SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
October 6, 2019

Blood Around the Little League

 

Webster Elementary, which I attended from second through fourth grade, was located, not coincidentally, on busy Webster Avenue, a major four-lane thoroughfare that stretched from the Green Bay suburbs into downtown. The school was housed in a long, narrow, single-story building divided into two wings to separate the younger and older students. Behind the school was a parking lot that doubled as the playground. There was a fenced-in tennis court adjacent to the parking lot, but I don’t recall ever seeing anyone playing tennis there. Just beyond the parking lot and the tennis court was, in the mind of your average second-grader, a monumentally steep hill that became Shangri-La during winter to any kid with a toboggan, saucer, inner tube, flexible flyer or just a sheet of cardboard. The hill finally leveled out at a small, shabby playground with a rusty swing set, an equally risky slide, and one of those big rotating discs you had to push—kind of a merry-go-round with no animals and no place to sit.

            And just beyond that shabby, good-for-nothing playground, there were two baseball diamonds. One was generic—a backstop, a pitchers’ mound, a dirt baseline, and two long wooden benches for the opposing teams. The other was fancier, with wooden bleachers, a scoreboard and actual enclosed dugouts. Pretty much every afternoon during the summer, both fields were occupied by nine and ten-year-old little leaguers in clean white uniforms and baseball caps, either practicing or playing games. Green Bay had a youth football league back then too, but no one much cared about that. Until soccer supplanted baseball in the consciousness of the area’s athletically-inclined youth in the mid-Eighties, little league was king, for boys and girls alike (though the girls—including my sister—played softball). When there was a real game going on at the fancier of the two diamonds, the bleachers were always packed.

            But this isn’t a story about baseball. I never gave a fuck about baseball then or now.

            Not long after we moved to Green Bay in 1968, my dad, who was still in the Air Force at the time, teamed up with Leo Charlier, a friend he’d met at our new church, and the two of them began coaching the Yankees, a local little league team. I remember he kept a big canvas bag with baseball bats, balls, gloves, batting helmets and a green catcher’s mask in the garage, and would throw it into the trunk whenever he was heading off to practice or a game. For some reason, at four or five, I was fascinated with that bag and the things inside it, the textures and colors and the sounds it made when he upended it and dumped the contents on the ground. That was about as far as my interest in baseball as a sport went.

            Still, my mom and sister and I were obligated to go see every game over the summer, not just because my dad was coaching, but because my parents and the Charliers had agreed to run the concession stand. I loved that concession stand. They erected a big tent in the grass just off to the side of the bleachers, set up a couple of folding tables, hauled out a few coolers, got a grill going and sold candy of all kinds, popcorn, bottled soda from The Pop Shop, and most important of all Reimer’s hot dogs. To this day I say fuck Nathan’s—nothing could top Reimer’s hot dogs. They were spicy, had thick casings, and spurted juice whenever you bit into them. They were amazing. The Reimer’s plant shut down some years ago, and I’ve spent a lifetime since leaving Green Bay trying and failing to find another hot dog that even comes close.

            I have no idea how my parents and the Charliers ended up running the concession stand, or where all the food came from, or where the money went, but it was the best thing about Little League afternoons, hanging around the tent, smelling the canvas and the popcorn and the grill, sitting in the grass guzzling cold generic grape and cherry soda out of glass bottles, eating candy and chomping down way too many hot dogs.

            (As a quick side note, one of the stranger and more ironic things they sold at the stand were brightly colored oversized plastic teeth, with roots and all. Flip up the crown and you’d find they were filled with candy-coated pieces of gum. It leaves me wondering now if those were put out by the American Dental Association.)

            I paid no attention to the game, even when my dad let me sit in the dugout with the team. I remember the dugout—it was cool and damp and smelled of mildew, the wooden bench was rough and cracked—but the only thing I remember from any of the games, even from that vantage point, was an outfielder running to catch a fly ball and missing it, the baseball crashing down square atop his left foot. He screamed, collapsed, then got up and came limping off the field. “Is your shoe full of blood?” my dad called out to the kid as he hobbled toward the dugout, his face wracked with pain.

            That image—a shoe filled with blood—would stick with me for years.

            Now, my friend Rob’s older brother Todd was on the Yankees, meaning Rob was at a lot of the games too, and cared about baseball even less than I did. So when he was there we’d spend about a third of our time hanging around the concession stand and the other two thirds doing other things. Sometimes we’d wander over to that ramshackle playground, but mostly we occupied those afternoons playing on, around, and especially beneath the bleachers. The bleachers stood about twenty feet tall, the long wooden planks providing the seating, though once painted green, were as ragged and cracked as the benches in the dugouts. The paint was peeling and the bolts holding the planks in place were coming loose, so if you stepped on a plank, the whole length of it would jump and wobble with a hollow “ka-thwunka!” Trying to race from the bottom to the top of the bleachers (as we often did) not only annoyed all the parents trying to watch the game, it was also potentially deadly. Trip at the top and go over the wobbly iron pipe railing, you’d undoubtedly land head first in the dirt twenty feet below and die. At the very least, even without going over the railing, spend too much time running around those bleachers and you’d go home filled with wood splinters and slivers of lead paint in your legs and hands.

            Playing under the bleachers was much better. Not only did it greatly reduce the element of adult chastisement, it was less potentially deadly and allowed you to get away with a hell of a lot more. The structure holding the bleachers upright consisted of six- and eight-foot lengths of the same two-inch iron piping that made up the guard rail, here screwed together into an intricate web. So beneath the planking, what you had was an insanely complex set of monkey bars to climb around. Better still, they allowed you, if you were quiet and stealthy enough, to climb up beneath people in the bleachers who were too focused on the game to notice the little hand stealing the soda they’d absently set at their feet. Of course there was hell to pay if you were caught stealing someone’s snacks, and sometimes there was hell to pay if your—or worse, a friend’s—parents, happened to glance into the shadows beneath the bleachers to see you crawling around the pipes ten or fifteen feet above the ground. But that never stopped us from sneaking back there again the next game.

            For all the warm, bright and painfully idyllic memories I have of hanging around that baseball field on those long summer afternoons in the early Seventies, one image stuck with me even longer than that shoe filled with blood.

            It was one of those times Rob didn’t come to the game for one reason or another, so I was alone that afternoon. My parents were preoccupied with the game and the concession stand, so I was just entertaining myself under the bleachers. Just behind the bleachers there was a short water fountain (we called it a bubbler) that was running constantly. The dirt at the base of the bubbler was a perpetual mud puddle about four feet in diameter. That bubbler fascinated me almost as much as that canvas bag full of baseball equipment. All public drinking fountains did, to be honest. I don’t know why. I recall I was in the shade of the bleachers when I noticed a small crowd had gathered a few yards from the bubbler. They were still in the dirt part before the grass started. Ten or twelve people, mostly boys older than me, but a few adults too, were collected in a circle, staring at something on the ground. I couldn’t see what it was. No one was smiling, and no one was saying anything, though from the middle of the circle of gawkers something was whimpering. It was another bright, warm day in July or August.

            Curious, I forgot about what I was doing and walked to the crowd, squeezing my way between the older kids and the adults to find out what they were all staring at.

            At the center of the gathered crowd a young boy, maybe my age, maybe a year or two older, lay on his back in the dirt, crying. He was wearing a t-shirt, short pants, white socks and a pair of beaten old sneakers. A bike much too big for him to be riding lay on top of him, and one of his bare legs was sticking through the spokes of the front wheel. One of the spokes had sliced deep into his calf, and a trickle of blood was dripping into his sock, the blood-soaked sock in turn dripping into the dirt, leaving a dark puddle much smaller, I noted, than the one around the base of the bubbler. No one was making a move to help him. They just stared. I wanted to know how his leg could have gone through the spokes that way, but no one told me.

            I don’t know how many seasons my dad coached little league. No more than two or three. Not long after his last season ended and he tucked that canvas bag full of equipment into a corner in the basement storeroom, he sat me down and said, “When you get old enough, I will never let you play little league.”

            I was fully expecting this to be followed by “…because you’re a hopeless, uncoordinated incompetent dolt who can’t see.” Instead he said, “…because I would never want you to have to experience the kinds of things these parents do and say to these kids. They’re awful, terrible people.”

            For all the time I spent at those games, I’d never noticed, but I believed him, and was grateful. I never even bothered telling him there was no goddamn way in hell I was even thinking about trying out for little league.

 

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