for my father, Frank Espada In 1941, my father saw his first big league ballgame at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn: the Dodgers and the Cardinals. My father took his father's hand. When the umpires lumbered on the field, the band in the stands with a bass drum and trombone struck up a chorus of Three Blind Mice. The peanut vendor shook a cowbell and hollered. The home team raced across the diamond, and thirty thousand people shouted all at once, as if an army of liberation rolled down Bedford Avenue. My father shouted, too. He wanted to see The Trouble Ball. On my father's island, there were hurricanes and tuberculosis, dissidents in jail and baseball. The loudspeakers boomed: Satchel Paige pitching for the Brujos of Guayama. From the Negro Leagues he brought the gifts of Baltasar the King; from a bench on the plaza he told the secrets of a thousand pitches: The Trouble Ball, The Triple Curve, The Bat Dodger, The Midnight Creeper, The Slow Gin Fizz, The Thoughtful Stuff. Pancho Coímbre hit rainmakers for the Leones of Ponce; Satchel sat the outfielders in the grass to play poker, windmilled three pitches to the plate, and Pancho spun around three times. He couldn't hit The Trouble Ball. At Ebbets Field, the first pitch echoed in the mitt of Mickey Owen, the catcher for the Dodgers who never let the ball escape his glove. A boy off the boat, my father shelled peanuts, waiting for Satchel Paige to steer his gold Cadillac from the bullpen to the mound, just as he would navigate the streets of Guayama. Yet Satchel never tipped his cap that day. ¿Dónde están los negros? asked the boy. Where are the Negro players? No los dejan, his father softly said. They don't let them play here. Mickey Owen would never have to dive for The Trouble Ball. It was then that the only brown boy at Ebbets Field felt himself levitate above the grandstand and the diamond, another banner at the ballgame. From up high he could see that everyone was white, and their whiteness was impossible, like snow in Puerto Rico, and just as silent, so he could not hear the cowbell, or the trombone, or the Dodger fans howling with glee at the bases-loaded double. He understood why his father whispered in Spanish: everybody in the stands might overhear the secret of The Trouble Ball. At Ebbets Field in 1941, the Dodgers met the Yankees in the World Series. Mickey Owen dropped the third strike with two outs in the ninth inning of Game Four, flailing like a lobster in the grip of a laughing fisherman, and the Yankees stamped their spikes across the plate to win. Brooklyn, the borough of churches, prayed for his fumbling soul. This was the reason statues of the Virgin leaked tears and the fathers of Brooklyn drank, not the banishment of Satchel Paige to doubleheaders in Bismarck, North Dakota. There were no rosaries or boilermakers for The Trouble Ball. My father would return to baseball on 108th Street. He pitched for the Crusaders, kicking high like Satchel, riding the team bus painted with four-leaf clovers, seasick all the way to Hackensack or the Brooklyn Parade Grounds. One day he jammed his wrist sliding into second, threw three more innings anyway, and never pitched again. He would return to Ebbets Field to court my mother. The same year they were married a waiter refused to serve them, a mixed couple sitting all night in the corner, till my father hoisted him by his lapels and the waiter's feet dangled in the air, a puppet and his furious puppeteer. My father was familiar with The Trouble Ball. I was born in Brooklyn in 1957, when the Dodgers packed their duffle bags and left the city. A wrecking ball swung an uppercut into the face of Ebbets Field. I heard the stories: how my mother, lost in the circles and diamonds of her scorecard, never saw Jackie Robinson accelerate down the line to steal home. I wore my father's glove until the day I laid it down to lap the water from the fountain in the park. By the time I raised my head, it was gone like Ebbets Field. I walked slowly home. I had to tell my father I would never learn to catch The Trouble Ball. There was a sign below the scoreboard at Ebbets Field: Abe Stark, Brooklyn's Leading Clothier. Hit Sign, Win Suit. Some people see that sign in dreams. They speak of ballparks as cathedrals, frame the pennants from the game where it began, Dodger blue and Cardinal red, and gaze upon the wall. My father, who remembers everything, remembers nothing of that dazzling day but this: ¿Dónde están los negros? No los dejan. His hair is white, and still the words are there, like the ghostly imprint of stitches on the forehead from a pitch that got away. It is forever 1941. It was The Trouble Ball.
He glides in on his single wing, after the signs go up. After
the truck leaves with the bunkbeds, grill, broken hall mirror.
After Scout is dropped off at the shelter. After the last look,
on the dying lawn. In the backyard, where the empty pool
stands open; he pops an ollie over the cracked patterns of tile:
tidal waves in neat squares. He kneels, checking angle against
depth. He lifts off where the board once leapt and leapt: cannon-
balls, swans: endless summer. He hurtles downward, kickturning,
sparks grinding hard on gunnite. Round the bend: the kidney,
the heart. The stone path where once glowed tiki torches at
the kingdom’s ukelele gate. He rockets out of the dead lots each
day, past swingsets and shut-off sprinklers, his board struck up
from whirlwind. Nobody’s home to the ownerless: he turns
inside their names, never minds ghosts, nothing in his wake.
(Suggested by post-game broadcasts)
Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting and baseball is like writing. You can never tell with either how it will go or what you will do; generating excitement— a fever in the victim— pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter. Victim in what category? Owlman watching from the press box? To whom does it apply? Who is excited? Might it be I? It's a pitcher's battle all the way—a duel— a catcher's, as, with cruel puma paw, Elston Howard lumbers lightly back to plate. (His spring de-winged a bat swing.) They have that killer instinct; yet Elston—whose catching arm has hurt them all with the bat— when questioned, says, unenviously, "I'm very satisfied. We won." Shorn of the batting crown, says, "We"; robbed by a technicality. When three players on a side play three positions and modify conditions, the massive run need not be everything. "Going, going . . . " Is it? Roger Maris has it, running fast. You will never see a finer catch. Well . . . "Mickey, leaping like the devil"—why gild it, although deer sounds better— snares what was speeding towards its treetop nest, one-handing the souvenir-to-be meant to be caught by you or me. Assign Yogi Berra to Cape Canaveral; he could handle any missile. He is no feather. "Strike! . . . Strike two!" Fouled back. A blur. It's gone. You would infer that the bat had eyes. He put the wood to that one. Praised, Skowron says, "Thanks, Mel. I think I helped a little bit." All business, each, and modesty. Blanchard, Richardson, Kubek, Boyer. In that galaxy of nine, say which won the pennant? Each. It was he. Those two magnificent saves from the knee-throws by Boyer, finesses in twos— like Whitey's three kinds of pitch and pre- diagnosis with pick-off psychosis. Pitching is a large subject. Your arm, too true at first, can learn to catch your corners—even trouble Mickey Mantle. ("Grazed a Yankee! My baby pitcher, Montejo!" With some pedagogy, you'll be tough, premature prodigy.) They crowd him and curve him and aim for the knees. Trying indeed! The secret implying: "I can stand here, bat held steady." One may suit him; none has hit him. Imponderables smite him. Muscle kinks, infections, spike wounds require food, rest, respite from ruffians. (Drat it! Celebrity costs privacy!) Cow's milk, "tiger's milk," soy milk, carrot juice, brewer's yeast (high-potency— concentrates presage victory sped by Luis Arroyo, Hector Lopez— deadly in a pinch. And "Yes, it's work; I want you to bear down, but enjoy it while you're doing it." Mr. Houk and Mr. Sain, if you have a rummage sale, don't sell Roland Sheldon or Tom Tresh. Studded with stars in belt and crown, the Stadium is an adastrium. O flashing Orion, your stars are muscled like the lion.
In Memory of Dennis Turner, 1946-1984
A hook shot kisses the rim and
hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop,
and for once our gangly starting center
boxes out his man and times his jump
perfectly, gathering the orange leather
from the air like a cherished possession
and spinning around to throw a strike
to the outlet who is already shoveling
an underhand pass toward the other guard
scissoring past a flat-footed defender
who looks stunned and nailed to the floor
in the wrong direction, trying to catch sight
of a high, gliding dribble and a man
letting the play develop in front of him
in slow motion, almost exactly
like a coach’s drawing on the blackboard,
both forwards racing down the court
the way that forwards should, fanning out
and filling the lanes in tandem, moving
together as brothers passing the ball
between them without a dribble, without
a single bounce hitting the hardwood
until the guard finally lunges out
and commits to the wrong man
while the power-forward explodes past them
in a fury, taking the ball into the air
by himself now and laying it gently
against the glass for a lay-up,
but losing his balance in the process,
inexplicably falling, hitting the floor
with a wild, headlong motion
for the game he loved like a country
and swiveling back to see an orange blur
floating perfectly through the net.
There are baby thoughts in the shape of seaweed & pirate knives they float over strips of shores & curl into a rainy parasol where a laboring red papaya truck awaits & there are the thoughts of Staff Sergeant Melanie Lippman—she's back from Afghanistan & cheers as a rhomboid ball burns through the flags of space— but she notices distant jagged zones on fire where the Company battles & there are the thoughts of a father Don Jose Emiliano in plaid with water on his face—his only son on the wet field for the first time—he is a man now how his fury tumbles & finds a route to launch & spin his body toward a shifting goal—is that my son he says.
after practice: right foot to left foot, stepping forward and back, to right foot and left foot, and left foot up to his thigh, holding it on his thigh as he twists around in a circle, until it rolls down the inside of his leg, like a tickle of sweat, not catching and tapping on the soft side of his foot, and juggling once, twice, three times, hopping on one foot like a jump-roper in the gym, now trapping and holding the ball in midair, balancing it on the instep of his weak left foot, stepping forward and forward and back, then lifting it overhead until it hangs there; and squaring off his body, he keeps the ball aloft with a nudge of his neck, heading it from side to side, softer and softer, like a dying refrain, until the ball, slowing, balances itself on his hairline, the hot sun and sweat filling his eyes as he jiggles this way and that, then flicking it up gently, hunching his shoulders and tilting his head back, he traps it in the hollow of his neck, and bending at the waist, sees his shadow, his dangling T-shirt, the bent blades of brown grass in summer heat; and relaxing, the ball slipping down his back. . .and missing his foot. He wheels around, he marches over the ball, as if it were a rock he stumbled into, and pressing his left foot against it, he pushes it against the inside of his right until it pops into the air, is heeled over his head—the rainbow!— and settles on his extended thigh before rolling over his knee and down his shin, so he can juggle it again from his left foot to his right foot —and right foot to left foot to thigh— as he wanders, on the last day of summer, around the empty field.