BATTER UP (12)My Life in the Witness Protection Program
When Harry was eight years old, he was hit in the face with a baseball.
It got him square in the right eye, crushing the sinus cavity bones to smithereens.
Had it hit one millimeter higher it would have blinded him.
One millimeter to the left and it would have broken his nose, pulverized the bones to dust.
Luck, if you can call it that, was smiling on Harry that day.
He was the pitcher for the little league team back then. No such thing as t-ball or “lets –just-play-to-feel-good-about-ourselves” teams. No, this was Brooklyn, and as every kid growing up in Brooklyn knew, you played for keeps. Even if it was just a kid’s game of baseball.
Of course, no girls were allowed to play either. Every boy on the team figured it was their way out of Brooklyn, that they would all be playing pro ball someday. An agent would be sitting in the wooden bleachers of the park and discover their technique for double plays, or knuckle balls. The agent would walk over to one of them and handpick them for place on the Yankees; even though they would never admit it, no self- respecting kid would want to play for the Mets, until they won the world series in ‘69. It’s just how it was back then.
It was a beautiful autumn day, the kind of day where you still didn’t need a sweater but the afternoons became cooler, just enough to make you shiver in the evening. It was how you knew it was time to go home. Kids like Harry didn’t wear sweaters so they just toughed it out until they couldn’t talk, since their teeth were chattering so bad. The only uniforms worn were on the kids who went to St. Patrick’s, the Catholic elementary school down the street.
The day Harry got hit was no different; it was the bottom of the 7thinning and everyone started to stamp their feet in the dirt, a kind of dance to keep moving and not let the chill get to you. He doesn’t remember the name of the team, but he remembers the moment of contact.
“The freaking sun was shining right in my face the entire game” Harry told me one morning shortly after we were married. I had asked him why his nose was perpetually stuffed up. It never bothered me to hear him sound kinda nasally, but I wondered how uncomfortable it was for him.
“I’m used to it now, just something I gotta live with.” He blew his nose into the red bandana he carried around in his back pocket. Always the back pocket, since the little note pad and stubby pencil went in the top pocket of his shirt. I’m in big trouble if I don’t check all the pockets when I do the laundry. I learned early on that money washes okay, but betting chits don’t translate too well through soap suds.
“I stood there and watched while that red headed O’Malley kid walked up to the plate. Jesus, what a cocky kid he was” and he smiled at the memory. “Skinny as a rail, with long legs and arms, he was tripping all over himself. How those Irish kids get so confident is a mystery to me. Must be something in the whiskey they put in their baby bottles.”
I smiled back; this was the game we had always played. No one but our closest friends back in New York City really knew I was Irish through and through, because I had adapted to the Italian culture so easily. No one here would know it either, not if I could help it. I figured the more Anglo we looked, the better for us to assimilate in.
“The bat almost looked like a toothpick in his hands, those long skinny arms were circling around this head. When he hit the ball, it went WHAP and I knew right then I was gonna get hit.” Harry shifted in his chair a little, as if reliving the moment of impact.
“All of a sudden I was down on the ground, and I hear the O’Malley kid screaming. Holy cow! Are you ok? Oh my God, look at the blood! I remember smelling the grass, but I couldn’t see outta my eye. I was pretty scared, tell ya what.”
“All my friends wanted to beat the crap out of him after that, but we all saw how sorry he was, so they didn’t have the heart to do it. I don’t think he ever picked up a baseball bat again. Not to play the game, anyway.”
We sat there for a moment, thinking about that kid, O’Malley. He was eventually gunned down outside Frankie’s Bar, twenty- two years later. Collectors on bets better know how to add, because the bosses sure did. He had gotten involved in some small time money laundering and thought no one would be the wiser if he took a small cut of his own now and then. But someone was wiser and watching.
We learned early on that someone always is.
Sitting in our kitchen in Idaho Falls, some thirty years later, he still suffers from the aftereffect of the hit. Every now and then I will catch him rubbing under his eye, as if to relieve some of the pressure.
“I wonder if the Norman’s play baseball?” he said absent minded.
I continued. “Sure, Mormons play baseball, why wouldn’t they?”
“I don’t know. Those white shirts must be a bear to get clean. They must spend a fortune on bleach.”
I had no answer for that so I just waited for him to continue.
He didn’t. I would bet fifty he was thinking about O’Malley.
Minga. I was glad it was the start of football season.