The sound of sprinklers and smell of freshly cut grass greeted my senses that summer, every Saturday morning, as I made my way out onto the baseball diamond that was exclusively for my Little League team, the Parkway Pirates. Well, not Little League, actually. More like Mini-League or Bush League. I was in the fifth grade, my brother Lloyd in the fourth. And we were the only Jewish members of the team.
It was my stupid idea to join the team in the first place. Maybe if my dad had played more catch with me in the backyard, instead of dressing up like a woman under his business suits, my yearning for big hard balls and stiff bats wouldn't have led me down the road to hardball hell.
That summer began as most others did for a Jewish kid living in Greenwich, CT. With relief. I wouldn't have to ride the bus to school every day where the kids would beat the shit out of me just for having a big nose. Instead, I would get to stay home and play with my Captain Action and Dr. Evil dolls, or ride along on my "Chopper" bicycle as my brother Lloyd raced his 10-speed up and down the driveway while my youngest brother Seth tried keeping up on his Schwinn.
Or so I thought.
"Boys," my dad said to us about the third day into our freedom, "you have to get off your asses and do something this summer."
I protested. Lloyd, also protesting, claimed that this was the summer his two new gerbils were going to be launched into orbit. That he had built an Estes rocket that took four D engines and had padded the payload section with nonflammable material so this time his "astronauts" would survive, and not end up as "Timmy" and "Jimmy" did?cat barbecue. Seth, my future doctor brother, who was just going into the third grade, said that this summer he was going to dissect all his stuffed animals and "then put them back together again." The previous summer, he had just left them in pieces.
"That's not good enough," said my dad in a stern voice. "This summer I want you boys to learn the value of money."
I knew what was coming next. Jobs. Work. And there was no way I'd have any of that.
"We want to join the Parkway Pirates," I blurted out, surprising myself as much as my dad, Lloyd and Seth.
"You do?" asked my dad.
"We do?" asked my brothers.
"Yeah," I said. I explained how much we loved the Yankees, which we did. I explained that baseball was the great American pastime (I'd read that in the World Book Encyclopedia from 1972; the ones that were white with the green trim).
"You guys play baseball?" asked my dad. "You little pussies won't even play touch football when Uncle Marty and Uncle Wuzzie come to visit. Do you guys know the first thing about baseball?"
I told him that the Japanese baseball mitts he'd got us had been put to some use. We had played catch with one another at least twice, and that Grampa Jack, his father, also played catch with us every once in a while, when he wasn't driving golf balls and having us chase them.
"So that makes you good enough for a team?" my dad asked.
"It's the Parkway Pirates," I told my dad, "they'll take anyone. It's not like it's a real team or anything. Just kids from school."
My dad reluctantly agreed.
"You fucking little brats are going to have to join a car pool or something," my stepmother Connie bitched at us as she dropped us off at Parkway Elementary the first Saturday morning for baseball practice. "Either that, or ride your bikes. It's only 11 miles."
We just ignored her as we usually did and ran out to where a bunch of kids had gathered and were tossing the ol' hardball around.
"Hiya guys," I said, excited. I saw some of my classmates, as well as others I'd seen around the hallways or cafeteria.
"Oh look," said one kid with straight blond hair and blue eyes, "it's the Jews!"
Everyone laughed except Lloyd, Seth and me.
"I didn't know Jews played with baseballs," yelled another kid, whose name was James Smith, a guy in my math class. "I thought they only played with matzo balls!"
All the kids start chanting, "Jews! Jews! Jews! Jews!"
"That's enough!" I suddenly heard a man yell.
I turned around and saw him. Our coach. Kurt.
And his girlfriend. Dawn.
Who had the biggest breasts I'd ever seen.
All the kids got quiet.
"I'm Coach Andrews." All the kids stared at him. "But you can call me Kurt. And this is my girlfriend Dawn. She'll be helping me coach you guys this summer."
"Wow," was all I could mumble.
"And," added Kurt, "I'm Jewish."
I should have guessed from his fro.
"So there will be no more name-calling. Of any type. Got that?"
The first day of practice went well. Kurt hit a lot of balls out into the field, where we all practiced catching them and throwing them to first or second. I almost caught one, but when it hit my cheap, flat mitt it hurt so bad I had to drop it.
The next Saturday was our third day of practice. When we arrived, my stepmother asked who owned the VW van with all the daisies and peace signs painted all over it. I explained to her that it was Kurt's.
"Fucking hippie," was all she could say.
Ignoring her, we ran out and greeted Kurt.
"How's it going guys?" he asked.
"Groovy," said Lloyd.
"Groovy is far out," said Dawn, Kurt's girlfriend, who was wearing daisies in her hair.
"Far out," Seth mumbled.
"Well," said Kurt, "why don't you guys make your way onto the field and practice some, and I'll join you in a few minutes."
A few minutes later, after standing in the field and having no balls hit to me, on purpose, I made my way to the Volkswagen van to see what was keeping Kurt. Turns out Daisy was. I looked in the side door, and there was Kurt, kissing Dawn, with his hand surrounded by a furry thing that he was grasping between Dawn's legs.
"A doggie!" I yelled, shocking Kurt and Dawn.
Dawn quickly pulled down her skirt, while Kurt gave me a strange look. "Do you know what we were doing?" he asked me.
I told him that they were kissing.
"Uh-huh," said Kurt. Then he pulled out a hand-rolled cigarette and asked me if I knew what it was.
"A cigarette," I said.
"Groovy," said Kurt, then lit it, inhaled, and passed it to Dawn. They passed it back and forth, inhaling it quite deeply.
At the end of practice that day, Kurt told each of us to bring six dollars on Tuesday. He would be getting us "Parkway Pirates" t-shirts, with our last names on the back of them. We would wear them at our first game, which was two weeks away.
Lloyd and I, very excited about this news, told our dad that night at the dinner table.
"Six dollars?" my dad screamed. "For a fucking t-shirt?"
"It has our name on it and everything," I said.
"Back when I was in school, our shirts cost a nickel," my father explained. It seemed everything cost a nickel back then.
"Buy them yourselves," said my dad. "I don't work hard all day just to get ripped off. It's enough I pay for the food on this table."
I looked at the canned asparagus, sweet potatoes with marshmallows on them and hardly cooked liver.
"Come on, Lester," said my stepmom, in a move that was surprisingly decent for her, "get them the fucking shirts."
"Are you telling me what to do?" asked my father.
"Yes I am, dickhead," she replied.
My dad, through his clenched teeth, told her to shut up. Suddenly the dishes began flying and the name-calling started. Then the chairs, table and fists came next.
Another Saturday night at the Tabb residence.
The following Tuesday Lloyd and I showed up with six dollars. Between us. As it turns out, my father gave in to my stepmother. Halfway. It was decided that Lloyd and I would share a t-shirt, since we both bore the last name of Tabb. And since we both played rightfield, we wouldn't be playing at the same time.
So Lloyd and I give Kurt the six bucks and he asked where the rest of the money was. We told him our dad would only let us get one. He laughed nervously, and then told us things will work out okay.
Dawn, overhearing this, said, "Wow, your old man is sure a downer!"
It's the first game of the Parkway Pirates, and most kids' parents are there to watch. Of course, mine aren't. Connie had dropped us off two hours early because she was going shopping in the city with my stepsisters. My dad said he couldn't come see us play because he knew we'd be awful and he didn't want to be embarrassed in front of the other parents.
Since it was a home game, we were in the field first.
"Okay, Lloyd and George," says Kurt, "who wants to play rightfield first?" We had both chosen rightfield because, as everyone knows, the fewest balls get hit thataway.
"I do!" I said, because I wanted to wear the purple Parkway Pirates t-shirt first. We had it still sealed in the plastic bag that Kurt and Dawn had given it to us in about an hour earlier.
"You'll stink it up," exclaimed my brother. "I want to play first!"
"At least I take showers," I yelled.
"You'll flip for it," was Kurt's answer; he threw a penny up in the air. I called "heads" and lost. Lloyd got to wear the shirt first. He took off his Italian bread t-shirt. I was jealous as Seth and I watched him run onto the field.
Three outs later, Lloyd took off the shirt and gave it to me. We were at the end of the batting roster and knew we wouldn't be up this inning, so I took off my "Keep on Truckin'" shirt and wore that purple flag of honor. Even though it stunk of my brother's sweat from the hot June sun, I felt proud.
The bottom of the first inning didn't go by as quickly as I thought. Our guys kept getting on base, and suddenly Kurt yells that I'm on deck. The guy in front of me gets a base hit and the next thing I know I'm up. Lloyd is called to deck.
As I stare at the pitcher from Norwalk, I hear the catcher utter things like, "Oh, you're the Jew, gonna strike out for us?" I ignore him and wait for the right pitch. It happens three balls and two strikes later. I hit a line drive to short, which the guy misses, and suddenly I find myself on first, having driven in one run.
So I'm standing on first base, in my purple Parkway Pirates t-shirt, when I see my brother walking toward home plate. In his Italian bread shirt. I start to get that sinking feeling.
Kurt runs out to me and tells me to take off my shirt and give it to my brother. I look at the crowd, then Lloyd, who already has his shirt off and is standing near home plate, waiting. I take off the shirt and hand it to Kurt.
As Kurt runs over and gives it to Lloyd, who quickly puts it on, not only do all the kids on the Parkway Pirates and the Norwalk team laugh, but the parents do as well. I hear some kids say we must be the cheapest Jews ever.
"Can I wear my other shirt?" I ask Kurt, feeling silly standing on first base half-naked.
"Sorry, George," says Kurt. "It's either a Parkway Pirates shirt or none at all." As he walks away, I start to feel tears of embarrassment run down my cheek.
"What's the matter, fag?" asks the first baseman.
"Shut up," I say to the kid.
Two bad pitches are thrown to Lloyd.
"What's the matter?" whispers the first baseman to me as I try to take a little bit of a lead. "Your parents too cheap to buy you your own shirt? It's probably just that your dad knows you're a homo and has given up on you."
With that, I punch the kid in the face with an uppercut as hard as I can. He bites his tongue and blood starts pouring out of his mouth. Suddenly everyone is running in my direction and they all tackle me. The next thing I know every fist and foot in Greenwich is making contact with my body. I look up and see my own teammates kicking the living shit out of me. I even see some parents standing around. Laughing.
Finally, Kurt, Dawn, Seth and Lloyd manage to pull me free from the wild crowd. I'm red and bruised all over, and my nose and mouth are bleeding. The umpire walks up to me, asks if I'm okay, then tells me I'm out of the game.
Lloyd tells him it isn't fair, and he's thrown out, too. So it turns out that Seth gets to wear that Parkway Pirates shirt for the next eight innings.
The rest of the summer spent with the Parkway Pirates, well, sucked. Kurt kept us out of as many games as he could, at our request, so we didn't have to be embarrassed by having to change the shirt back and forth between us. Eventually my stepmom made good on her promise and we found ourselves riding our bikes 22 miles three times a week to and from practice. My dad never made it to one game, and when I asked him for a new mitt because my cheap Japanese one hurt when a ball hit it, he hit me.
But not everything was bad. Lloyd, Seth and I really grew to be good friends with Kurt and Dawn. They'd let us sit in their painted VW van before and after practice and listen to music they liked from names like Hendrix, Cream and Three Dog Night while they smoked their hand-rolled cigarettes. Lloyd and I would always stare at Dawn's breasts, which she would flash us every once in a while.
Then, at the last game, Dawn made my brothers and me brownies that were really, really good. It's funny, but all I can remember about that day is laughing and laughing, and wishing the summer I had hoped would end soon wouldn't.
But it did. And when the next summer rolled around, that prized Parkway Pirates t-shirt with T-A-B-B in huge letters on the back was nothing more than a dust rag and towel to dry off wet dogs. A tattered memory.
But one that remains.