The Fantastic Catch
I used to love playing catch with my dad.
The snappy slap of the Thwack! when ball hit glove smack in the Thwack! pocket was a godly sound always, whether I was receiving pitches from my dad with my Rawlings Tim McCarver signature catcher’s mitt Thwack!
or just tossing the ball back Thwack! and forth Thwack! with him using my Rawlings Tony Conigliaro signature fielder’s glove. Thwack!
What was the fantastic magic Thwack! in a game of catch?
Partly it was the equal give-and-take of me and my dad.
And partly it was the non-action of it all, without goal, without rules, without intention, without winner or loser, without any predetermined end, without the garbage of artifacts, without reason or assertion or strategy.
Just tossing the ball back Thwack! and forth Thwack! with my dad Thwack!
Sometimes he’d deal me a tricky grounder or lob a pop fly surprise over my head.
“Think fast!” he’d shout mid-toss, and I’d scramble to snag the grounder before it veered under parked cars or went through my legs straight on out into the middle of Beverly Boulevard, or I’d dart my eyes upward to spot the falling ball amid the leafy branches of the sycamore trees on Citrus Avenue.
We used to find it amusing that, in those days, Citrus Avenue was lined with sycamore trees, and Sycamore Avenue three blocks away was lined with citrus trees.
Kinda like that Greenland/Iceland thing.
If I missed, he’d always admonish, “Don’t try so hard! Let the ball find your mitt!”
And when I got it right, Thwack!, the ball indeed found my mitt. THWACK!
Just like that.
And it was beautiful.
I wouldn’t describe my dad as a Taoist in the formal sense, though one afternoon while snooping through my parents’ bedroom I found a Taoist book in his nightstand drawer, amid Scrabble scores on assorted slips of scratch paper, restaurant matchbooks, a deck of cards, an empty pack of Kent cigarettes, a 9-volt battery, those red rubber bands used to wrap the Herald Examiner newspaper, the keys to something or other, one stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum, my 4th Grade report card, the ticket stub from a Lakers game against the Cincinnati Royals, a yellowed edition of the B’nai Brith newsletter in which he was proclaimed B’nai Brith’s best bowler, several Canadian pennies, a bristle hairbrush, a worn copy of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask,
a few condom packets (before I even knew what condoms were . . . I remember in early childhood going into the bathroom to pee in the morning and seeing a jellyfish every so often floating in the toilet . . . I’d wonder what the globby creature was, pee, flush it down, and go watch cartoons), yes, amid all that racket of scraps and doodads, I found a slim hardback volume called The Wisdom of Lao Tzu, the Taoist sage.
So I guess some of the advice my dad would impart about life and love had Lao Tzu as a basis, conscious or not.
I remember one visceral lesson in wu-wei I received, not from my dad but from baseball, when I was 10 years old.
The day I made “the fantastic catch.”
That summer — it would have been 1971 — I was having a good season in little league at Gardner Park.
We all called it Gardner Park because it was on Gardner Street, but the official name was West Wilshire Recreation Center.
Only the employees called it that though.
Everybody else called it Gardner Park.
There were any number of child molesters prowling that place daily.
Also schizophrenic monologuists, yeshiva buchers, and some crazy-ass dogs too, all mangy and stray.
You never went in the restrooms at Gardner Park.
You went into the Fairfax Branch of the Public Library just across the parking lot and used that toilet.
You had to look at books for a couple of minutes first so the librarian thought you were a library patron, or if you were really in a hurry you could
go right up to her desk and ask her where to find a book, like maybe Ball Four by Jim Bouton or Bang The Drum Slowly by Mark Harris, and when she’d point you to the aisle you’d head that way but then detour to the bathroom, a hassle, yes, but it was worth it to avoid the rank smell and obsessive-compulsive pedophiles and Manson Family canines stalking the park’s facilities.
Today Gardner Park has been swallowed up by the behemouth Pan Pacific Park, a fairly soulless splay of acreage.
It used to be a sanctified and dangerous place, Gardner Park.
A funky haven for amateur athletes and moms with their toddlers and old Jews and weirdos from good homes and kids and adolescents of all colors, a real-life rainbow coalition occurring organically around the area’s only public pool and the transcendental bond of summertime and baseball and ice cream trucks and girls who talk dirty.
A chain link fence separated Gardner Park from a vast vacant lot — once the minor league baseball stadium Gilmore Field — now strewn with tumbleweeds and beer cans and abandoned lawn chairs.
Bad-ass tattooed teenagers rode mini-bikes through the weedy shrubs and wiped out on the broken glass and gravel and bled and smoked cigarettes and thought everything was simultaneously funny and meaningless. We watched them through the web of chain link with admiration and fear.
Across the desolate expanse you could see the Gilmore Drive-In at the south end, a favorite family oasis where my sisters and I would watch movies on the roof of our family’s Chevy Impala station wagon (later a black Kingswood Estate with the fake wood paneling).
And there was also the creepy, derelict Pan Pacific Auditorium to the north.
Being 10 years old there, a child at Gardner Park, those were the first real independences, away from both parents and school, just you and the other kids, doing nothing, fucking around, being jokers, arguing about the Lakers or the Dodgers or the Rams, using your allowance to buy stuff from the ice cream truck, like 50-50 Bars or Sidewalk Sundaes or Strawberry Shortcake or Kool Pops or Scooter Pies.
I was often torn between enjoying the spectacle of the social scene in the Gardner Park parking lot and wanting to be back at home watching reruns of The Rifleman in the big black chair, the centerpiece of our living room.
The big black chair was its own world.
The big black chair reclined like a soft leather bed.
I would take the best naps in the big black chair.
On Saturdays before dawn, I’d amble into the living room to await the onset of cartoons, turn on the Zenith, curl up in my blanket and doze intermittently during the early morning Farm Report, the only thing on at that hour, wondering who had a farm in Los Angeles.
You had to start your Saturday morning with H.R. Pufnstuf, the trippiest of tripped out kid shows. It was meta-cool because we lived across the street from Lennie Weinrib, who did the voice of H.R. Pufnstuf, so I had a hyper-awareness of the show and got to hear behind-the-scenes stories from my famous neighbor.
Another essential Saturday morning show was Cool McCool, whose motto “Danger is my business” was repeated endlessly on the playground of Melrose Avenue Elementary School during recess and lunch where everybody wanted to be as cool as Cool McCool.
But my favorite memory of the big black chair was a strange night when the Angels were playing against the Oakland A’s, in July of 1971, the night Tony Conigliaro freaked out during a 20-inning pitchers duel to end his brief stint with the Angels (and his baseball career, essentially).
My pal Art Stein was sleeping over that night, but he’d gone to sleep in my room by about the 16th inning.
My father let me stay up to watch the rest of it. It was late.
“And remember it’s 3 hours later in Boston,” he said to me as we reclined side-by-side.
We sat and watched the debacle together in the comfy-wonderful big black chair.
It was the sweetest bliss.
Even as Conigliaro batted his helmet into the stands and then flung said bat into the crowd also before stomping off the field in some kind of psychotic episode.
I felt connected to Tony Conigliaro because his signature graced my perfectly worked-in fielder’s mitt (eventual accomplice in the fantastic catch), but I didn’t fully understand the drama being played out on the field, only that it was extremely weird and that it had something to do, as my dad explained, with
Conigliaro getting beaned in the eye when he was on the Red Sox (ironically in a game against the Angels) in 1967. But the sweetness of the evening had nothing to do with baseball, rather it was the preciousness of sharing that comfy-wonderful chair with my father, watching the Angels, two fleeting beings in holy concord.
That season in little league I’d started out as a catcher.
My father often told me the story of how he had coveted a catcher’s mitt when he was a boy in Cleveland during The Depression, and then he got one, a birthday gift from his mother, only to have it stolen by a neighborhood bully the same day he received it. He didn’t even get to play catch with it once.
I was always greatly pained hearing that story and its echoing sadness.
And then one day I found myself coveting a catcher’s mitt also, maybe to redeem my dad’s ancient loss by replacing it with a new one, or maybe because it would make my mitt different from all other mitts. My friends all just had regular old fielder’s gloves.
With a winter’s worth of allowance money saved up, I went to Big 5 Sporting Goods, where I plunked down $7.50 for the brand new catcher’s mitt.
Even though I was mostly a Dodgers fan — with Angels sympathies — I picked the Tim McCarver model over the Johnny Roseboro one because the McCarver mitt had furry lining on the inside of the back strap which reminded me of sitting in the big black chair.
When I got home with my new treasure, I first offered it to my dad as a gift, but he said, “No, you keep it. You’ll actually do something with it.” So, I oiled it, strapped it shut with rubber bands, left it under my mattress for a couple of weeks, dreamt about it, re-oiled it, pounded it with my fist until it was perfectly worked in, made it mine.
When the mitt had reached peak pliability, my father pitched to me Thwack! several nights a week that spring, on the front lawn, and I practiced throwing it back to him Thwack! from a crouching position.
At the first little league practice that summer I told the coach I wanted to play catcher, and the coach obliged.
After all, I had the mitt.
Once I got past the initial romance of the mitt, however, the reality was I didn’t really enjoy being a catcher all that much. It hurt my knees. The gear made me too hot and uncomfortable.
I loved my Tim McCarver mitt dearly, but I wasn’t feeling the fun.
I wasn’t feeling it.
A recurring theme.
After about 3 games my baseball life found its groove when the team I played on, The Yankees, needed someone to fill in at shortstop because ours was sick, which I volunteered to do to get out of behind-the-plate duties.
And it turned out playing shortstop was the perfect fit, my first real niche.
I loved standing in that sweet spot between 2nd and 3rd base. It was the best view of the game.
Plus, in little league the majority of ground balls go to the shortstop, so lots of action.
And I was good at it.
Scooping up grounders right and left, lunging to snag line drives, making that frozen rope throw to my pal Jeff Stanley who played 1st Base.
It felt good to be good at something.
I kept that position for the next 3 years.
At the end of the season, I was one of 3 players on my team selected to represent Gardner Park as part of an all-star team that would play against the all-stars from Poinsettia Park, our arch rivals, in a game to take place on our home field.
That particular year, however, there was another shortstop in the league who got the nod to play SS in the big game — he was older and better — and I was assigned instead to right field, a kind of Siberia in little league — very few balls hit to that side — and a position I was utterly unfamiliar with playing.
I pretended to be cool with it, stood dutifully in the boondocks, just me and my Tony Conigliaro glove, and hoped, due to my inexperience, for no action.
Alas, big time action came my way late in the game via a long fly ball with the bases loaded slugged by a corpulent Boog Powell-ish southpaw on the Poinsettia team.
The trajectory of the ball was clearly going to take it way beyond where I was positioned, and so first I started backing up, keeping my eye on the flight, then, realizing I wouldn’t gain sufficient speed quickly enough moving backwards, I turned, losing sight of the ball, and began running toward the right field fence of Gardner Park, an ivied tangle of vines.
Turning my head over my shoulder and skyward, I re-spotted the ball in descent, though I had to negotiate between the ball and the approaching barrier.
The downward arc seemed just out of reach.
The Tao took over in that instant of hopelessness. Or I abandoned myself to it. Or both actually.
I stopped looking at the ball, stuck out my mitt, and, just as I reached the fence, in a moment that came to be known (at least in my own private mythology) as “The Fantastic Catch,”
the ball simply dropped into my glove, THWACK!, just so, and the Poinsettia team and parents, who had been screaming with the presumption of a grand slam, fell silent as I turned and held up the ball. I’d caught it.
No applause from the home field crowd either, just disorientation and flabbergast on both sides.
One great big collective “Huh?”
I trotted in from right field, nonchalant, as a rumble of acknowledgement slowly grew.
My teammates mobbed me, the coach hugged me, and the crowd of parents and siblings in the rickety bleachers traded exclamations.
“Holy mackerel, did you see the fantastic catch?”
“How’d he do that?”
I however stood numb and dumbfounded by the commotion.
Aware that I had done nothing.
I let the ball find my mitt, that’s all, Thwack!, a secret knowledge that made the moment bittersweet.
I enjoyed the acclaim, but I felt something of a sham for letting them congratulate me on this random grace of the cosmos.
And the game was not over.
I was due up 5th in the bottom half of the inning.
Not a particularly good hitter, I dreaded tarnishing the fantastic catch with a strikeout or some other game-blowing ignominy.
When I got to the plate, we had runners on 1st and 2nd with 2 outs.
As I took a couple of warm-up swings in the batter’s box, the Poinsettia catcher (whose long fly was in fact the victim of the fantastic catch) ribbed,
“OK, Willie Mays, let’s see what you can do at the plate,” to which I didn’t reply.
“He can catch, but he can’t hit!” shouted one of the players in the Poinsettia “dugout.”
(The dugouts were just standard issue wooden benches behind some fencing, nothing “dug out” about ‘em).
The dude who heckled me was this guy I knew from school, Osvaldo, a classmate of mine in Mrs. Slattebo’s class.
I took a strike and two balls and then another strike.
2 on, 2 out, and the count was 2 and 2.
“Deuces wild,” as Vin Scully might call it.
Tapping the plate with my bat twice and hoisting it to rest on my shoulder, awaiting the next pitch, the Tao unwound me again.
I stopped concentrating on the pitch and the timing of my swing and simply met the next fastball on its own terms, full barrel, cracking a line-drive just over the shortstop’s head, into the gap between the left and center, allowing both runners to score and landing me on third base.
The next batter, Jeff the 1st baseman, singled me in, and Boog Powell said, as I crossed home, “All right then,” and patted me on the helmet.
I think I muttered thanks or something, but my shyness most likely made it inaudible as I trotted past him and into our dugout. He probably thought I was being rude. A problem I still encounter.
My parents missed the fantastic catch. They didn’t come to my little league games. It wasn’t that they didn’t care. On the contrary, the stress was unbearable. I totally understood. A lot of times I didn’t want to be there either.
My dad arrived to pick me up near the end of the game, and later reported that, as he took an anonymous seat in the 1st base bleachers — mistakenly with the Poinsettia parents — for the final inning, everybody in the stands was talking about “the fantastic catch,” though it wasn’t until a guy sitting next to him pointed me out in right field and said, “That kid, right there, the right fielder, he’s the one who made the fantastic catch,” that he realized they were talking about me, bringing him a twinge of regret that he hadn’t seen it, though he joked on the way home, “I probably would have keeled over from a coronary anyway, so it’s better I wasn’t there.”
“And what did you say back to the guy?”
“I said, ‘That’s my son.’”
“Did he believe you?”
He shrugged, “What do I care?”
When he asked me how I felt about the fantastic catch, I didn’t know what to answer.
I didn’t give him the dad-satisfaction of hearing me say, “I did what you always told me, I let the ball find my mitt.”
The harmony of ball and glove and motion and flow converged to land that thing in my mitt.
The sound of one hand clapping.
I had nothing to do with it, other than providing the mitt and the suspension of will.
I didn’t interfere.
I just allowed it to happen.
I had enacted his lesson.
It would have been so easy to give him credit for the wisdom he’d taught.
Instead I sat inexplicably silent, defiant, a miserly bastard, withholding my gratitude, blasphemous against dad-wisdom and the magic Thwack! of fantastic catches.
“I don’t know, I have to think about it for a while,” I said eventually.
“Well, think fast!” my dad tossed a super-gooey Scooter Pie at me (which I bobbled and dropped).
“I got that for you from the ice cream truck,” he said.
I picked it up off the car floor, unwrapped the cellophane, and chewed that Scooter Pie with joy and tears interior as we cruised east on Beverly Boulevard through the bronze of August.
The fantastic catch itself mattered less than the sublime drive home with my dad.
“Wait’ll I tell your mom about the fantastic catch!” he crowed and slapped the steering wheel, “How’s the Scooter Pie?”
Though I managed some other decent plays during my little league tenure, nothing ever quite equalled the moment of the fantastic catch Thwack! and the ride home munching that perfect Scooter Pie with the chocolate slightly melting on my fingers and my dad kvelling over the fantastic catch even though he hadn’t actually seen it.
And the thing is, I can’t even remember if we won that game.