This week cavalcadeofstars takes great pride in introducing Mike Handley.
Friends in High Places
By Mike Handley
I sucked at baseball, which might explain why I’ve no interest in the boys of summer. I once had a card signed in blue ink by Willy Mays, but I don’t know what became of it.
The only reason I donned the uniform and rode solemnly to the scraggly ball diamond in Dolomite, Ala., every week was so I could devour gray-wienered hot dogs and gigantic Chick-O-Sticks before and after the games my team usually lost.
It was 1969, the summer of love, but not where I lived, unless you count the swooning of my 8-year-old heart over the little blonde women on cans of Miss Breck hairspray. The cars were long, hair was short, and I lived in fear of being drafted 10 years before I was even eligible.
The little baseball field a world away from Vietnam was built for our community–and then mostly forgotten–by Woodward Iron Company, operators of a blast furnace down the road that helped stoke Birmingham’s steel industry. It was the home of the local Little League and to the men’s softball team from the nearby Baptist church.
Bleachers lined both sides of the diamond (green-painted pine planks across cinderblocks), and in between, perhaps 50 yards behind home plate, was the squat concession stand. I used to marvel over the engineering that allowed someone on the inside to pull a rope that lifted the hinged plywood that covered the counter, signaling as much as an umpire’s yell that it was time to play ball.
The hot dogs were boiled colorless in a huge pot atop a double-eyed hot plate; the sauerkraut-laden sauce cooked in its twin. Candy was kept in huge jars that resembled those used by science teachers to display two-headed turtles. And the glass bottles of Coke, Sprite and Tab bobbed in long, almost coffin-shaped, metal bins full of ice water.
In the 40 years since, I haven’t enjoyed a colder drink.
One of the dads grilled hamburgers outside the building, the heavenly smoke basting the skeletal limbs of a very-much-alive catalpa tree that had given up its leaves to caterpillars, most of which became fish bait rather than butterflies.
I was a much better fisherman than a baseball player. I was a better everything, to be honest. I always closed my eyes just before the ball hit (and invariably bounced out of) my glove. My aim was like that of a drunk wavering over a urinal: plenty of heart and conviction, but piss poor–or poor piss–execution.
But there was this one time I earned my stripes, although the coach–he who anointed every player an “all star” because he didn’t have the balls to tell their mothers they weren’t good enough–pretended not to notice.
It was my time at bat, and the game rested on my not being struck out (again) by the opposing team’s pipsqueak pitcher, who my mother said was “stunted,” because he smoked cigarettes. The boy’s father, Dink, apparently had the same problem.
The little shit could throw a baseball, though.
The coach came up to the whatever you call the warm-up area and told me to bat right-handed, knowing I was more comfortable swinging as a lefty, especially after I’d been beaned by a hard-thrown baseball the other way. Pavlov’s dogs had nothin’ on me.
He might as well have said, “Go on out there, boy, and let that baseball hit you in the face. Take one for the team, how ‘bout it?”
I’ve no doubt that my first and last triple, which netted us the game-winning run, would never have happened if not for the behind-the-plate umpire, my Pawpaw, who stopped the game, pulled off his mask and yelled at the coach to “Let the southpaw bat the way he wants!”
Mike Handley is a career journalist, artist and member of the zipper club who mourns sausage made from non-flying things. He’s married with dog, left of center, a smoker, drinker, snorer and devout Internet bridge player. His paintings can be seen at http://www.mikehandleyart.com, and his musings are posted at handlets.blogspot.com.