
I swung at the first pitch close to the plate.
“Good cut Yaller; keep your eye sharp!” Coach yelled.
I took the next pitch and heard the umpire call out, “St – ee – rike two!”
The next pitch arrived even quicker, but I swung late, and tipped it, right into the catcher’s mitt.
“Good try Yaller,” the coach said; “You’ll get ‘em next time. Grab your mitt, you’re playing right field.”
I tossed the bat aside, retrieved my glove from the dugout, and ran to right field glad to take the field. In the last inning still winning 6 – 0 in a shutout, the coach’s son now sat on the bench; he had pitched the first five innings. Timmy had moved in from the outfield and was pitching, and Little Gus was catching for his older brother, Big Harmon, who was yelling encouragement from the dugout.
Soon we had two outs on Winner’s Dodge; thankfully, no hit had made it toward right field. I moved in as Coach waved me in, the grass, thick and cool around my sneakers as the sun moved toward sunset. With two strikes our pitcher wound up; he seemed far away from where I stood, but I soon heard the crack of the bat and saw a small white fly ball sailing high up toward me; I ran in a few steps, then realized it was sailing high beyond me, then I back pedaled and reached up with my glove, partly to shield my eyes from the sun and I stretched out my arm and jumped as it seemed the ball would fly way over my head, and the heavy ball hit my glove and lodged between the pocket and webbed leather above, and I fell back on my butt. I had actually caught the ball! It stayed in my glove!
I heard my teammates cheering and Coach yelling in astonishment.
As I got up, I heard Coach say from the distance loudly and proudly, “Well I’ll be, “Yaller caught it!”
I ran a few steps forward and threw the ball to Timmy who was standing behind the pitcher’s mound; he started tossing it round the horn, first to the third baseman. I watched the ball cross the diamond to the shortstop, then all the way to the first baseman who tossed it to the catcher, who then hurled the ball to our second baseman who was standing in front of me and to my side.
Everyone was smiling; we all trotted in toward the dugout as the coach waved his right arm, and called, “That’s three outs! Come on in boys! We won!”
As I trotted into the infield a few team mates rushed up to me, and patted me on the back, saying “Good catch Yaller; you made the final put out!”
Then as we stood before the dugout the coach’s son dutifully stuffed a few stray bats in the long canvas bag, and gathered a few stray batting helmets.
“Congratulations boys; our first victory! Free Sno – cones for everybody!” Coach called out, and the rest of my teammates started rushing off the field, through the fence gate and up the hill to the Refreshment Stand.
My team mates loudly jeered, “Loser’s Dodge never wins!”
Cecil’s tall cousins stood hovering around the green, wooden stand, with the counter nearly a foot above my head; I tried to ignore them and reached my hand up.
“One Sno – cone please. We won.”
“What flavor?” the woman asked.
“Root Beer,” which was my dad’s favorite too.
Teammates joined parents for rides home. The sky grew darker. Cecil’s two cousins, Darrell and Ernie surrounded me, their faces dark and shiny in the lamp light; “Got any change little Billy?” they demanded.
I looked down silent; I hoped to buy some long, red shoe – string licorice for the long ride home. I ignored them and stood by my old bike by the bike racks. Soon, I heard them menacing other kids in the distance. When they were not hovering by the counter anymore, and knew another winning team might be coming up from the Minor League field soon, I snuck up to the counter and said, “Two shoe – strings please” and slid two nickels over the top of the counter.
The young woman pulled the long red strings from the wax paper in the oblong box. I quickly wound them in a ball and stuck it in my pocket. I could feel the damp nickels in my other pocket where I had held onto them as the older taller neighborhood kids demanded money.
Soon I stood in the dark beside my bike in the bike rack behind the stand. The last Major League game reached its final batter. Everyone in the stands focused attention on him. Soon another team might enjoy free Sno – cones too, and the disconsolate losing team would head home after the din had died. I walked my bike down the dark grass slope after sliding my mitt down the rusty handlebar, and swung my leg over the seat. I started pedaling in the dark below those trees of that first spring back toward home.
About the Author:
Daniel Picker’s work has appeared in Harvard Review, The Sewanee Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Middlebury Magazine, The Oxonian Review, The Dudley Review at Harvard, RUNE: MIT, Sequoia, Vermont Literary Review, Soundings East, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Ireland of the Welcomes Magazine, Rain Taxi Review of Books, The Kelsey Review, The Abington Review, The 67th Street Scribe, and more. Daniel Picker was awarded The Dudley Review Poetry Prize at Harvard, and a fellowship from The Dodge Foundation and The Fine Arts Work Center. He is the author of a book of poems, Steep Stony Road(Viral Cat Press 2012).