A NEW BALLGAMEBy Mike Leiman
(Lansmans: 1954 to 1973)
Coming home, I knew I was in trouble. My head was hot and feverish. My body ached. My legs seemed to weigh several tons. I’d been sick like this before and I knew what it meant. I’d be out of commission for a week.
But this wasn’t the time to be ill. Here it was, Wednesday evening and the championship game was only three days away. We’d finished the softball season in a first place tie with Friedlanders and Saturday’s game would determine the champion. I just had to play! But my parents wouldn’t let me if they knew. Desperately I devised a plan: I wouldn’t tell them that I was sick. That meant dragging through the evening, working at the day camp all day Thursday, making it through another evening, somehow working again on Friday, and, finally, trudging through Friday night. When Saturday came, I’d leave early. By then, nothing could stop me.
Entering our bungalow, I knew that the first few moments would be critical. If I could just make it to the bedroom and lie down! Then, if anyone spoke to me, I’d pretend to be asleep. Maybe they’d leave me alone. Maybe they wouldn’t notice that I was there or that I was missing dinner.
Looking back, I realize that it wasn’t such a good plan. It was hard, for example, to go unnoticed where I lived. It was the summer of 1966 and my parents, three sisters, two grandparents and I were in a tiny bungalow consisting of a bathroom, kitchen and bedroom at Lansmans Bungalow Colony in the heart of the Catskills. Privacy was not a convenience we enjoyed. Truthfully, though, that wasn’t the plan’s only problem. Considering the way that I felt, had I gone unnoticed until Saturday, I’d probable have died. Look. None of this was easy for me. After all, I was only 15 and doing the very best I could.
Anyway, my mother spotted me when I entered. “Hi, Mike. You’re just in time for dinner. The soup’s already on the table.”
“Uh, okay, great, fine,” I answered, heading for the bedroom.
“Where are you going?” she asked. “It’ll get cold.”
“It’s been a hard day,” I replied, avoiding her eyes. “I’m going to lie down for a minute.”
“What’s the matter?”
Did she suspect something?
“Nothing. I’m just tired.”
“You don’t look so good.”
God, could she know?
“I’m fine,” I lied, inching towards the bedroom. “I just want to lie down.”
“Let me feel your head.”
“You’re burning up. Get into bed and I’ll call the doctor.”
The doctor came and gave me a penicillin shot. He prescribed more antibiotics, lots of liquids and bed rest. He said I should stay inside until my temperature was normal for two days. Two days! I had 103. The outlook for Saturday was not good. Boy!
And to top it off, Lansmans is such a lousy place to be sick. There’s nothing to do. We had no TV, computers weren’t yet invented I and all the radio could play were terrible local stations that reported which residents of South Fallsburg were returning from a recent trip to their relatives.
But the colony was fun when you were feeling good. It had about 80 bungalows set on a rolling grassy area dotted with trees. There was the day camp in which I worked, the casino with its soda fountain, card room and pinball machines, the swimming pool, paddleball, tennis and basketball courts and the softball field. It was probably the best softball field and the best bungalow colony around. My family had been coming there since I was 4.
Loving sports, I always enjoyed the place, but I never felt that comfortable with the kids my age. Right from the start there it seemed that they were always teasing me about something. First it was that I was smaller than everyone. Then they began saying that my ears stuck out like Alfred E. Newman of Mad Magazine. Finally, there was an older boy who pretended to be my friend. I liked him and really needed an ally, so I readily obliged when he asked me to grin and say “What, me worry?” Little did I know that it was Alfred’s famous line, so I didn’t even understand why people roared with laughter when I said it.
After a few summers of this I decided that the kids were a bunch of babies and I tried having as little to do with them as possible. This probably only made things worse. So I began to spend time with the teenagers, and, even though I was only eight or nine, they’d occasionally let me into their games.
As I got a little older, I turned to the men, especially to the men’s softball team. The Team was in an actual league and competed against other colonies. Everyone was excited by the Team and would turn out for all the games, even when they weren’t played at Lansmans. We’d all yell and cheer like crazy and when an argument broke out on the field, half the colony would run out there and join in! When we won a game played at another colony, we’d drive back to Lansmans with horns blowing to announce the victory. It was great!
I guess you can see that I idealized them, and I guess the men realized it too. When I was 10 they chose me mascot of the Team and I was in heaven when my picture was taken sitting with my legs crossed in front of the players. I also became the official scorer and got to keep track of how each player did, how many hits they got and other important statistics. True, it was a lot of work, but it was also a lot of attention.
As official scorer, I decided if a batter reached base as a result of a hit or because of an error. Once, a real competitive guy, Eddie Lederkramer, charged at me for ruling that his grounder was not a hit.
“He could never have thrown me out”, he yelled, standing about two feet from where I was sitting with the scorebook over my knee.
“It wasn’t a hit”, I replied, keeping my cool. “It was a fielder’s choice. The third basemen could have gotten you, but he held on to the ball so that the runner on second couldn’t go to third.”
Eddie began to sputter. I was amazed to see a grown man act like this. I mean, it wasn’t even a league game, only practice. It didn’t count in his batting average or anything! As we argued, my father came over. He said that since it meant so much to Eddie, I ought to give him a hit. So I did, but I want you to know that it really wasn’t.
As mascot and scorekeeper I felt part of the team, but not nearly so much as when I began playing in a few league games at age 13. At the beginning of the season, I’d enter the game as a defensive replacement and hope like anything that a ball would be hit to me. At first, nothing was, but then I made two difficult catches in the last inning to help win a close game. Everyone was so impressed that I even got to start a few games, but I wasn’t what you would call a regular. I guess I was a semi-regular.
The other semi-regular was Bobby Davidson, a guy my age. He was among those who teased me when we were kids, but as teammates we got along much better. Bobby was a starter whenever I wasn’t. The coach, I suppose, didn’t want two 13 year olds playing at the same time.
Bobby was tall and strong and he could hit and he could throw. He’d throw so hard that some of the infielders were scared that the ball might hurt them. He was so wild that occasionally he’d cut a throw loose that would go over everyone, sail across the road and into the swimming pool. That was a feat! When he’d start games instead of me I’d yell “Go get ’em, Bobby” as he ran out onto the field. I’d even tell him where to play certain batters. “This guy can’t hit” I’d say. Then I’d hope the guy would belt one over Bobby’s head. I guess I just wasn’t happy sitting on the bench.
When one of the older players didn’t return the next summer, there was room in the outfield for both of us. We were much younger than everyone except for our centerfielder Tony Muriello who was 18 and Glenn Amaron who was our age but played only occasionally.
Two of Bobby’s relatives played the infield. His father Herbie played first base. He had a big adam’s apple that was always bobbing up and down when he was excited. He complained a lot and got lots of hits. Bobby’s uncle Chickie was our second baseman and coach. He always had a cigar in his mouth and would yell funny things in practice: “Throw him a high inside fastball at the knees on the outside corner” he’d advise. Then he’d quote the odds against a fielder making a tough catch: “5-2, 2-1, even money” he’d yell as the player got closer and closer to the ball. Chickie’s swing was funny too. First he’d jerk his entire body towards the pitcher. Then he’d lean in the direction of home plate causing his backside to stick out towards third base and finally he’d swing the bat with one arm. And you know what: He got a lot of hits that way!
We were the undefeated champs that year. We just beat everybody. Our combination of youth and experience was too much for the other teams who couldn’t match our speed and enthusiasm. I’ll never forget the ceremony in the casino where each player received a first place trophy in front of the whole colony. As everyone applauded, I went up for my award feeling a full-fledged part of something special.
It was great to win that championship, but it sure seemed much longer ago than just the previous summer as I lay in bed the morning of the crucial Friedlanders game, trying to resign myself to the fate of not being able to play in the contest that would decide this year’s champs. Nature was playing ugly tricks on me too, since my fever had broken the night before, and I was actually feeling pretty good. Still, my temperature hadn’t been normal long enough to meet the unreasonable requirements of my doctor and parents.
Bobby came to visit before heading for the game to see if I was coming. When I told him no, he shook his head and looked down at the floor. “You’re not the only one”, he said with some disgust. “Glenn’s not either. He’s in a golf tournament.”
Now, you should understand that Glenn was a real rascal. If all the lounge chairs near the pool were in the water, Glenn probably did it. If the Lansmans tractor was missing and the garbage couldn’t be collected, Glenn again. But to miss the big game for a golf tournament when the Team needed him to replace me? That was too much!
Bobby and I were silent for a moment and then I got excited. “Mom, mom”, I called, knowing that this was my last chance. She entered the room as I sat up in bed and put what I hoped was my healthiest look on my face.
“No, you can’t play”, she said, before I could say anything.
I was annoyed.
“Could you just listen?”
“Glenn’s not going to be there. The Team really needs me. I’ve got to go.”
“Look, it’s not for me. It’s for the Team.”
“I’m sorry, Mike. You can’t.”
My father appeared in the doorway. I appealed to him.
“Dad, I’m feeling fine, really.”
“Wonderful”, answered my father, so kind to everyone but his only son. “You can go out on Monday. The doctor said you had to be normal for 48 hours.”
“What good is Monday”, I mumbled as Bobby turned to leave. “It’s hopeless.”
And so was the team that day. I can’t get myself to even mention the score. Let’s just say that we lost by a considerable margin.
Fortunately, that wasn’t the end of the season. The top four teams would compete in a tournament. The first place team would play the team that finished fourth, while the second and third pace finishers would play each other. The two winners would then meet to determine the playoff champion. Lansmans always took the playoffs seriously because only the top teams competed. Besides, we wanted another shot at Friedlanders.
Well, we got our wish. Friedlanders won their game while we were beating Cutlers. The playoff championship game was scheduled for the final Sunday of the summer. None of us could wait.
The Team was pretty tense as we prepared for the rematch. Herbie and Bobby were arguing with one another. No one was talking to Glenn. Chickie didn’t have his cigar and his jokes kept falling flat. Eddie kept saying that the “kids” had to listen to him if we wanted to win. Bobbie, Tony and I ignored him but it was getting on our nerves. Bobby threw a ball into the swimming pool and his father yelled at him to concentrate. On his next throw he was so intent on keeping it low that it bounced 20 feet in front of our third basemen, skipped viciously along the ground and hit him just above the ankle. We all insisted that we were going to win easily, but I don’t know. There was a lot of pressure, especially on me. After all, I’d let everybody down by missing the big game. What if I did badly this time and we lost again? Maybe I’d be blamed. Maybe I wouldn’t even stay part of the Team.
When the championship game finally began, we were not ready. I don’t know why, but we were simply flat. Or terrible. Or they were great. Or all three. Everything they hit dropped in. Loopers, liners, ground balls, it made no difference. Everything was a hit. And we did our share too. When we’d finally get to a ball we’d drop it. Then we’d kick it. “Stick a fork in it”, someone suggested. I think he was talking about the ball and not our fielders. Maybe it would have helped.
Our hitting matched our fielding: Terrible! Nothing was going right for us. The Friedlanders pitcher wasn’t that good, but he sure seemed good enough. We couldn’t even get a man on base.
After two innings we trailed eight to nothing. Frankly, it could have been worse. We were all in shock. It was a replay of the first game only worse. This time we had all our players. How could they do this twice in a row?
The Team trudged out for the third inning. No one bothered to take a practice ball. We just stood out there. Chickie sent in a new shortstop, Hesche Becker. He wasn’t better than the man he was replacing, but at least he hadn’t been part of the beating. He ran to his position and started tossing a ball around with the other infielders. “Let’s just get them one, two, three”, he shouted. “That’s all we need.”
Somehow, Hesche was right. We got them out easily and raced off the field yelling. If they could score eight runs so could we. It was a fantasy, I knew, but maybe we could. I mean, why not?
Well, we started to hit. We scored three runs in the third and two more in the fourth. And just as we started, they stopped. Suddenly we were catching their loopers and grounders and they were hitting very few line drives. As I led off the fifth inning, the score was 8-5. I just wanted to get on and start another rally. And I did, drilling the first pitch into right centerfield! It could easily have been a homerun as it rolled deep into the outfield, but the coach held me up at third. It was the right decision. With nobody out and the way we were hitting, I was a cinch to score.
There was just one problem. On my way around the bases, I didn’t touch first. I knew it too. I don’t know why I didn’t go back and touch it. I’d still have made it to third. But in the excitement I just didn’t figure that the Friedlander first baseman and the umpire would notice.
But they did. The ball was returned to the pitcher who tossed it to the first baseman. He stepped on the bag and turned to the umpire. The umpire called me out.
I stood shaking at third base. I felt nauseous. I had really blown it. The hit, the rally, the ballgame, the summer, everything. I couldn’t face my teammates. They’d all hate me. I kept looking at first base, hoping something would change. Suddenly, I saw Chickie running out, screaming at the umpire. I grabbed his arm as he went by.
“Forget it, forget it, he’s right”, I said. “I did miss the base.”
It was the wrong time for a confession. “You knew you missed the base and you didn’t go back”, he yelled in shock. “Then you’re the idiot.”
At that I burst into tears. It was all too much for me. I walked slowly up the leftfield line with my back turned to everyone, crying and crying. Chickie must have been horrorfied, because he came running after me. He threw an arm around my shoulder and repeated: “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Sometimes I take this too seriously. I shouldn’t have yelled at you like that. I’m sorry.”
For a while the tears continued. Then they stopped. I turned with Chickie and we walked back to the bench together. I felt better now that he wasn’t so angry. Maybe it would be all right with the others, too. But I also felt different. I didn’t care so much who saw the tears on my face. I didn’t care so much what people were thinking. I’d just been through something terrible, yet I was still alive, still okay. I just wanted to bat again.
Despite the loss of my hit, the team continued to chip away. By the bottom of the sixth inning, we were down by only one run. We had a runner on third, two outs – and I came to the plate.
Later on, my father told me that when I got up there, everyone was rooting for me, even people from the other colony. I don’t know. I didn’t notice. I was just concentrating on the pitcher. I settled myself at the plate. The pitcher took his time. I didn’t move my bat or change my stance. I waited. Finally, he delivered the pitch and I drove it again towards right centerfield. It wasn’t hit that hard, but it was sure good enough. It fell for a single and the tying run scored. It was 8-8. We’d completed our comeback. All that remained was to win the game and I knew we would do that. I bet Friedlanders knew it too. And two innings later we did win – as Glenn crossed home with the winning run.
Back at Lansmans that afternoon, we had a great victory celebration. The beer and the wine were flowing. I drank lots of cream soda. We had salami and roast beef and the pork sandwiches on garlic bread that the casino was famous for. We talked about what a great team we were and how nobody could remember a comeback like ours. Someone snapped a picture of me and the other outfielders standing with arms around each other. All the players signed the game ball and gave it to Chickie. And we all laughed and laughed.
Later in the day, Bobby came up to me. With a funny expression on his face he said that he heard that I’d cried during the game. He wondered why. When I told him he nodded and walked away. It seemed okay to tell him. I didn’t feel embarrassed or anything. As a matter of fact, it kind of felt like a whole new ballgame.
submitted by Mike Leiman
Stang and Haystacks were our counselors and one time we piled into their two cars and headed over to the falls at Yeagersville. We drove through Woodburne, over the river and made a left towards Grahamsville. Then through Grahamsville and along a paved road, then turned right at the rock pasture wall, down a dirt road towards the water. This road was steep and not maintained, with deep ruts, about 1/2 mile long. (These facts are important later, so take notes!) Funny, I remember some things, but not others. Anyway….
When we were ready to leave, we piled into the cars, at the bottom of the road, but we were too heavy, so Stang and Haystacks told us to walk up to the road, and they would pick us up there in few minutes. Boy, was that ever a mistake!
We all walked up to the road and leaned against the rock wall to wait.. Then someone noticed that there were some old cars in the pasture, about 20 or 30 feet in, partially hidden by the grass or hay. Since we were law abiding fellows, we didn’t enter the pasture, that would have been trespassing… Someone threw a small rock to try to break a window, then someone else, then a larger rock, then a larger one still. Pretty soon we were all heaving the wall stones at the cars, having a great time…Then we heard some woman yelling at us: “Hey, stop that! What are you doing?” We hadn’t realized that there was a house just a few yards down the road, hidden by the trees. So, being the law-abiding fellows we were, and are, we ran like hell down the dirt road. And then some of us, who will remain nameless (cause I can’t remember) began to yell back at the woman, and not very politely, either. She yelled that those were classic cars her husband was restoring and she was calling the cops! Yikes, the big time. Time to leave…She went to the house to call the cops, and just then Stang and Haystacks arrived where we were with the cars. We told them we better split. So we all went to the paved road and got ready to go, but we were missing someone! Roy! Where was he? He had run off into the woods and hadn’t returned, so we couldn’t leave!
We were still waiting for him when the State Trooper showed up. Now for those of you who don’t know, NY State Troopers had a reputation in those days regarding city hippie trash, which we all looked like. We figured we were going to get hauled in and beat up to boot! I was sitting in the front seat of one of the cars, and I could hear the woman start to tell the trooper the story. She said:”Then one of them started to curse at me. He was wearing a hat!” Those of you who knew me in those days remember that I always wore a hat, in this case a marine corp billed cap. Which I immediately whipped off my head and under the front seat. Mind you, I did not curse out that woman, my momma taught me better than that, but why take the chance???
The best part of the story comes up now: The trooper was like, 6 feet 5 inches, and built, but when he began to talk he sounded like Tweeetybird, a high pitched womans voice! We were on the verge of cracking up from this, but were afraid we’d get the rubber hose treatment, so we managed to keep it in. By the way, still no Roy!
Finally, somehow, Stang and Haystacks gave the impression we were from a sleepaway camp, and if they pressed charges, all the parents would have to come up and that would create a problem for the woman. So, in the end, they let us go. Once the trooper left, Roy came out of the woods, and off we went!
submitted by Joel Morse