By Sean Brennan
Pops had strong beliefs. There wasn’t much negotiating, once he decided that he was right about something. He had spent six years in the seminary learning strict Catholic tenets and ideologies, and then was forced to leave, his father suddenly dying. In the 60’s when the Church decided to have the Fathers face the congregation, he flipped. Soon thereafter they decided to say the mass in English, not Latin, he flipped again. He was a lover of tradition, adherent to the prescribed code and feared change and its nefarious sources. Some think he was the way he was because of the times, back when the great generation was asked to save the world, a time to be erect, proud and dutiful. ‘We have to save the world!’ …Indecision, skepticism, fear…I’m sorry.
Bad is bad, good is good, rules are rules, belief bears greatness. But sometimes there’s another side…concealed for various reasons. And in the summer of 1960 we found it. I saw it.
Pops survived the war, one of the lucky ones. The 50’s brought love, a wife, children, a bit of economy, appliances and… little league and all its rules. A perfect venue for Pops. He’ll flourish. Despite his strictness he was always one to want to have fun, spread goodwill, share his talents, teach his methods, lend his experience.
“Mr. Brennan, the draft is Tuesday.”
“No need,” he replied to the Little League lady, “As we speak, we have a whole team in the backyard.”
“I need a park, shin guards, a mask and if it’s not asking too much, something that resembles a uniform. My biggest concern is a car that can get us all to the park. We have enough gloves because the guys at bat share theirs with the fielders. My last request is a lot of innings because everyone will get a fair chance to play and I want everyone to go home dirty.”
“The mothers won’t like that.”
“The kids will.”
She continued, “Not everyone needs to play, maybe two innings at most. And even that’s optional. You’ll never win if you don’t keep your good kids in.”
“They’re all good, even if they can’t catch.”
“We always win because we build relationships.”
“You’re on your own.”
“I’m never alone.”
Word spread fast. The front lawn filled. Excitement reigned. Energy recruited a staff from the adjacent fathers.
The Euclid Avenue boys were on the map, ready for battle, eying greatness, knowing it was a ways off…lead by one of the great generation’s own, Tom Brennan.
‘Energy’ they called him back in the day when he reigned over the four corner diamond. Catcher, pitcher, center field…Oh, you get the idea. He was everywhere, in a whirl, agog, ready…and the pitch.
The kids had never seen him play, only heard the stories. Three and two sliders that cut the corners; bee-line strikes to second to nail a thief. Opposite field hits off his front foot, fooled by a change-up, but not for long. Quick trots around the bases after he had cleared them, never one to show up a fallen pitcher.
Nary a strike out, the walk back to the dugout too painful.
Slides, dives, leaps and over the head catches, shining memories all, doomed to languish because Energy wouldn’t tell.
“All right lads, practice tomorrow.”
Tomorrow came and the front lawn at Cloonmore filled. Excitement, glee, anticipation, anxiety all rained down waiting for Tom Brennan to arrive and transport the combatants to the battle field. Tom arrived in his roomy, for the moment, 1961 Oldsmobile. The car filled, one on top of another and sometimes one on top of another on top of another. It didn’t matter, share and share alike. The ride was short and the payoff, a park with grass, a baseball without electric tape, bats without nails, real canvass bases, a backstop, arbiters to limit the fights and most importantly… ‘Energy’, the Coach.
Balls were flying, bats were swinging, screams filled the air, confusion reigned, excitement abounded and Energy directed. With his clip board and old White Sox hat, tattered, sweat stained, sitting atop his bald perch, maybe a bit shrunken from the years, he pointed and commanded. Everyone swung, everyone caught, everyone slid, everyone threw and everyone couldn’t wait till tomorrow. Merriment, and it would only get better.
Bridie was on the porch when the weighted car pulled up in front of Cloonmore. The back end scraping sporadically from the weight of all within- warriors, bats, balls, one of Tom’s pipe cutters in the trunk. Everything had a ride.
The tired transport slowly lifted as the spent, worn and delirious combatants emptied from every door.
“See you tomorrow. See you tomorrow.”
All spread, skipping, yelping, jumping, running to dinner.
“Thank you Mr. Brennan. Thank you, Mr. Brennan. Thank yo”…their courtesy dimmed as their screen doors slammed shut.
“Well, how was the first practice,” Bridie inquired.
Energy responded, “There’s a few good ones, a few bad ones but everyone went home dirty. And one of the real signs of a true baseball player is if he comes home dirty.” He winked over to Bridie.
“But Dad, that Higgins guy really stinks and he’s always daydreaming in the outfield. He never played before and I don’t think he can even…”
Bridie’s ever present dish towel, her weapon of choice, her panacea to need, her salve for the wounded came down hard upon the back of my head.
“Don’t you ever think that you are better than anyone. You help those that aren’t as good. Giving is goodness. Those kids will always remember that you were kind…long after anyone knows who won.”
Pops was wisely silent. We were in Bridie’s realm, now- her kitchen, where there was only one philosophy, ethic…Hers.
I had heard it all before. Knew it. Believed it. But still troubled when a soft roller went through someone’s legs.
“You make errors too,” she’d say.
The phone rang. I ran to it and answered, “Brennan residence.” Pops loved when you did things right, had manners, flashed your finish.
“It’s for you, Pops.”
“Yes, Ma’am. That won’t be a problem. I never was concerned about that. Never had those anyway. We’re in it for the experience, miss. Thank you.”
“Are we getting uniforms?”
“Well, kind of.”
I had never had a uniform before. I already had enough dreams of over the shoulder catches, ninth inning homers, dives in the hole for the last out. I needed a uniform…with a number. And I had just the one in mind.
Every moment of every game, on every diamond was spent being someone on the White Sox…vicarious valor. Aparicio, Fox, Rivera, never a Cub.
The teams got picked and the chants went out, “Aparicio,” from twelve different hopefuls.
Aparicio was always first. Good old, ‘Little Louie.’ Handsome, fast, classy…he was everyone’s dream, someone to be like.
Someone was always barely first with their plea.
“You were Aparicio yesterday.”
All right, I’ll take Fox.
And Fox would have his own angel on earth, keeping his legacy alive.
Every skirmish was settled thus. Bridie wouldn’t have it any other way…or Energy. Take turns, share, lend your experience by giving someone else a chance.
“No you were ins yesterday.”
“OK, outs,” and the outs took the field and the first pitch was fired.
Every game started the same way- picking sides, claiming an identity, who’s in, who’s out…and then the first pitch. Give, take, share, barter, haggle and play.
“Well, we’re the eighth team,” Pops started.
“It’s the only reason they’re letting us in the league. They need even numbers and they want birth certificates.”
“Isn’t it just a baseball game?” Bridie chirped in.
“We’ll have to stall them on that one. The box with the certificates is somewhere…somewhere.”
“Well yes, we’re getting them but they only had the old woolen leftovers from a few years ago.”
“Do they have numbers? Can I have Aparicio?”
Two days later the whole team was on Cloonmore’s front lawn warming up, shoving, pecking, tagging, “You’re out.” Suddenly the little league lady pulled up in front of the house with a big box tied to the trunk.
She came around to the front of the car, away from everyone, secure to watch the mayhem. She knew what was coming next.
“Yahoo, whoopee, Yesssss.”
The Euclid mob went delirious, dashed to the trunk and within moments had that uniform box turned upside down. It looked like the clearance table at the department store just after the doors opened and 50% savings were announced. Uniforms went flying in the air- it was number eleven that everyone was after. And then I came sauntering down the front stairs wearing number eleven, “Is this what you boys are after?”
Pops had slipped over to the little league lady’s house and asked for a gratuity.
The Euclid boys fell back exhausted and beaten and then went back looking for second best-Fox or Rivera’s number. There were no Cub fans on this team. Fourteen had no value.
And then, “It’s not fair.” “Why does he get Aparicio?” “You better share.”
Pops stepped in, “Yes boys, we will share and whoever plays the hardest and tries the best gets number 11 for the day.”
“Yahoo, Whoopee, Yahoo.”
In minutes everyone was disrobing and putting on their uniforms. Who could wait? With modesty abandoned, right there on the front lawn, the boys stripped down to their jockeys and garbed themselves in their new wool uniforms and proceeded to twist and turn from the scratchy fabric. It was a moment of shear ecstasy, euphoria even, each of them adopting different poses, some with their fists on their hips, others turning to a stylish profile in front of the imagined photographers…the culmination of a boyhood dream, my first uniform.
Mary Mahoney from down the street was watching the excitement from her porch, her own lad part of the delirium and came racing over with the only camera that anyone on the block owned. With one click, the Euclid boys, posing like civil war generals after a great victory, became eternal.
“Practice,” Energy yelled and the crew raced for the car and piled in.
In moments we were at the park, bursting from the car, playing catch and then filing into Energy’s three different drill patterns- ground balls and fly balls, hitting and pitching. First, Energy taught those that couldn’t throw exactly how to do it.
I can still hear him, “Pivot, turn, spread your arms like a bird and fire. Snap that wrist and point your shoulder.”
When we were hitting; “Weight back. Form a box with your arms, step and rotate your hips; follow the release point and watch the bat hit the ball and then…run like hell.” There was always a bit of humor in his instruction.
Then, after all the drills, game time and every practice ended with a game. Being the eighth and illegitimate team, most days we were relegated to the open field next to the real diamonds. That meant that a sewer cover was home plate, bases were yesterday’s newspaper and the foul lines were Energy’s eyesight. Most close calls were fair because Energy wanted action- fielding, throwing, sliding and everything in between. And for two weeks, four times a week the Euclid boys showed up, went through the drills, played the practice games and got ready for the season. Everyone got better, Energy wouldn’t let you stagnate. If you didn’t get something you kept doing it until you did. With everyone’s help, even Higgins started to catch on. And the smiles on his face when he would catch one or hit one or score one, brought Bridie and her sageful dictates to mind.
The season started. When the Euclid boys showed, most greeted us with taunts and catcalls about being illegitimate and having the old faded gray woolen uniforms. “Baa, Baa” we’d hear.
Then the Euclid boys would exact their revenge and put a pasting on the louts. No one could beat us and no one liked us, not the league, not the other teams, not the other coaches…nobody. Each game you could feel the loathing build and each game you could see the strategies by the opposing coaches become more and more devious, using pitchers from the next division, having batters squat low trying to get walks, stepping out of the batter’s box in the middle of the windup. Somehow, none of it worked. I don’t know if it was Energy’s drills or the practice games we played. Or just the calm that we played with that Energy had instilled in us. We always got a hit when we needed one or a strike out or a double play or just whatever the doctor had ordered. And every game we had a different number eleven. Energy, a man of his word.
“It’s funny,” I said to Bridie at the dinner table after another close one.
“No it’s not. It’s good karma and it works.”
“Well, don’t let the parish Father hear you. I learned it one time when I was reading about a Chinese lad, but its kindness and giving, the only two things that make the world better.”
“Ummmm, you mean Higgins.”
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
The regular season ended and suddenly we found ourselves on the day of the championship game. The leaders of the two four team divisions would face off. It was the Irish Tom Energy against the old German Schultz with the fireball throwing son who could make baseballs look like aspirin tablets.
The Euclid boys gathered on Cloonmore’s front lawn as usual. There was excitement and angst and Energy preaching calmness and confidence. Bridie running to each combatant and squeezing a good luck scapular in their back pocket and when she got to Higgins she had no more.
“I know,” she said and she went racing into the house and came out with a small glass bottle filled with pure holy water.
“Didn’t the Pope bless this himself when last he was in Ireland. It comes from the springs outside Knock where Mary appeared.”
Well, who was going to challenge that?
Higgins held out his glove and Bridie said, “In the Name of the Father and because I’m out of scapulars, bless this lad, the receiver of great Karma,” and she proceeded to sprinkle the Holy Water into Higgins’ glove.
Well, Higgins thought he had just been ordained and the rest of the team made him feel the same as they one by one passed him, patting him on the back and extending more goodness.
“You’ll do great.” “Today is your day.” “All the hard work will pay off. “ And on and on until Higgins’ shoulder was sore.
“Okay boys,” Energy declared, and the whole lot of us jammed into the cavernous and disheveled Olds for our last game.
Bridie stayed back on the lawn as we drove off, waving her dish towel in salute.
“I’ll try to get a ride over. Good luck lads.”
The game began. The German kid’s game was on. The baseball looked like an aspirin tablet and no one scored for five innings. It was the last inning, top of the sixth and I was leading off. Energy pulled me to the side and said, “Whatta ya thinking?”
“Someone’s gotta get on.”
“How am I gonna do that? I can‘t even see the pitches much less hit one.”
“Remember all the bunting we did that one day in practice?”
“Make sure it’s a strike.”
I laid back and rehearsed my bunting mechanics in my head and let the first pitch go by. It was high.
“Ball one,” the ump said.
I figured Ole Schultzy would ease up a bit in order to get one over. He didn’t want to walk the lead-off man. And sure enough his next pitch came sailing across the middle of the plate and I was ready. Pops had taught that you couldn’t give away your bunt attempt too soon and to wait as late as you could to drop your back leg, bend and let your bat just deaden the ball. It worked perfectly as the ball rolled slowly down the third base line and stopped dead just inside the white chalked line. I ran like hell. They didn’t even make a play and there I sat perched on first base with Schultzy glaring at me with scorn. It wasn’t nice to break a no hitter with a bunt in the last inning. But this was no time for karma, especially for Schultzy.
Schultzy was distracted. He circled the mound rubbing up the baseball trying to get his composure back. I just stared back as calm as a rooster in a hen house contemplating my next move. I looked over at Energy coaching in the third base coach’s box, waiting for any kind of signal. This was our big chance-lead man on, nobody out and Schultzy edgy.
Energy slid his index finger across his nose, our season long signal to steal. Forget the karma, Bridie. With Schultzy’s next pitch I took off and slid into second as safe as Jesus in the tabernacle. Schultzy and Mr. Schultzy were stunned. It had taken just two quick plays to get them twitching, like Barney in front of a bank robber.
Schultzy’s angst was showing more. He pranced around the mound, picked up and threw down the resin bag and with his red face getting redder tried to throw one through a brick wall. The pitch went sailing over the catcher’s head, banging off the back stop as I slid into third just sixty feet away from a run and the lead in the championship game.
The count 1-0, Schultzy in fuse blowing mode, and my brother, cool-kat Mike at bat.
It was the perfect time. Mike looked nonchalantly down to Energy and Energy softly touched the side of his nose.
“You’re number one Mike,” Energy yelled which meant the next pitch and the old suicide squeeze.
It was a thing of beauty. Schultzy letting up to make sure he threw a strike, Mike dropping his back leg and laying down a beauty, this time along the first base line so the catcher couldn’t make a play and tag me at the same time. I took off on contact and slid across home plate with the game’s first run. The Euclid dugout erupted, Schultzy dropped his head and I dusted my woolen pants off.
Mr. Schultzy came out and quieted junior down as he then proceeded to strike out the next three batters. One batter too late Mr. Schultzy. Mike was left on first and the Euclid boys were just three outs away from the championship. But everyone knows those last three outs are the hardest outs in baseball.
Higgins was now out in right field punching the stuffing out of his glove, anxious for the moment and just one chance…but just a faint thought away from his next daydream.
The first Schultzy batter grounded softly to the shortstop, one out, and two to go. The next guy walked on a full count, the pitch just outside the strike zone. It could have gone either way.
Now all we need is a ground ball and double play. And that’s just what the next batter gave us as Wimpy tossed a soft curve down and away. The kid tried to pull it and beat it on the ground to short. It was just what we needed, the old six-four-three. The ball two hopped to the short stop but the toss to second came just as the runner slid into second hard. He took the feet out from underneath the second baseman. The ball trickled away. All hands were safe.
The next guy popped up to Mike at third on one of Wimpy’s change-ups. The next guy walked, Wimpy getting cute and trying to stripe the corner.
The bases were loaded, but we had two outs. There number four hitter was stepping into the batter’s box. It was Schultzy seeking revenge. The daunting Schultzy was big, intimidating and oppressive. He swiped his right foot in the dirt trying to build a stance, like a bull getting ready to charge.
Energy came out to talk with his pitcher, our screw ball lefty, Wimpy. Wimpy, we called him because he couldn’t break a pane of glass with his fastball but he could change speeds like a stick shift roadster.
“He’ll be anxious so the first one should be in the dirt and the second one under his chin and then stay away, away and away.”
On the first pitch Wimpy dumped a soft curve in the dirt and Schultzy bit and swung and missed.
The crowd was on their feet. Necks were craned; hearts were beating, palms sweating and Energy as cool as a cucumber in the dugout. His lads had a plan.
Schultzy stepped out rubbed some dirt in his sweaty palms, looked down to the third base coach. There was no signal. This wasn’t time for a bunt with the bases loaded and a force at home. No, this was Schultzy time- one on one against the guile, and softness of Wimpy the lefty.
Wimpy’s next pitch was as hard as he could throw one and right under Schultzy’s chin. Schultzy fell back, looked out in anger and stepped back in the box with even more resolve.
“Ball, one and one.”
Wimpy’s next pitch, just like Energy had ordered was as soft and away as a feather floating in space. It caught the outside corner and had Schultzy completely fooled.
“Strike, one and two.”
Just one more strike. All we need is just one more strike.
It was a time for a waste pitch and that’s just what Wimpy threw but Schultzy was onto him by now and let the soft flutter ball bounce in front of home plate as I dropped to my knees and blocked it. The runners held.
“Ball, two and two.”
Can’t go full, this has to be the pitch.
I signaled a fast ball. I clenched my fist, our signal for everything you got Wimpy. Schultzy shouldn’t be looking for it. But he was. And Wimpy caught too much of the plate and laid one right down Broadway. Schultzy was waiting, swung a bit late but laid the meat of the bat right dead center and sent a line drive screaming toward right. I looked out and saw Higgins daydreaming. He wasn’t paying attention. It was over. The bases would be clear soon. I could see myself standing at the plate with my mask in my hand and looking down as each of Schultzy’s teammates touched home plate…one, two, three. Schultzy would be standing on third, his teammates running from their dugout and lifting him onto their shoulders. It would be painful.
The ball sailed long and hard, right at Higgins but he wasn’t looking. Time froze for a moment and then slowly unfroze as if everything was in slow motion. Our season was encapsulated in one moment, one tragic moment. And then I heard a loud scream from behind a tree.
It was Bridie. She had gotten a ride.
Higgins looked and stuck his mitt high in the air just like he had been trained to do and Schultzy’s line drive found a home deep inside Higgins’ pocket. Instantly there was a moment of shock and total, silent disbelief, as if someone had snapped their fingers and stopped Niagara Falls. And then, as if that same someone flipped a switch and restarted it, a torrent of roar and sentiment and howls and screams and flow, and too much karma for any one soul.
The Euclid boys were champs, Higgins the hero, Energy the director, Bridie the enlightened one.
But not so fast.
The Little League lady was standing at the backstop when the Euclid boys, jumping for joy reached the dugout.
“Do you have the birth certificates?” she said to Energy.
Mr. Schultzy stood proud and arrogant and righteous just behind her. He had finally found something to stop Energy and the Euclid boys.
“Well, no,” Tom answered.
She turned and gave Mr. Schultzy the trophy, turned back with a saddened look as if to say, “I’m stuck, there’s nothing else I can do.”
The Euclid boys dropped their heads, broken and disheartened.
“Come on lads, it’s all my fault.”
The empty field was motionless, quiet. The dust was slowly falling back to where it had come from. Schultzy’s lads were no happier. Schultzy had a smirk.
Energy Brennan piled the boys into the Olds and headed straight over to Samsone’s Tavern. The lads took a seat out on the curved and straddled front steps. Tom ordered up an ice cold pop and giant bag of chips for all. Somberness turned slowly to glee. Energy took the stand and grabbed each one’s attention.
“Boys, there’s not an illegitimate one amongst you. For once I ignored the rules, too rapt in the joy of coaching you lads and seeing the euphoria and merriment that you all have had the last six weeks. You boys won, fair and square and will always be champs in my heart.”
“And you in ours,” one of the lads shouted.
“Hip-Hip-Hurrah, Hip-Hip Hurrah,” they all stood and threw the last of the chips in the air and gave Energy one last big group hug.
It was over.
The Olds pulled up in front of Cloonmore. The doors flew open. The lads filed from the car, this time in a rather cocky and serene fashion, like a quiet and confidant champ who doesn’t need to say a word.
Energy stood erect with his arms folded watching each of them stroll home in different directions, tired, dirty and now with a title that would be only theirs.
At the dinner table that night Bridie served up some of her famous stew. There was little conversation.
And then I thought of something.
“Ma I know the birth certificates don’t make the man but how did you come up with the Holy Water story?”
“I searched the house in a panic but couldn’t find the real stuff. I thought of how badly Higgins needed something and then I looked over at the water faucet.”
“More Karma, Ma.”
Author of the book Bridie's Boy, Sean Brennan is a life insurance professional in Chicago.
His book can be found on the irishbookclub.com