Monday, April 23, 2012

The Accidental Coach

The Bronx. Early 1980s.

If my flashbacks were directed by Marty Scorsese, the Rolling Stones' Emotional Rescue or She's So Cold would be playing as the accompanying soundtrack in the background.

I was ten-years old when I played second base for the Tigers in the Riverdale Baseball League. My father became the coach literally by a freak accident. He signed up as an assistant coach, specifically, the third base coach, but all of that changed when the original manager, Mr. Rifkind, sneezed while walking down a small flight of stairs, slipped and had a nasty fall. Rifkind, who owned a successful litigation firm in Midtown, threw out his back and needed emergency surgery. While Rifkind was resting with a bad back and jacked up on painkillers, my father got the nod as the manager.

Today, the the last thing I'd want to do is wake up early on Saturday, drive to a park, and throw batting practice to a baker's dozen of screaming kids while hungover to all hell. Sure, I enjoy Joe Speaker's fantastic posts about watching his son play little league, but there's a tinge of acknowledged sadness that I'll miss out on cherished moments like little league because I don't want kids. Let's be honest, I'm way too irresponsible and self-indulgent to give up my Saturday mornings for anyone, let alone a bunch of rug rats that are not of my own brood. I doubt I could get away with a coaching a full season without exposing my staggering marijuana addiction. Well, maybe in the Bay Area, but nowhere else in America.

I could only imagine the angst my father went through the moment he received the dreaded call from Rifkind that due to unforeseen circumstance, he was promoted to manager of the Tigers. My old man enjoyed sports and wanted to be involved with my little league, but he usually was the type of guy who sought out the least amount responsibility as possible. He was looking for a simple Saturday morning: watch his oldest son play ball and direct my teammates rounding third base with his only tough decision whether or not to send the runner home or to hold him up at third (it was actually an easy decision to make because my father was a gambler and aggressive third base coach who always emphatically waved the runner home), and all of this happening while he nursed a wicked hangover and causally scanned the crowd, allowing his gaze to linger toward the bevy of MILFs who congregated in Seton Park.

My father inherited the equipment bag and scorebook, which were two perks of being the manager that I thought was the coolest thing in the world. The large green bag, which looked just like my father's worn-down duffel bag from the Marines, included a couple of dinged-up Easton aluminum bats, a donut weight, mud-stained practice balls, stinky batting helmets, umpire clicker (ball & strikes indicator), a first aid kit, a mimeographed copy of the Riverdale Baseball League's Standard Operating Procedures, and catcher's equipment (a glove, mask, chest protector, and knee pads -- which my seven-year old brother and I took turns wearing around the apartment).

Having unfettered access to the scorebook was both good and bad. I was able to carefully track everyone on the batting average and ERA for everyone on our team (and the opponents' overall average and ERA too), but that also made me horribly self-conscious later on in the season when my batting average became a source of friction between the manager (my father) and a few disgruntled parents.

Along with the equipment bag, my father inherited the headache of juggling the precocious egos of a dozen parents. I grew up in an Irish and Jewish neighborhood, but I was one of two Catholics on a team of all Jewish kids. Most of the parents were pretty relaxed with the exception of three or four brash parents. They would not leave my father alone and constantly phoned him at home, which infuriated my crazy mother. If she'd been hitting the sauce hard that night, she might launch into a tirade, so my father made sure he answered the phone first.

My father (if you're a fan of Mad Men, then just think of Roger Sterling, but in a much cheaper suit) had a much slicker and softer approach. I couldn't tell if he was a genius, or if he just an aloof alkie who didn't give a fuck. He barely spoke during conversations with other parents, instead he let them rant and rave while he stood in the kitchen, holding the phone receiver in one hand and sipping a bottle of beer in the other. He never let the conversation last longer than a second beer, because that would incite an anti-Semitic diatribe from my mother.

"Are those damn Jews giving you shit again?" she'd scream. "Instead of whining to you, they should be showing their kid how to hit the fucking ball instead of striking out all the time!"

My father got chewed out by pissed-off parents trying to re-live their lost youths through passive-aggressive phone calls. The worst offenders were vain parents who bitched about their kid's name not appearing in the weekly little league write up in the Riverdale Press (another responsibility my father inherited from Rifkind, which he saw as an utter a chore).

At the end of every heated (albeit one-sided) conversation, my father would say, "Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I will take your concerns into consideration. Good night."

Talk about smooth. Like Bill Clinton, sleazy politician fucking smooth. His usage of "your concerns" was a slithery back-handed barb and a sinister way of mocking their spoiled brats. My old man had a greater knowledge of baseball than our original manager, Rifkind. Let's not forget, he didn't want the burden of being the head coach because he was kinda lazy and it infringed upon his drinking -- an activity he did the moment he got off work until he went to bed (Monday thru Thursdays) and nonstop from Friday at 5pm until he passed out Sunday night sometime after 60 Minutes. He shoveled around shit with the other suits and was exhausted after running the rat race in Manhattan, so he definitely wasn't going to let a bunch of ornery parents give him guff. None of them volunteered their day off to dispatch fielding tips to kids with short attention spans, so they should have shown him more respect. If he had to endure unwanted phone calls from cantankerous parents during prime drinking hours, then he's sure as hell going to fill out the batting order the best way he saw fit.

I got along with everyone on my team, but some of the parents (particularly Dr. Levine, a nebbish dentist) didn't like my father as the head coach. For one, my old man didn't hang out in their snooty social circle and they looked down on him for spending a lot of time knocking back beers with the proletariat -- off-duty cops and firemen -- at a dive bar around the corner called the Leprechaun. My father did not give a rat's ass about the local pecking order and silly politics that rued pretentious enclaves of Riverdale. He assembled a competitive lineup, making sure everyone got to play. He was always fair, aside from occasionally pitching me during garbage time. But he wasn't getting paid to eat shit from affluent assholes, so he ignored them and made sure all the kids were having a fun time.

I was one of three kids on my team who did not attend P.S. 24 across the street from Seton Park: me, Jimmy Donnelly, and Ira Greenberg (the super-Jewish kid who wore a yarmulke underneath his ball cap). Ira went to special Hebrew academy and played less than half of the season because games were scheduled on Wednesday and Saturdays, yet his parents were very religious and would not allow him to play on the Sabbath. Poor Ira never got to "roll" on shabbas.

Jimmy Donnelly and I went to the same Catholic school two blocks from my apartment. Only a couple of kids from my grade played little league, so it was pretty cool that Jimmy Donnelly and I were drafted by the same team... the Tigers.

Every kid wanted to get drafted by the Yankees because we lived in the Bronx and practically grew up in the shadows of Yankee Stadium (albeit two miles away). Plus, the Yankees were sponsored by Angelo's, the most popular Italian restaurant in the neighborhood that took up two huge storefronts. Angelo's was half-pizzeria, half-fancy restaurant with gigantic lobster tanks illuminated by trippy lights and fancy mints in a silver bowl at the register. The owner, Angelo Tattaglia, looked like Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos and lived in one of the biggest houses at the end of my block. Ummm, yeah, Angelo was mobbed up and every kid, even the Jewish kids, wanted to play for the wiseguys because if you were drafted by the Yankees, it was like becoming a made man at ten years old. The perks of wearing the pinstripes included free pizza and all the soda you can drink after every game, plus if you came into Angelo's during the week with your parents, they took care of you with one of the best booths and you got free dessert (fucking spumoni!). A couple of years later, my brother would get drafted by the Yankees and I finally got to see what it was like to sample the good life.

The sponsor of the Tigers was Rainbow Blush, a high-end fashion clothing store for yuppie kids. The owner of the boutique was a closeted gay older man, but he was just a small business owner trying to fit in by sponsoring a local sports team. After a few cocktails, Jimmy Donnelly's dad always made off-color jokes about our "queer" sponsor and how we we're lucky our uniforms were black and white instead of pink.

Jimmy Donnelly's sister, Colleen, was two years older and also went to Catholic school with us. She played the flute. No bullshit. I developed a crush on her after she played an enthralling solo during an assembly of Christmas carols. Since that moment I saw her onstage, I couldn't stop thinking about her pretty blonde hair cascading down the side of her face. One of my first exploratory jack-off sessions involved her in some twisted fantasy.

Jimmy's dad, Mr. Donnelly, looked like an older version of David Caruso including a ridiculous hair piece. He was one of my dad's drinking buddies and they were usually knocking back cold ones at the Leprechaun. When my dad was named the manager, he upset a lot of parents when he made a controversial decision to add Mr. Donnelly as the Tigers' new third base coach instead of Dr. Levine, who lobbied heavily for the position. Mr. Donnelly was an even bigger lush than my father. He brought his own mini-bar to the park: a Styrofoam cooler filled with ice, a mixing cup, and an oblong bottle of Chivas Regal.

The coaches wore just a jersey top and a hat. Mr. Donnelly didn't get a jersey, but he wore a Tigers hat atop his ghastly rug and coached in his usual Saturday ensemble: a forest green short-sleeve leisure suit, white loafers, and sunglasses. No, he wasn't a hipster. Don't forget, this was 1982.

I also have a vague memory of a period of time when Mr. Donnelly wore a scarf, like Fred from Scooby Doo.

Mr. Donnelly used a swizzle stick with a shamrock on the end of it (which he lifted from the Leprechaun) to mix cocktails in between innings. Stiff ones. One every half inning. My old man didn't drink the hard stuff early in the morning. To his credit, despite the stress and pressure, he didn't take a sip of booze during the games, although he was definitely chugging a beer the moment the game ended and had cracked open his second one before we could finish the "2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate" cheer.

After the games, my father and Mr. Donnelly retreated to the Leprechaun, while Jimmy and I hung out at the pizza place next door, a rival to Angelo's. We ate slices and slurped Italian ices, then played a Star Wars pinball machine, occasionally darting into the bar to ask our dads for more quarters. My father was supposed to write a column about the week's games for the Riverdale Press. Always the angle shooter, he devised a clever system in which the winning coach of the other games phoned in their three sentence recap to him at the Leprechaun while he was sitting at the end of the bar, scribbling everything down on a yellow legal pad. When he was too sloshed to tidy up his rough draft, he handed the pad to me and Jimmy, and we'd finish the report then go back to my apartment and type it up on an ancient Underwood typewriter. That's was my first taste of being a published author -- ten-years old and ghostwriting a dinky sports column for my shitfaced father. Of course, Jimmy and I made sure we both were mentioned in the Tigers' recap -- Jimmy for his speed on the bases, and me for my deft fielding skills at second base.

I pitched during blowouts because my dad was the manager. Sure, I wanted to pitch. Every kid wanted to pitch. But I was wild and inconsistent, which is why I only got mop up duty.

Jimmy Donnelly's sister never came to the games because her mother took her down to Lincoln Center for flute practice on Saturday mornings. For some reason, her practice was cancelled on the same day we were scheduled to play the Yankees. She came down to Seton Park to watch our game and I was totally pumped because I had a chance to look awesome in front of her. Then again, I was nervous because the Yankees were undefeated and the toughest team in the league. Even though we were tied for second, the Yankees had the best pitcher in the league and a lineup without any soft spots.

I don't recall how I specifically did at the plate, but I drove in two runs with a double early in the game to tie the score at 2-2. The Yankees pulled away and we struggled to score runs. Down 13-2 in the last inning (these were the days before the pussification of America and little leagues installed a "mercy rule" in order to prevent kids from developing low self-esteem), my father decided to put me in as the pitcher. That was the only time I didn't want to pitch all season because I didn't want to look bad in front of Jimmy Donnelly's sister. The Yankees were gonna knock my meatball pitches into the Hudson River.

I was content with my performance up until that point; I stood out as the RBI man on a mediocre squad of Jewish kids, coached by a pair of simpatico drunkards who stumbled right off the pages of a James Joyce novel. But taking the mound was like sending a lamb to the slaughter. On any other day, I'd gladly take my lumps, but that instance, I nearly begged my father to not put me in.

"I think my arm hurts," I said, feigning a bum shoulder.

"Quit farting around and warm up," my father barked like a drill sergeant.

I got knocked around by the menacing Yankees line up. I threw harder than I ever threw before, yet they were teeing off on my pitches. I lost all confidence and couldn't find the plate. I walked a few batters and the game spiraled out of control. It was ugly.

I walked home a run with the bases loaded. My father asked the umpire for a time out. He and Mr. Donnelly trudged out to the mound. I was embarrassed and hoped my father was going to take me out. He didn't let me speak and succinctly said, "You're finishing the game, so throw strikes."

So much for him taking my concerns into consideration. Bastard. He left me hanging out to twist in the wind while the love of my life, Jimmy Donnelly's sister Colleen, watched me get humiliated by the fucking Yankees. I turned to Mr. Donnelly, hoping he'd come to his nepotistic senses and talk my father into putting in Jimmy, but instead, Mr. Donnelly pulled a pack of Juicy Fruit out of his leisure suit pocket. His breath reeked of liquor and his solution to all problems involving pitching mechanics was Juicy Fruit.

"Here, kiddo. Have some gum. Actually... take two."

I shoved two pieces of gum into my mouth. Mr. Donnelly and my father returned the dugout, where Mr. Donnelly pulled out his shamrock swizzle stick and promptly mixed himself a fresh cocktail.