SETTLING A SCORE
When the phone rang, I sprang to my feet and ran toward the kitchen. My older brother raced ahead and shouldered me into the living-room wall on his quest for the ringing trophy. My mother, standing in the kitchen and close to the phone, glared at Louis as he ripped the handset off the receiver—yet before he could seal the victory, he meekly forfeited his prize to Mom after noticing her deadly, blank stare and open palm.
“Hello?” Still eyeing Louis. “Yes I’m Mark DeFranco’s mother. How can I help you?” A wave of nervous excitement rushed through me. “Oh hello. Mark’s been looking—”
“Who is it, Mom?” I interrupted.
“Excuse me sir.” Cocking her head and burning me with the evil eye this time. “It’s your baseball coach. Can you please get me a pencil?” I rushed across the room toward the junk drawer, but Louis grabbed a pen off the kitchen counter, handed it to Mom, and smiled wryly at me. “I’m sorry for the interruption,” Mom said. Using her shoulder to hold the receiver against her ear, she scribbled on a piece of paper. “Okay… Oh how nice! I’ll be sure to let him know; he’ll be very happy to hear that.” My heart thumped. “Okay, got it, Monday 4:00 pm… at the main field…”
This was the moment I’d been waiting for. It was the beginning of little league season, and word was getting around the neighborhood that coaches had begun calling kids to tell them which team they were on. I looked forward to this day more than any other day of the year.
“Bye-bye now,” said Mom, and she hung up the phone. Mom looked at me proudly and said, “Your coach’s name is Mr. George, the name of your team is the Panthers, your first practice is Monday at 4:00 pm, and… you made it to the majors this year!” Louis shot up from the couch and bounded toward Mom.
“What? I’m in the majors! Mark’s not old enough to be in my league; he’s only ten!”
I said, “First of all I’m eleven, and if you’re really good they bring you up a year early. A kid in my grade, Thomas Caraturo, made it into the majors too. He found out yesterday.”
Louis said, “Well that kid’s probably good. How did you get in? They definitely made a mistake.”
Mom said, “Louis, your brother is an excellent ballplayer. Don’t you remember that home run he hit last year?”
“Retards could hit home runs at that little field,” Louis quipped.
Mom’s gasp was a blend of horror and outrage. She pointed her finger at Louis, and when she spoke, she accentuated the last syllable of each word.
“Apologize, to Mark, right, now!” Louis refused, so he was sent to his room. He would have spent the rest of his life in there before he would ever apologize to me, but Mom was firm: no apology meant no dinner. Louis relented five minutes after dinner was served.
Louis hated me.
My mother said that wasn’t true, but what else could she say? She was our mom. Mom was five-feet tall with thick black hair that changed with the times. At this particular period she was sporting the ‘60s beehive—teased and sprayed into a tower about a foot high above her head. Her girlfriend, Rosemarie, styled all of my Mom’s friends’ hairdos in her private beauty salon in the basement of her mother’s house on Crosby Avenue in the Bronx. Mom was originally from Harlem, but after my parents were married they settled into a four-room apartment in the Throgs Neck/Pelham Bay section of the Bronx—a small apartment building owned by my father and grandmother and filled with my aunts and uncles.
My brother Louis was thirteen years old, tall, and well-built with long black hair. He was popular in the neighborhood—partly because he was funny, but mostly because he was an exceptional athlete. I’m not sure why he hated me, but he did; he hated me for as long as I could remember. We had fistfights all the time, but it wasn’t much of a contest. Louis was two and a half years older than me, and that makes a huge difference when you’re a kid. No matter how hard I fought, I lost every battle. I had a few minor victories though, like this time when Louis and I were fighting over a rubber book strap. These rubber straps had metal hooks on each end that fastened to each other, and we stretched the bands around our schoolbooks and used them in place of backpacks. One day, Louis and I were fighting over one of these rubber straps, and while both of us tried to gain possession, I looked at that taut rubber stretched between us and an idea came to mind.
I released my end—
The metal hook hit Louis square in the chin, and his head snapped back as if he took a jab from Muhammad Ali. Louis had a welt on his chin for two weeks and I was punished for as many days.
I grew up in the Bronx during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s—a time when there were always kids hanging around the neighborhood. Where there were kids, there were games to be played and teams to be picked, but Louis would never, under any circumstances, choose me. One time Louis and his classmate Eddie “Peach Fuzz,”—the boy had a year-round crewcut—were choosing up sides for a sewer-to-sewer stickball game, and the last two kids available were Annie LaRocca, a local tomboy, and me. However, there was only one spot left to make the sides even, and my brother chose Annie. He picked a girl over me, which was an especially huge insult in 1969. The kids laughed, as they took their positions for the game, and I walked home sucking in quick, rapid breaths through my mouth and exhaling hot, toxic air through my nose. I tilted my head up as though I were looking at the clouds and made sure I didn’t blink anything out for fear of the Neighborhood seeing. Regardless of what Mom said, Louis hated me, and he proved it every day.
The night after I was picked for my little league team, Mom, Louis, and I were eating dinner—Dad wasn’t there because he put in double shifts at work and ate by himself at night. The phone rang and Mom eyeballed us back to our seats. She got up from the table and answered the phone.
“Hello? How are you, sir?” Mom listened for a while and said, “If he thinks so, then it’s not a problem. Okay, see you Monday… bye-bye now.” Mom hung up the phone and jubilantly proclaimed, “Boys, you are on the same baseball team!”
My heart stopped!
Louis protested, “Mom call them up and tell to put me on a different team. I’m not playing with Mark—he stinks!” Mom ignored Louis and explained that our names got mixed up in the draft, but Mr. George called my coach from last year, Mr. Mooney, and Coach Mooney said that he thought I could handle it. “I knew it” said Louis. “Moon Man was probably dying to get rid of you.”
Mom said, “It would do the both of you good to be playing on the same team.” I’d become instantly numb. Mom continued, “Everything in life is meant to be, and mistakes aren’t really mistakes at all—they are blessings in disguise.”
I had been walking on air for twenty-four whole hours, because I thought I was really good at baseball. I had always been one of the better players on my team, batting between first and fourth in the lineup, but being brought up a year early meant I was special. Louis loved that it was a mistake, and he looked at me with a snide grin all through our mother’s philosophical rant. Mom was too busy being brilliant to recognize the unspoken dialogue between Louis and me. Pearls of wisdom poured from her mouth, but her words floated up to the kitchen ceiling without ever touching our ears.
The first practice of the season was always a day I looked forward to, but this year I was dreading it as much as my annual torture session with Dr. Lucarelli, a man who I swear they used as a character model for the dentist in Little Shop of Horrors. My brother kept looking at me and laughing as we drove to the field. When my mom asked Louis why he was laughing, he said something funny happened at school, but then he would look my way and start laughing again.
Mom always drove us to the first practice so she could meet our coach and see if he looked “normal,” but once he checked out we peddled our way to practice and games for most of the season. The first day of practice was a day of introductions and instructions. Our coach, Charlie George, seemed good-natured and fair. He was tall, husky, and, judging by the acne on his face, probably no more than twenty years old. He also had an odd practice of stuffing baseballs in the pockets of his jeans, which we called “dungarees” back then. The coach gathered us together, discussed the importance of coming to practice on time and good sportsmanship, and also said that all players would participate in every game for at least one inning. The latter was a league rule, and I was glad to hear it because, as I looked around, I realized how small I was compared to my teammates. One kid, Big John Jasinski, had legs up to his neck and was taller than the coach. Big John and Louis were teammates last season; they batted third and fourth in the lineup and were, according to Louis, feared by every pitcher in the league. My brother, naturally, made it his personal mission to inform everyone about the “mistake,” and he presented it in a way that established him as a first-rate comedian and me as a perpetual punch line.
Practice sessions turned into regular-season games, and, as time went on, I realized that Louis was right about me: I stunk at baseball. I couldn’t play the field or hit. When I got up to bat, it was an automatic out. I didn’t play much, but when I did play I struck out every time. The ball came in so fast, I could never catch up to it; I dreaded my turn at bat, because it was another chance for me to prove to everyone that I was a spastic loser. Our hyperactive second baseman, Kevin Fitzpatrick, asked Louis if I was adopted. Louis laughed and said, “I wonder about that myself.”
Even though I was a major handicap to the team, we were really good, and I hate to admit it but Louis and Big John were the best of the best. Big John was a first baseman who could stretch his long legs halfway across the diamond. Ground balls hit anywhere in the infield were automatic outs because of John’s extraordinary reach. Coach George affectionately called our lanky first baseman “Stretch.” Louis was our speedy center fielder with a rocket arm—he could nail a runner at home plate from the deepest part of the park. Louis hit for average and led the league in home runs, as well. Maybe I was adopted after all.
While we had a couple of scrubs like me at the start of the season, I was the only one left at the end of the season because the other benchwarmers had stopped coming. When right-fielder James Landi sprained his thumb prior to the final two games, I was the only person available to fill in. We lost one of those games because I should have caught a routine fly ball, but I misjudged it. When the ball glanced off the webbing of my glove, the winning run scored, and that loss placed us into a tie for first place with the Cardinals, last year’s champions.
We beat the Cardinals, or Birds as they were sometimes called, once and they beat us once, so a play-off game was scheduled to determine the league champions. The Cardinals were an obnoxious bunch of cocky kids that had screaming, hostile parents who brought everyone they knew to Cardinals’ games. The Cardinals’ spectators, dressed in bright red, filled their section of the stands and brought folding chairs which amped up both their presence and their intimidation factor. The Birds were the only team in the league where the players’ sisters formed a cheer squad; they had makeshift uniforms, red pompoms, and performed
well-choreographed cheers. The Cardinals’ arrogant, gum-chewing coach, Mr. Faust, carried a beat-up rule book in his back pocket, and frequently made a spectacle of himself with his overly dramatic rants when he felt the umps were being unfair to “his boys.” I loathed that team, but I also respected them because they were really good. Even though we beat them once this year, I thought they were better than we were, and I wasn’t very optimistic about our upcoming contest. The championship game was set for the last Sunday in June, which ironically fell on the christening day of my brand new cousin, Kim.
Since the family had to be in two places at the same time, my parents decided that Mom would go to the christening and Dad would go to the ball field. The morning of the game, Louis and I got up, ate, and went to church. We returned home to find our uniforms cleaned, pressed, and laid out on our beds. We were running late because Fr. Mel gave a particularly long-winded homily that day. We changed, kissed Mom goodbye, and set out for the field. Dad and Louis rambled on about baseball in the front seat of our 1970, ice-blue, Dodge Dart Swinger, with a black vinyl top, while I sat in the back seat staring out the open window watching the road to the ball field roll past.
When we pulled up in front of Wilkinson Park, I felt the beginnings of butterflies in my stomach. We were late and the park was loud and packed with people. Coach George wiped sweat from his brow with a large white towel when he saw us, and the team cheered when Louis emerged from the car. He may as well have been Mickey Mantle the way they were hooting, howling, and whistling. The only thing missing was a swarm of news reporters and autograph hounds. Louis ran ahead and was swallowed up by his overzealous teammates. Dad and I strolled down toward the field. When we got near the bleacher seats, Dad affectionately tapped the visor of my baseball cap with his fingers, winked at me, and made his way toward the mobbed stands. I headed toward the Panther’s dugout with my glove slid over the handle of my Thurman Munson Louisville Slugger that I received at Bat Day.
The look of the field that afternoon was captivating. The grass was emerald green, the dirt was brown and powdery, and the freshly rolled white-chalk foul lines outlined our majestic little playing field. The sun was shining bright and it was a gorgeous day for a baseball game. I was so taken in by the view that I tripped on a rock and fell flat on my face just as I neared the dugout. If there had been nervous tension among the players, my grand entrance certainly took some of the edge off both teams. People bellowed all around me. I tried my best to laugh it off, but I was mortified because my dad was there. You want to impress your mom when she comes to your game, but there’s something different about baseball and your dad. It’s tied in somewhere between playing catch in the backyard and going to Yankee Stadium together.
I laughed my way into the dugout and slammed squarely into a wall of palpable, competitive energy—a combination of fear, adrenaline, and sweat. Coach George gave us a pep talk and sent his athletes into battle. I watched from the bench as my team trotted onto the field. The Cardinals’ fans were screaming loudly and their cheerleaders began a rhythmic chant. Our pitcher, Steven “Wally” Wallace, was a tough, ugly, mean, freckle-faced, red-haired boy who cursed, smoked, and lived with his grandmother. He had a fake front tooth that he would suck in and out to reveal a grotesque gap. Wally’s uniform was never pressed or clean and his hair was long, curly, and uncombed, but that kid had a golden arm. Between his physical presence, constant spitting, and slightly-wild-blistering fastball, Wally intimidated hitters. The Cardinals’ coach tried to have Wally removed from our team after our last showdown, because Wally didn’t legally live with his grandmother. Coach George thought it was because Wally hit one of Faust’s sons, Oscar, with a fastball, and that boy writhed in pain on home plate after the ball pelted him on the hip bone. Oscar was taken out of the game, and while Oscar was back in the lineup today, I’m sure he wasn’t thrilled to be facing Wally. The Cardinals were the only team to beat Wally this year, as they rallied after Oscar Faust was hit, and that did not sit well with our volatile pitcher; Wally was bent on revenge.
Both teams were determined to win the championship, and the game wore on, inning after intense inning with neither team able to score. Our pitcher may have been better than theirs, but the Cardinals were both practiced and talented. Louis got several hits and almost scored on a double by our crazed pitcher who was also good with the bat—no surprise there. Unfortunately, though, Louis got tagged out at home plate. The game was so intense, I grew weary just watching it from the bench. Coach George was screaming from the sidelines, Mr. Faust argued with the umps, and the fans were getting rowdy. When the top-half of the ninth inning began, Mr. Faust walked over to the umpire with his rulebook, and pointed to me sitting on the bench. The umpire called my coach over and, after a brief meeting, they disbursed. Coach George signaled to our right fielder, James Landi, and waved him back toward our dugout. He then told me to take the field. I’m not sure if Coach George lost track of time or he hoped that pesky little rule didn’t apply to championship games, but it made no difference to me, because I did not want to play, and I sat there frozen.
“Let’s show some hustle, Mark!” said Coach George, as he enthusiastically clapped his hands.
I felt every eye in the park staring at me as I fumbled around the dugout to find my glove. When I found it, I glanced into the stands at Dad who was clapping, whistling, and trying to cheer me on, but he had no effect. I lumbered out to my position and looked to my right at Louis in center field. He was standing there with his hands on his hips, looking at the ground, and shaking his head. I felt anxious and out of place. I literally prayed to God that the ball wouldn’t come to me.
Oscar Faust ended the game’s long stalemate by sending a Steven Wallace fastball soaring over the center field fence, and, just like that, the Cardinals were up by one run. Cardinals’ fans were screaming, jumping up and down, waving posters, and throwing red confetti in the air. Wallace smoked the next two Birds on six straight pitches, but the next batter hit a high fly in my direction. I lost the ball in the sun and panicked. I tried to move but my feet were nailed to the ground. As if shot from a cannon, Louis leaped in front of me, caught the ball, stopped the bleeding at one, and possibly have saved my life—Wally was staring at me with malicious intent!
Our backs were against the wall, but the heart of our lineup was scheduled to hit. Big John Jasinski was up first, and he had tears streaming down his face, red cheeks, and a wet nose—but he wasn’t sad, he was pumped! He slammed a helmet on his head, wiped his nose on his shirt sleeve, grabbed his bat, held it on both ends over his head, faced his team and screamed, “Yeahhhhh!” with flared teeth, intense eyes, and wide-opened mouth. He jogged into the batter’s box. The pitcher hurled a fastball that whizzed over Big John’s head, but John wasn’t fazed at all. In fact, it looked as though he was more determined than ever. He roped the next pitch into right field for a clean single. Louis, replicating Big John’s raised bat and toothy roar, followed that hit up with a single of his own that he stretched into a double. There were men on second and third with no outs, and Steven Wallace was up. Wally grabbed a bat and performed the new “scream ritual” created by Big John a few minutes earlier, but he was stopped by Coach George before turning and jogging to the batter’s box. Mr. Faust called a time-out and brought in a new pitcher.
The new lefty made Wallace look like a fool on three pitches: two were nasty fast balls but the third was a slow change-up and Wallace swung so hard that the momentum caused him to topple awkwardly to the ground. Wallace threw his helmet into the fence behind home plate and the umpire ejected him from the game just as Mr. Faust was reaching for his rule book. Even if we were able to tie the score, we now had no real pitcher to start the tenth inning. The Birds pitcher made the next batter, Kevin Fitzpatrick, look just as ridiculous as Wally.
As fate would have it, I was up next. The kid who struck out every time up for the entire year was to bat with two outs in the bottom of the last inning in the game that would determine the league championship. Mr. Faust’s strategy had paid off. While walking past my teammates with my Thurman Munson bat and scuffed blue helmet, I heard, “This sucks” and “Well it was a nice season.” Our catcher, Michael McTigue, began violently stuffing gear into the equipment bag. Wally gripped the chain-link fence on the spectator side of our dugout; his head was down and he didn’t say a word. I didn’t scream “Yeah” with a bat raised over my head, I simply walked towards the batter’s box to the sound of the Cardinals’ cheerleaders chanting “We’re number one!”
I remember looking down at my barely-broken-in cleats as I stepped up to home plate. When I got there, I took a deep breath, looked up at the pitcher and could hardly believe my eyes. The enemy had a familiar face and it belonged to Thomas Caraturo—the kid in my school who got promoted to the majors. I didn’t even realize that he was pitching. We had spoken once or twice this year because we were the only two kids in my grade who made it to the majors, but Tommy’s promotion was no mistake. He was big, strong, and talented. I smiled at Tommy on the pitcher’s mound as I dug in and wiggled Thurman who was cocked just above my head. Tommy went into his wind-up and unleashed a fastball.
Even though the fans were chanting “We’re number one!” they heard that unmistakable crack and watched as the ball exploded off the barrel of my bat, shot into the gap between right and center field, and rolled all the way to the fence. After I rounded first base I saw Big John step on home plate and my brother flying around third, but the Cardinal center fielder had possession of the ball and was preparing to throw home. Louis was going for the trophy and he wasn’t stopping for anything. The center fielder fired the ball into the catcher’s mitt ahead of Louis; Coach George screamed from the sidelines and motioned for Louis to slide. Louis dove head-first into home plate and collided with the catcher who was waiting for him.
From a cloud of brown dust and two tangled bodies came a rolling baseball. The umpire shouted “Safe!” and the game was over.
I watched Coach George and my entire team stream out of the dugout and pile on top of Louis at home plate. I was standing on second base taking it all in—a view I hadn’t seen all season. Mr. Faust ran over to the umpire with his rule book, the dejected Cardinal team walked off the field, the cheerleaders consoled each other, and the Panthers’ crowd jumped up and down.
As good as it felt standing on second base, I had no desire to run over and join the celebration—the distance between us felt right.
Standing behind our dugout on the opposite side of the fence was Dad. He was looking at me with a beaming smile and I smiled back at him. That was the last thing I saw before the herd of boys engulfed me with raw, youthful jubilance, the smells of baseball, and acceptance. From the center of the crowd Steven Wallace picked me up and handed me to Louis and Big John Jasinski who held me above the team. They paraded me like that all around the field. I’ll never forget the proud look on my father’s face as he scooped me off the tops of their shoulders, grabbed Louis, and hurried us off the field and into the car. Coach George and the rest of the Panthers waved excitedly to my brother and me as we drove away. That was the best feeling of my life!
When we arrived at the christening, Dad told everyone about his two sons’ heroics. Mom looked at Louis and me with a teary smile. A moment later she handed us freshly pressed dress clothes and told us to wash and get changed. When I looked in the bathroom mirror, I saw brown dust on my forehead; I proudly left it there.
After we ate, Louis asked me if I wanted to go outside and reenact the game. I nodded and we ran out together like two little kids. When we acted out my final at bat, the Pelham Manor Catering Hall parking lot became Yankee Stadium, and Louis, clenching an air microphone, became iconic announcer Bob Sheppard.
“And now batting for James (echo James) Landi (echo Landi), Mark (echo Mark) DeFranco (echo DeFranco). The crowd goes wild… HAAARRR.” We didn’t have an announcer at Wilkinson Park, but I didn’t mind the embellishment one bit.
For what seemed like hours Louis and I went through every inning of the game. We acted out all of the characters, like Big John Jasinski, Coach George, Mr. Faust, Oscar Faust, the umpire, Steven Wallace, the fans, Dad… and ourselves. Louis was more excited than I was. It was like he was lost in a world of fantasy. I, on the other hand, was enjoying the reality of the moment. Our long, turbulent past had been swept away with one swing of a baseball bat. My original sin of being the younger brother was washed away, and for the first time in my life, Louis spoke to me as his equal…maybe even someone he admired.
Mike DeLucia grew up in the Throgs Neck/Pelham Bay section of the Bronx and spent his childhood playing all of the street games associated with city living in the ‘60s and 70s. He began his career as an actor and entrepreneur and began teaching high school English in his forties. He travels the world with his wife Lillian and has two children and one grandchild. Visit booksbymikedelucia.com for more author information.