Most precious blood.
It was Rusty Staub Day and Shea was packed. Atlanta was the visiting team, and a guy named Doyle Alexander was pitching for the Braves. Ron Darling was going for the Mets. He'd cut the Braves down in order in the top of the first. I sat there, with my program and yearbook, getting ready to keep the box score, as my father and Danny drank beer and ate peanuts. I was excited as all hell because Lenny Dykstra was leading off for the Mets and Lenny D was my man. In little league I wore the number four just like him and made people call me "Nails," which was his nickname. I had a picture of him up on my bedroom wall, and I'd even tried chewing tobacco one day to get that tough look that he always had. It didn't work out so well and ! puked like a maniac and from then on I chewed gum and pretended it was tobacco. Anyhow, Lenny D was leading off and I was nervous and excited and I felt the kind of wonder that the best kind of ballgame can make you feel. "You excited, Thomas?" my father asked, his beard brushed with peanut shell shavings.
"Look at him. He can't even sit still," Danny Nelson said. "You keeping the box score, Tommy? That's good. You know how to do that? I could never figure it out."
I nodded, then turned away from my father and Danny and looked out at the field. Alexander was still warming up and Lenny D was taking some swings in the on-deck circle. I perched on the edge of my seat and watched him. Saint Thomas Aquinas was my namesake and I wore a Saint Thomas medal around my neck, so sometimes when I was nervous I took hold of my medal and prayed like hell because Saint Thomas was my man like Lenny D was my man and I knew I could ask him for anything, even if it was only to see Lenny homer, and he wouldn't laugh about it or say it was rotten. So I closed my eyes, reached down into my shirt, took hold of my Saint Thomas medal, and said a couple of Our Fathers. I finished it off by saying, "Saint Thomas, if you're watching right now, let Lenny D knock one out."
"What're you praying about?" my father asked.
I said nothing. My father was kind of a bum. I didn't live with him. He'd split from my mother when I was four and hightailed it to Jersey with a waitress from the Nebraska Diner. He and the waitress--her name was Robin--settled down in Matewan and he was commuting every day to his Wall Street job. My mother and I lived in Gravesend in the basement of a three-family house next door to Most Precious Blood on Bay 50th, and I went to school right there at Most Precious Blood and played stickball everyday in the schoolyard. My father came to visit about once a month. Sometimes he'd say he was going to come and then he wouldn't show. When I was younger, I used to pray about that. I'd pray that he'd show. I'd even pray that he and my mother would get back together because she was lonely and I wanted to know what it was like to have a father. In the end, I figured out that he was what he was, and he belonged in Jersey with that waitress. I didn't much want to see him anymore, and I think he knew that, but I did it because in confession I'd told Monsignor Burke how I felt about my father and he said I should hold on, that I had to respect my father no matter what and give him a shot. Also, it wasn't so bad keeping him around since--through his job--he always got tickets to ballgames.
"You praying about Lenny D?" my father asked. "You praying for him to hit a holy home run?" He laughed and turned to Danny. "Get this, Danny. The kid's praying for a Lenny D blast."
"Cute, kid," Danny said.
"Don't waste your time," my father said. "No one's listening. Especially not about a homer. Poor kid." He took a long pull off his beer.
I ignored him and held onto the Saint Thomas medal, as the Braves threw the ball around the infield and Lenny D stepped into the box. I stood up and cheered. The crowd was loud as hell. Alexander delivered and Lenny took a good hack at it, fouling it off in the stands on the third base side. The crowd quieted down. Alexander went back to the mound and delivered another one. Lenny cut at it and knocked it out to Dale Murphy in center. It looked like a sure out but I guess the grass was soggy from the Saturday rains and Murphy was having trouble running. He slipped and fell. By the time he recovered he'd lost track of the ball. He got a beat on it again but it was too late and it shot off the tip of his glove. Lenny ran like hell and got into third with a stand-up triple. The crowd roared. I high-rived Danny Nelson and my father, then sat down in my seat to mark the play in my box score.
Next up was Wally Backman. He got in there and smashed one to the first baseman. Dykstra raced home and made it safely, sliding in and getting his uniform dirty. Keith Hernandez charged him from the on-deck circle and they high-rived. Backman was out at first but was greeted in the dugout like a hero. The Mets were up and I felt as good as I'd ever felt.
After that, things were quiet. Alexander settled down, and Darling came out and continued to pitch a heck of a game. Nothing much happened until the bottom of the sixth when Lenny D got all of one and put it over the wall in right field. It was as if no one had expected it. The little man wasn't supposed to whack them out like that, especially in a tight game where it seemed like nobody would ever score again. I roared and thanked Saint Thomas. My first game and I got to see Lenny D hit one out. I felt blessed as I watched Lenny leap around the bases and take a curtain call.
That was all the Mets needed. Darling pitched a complete game, striking out seven. Alexander had pitched a good one too, also going all the way. The thing was that he just couldn't handle Lenny. It seemed pretty special to me that Lenny was the hero and that he was really the only guy who had done anything offensively. It had been a great afternoon.
Of course, there was a downside. My father and Danny had gotten drunk at the game, knocking back at least eight beers each, and I was dreading the ride home. On the way out of the stadium, Lenny D's performance went out of my head and I prayed to Saint Thomas to get me home safely. I held onto my yearbook and program with one hand and my medal with the other. My father and Danny made all sorts of rotten jokes, and they talked about girls and how many girls Ron Darling probably got. I said a couple of Hail Marys and Our Fathers and asked Saint Thomas to sober my father up before he got behind the wheel.
It didn't work. My father was bombed and ready to drive. He took us out of the parking lot, almost running over a couple of kids at the gate. When he merged onto the BQE, I thought it was surely the end of things and I held onto my medal as tight as I could. A few minutes later, on the Belt Parkway, he rammed into a guardrail. He kept going and Danny laughed about it. Pretty soon after that he rear-ended a livery cab. The cabbie pulled his car over to the shoulder and my father followed. Suddenly, a big sweaty Sikh jumped out of the cab from the passenger side and dubbed our windshield with a tire jack. My father said some tough words but, after almost crapping himself, hummed back into traffic, straining to see out the busted windshield, and dragging something under his grill.
With the grace of God and under Saint Thomas's watchful eye, we made it back to my place in one piece. My father leaned over to me from the front seat, shook my hand, and slipped me a five. He told me I was the best son around and not to tell my mother about that goddamn silly accident back there on the Belt. "Instead, tell her about what kind of game Lenny D had," he said. I nodded, said goodbye to him and Danny and watched as they drove off, still dragging something under the grill of the car. Now that we were off the highway, I could hear it loud and clear, and it sounded like the devil was hanging on under there and growling.
Before I went into the apartment, I ran over to Augie's corner store and spent the five bucks on three packs of baseball cards. I knew my mother would've made me put it in the bank or something and I really wanted some cards. I had a good collection going. I sat down on the curb outside of the store and turned the packs of cards over in my hands. I loved the paper that they were wrapped in. I loved the way it felt. I talked to Saint Thomas a little before I opened the cards. "Thanks," I said, "for getting me home. And thanks for Lenny D's big game. I know you've got to be a Mets fan to let it happen like that. I've got one more thing to ask. I mean, it's not important--not really important anyhow. I've been waiting for a Lenny D card. Could it please be in this pack? That would really top it all off. This is just a small thing, hut I figure it's okay to pray for small things sometimes. Right? As long as I do good stuff and I'm good to my mother and my grandparents?"
I opened the packs. In the first pack I got a Mattingly, a Roger McDowell, two Bob Ojedas, and a bunch of small time players. In the second I got a Gary Carter and a Jesse Orosco. I held my breath. I opened the third pack slowly and shuffled through the cards. It was in there, the Dykstra that I'd been waiting months for. It was one of the last cards in there. I could hardly believe it. I looked it up and down and read the stats on the back a dozen times. I was thinking how I'd buy a little plastic case for the card to keep the dust off. I thanked Saint Thomas for the best day a kid ever had. I put the hard, chalky pink gum from the bottom of the packs--three pieces from the three packs--in my mouth and worked on them. It was a crazy amount of gum and I almost busted out laughing. After a few minutes, I got up, spit the gum out, and walked down to my apartment.
My mother was sitting there at the kitchen table when I got inside, clicking her long pink nails against the side of a glass. "I was worried sick," she said. "Your father didn't even walk you inside to make sure you got in okay?"
I shook my head. "No, he just let me out and I went over to Augie's and bought some cards." I figured it was better not to tell her about the drive home. Anyhow, I'd been paid off not to squeal.
"Where did you get money for cards?"
"He gave it to me."
"You should really stop wasting your money on cards, Tommy."
"It's not a waste," I said.
"You don't think so?"
"Your father's really unbelievable, leaving you like that." She stopped for a moment and thought about it. "Was the game good? Did Lenny start?"
She knew Lenny D was my man. "He started," I said. "He had a triple and a homer. Scored the only two runs of the game."
"That's good," my mother said. "I'm glad."
"It's pretty early," I said. "Can I go out and play some ball in the yard?"
My mother looked at the clock on the wall. It was a funny little clock with a picture of Betty Boop in the center and her legs were the hour hand and her arms were the minute hand so sometimes her legs and arms were up above her head and I blushed like hell. Right then her legs were at five and her arms were at one so she looked pretty normal. "Okay, you can go out and play," my mother said. "But only for an hour or so and then it's dinnertime."
"Okay!" I grabbed my stickball bat and spaldeen from the hall closet and ran outside. I hoped somebody would be out in the yard to play with.
I got out and saw that there was nobody. I started tossing the spaldeen against the wall and fielding the hard ground balls that shot back. After awhile, I went up and drew a strike zone on the wall with the piece of white chalk I always kept in my pocket. I counted out sixty steps then turned and threw a pitch right down the middle. I fielded the ball, then wound up and threw another one. I tried to make it curve and it did. Next, I threw from the stretch and pretended that there were a couple of Braves on first and third. "Heal looks at third, looks over his shoulder at first, winds and delivers," I announced. "Stee-rike!" I said as another good pitch landed in the box.
Suddenly, from behind me, a voice said, "Got any room in this game for an old man?"
I turned and saw my grandfather standing there at the opening in the gate. He and my grandmother lived one block over and sometimes he came around and sneaked cigarettes in the yard. He'd just put a smoke out, I could tell, which meant he'd probably been watching me for a few minutes.
"Yeah," I said. "You can be the Braves."
"To hell with that," he said. "I'm the Dodgers."
"Los Angeles is rotten," I said.
"The Brooklyn Dodgers, brother," he said.
"We can pretend this is Ebbet's Field," I said, "and that the '86 Mets traveled back in time to play the '55 Dodgers."
"Sounds good. Who bats first?"
"I do. Dodgers are the home team."
Since it was just the two of us and there were no fielders we had to mark lines out behind him. Anywhere in front of the first line was an out; past the first line was a single; past the second line was a double; off the fence was a triple; and--as usual--over the fence was a homer. It was hard as hell to hit one out of the yard because the fence was so tall, so usually I didn't really have to worry about knocking too many homers out and losing the spaldeen.
I grabbed the bat and got up and took a couple of practice swings and tried to look serious. "Dykstra's up first," I said. "Who's pitching for you?"
"Johnny Podres," my grandfather said. Then he wound up and threw one. He was kind of bow-legged and wasn't much of a pitcher. He threw slow, high and straight and it was easy to tell where the ball was going to come in.
I knocked the first pitch straightaway and over the second line, and so right away I had Dykstra on second.
"Well," my grandfather said, "looks like time travel hasn't tired your boys out."
Next I swung as Backman and hit a line drive single on the first pitch. "First and third," I announced. It went on like that. I kept hitting singles and doubles and scoring runs. My grandfather took it all in stride. I lied and told him he only needed to get one out, not the stickball usual--two. He finally struck me out with three low pitches that were out of the box. We switched places and he said, "Say a prayer for Gil Hodges. He hasn't had a hit in awhile."
He did pretty well behind the plate. As Pee Wee Reese, he doubled. As Jackie Robinson, he doubled. As Duke Snider, he tripled. And, as Gil Hodges, he whacked one over the damn fence. We watched the ball sail out into the street, knock off a couple of parked cars, and roll halfway down the block out of sight. It was a hell of a shot. I went up and high-rived the old man. He looked proud. "I knew Gil would come through," he said. " We got to go look for the ball," I said. "It's six-four, Mets lead. Don't forget that."
We went out and looked up and down the street and couldn't find the spaldeen. I got down and looked under the parked cars but chances were it probably slipped down a sewer grate or took a bad hop and went up someone's driveway. It was lost. My grandfather leaned against a car and lit a cigarette. "Say a prayer to Saint Anthony," he said. "We'll find it. Otherwise, we'll go over to Augie's and get a new one."
I nodded. When my grandparents or mother told me to pray to Saint Anthony because I'd lost something, I prayed to Saint Thomas instead because he was my man and I had to show my allegiance. So I took hold of my Saint Thomas medal and prayed to him to help me out with finding the spaldeen. Suddenly, I felt guilty. I'd prayed for too many small things, I knew. Spaldeens were only a buck and I shouldn't have prayed about losing one. I felt kind of rotten. I thought I was being selfish with all these prayers about baseball.
My grandfather and I looked for awhile longer and I found the ball stuck behind the back right tire of a rusted old Chevy Nova. "See," my grandfather said, "Saint Anthony'll never let you down."
I nodded. I knew Saint Anthony was the Patron Saint of Lost Things. He probably didn't get upset when people prayed for small things. He probably wasn't sore at my grandfather about asking for his help. Maybe Saint Thomas wasn't sore at me for praying like a madman either, but I couldn't know for sure. I was a little confused. I shook off the rotten feeling, and we went back to the yard and played two more innings.
In the bottom of the third, I was up twelve-ten but my grandfather had runners on first and second and was threatening to tie it up. Just then my mother came out and told us we had to call it quits because dinner was almost ready. "Dad," she said to my grandfather, "do you want to stay for dinner? I can call Mom and see if she wants to come over too."
"No," he said. "Your mother's cooking."
"Okay. If you change your mind, just come on in." She turned to me. "Thomas, I want you in the house now. You've got to get cleaned up."
"Could we just finish this inning?" I asked. "Grandpa's making a comeback."
"Just a few more minutes," my mother said.
My mother went inside and we got back to the game. "Okay," my grandfather said, "time to break this one open."
I wound up and threw heat right down the pipe. He fouled it off. I pitched another good strike and he fouled it off again. I put a little english on the third pitch and he hit the hell out of it. It cleared the fence by ten feet, cleared the street, and landed on the front porch of the house across the street, which belonged to the Nunzios. "Hodges hits another one!" my grandfather said.
"Wow," I said. "13-12, you win. That was some shot."
We left the yard, and he held my hand as we crossed the street. We found the ball sitting in a flower pot on the Nunzios' porch. "A hole in one to boot," my grandfather said.
He reached down and grabbed the spaldeen. I looked up at him. "That was some shot," I said again.
"Never was much of a pitcher," he said, "but I could always hit the hell out of the ball."
"Were you there when the Dodgers won the Series in '55?" I asked.
"Yeah. I was at five of the seven games. Most important, I was at game seven. I saw Pee Wee Reese throw out Elston Howard for the last out of the Series and
I was as happy as I've ever been."
"I was at the Mets game today."
"First game you've ever been to, huh?"
"Yeah. It was great. Lenny D tripled and homered."
"Your old man took you?" my grandfather asked.
"Yeah," I said. "He just drank beer and ate peanuts."
"I'll have to take you next time. When the Yanks get their act together, I'll take you up to the Bronx to see a game. Lot of history at Yankee Stadium. I'll take you out to Monument Park. And, someday, I'll take you over to where Ebbets was. There's apartments there now but you could just imagine. It was a crime they tore that stadium down. Only time I ever cried was when I saw that wrecking ball go in."
"I wish there was still a team that close. I wish there was a team in Brooklyn."
"Yeah, well, there's a lot of knuckleheads who run the show, I guess. And times have changed. You know, right around the time your mother was born, '52, the Dodgers were in the Series and Gil Hodges was in a bad slump. He wound up going 0-for-21 in the series. People were praying for him, actually praying. You'd go to Most Precious Blood for Mass and the priest would include Gil Hodges in his prayers. 'Pray for Gil; he'd say. 'He's in a slump" I know Bill Reddy said he made a novena for him. A lot of people probably made novenas for him."
"What's a novena?"
"You'll hear about it in school and church. It's when Catholics say a bunch of prayers over a certain number of days. Usually it's nine days."
"So, it's not a sin to pray for a ballplayer?" I asked. "Or to pray for a team to win? I was praying all morning that the Mets would beat the Braves today. And I prayed that Lenny D would hit a homer. And, when I got back here and went to Augie's to get baseball cards, I prayed to get a Lenny D card." I paused. "Then I prayed to find the spaldeen. That kind of stuffs not wrong?"
"I prayed to find the spaldeen too," my grandfather said.
"But you prayed to Saint Anthony. That's his department. I bothered Saint Thomas again."
My grandfather looked at me and smiled.
"But that kind of stuffs not wrong?" I asked. "Praying for Lenny D to homer? Or to score a good card?"
"No, I don't think so," my grandfather said. "But times have changed. Used to be everybody prayed for a ballplayer. Like the thing with Gil Hodges. You'd meet nuns on the street, holding their rosaries, praying for Gil."
I looked at my grandfather. He took my hand and we left the Nunzios' porch and crossed the street. He walked me to the front door of the apartment and opened the door. "All right, kid," he said. "Get inside before your mother gets mad." He leaned down and kissed me on the forehead. "Say a prayer. Maybe the Dodgers'll come back to Brooklyn," he said. Then, he turned and headed away up the block. I watched him until I couldn't see him anymore. Then, I put my hand under my shirt, took hold of my Saint Thomas medal and said a prayer.