Walter Matthau had nothing on Flo, my grade-school softball coach.
Flo was missing a couple of teeth. She kept six-packs of beer in the back of her large, dented, American-made car. I vaguely remember one of us being sent around to the deli on Cooper Avenue to get her a pack of cigarettes, just so she could make it through the practice without a headache. That was back when eight year-olds were sent to delis to buy packs of cigarettes, and the only question asked was whether they wanted a pack of matches to go with them. Flo hit balls to us with a lit cigarette hanging out the side of her mouth. She never dropped it. Not once. She didn’t even ash the thing when she hit a line drive.
Flo was somehow related to our pitcher — “Dottie,” who had wire-rimmed glasses and long blonde hair that she kept back in a ponytail, which made her look even more like John Denver. She was a lot like Jackie Earle Haley’s character Kelly Leak in “The Bad News Bears,” who drove a Harley and was brought on the team as a ringer. Dottie may have been a 35 year-old midget, for all I knew. She was that good. She threw fast-ball softball pitches before anyone knew what fast-ball was. She didn’t talk much, except to tell us when we’d screwed up. I was terrified of her, and almost fainted the first time she actually acknowledged my presence and commented on one of many inept plays that I’d made. I’m forty-one now, and I’ll never be as good as Dottie was when she was ten.
Flo taught me more about the game than any high school coach could have hoped to. With Flo, I ran sprints for what seemed like hours. I learned about force plays and bunts and batting stances and everything else I could soak up in two hours at Juniper Valley Park. During games, Flo bawled me out while I twirled in left field and belted out “Yellow Submarine,” to overcome my boredom. Not many eight year-old batters driving a ball past the pitcher’s mound, and precisely why I was put there. I was desperate to do better, to be stronger, and to finally earn a place on Flo’s infield, which I did, after several years of hard work. I got to short center first — a position that doesn’t exist in baseball, although I’m not sure why — and finally got a strong enough arm to earn third base, and make those long, long throws to tag out the first base runner.
I grew up in Queens in the 1970s, with parents who worked full-time and nothing but ingenuity to get me to some of those practices. I hooked my mitt over my bat and walked — uphill, both ways — to practices and games. I walked under the Woodhaven Boulevard overpass, alongside the LIRR railroad tracks, to get to some of my softball games. There were weeds and bottle caps and rocks and glistening pieces of broken glass and an occasional coin, and there was time for me to daydream and whistle to myself and wander and wonder. Many years later, when a college friend of mine worked at a warehouse nearby, she told me that a dead body had been found under the same overpass. I couldn’t have imagined such a thing when I was young. I couldn’t have imagined a lot of what is so commonplace now.
This year, my ten year-old daughter clicked with softball. She’s played every year since kindergarten, but this is the year that she can’t get enough of it. She wants to play catch constantly, she wants to go to softball camp, she wants to know why there isn’t a summer league she can join this year. I keep some of my glee to myself when she talks like this. I want her to love the game because she’s found her own way to it, and not because Mommy played, too.
She’s in a different league from me, so to speak — one where coaches aren’t barking and screaming (yet) and everyone gets a shout of “good try” no matter how many strikeouts or poorly aimed throws take place. I laugh to myself at the thought of Flo having a slightly different response. ”What the hell was that, Kathleen? You playin’ ball with the team on the other field? Where’s your head? Jesus Christ, get in the game, McKitty! Get back in the game!”
Sometimes, while I sit on the sidelines at my daughter’s games, I still see us — the 1978 “Legal Eagles” in kelly green and white-piped uniforms — out on the field, caps broken in just-right, open mitts on knees, ready for the call of “Play ball!” from the umpire and the crack of the bat. We were harder, we were hungrier, and we were older, far older, than my suburbanly raised daughter is now.
It’s a mother’s curse to second-guess. What’s better? What’s wrong? What’s right? What life lesson is my daughter missing out on because of our “everyone wins” mentality? Would I have been a better player if I’d been encouraged, rather than yelled at? Would I be a better mother if I got her to practice ten minutes early, instead of huffing and puffing and speeding and running and yelling to hurry up, hurry up, hurry up?
And then the moment comes — the brief, shining, stop-action second when the ball is caught and the play is made and the camp chairs on the sidelines empty as we stand and cheer and whoop for the out and the win and the love of the game, for our kids and for breezy summer nights, for the sweet, sweet luxury of being there, for witnessing the crystalline glimpses of glory that we talk about, years later, when so many other memories are gone and those still remain with us.
And for a moment, we are all more than enough.
God, I love baseball.