Monday, November 17, 2008

Neighborhood Characters: "G-Man"

Back in 1972, in an NFL playoff game, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw attempted a pass late in the game to overcome a slim Oakland Raiders lead. The ball was deflected by an Oakland defender right into the hands of Pittsburgh running back Franco Harris, who ran it in for the winning score. The play has come to be known as the "Immaculate Reception". When I was about fifteen years old, I had an Immaculate Reception of my own. But I'm getting ahead of myself; let me first introduce you to the title character of this post.

G-Man, as he was known to all, (for what reason I do not know) was a local prodigy. He didn't play the violin, or do "Rainman" type feats of mathematics, he had a skill that was far more admired in my neighborhood; he played softball like nobody you ever saw. For those of you unfamiliar with the game, softball is played exactly like baseball, except that a larger ball is used, and the pitcher throws underhand instead of overhand like they do in baseball. Most respectable softball players would only play with a ball known as a "Clincher" which came in a green and yellow box and cost around sixty cents.

G-Man was probably around 10 years my senior, and made his living, as I recall, as a city bus driver. Like the mild-mannered man and reporter, Clark Kent, he was not especially impressive in his day job, but on summer evenings when he stepped on to the ball field, G-Man could leap tall buildings in a single bound! He was taller than average, not especially powerful, but he hit, fielded, and threw a softball better than anyone I ever knew. He played with the older guys at Callahan-Kelly park on Truxton Street on ball fields that had lights for night games, a rarity in those days. They played "money games" meaning every guy kicked in a buck or two, and the winners took all. The caliber of play was quite good, and the games usually drew an audience, including me and my friends, who idolized G-Man and his team mates.

Now I will say here, with as much modesty as I can muster, that I was a good ballplayer in my day. At the time, I played varsity baseball for my high school, Brooklyn Tech, but I wasn't ever good enough to play in G-Man's games; the guys were just much bigger and stronger, and I could only hope that one day my time to join them would come. One night, as one of their games was about to begin, their center-fielder Willy (who lived on my block) had not yet shown up. Another neighbor of mine, a cop named Eddie, knew I could play, and out of desperation, Eddie told me I would be playing center, but only until Willy showed up. (Nobody knew at the time that Willy was sick and would never make it.)

I was nervous, but I grabbed my glove and ran out to center field. Normally, I wanted the ball to be hit to me because I had the cockiness of youth and believed that I could get to anything catchable. Tonight I prayed that they would hit to anywhere but center field. About half the game passed uneventfully. I didn't embarrass myself, I even got a hit during one of my at-bats. Late in the game, one of the other team's better hitters drilled a high drive to center field. It was hit so well that I knew it would be well over my head, so I just turned my back and started running, hoping to retrieve the ball and maybe hold the guy to a double.

I could run like hell in those days, and looking over my shoulder in full stride trying to locate the flight of the ball, I saw it floating just over my head. The next few seconds felt like slow motion. I stuck my glove out as far as my arm could reach, and the Clincher smacked right into the pocket. Having the instincts of an outfielder, since that was my position the whole time I played baseball, I spun around and threw the ball to the shortstop who, in turn threw it to the second baseman to double-up the runner from second who had broken for home thinking the ball was at least a triple. This double-play ended the inning, and as I ran in off the field, my older team mates pounded my back and patted my behind in congratulations. G-Man, who was pitching for us, didn't engage in those kinds of excessive celebrations. He had already walked off the field headed for the dugout since he was first to bat in our half of the inning.

I was sitting on our bench, still shaking and not believing how my Guardian Angel had somehow guided my steps until I was under that ball to make the catch. As G-Man walked past me on his way to the batter's box, he said: "Nice catch kid". That's all he said. It couldn't have mattered more to my 15-year old ego than if I had made that play in Yankee Stadium to win game 7 of the World Series in front of 60,000 screaming fans. Praise from G-Man was high praise indeed. And that is the story of my "Immaculate Reception".

Memory is a funny thing. My wife is always after me to take my Ginko-Biloba so I can find my house at the end of the day. It's different with childhood memories. There must be a special place in the brain where they remain fresh and clear and vibrant, kind of like Shangri-La, the place described in James Hilton's wonderful novel, "Lost Horizon", where the inhabitants hardly age. I can remember what I was wearing that night (grey chinos, a white t-shirt, and black and white Keds sneakers), I can replay in my mind that slow-motion sequence of events leading up to "the catch", and even recall that my neighbor Eddie the cop bought me an ice-cold cream soda to reward me for having a good game.

Ironically, I can't remember whether we won or lost the game. That's more like me. Now where did I put my car keys?

LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

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