Top of the First
Louis sat next to his father in the second row of Yankee Stadium, roughly even with the third-base bag. His father was talking with one of his clients as Louis filled out a scorecard. This was the fifth game that Louis had attended this season. The first three had been during the Yankees’ sluggish start, but the fourth had come during the furious stretch when the team shot into second place behind the Tigers. Louis believed that you could always tell how the team was doing just by the mood in the stadium. During a losing streak the crowd was quick to boo or heckle the players, but now, with the team surging, everyone was cheering even though the Yankees were trailing the Washington Senators by a run.
Louis loved everything about being at a baseball game. His favorite moment was when he first emerged from the tunnel into the stands. His eyes would leap to a thousand little details: the white chalk of the lines or the bunting on the upper deck or the perfect parabola where the smooth dirt of the infield surrendered to the emerald grass of the outfield. He would smell popcorn and the greasy steam of hot dogs, and the roar in his ears would swell from the reverberating chatter of the concourse to the hollow echo of the stands. And the best part was that the whole game, nine glorious innings, lay ahead of you.
But now, Louis glumly thought, only three outs remained. Three outs before the train back to White Plains and his stepmother and Bryce. Three outs before another few weeks of baseball being just a box score, a voice on the radio, or a lousy game of stickball. If Louis were more selfish, he might have prayed that the Yankees would tie the game in the bottom of the ninth so that he could watch a few more innings, but he was a true fan. He wanted two quick runs and a win.
As the Senators took the field, Louis’s father tapped him on the knee. Even though it was Saturday, his father was wearing a white dress shirt and a black tie that matched the rims of his thick glasses. Everyone except Louis’s stepmother always said that Louis and his father looked alike: brown eyes and hair, big noses, thick eyebrows, and feet as enormous and awkward as water skis.
“Tell Mr. Evans about the World Series game we saw last year,” he said.
Louis kept his eyes on the field, but he spoke loudly because his father got mad when he mumbled to clients.
“Game three,” he said. “Ten to zero. Whitey pitched. Bobby Richardson and Mickey hit home runs.”
“It was a good game,” Mr. Evans said. “And a better series.”
“Mr. Evans is from Pittsburgh,” Louis’s father said.
Louis felt a pang in his stomach when he heard the word “Pittsburgh.” The Pirates had beaten the Yankees in the seventh game of the World Series the previous season on a walk-off home run. The home run wasn’t even by Roberto Clemente or Dick Groat, it was by stupid Bill Mazeroski, a second baseman. Louis’s father must have sensed that he was upset because he put a gentle hand on Louis’s shoulder.
“The Yankees should have won that series,” he said. “Tell Mr. Evans what you keep telling me.”
“The Yankees had all the numbers,” Louis said. “They outscored the Pirates fifty-five to twenty-seven. It was just bad luck that all the runs came in the same games.”
“I’m sure that’s true,” Mr. Evans said. “But let me give you a piece of advice, Louis. Sometimes life is about timing.”
The Senators pitcher had finished warming up, and the Yankees second baseman, Tony Kubek, stepped into the batter’s box. The first pitch was high and outside.
“Who’s this pitcher?” Louis’s father asked.
Louis wanted to ignore the question and focus on the game, but he knew what his father wanted. The reason his company bought the tickets was to entertain clients, which meant, as his father said, that sometimes he and Louis had to sing for their supper.
“Dave Sisler,” Louis said. “Former pitcher for the Red Sox. Son of Gorgeous George Sisler, who holds the record for most hits in a single season.”
“How does he know all that?” Mr. Evans asked Louis’s father in a loud whisper.
“He studies baseball cards,” Louis’s father said.
The second pitch was on the inside corner, but Kubek whipped his hands around and drove a sharp single into right field. As he rounded first base, the crowd rose to its feet, a roar reverberating from the blue walls of the stadium. Roger Maris was striding to the plate, a bat slung over his shoulder. The sleeves of his white pinstriped uniform were shorter than the other players’, which made his arms look long and lean in the gleaming late after- noon sun.
“We need Maris to get on base so Mantle can hit a home run,” Louis’s father said.
Mantle had already hit two home runs in the game, which meant that he was tied with Maris for the American League lead. All of the kids in Louis’s neighborhood liked Mantle better and thought that he should have won the MVP the previous season instead of Maris, but Louis liked Maris. He was good at little things like getting a bunt down or throwing to the cutoff man. In Louis’s most optimistic fantasies—fantasies in which he was actually good at baseball—he liked to imagine that he was a player like Maris: quiet, serious, dependable.
The first pitch was in the dirt. Maris kept one foot in the box as he adjusted his cap and then settled into his relaxed crouch. When he and Mantle were hitting well, they looked similar at the plate—calm and composed on the surface, but in their twitching bats you could see the energy of a coiled rattlesnake. Louis had occasionally stood in front of the mirror in his bedroom with a broomstick and tried to imitate their stance, but his shoulders always slouched too much, and the broomstick had all the energy of a wet noodle.
The second pitch was outside. Maris started his swing late and lunged toward the ball, his front shoulder dropping. Louis heard a hollow crack as the ball rose in the sky. People in his section started to stand, their heads tilted upward, and Louis dropped his lineup card and grabbed his glove. As he leaped onto his seat, Danny O’Connell, the Senators’ veteran third baseman, leaned into the stands, his battered brown mitt stretching toward Louis’s waist. Louis glanced up just in time to see a white streak. His hand, acting on instinct, twitched forward, and he heard a loud pop and felt a sting in his palm.
“Foul ball!” the umpire shouted.
Louis glanced down. Although his glove had folded with the force of the impact, a hint of a ball was nestled amid the worn leather of his webbing. Louis’s mouth fell open. Had he really caught it? Was that possible?
“Hey!” O’Connell yelled. He was glaring at the umpire, his finger pointed at Louis. “That’s fan interference!”
As O’Connell turned his anger toward the stands, Louis sank back into his seat. But the crowd rose to his defense. A man a few rows back yelled, “Hey, O’Connell, get lost,” and as O’Connell opened his mouth his voice was drowned out by a cavalcade of boos. After a few seconds O’Connell shrugged, and as he walked over to the umpire, another man ruffled Louis’s hair.
“That was an all-star play, kid,” he said. “You stole it right out of that bum’s glove.”
Louis nodded, his eyes locked on the field. His cheeks felt hot from the attention. O’Connell appeared to have lost the argument with the umpire because he gave the stands one last glare and then stalked back to third base. As Maris settled back into the batter’s box, Louis
glanced down at the ball. It was an even, dirty brown with just a single scuff mark on one of the fat parts of the leather.
“Great catch,” his father said in his ear.
Louis felt himself flush. His father was always nice about his baseball cards and his grades, but that was the first time he’d ever said something like great catch. To be fair, Louis thought, that was probably the first great catch of his life. In fact, it was probably his first good catch. How had it happened? That ball had been a million times higher and fallen a million times faster than any of the balls in the stickball games, yet his hand had flashed forward just like a real ballplayer. Was it because he hadn’t had time to think about it?
Louis turned his attention back to the field just in time to see Sisler start his windup. This time Maris timed his swing perfectly, and as the ball left the bat, he froze for an instant, his legs locked in a long stride and his hips pointed at center field. The man in the front row leaped to his feet, blocking Louis’s view, but Louis knew from the roar of the crowd that the ball was headed for the right-field stands. A moment later people were pounding Louis on the back and leaping up and down, and Louis caught only a quick glimpse of Maris celebrating with a little crowd of teammates before he disappeared into the dugout.
“What a comeback!” Louis’s father shouted over the pandemonium. “What a game!”
As the cheers slowly started to fade, Louis carefully marked the home run on his scorecard and tucked his pencil and the card into his pocket. A warm glow was filling his stomach and making the skin on his arms tingle. Maybe he hadn’t done much; maybe he’d just gotten lucky and stuck his glove out at the right moment, but Louis still felt as if he’d contributed to the Yankees’ comeback in some small way. He wondered if the kids in the neighborhood would believe the story. Probably not—after all, nobody would ever believe that he’d made a great catch. Louis wasn’t even sure that he believed it.
“Hey, kid,” a loud voice said.
Louis warily turned his head toward the field. A short, stout teenager with a dark tan was leaning into the stands. He was wearing a Yankee uniform without a number, which meant that he was a batboy.
“Me?” Louis asked, confused.
The batboy nodded. “They want to see you in the clubhouse.”
“Am I in trouble?”
“Nah,” the batboy said. “I think Mr. Maris just wants to say hi.”
Louis’s father had turned away from Mr. Evans in time to catch the end of the conversation, and Louis gave him a pleading glance. “Can I go, Dad?”
His father looked at Mr. Evans, who smiled a sympathetic smile.
“I know my son would never forgive me if I didn’t let him meet Clemente,” Mr. Evans said.
“Go,” Louis’s father said. “But don’t take too long.”
Louis handed the ball to his father for safekeeping, and a moment later he slipped over the barrier separating the stands from the field. The batboy had already started toward the dugout, and as Louis took a few quick steps to catch him, he glanced furtively at the nearest security guard. It seemed impossible that he was walking across the infield at Yankee Stadium and nobody was trying to stop him. The grass felt soft and spongy under his feet, and from this angle the outfield appeared impossibly big. The crowd had already dissolved and the stands looked like a skeleton, just thin bones of steel and concrete without the covering flesh of the fans. Louis wanted to pause and take a picture with his brain, but he had to hustle to keep pace with the batboy as they slipped into the dugout. Everything in the dugout was painted Yankee blue—the steel girders and concrete walls and even the wood bat rack.
“Don’t bother anyone,” the batboy said as they ducked into a concrete tunnel. “And speak only if someone asks you a question.”
They emerged into the locker room, and suddenly Louis was surrounded by faces that he knew intimately from his baseball cards. Yogi Berra was walking into the shower wearing only a towel. Elston Howard was buttoning his shirt. Bobby Richardson was combing his hair. Louis froze, disoriented by seeing the players without their uniforms. They looked like normal men doing normal things—although a few clusters of reporters in suits and sport jackets were a reminder that this wasn’t just a locker room at the local YMCA. Louis took a slow breath, trying to calm his pounding heart. The room smelled like Ben-Gay and aftershave and sweat.
“Over here,” the batboy said.
Roger Maris was perched on a stool, his hands clasped behind his head and his feet propped up on the wood frame of his large locker. The hair on the side of his head was cut as short as a Marine’s, which made his ears look big. When he saw Louis, he swung his feet down and extended a huge palm.
“You must be that kid who caught that foul and gave me a second chance,” he said.
Louis took the huge hand and nodded as they shook, his eyes focused on Roger’s feet. He had removed his stirrups, and his white socks were dirty around the ankles.
“That was a good catch,” Roger said. “I’d be proud of a catch like that.”
Louis tried to say thank you, but the words died in a frightened mumble on his lips. He felt a hand on his back and he glanced up and suddenly found himself staring into the blazing blue eyes of Mickey Mantle. He was wearing just a T-shirt and uniform pants, and his forearms, which were covered by a thick carpet of blond hair, were as thick as Louis’s thighs.
“Hey, kid,” Mickey said. “Cat got your tongue?”
Louis managed to nod. Mickey smiled and glanced at Roger.
“Don’t worry,” Mickey said. “That big animal bites only every third kid who walks into this locker room.”
Mickey’s smile got a little wider. “But I’m pretty sure the second kid just left.”
He winked and turned back to his locker. Part of Louis wanted to slink back outside, back to the safety of a world where players were just photographs and numbers, but he knew that he would hate himself later if he let his nerves get the best of him.
“Don’t mind Mickey,” Roger said. “He likes to have fun with people.”
Louis nodded again. His vocal cords felt as if they were covered in ice. Roger leaned forward, his voice dropping.
“I met Bronko Nagurski when I was about your age,” he said. “You know who he is?”
“He was a football player and a wrestler.”
“That’s right. I just about keeled over when I shook his hand, but he gave me some good advice. He said it don’t matter how big or small or young or old we are … everyone on this planet breathes the same air and sweats under the same sun. You understand what he meant?”
“Yes, sir,” Louis said. He pulled his lineup card from his pocket, his hands shaking so much that the card was flapping like a fan. “Would you sign this, Mr. Maris?”
Roger nodded. “Sure thing.”
He stood to reach into a cubbyhole and pulled a pen from between a can of deodorant and a canister of foot powder. Louis took the opportunity to peek past him. The locker had chain-link sides and wooden shelves, and it was about four feet wide and three feet deep—more of an open closet than a locker. A few towels and athletic supporters were draped over hooks, a hatbox rested next to a mitt on the top shelf, and a dark suit was neatly hung in the back corner. As Roger turned back around, Louis’s eyes flashed to the concrete floor.
“You filled this out like a real pro,” Roger said as he signed the card.
“I like numbers,” Louis said.
Mickey turned around from his locker, a smile again on his face. “Oh, yeah?” he said in his slight drawl. “What am I hitting, kid?”
Mickey and Roger laughed, but Louis didn’t know why it was funny.
“Sure,” Mickey said. “After today.”
Mickey was still smiling, and Louis got the sense that he was being teased. “Heck, that one was easy,” Mickey said. “You’ve probably got it on your scorecard. Here’s a better one. … What’d I hit in 1956?”
“That’s easy too,” Louis said. “.356 with fifty-two home runs and a hundred and thirty RBIs. You won the Triple Crown.”
Tony Kubek, wearing only a towel, was walking past the little group, and Mickey turned and punched him on the shoulder.
“Hey,” he said. “This kid knows all my stats.”
Tony stared down at Louis. “Of course he knows your stats. You’re Mickey Mantle and this is New York. Ask him if he knows what I hit last year.”
Mickey turned back to Louis, one blond eyebrow raised. His face was as rubbery as a cartoon character’s. Louis squinted as he tried to picture the numbers.
“.273 with fourteen home runs and sixty-two RBIs,” he said after a second.
Tony’s mouth fell open. “How’d you know that, kid?”
Louis shrugged. “It says it on your baseball card.”
“What else does it say?”
“Born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Full name is Anthony Christopher Kubek.”
Mickey elbowed Tony in the ribs. “This kid’s got a brain like a bear trap.”
“Hey, Mick,” Roger said. “I figure any kid who knows this much about baseball ought to be a batboy. What do you think?”
Mickey looked at Louis as if he were examining a bat for a crack, his mouth a tight line. And then he slowly nodded. “I figure you’re right, Rog.”
“Wait here,” Maris said, with a small smile at Louis.
As Roger ambled across the crowded locker room and disappeared behind a wood door, Louis’s breath started to come as heavily as if he had just run a sprint. A batboy? Is that what Roger had said? Louis wanted to ask someone to make sure, but Mickey had sunk into a conversation with Tony, and there was no way Louis was going to bother the starting shortstop and center fielder of the New York Yankees, not even if his hair spontaneously caught on fire.
Just when Louis felt as if he might collapse, Roger and Ralph Houk, the Yankees’ manager, emerged from behind the wood door. Mr. Houk was still wearing his uniform and perfectly polished black shoes, and as they came across the room, Louis noticed that he walked with his back as stiff as a soldier’s.
“This is the kid,” Roger said when they reached Louis.
Mr. Houk carefully looked Louis up and down. His face was stern and his jaw was tightly clenched, but he had kind eyes.
“He’s too young,” Mr. Houk said. He must have noticed the expression on Louis’s face because he quickly added, “Maybe in a year or two.”
Mantle turned away from his conversation with Tony. “Come on, skip,” he said. “Give the kid a chance.”
“Ask him a question about baseball,” Roger said.
Mr. Houk folded his arms across his pinstriped jersey. Louis did his best to stand up straight—his stepmother always told him that he had a “deplorable slouch.”
“Okay,” Mr. Houk said after a long moment. “Here’s an old baseball puzzle. There’s a man on first and a man on second, no outs. How can a team turn a triple play without a baseball ever touching a fielder?”
“That’s unfair,” Mickey said. “There’s no way I could answer that.”
“Me neither,” Roger said.
Louis closed his eyes. Sometimes he did the same thing in school when a teacher called him to the blackboard—it was easier to concentrate when you could pretend that it was just you and the question.
“No fielder can touch the ball,” he repeated.
“That’s right,” Mr. Houk said. “Three outs.”
The question seemed impossible, but Louis knew that Mr. Houk wouldn’t ask it if there wasn’t an answer. But how could you make an out without a fielder catching or throwing the ball? Maybe …
“It has to start with the umpire calling an infield fly,” Louis said, thinking aloud.
“Correct,” Mr. Houk said. “One out.”
Okay, Louis thought to himself. The batter is out. How can the runners on base make an out without being tagged or forced? What was that mistake he’d made the previous spring in Little League? The one that had made his coach call him a “doofus” and launched yet another insulting nickname?
“Maybe the man on first runs past the man on second and is automatically out.”
“That’s two,” Mr. Houk said.
Good, Louis thought. But now there was just one man on the base paths. What could one runner alone on the bases do to get called out? Louis racked his brain, trying to think of all the games he’d seen, all of the articles that he’d read in the paper. And just when he felt the players around him start to shift, just when he knew that Mr. Houk was going to say something and this incredible opportunity was going to disappear forever, Louis remembered an unusual play from a Boston-Baltimore game two years earlier.
“Oh,” Louis said, his eyes popping open. “The last runner kicks the ball, and the umpire calls him out for interference.”
Mr. Houk unfolded his arms. “That’s three,” he said.
“Attaboy,” Roger said.
He and Mickey were smiling. Mr. Houk waved at the batboy who had brought Louis down to the locker room.
“Gabe!” he called.
Gabe dashed across the room, sliding to a halt on the polished floor in front of Mr. Houk. “Yes, sir.”
Mr. Houk clapped Louis on the back. “This young gentleman knows more about baseball than most of the knuckleheads in this locker room, so we’re going to have to make him a probationary batboy.”
Gabe nodded. “Sure thing, Mr. Houk. I’ll find him a uniform.”
Mr. Houk turned his friendly eyes down toward Louis. “It’s just a trial,” he said. “But Gabe started on probation and he’s been here for three years.”
Louis closed his eyes again and took a deep breath. It had all happened so fast—ten minutes ago he had been getting ready to go home with his father, and now he had met Mickey and Roger and was going to be wearing a Yankee uniform for at least one day.
“I’ll do my best,” he said as his eyes opened.
But Mr. Houk was already gone.
© 2010 WES TOOKE
Bottom of the First
Louis and his father returned to White Plains on the 6:45 p.m. train. The town was already quiet, and as they walked through the empty parking lot to the car and drove through the deserted streets, Louis wished that it was the middle of the day. He wanted to show someone—anyone—the ball. He wanted to find one of the stickball players and describe the catch. He wanted to tell the story of how he had actually spoken to Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris—and, best of all, how Mr. Houk had asked him, Louis May, to be a batboy for the New York Yankees.
But instead Louis was alone with his father, and as the car pulled up the driveway, Louis tried to find his courage. Louis hadn’t mentioned his amazing chance to be a batboy, mostly because he was sure that his father would say no. He would probably give a long list of reasons: Louis’s age, school starting in a few months, what Louis’s mother and stepmother might say. And Louis would have to nod his head and swallow his disappointment and pretend that Mr. Houk had never made his incredible offer.
“Dad,” Louis said as the car stopped at the top of the driveway.
Louis’s voice sounded small even to him. His father must have sensed something was wrong because he turned in his seat, the keys dangling from his hand. Louis stared at the dashboard.
“There’s something I have to tell you and it’s really important and I know you’ll want to say no but—”
“What is it, Louis?”
“They want me to be a batboy.”
“Who? The Yankees?”
Louis nodded and managed to pry his eyes away from the dashboard. His father was smiling, but as Louis caught his eye his expression changed. Louis knew that look—it meant no promises.
“That’s great,” his father said. “We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
As Louis climbed out of the car, he tried to comfort himself with the fact that his father hadn’t said no. There was still hope. But Louis also knew that “we’ll talk about it in the morning” really meant “we’ll talk about it after I’ve asked your stepmother.” And very few conversations with Louis’s stepmother went the way that Louis wanted them to go.
Louis went upstairs and brushed his teeth before tiptoeing into the bedroom that he shared with Bryce. The moon was almost full, and the light was streaming through the window. Louis was tucking his baseball mitt into the box at the foot of his bed when Bryce sat up and peered at him, his eyes just dark shadows.
“Why’d you bring your glove to the game?” he asked. “You can’t catch.”
Louis reached into the webbing of the mitt, pulled out the ball, and held it up. The leather looked ghostly in the moonlight.
“No way,” Bryce said. “Your dad bought that.”
Louis just smiled. Bryce flopped backward on his bed, and a few seconds later he began to make the faint snores he produced when he was pretending to be asleep. Louis tucked the glove into his trunk, took off his clothes, and slipped beneath his sheets. He was still clutching the ball, and he gently ran his hand back and forth across the laces. The rough feeling on his fingertips was a reminder that he hadn’t just imagined the catch or being in the clubhouse. It was a reminder that he really had met Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. And it was a reminder that if his father would just say yes, he would be able to go back to that locker room—and this time he would be able to put on a Yankee uniform.
Louis awoke the next morning to the muffled sound of his father’s and stepmother’s voices. He lay in bed for a minute or two before sliding out of bed, carefully opening the door of his room and creeping to the top of the stairs. Louis didn’t consider himself a sneaky kid—he generally didn’t eavesdrop or spy on people—but if this conversation was about his chance to become a batboy, he had to hear it.
“Why do they want him to be a batman?” his stepmother asked as Louis settled beside the wooden banister. They were in the kitchen, and her voice carried clearly up the stairs.
“Bat boy,” Louis’s father said. “I don’t know, exactly. But I think it had something to do with the ball he caught.”
“If anyone should be a batkid, it’s Bryce. He’s actually good at baseball.”
“Louis loves baseball. He can quote more statistics than any adult I know.”
“How’s he going to get to the games?”
“He can take the train,” Louis’s father said. “And I’ll pick him up at the station at night.”
“I worry about Louis on that train. Who knows what kind of people are coming out of New York after a ball game?” She paused. “And what’s he going to do when school starts in the fall? It’s hard enough to make the transition to a new school without being at baseball games all the time.”
“I just think it would be a better fit for Bryce,” his stepmother said after another pause. “He needs more men in his life. I know he misses his father.”
“I’m his father.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m sure that Louis misses his mother, too. That’s not the point.”
“She can come out from the city anytime she wants. But Bryce will never get to see his father again and—”
She continued talking, but Louis didn’t want to hear any more. He slid away from the banister, and when he closed the door to his room the steady drone of his stepmother’s voice was reduced to a distant mumble. Bryce was still asleep—his breath was quiet and steady, unlike his fake snore—and Louis climbed into bed. He tried to force himself to relax, but his brain kept returning to the argument downstairs.
As far as Louis could tell, his father always won his arguments with Louis’s mother and always lost his arguments with Louis’s stepmother. It was at moments like this when Louis missed his mother the most. She didn’t know anything about baseball, but she would have been excited about the catch. She wouldn’t pretend that Bryce was the only kid in the world or make Louis play stickball or get in the way of his chance to be a batboy or—
Louis swung his feet out of bed. Usually when he started thinking about that kind of stuff he’d end up crying, and if Bryce heard him cry he’d call him a baby. And maybe Bryce was right. Would a batboy for the New York Yankees lie in bed feeling sorry for himself? No … a real batboy would go down to the kitchen and ask for what he wanted. That’s what a real batboy would do.
Louis pulled on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. As he padded down the stairs, his father and stepmother were still talking, but the voices stopped as he pushed his way through the kitchen door. They were sitting at the oak table, coffee mugs in front of them.
“Good morning,” his father said with a smile. “Sleep well?”
Louis stayed next to the door. “I want to be a batboy.”
“We know,” his father said, his smile disappearing.
Louis’s next words came in a rush. “It’s a great opportunity and I’ll get myself to the stadium and you don’t have to worry about school because I can do homework at recess and when the Yankees are out of town. And I’ll do extra chores around the house as soon as the season is over.”
The pause after his words probably only lasted a few seconds, but it felt like an hour. His father was just watching him. Louis couldn’t bring himself to look at his stepmother, but he was pretty sure that her eyes were narrow—the way they got when she was really mad.
“Okay,” his father finally said. “You can be a batboy. But if your grades start to slip or you make trouble for your stepmother …”
Louis felt his cheeks tighten and knew that he must be smiling like an idiot. He wanted to go over and hug his father, but he also thought that he should leave the kitchen before his stepmother said anything or his father changed his mind. And so Louis just nodded his head and pushed his way back through the swinging door, and it was only when he was alone in the living room that a small whoop escaped from his lips and his fist instinctively punched the air.
© 2010 WES TOOKE