Last night, Cliff and I met up after work for a bite to eat. On my way over to his office–“the ugly building with the rounded corners,” as Cliff calls it, or the building with the garish Frank Stella sculptures in the lobby, as I remember it–I see some girls getting ready for a softball game. On the east side of Hudson street between LeRoy and Clarkson streets is James J Walker Park, which has a fenced-in turf softball field. Beyond right-center field–and moving due east–are a series of handball courts, and behind that is the Carmine Street pool (which was where Martin Scorsese shot the pool sequence in “Raging Bull,” when DeNiro meets Cathy Moriarty). The Hudson River is not far off, and a gentle breeze helps cut through the summer haze.
I walk past the backstop, which is on the northeast corner of Clarkson and Hudson street, past the bleacher seats, up the first base line, to a clearing in the fence. A group of teenage girls in blue uniforms are preparing for a game. The girls sport satin blue shorts, rockin socks up to their knees. Spikes. Sweat bands. The name of their team is written in script across their jerseys. Many of the girls are squat, with round mid-sections and thick legs–the kind of girls you are used to seeing play softball. Yet there are longer, more graceful bodies in the mix as well. These are teenagers, young ladies. Some of them have begun to develop breasts and a womanly sensuality–others have chests flat as a board, yet to develop, either physically or pyschologically. They are sports nerds.
I watch a young Latina with long black hair warming up. She has the air of a jock, not a self-conscious gir. She is just becoming aware of her sexual power, but it goes hand-in-hand with her persona as a jock. As a group, the girls possess that classic athletic mixture of intensity and insousciance.
A young boy, leaning against the fence behind first base, follows the action. He is thin but neat wearing baggy blue shorts, an apricot polo shirt and black Air Jordan’s with orange-yellowish highlights (the famous Jordan “jumpman” logo is also orange-yellow: yo, where’d he get those?). Whenever a throw gets away from the portly, black first baseman, he retrieves the ball. He is alert and yet gives the impression of being disinterested at the same time. The girls use a brightly colored ball that looks like green gatorade.
I go up to Cliff’s office–don’t you love to see somebodies space, especially if you talk to them at that location all the time? I have fun bs’in with the security guards and when we leave, the girls’ game had begun. We pass by and stop to watch. I’m a sucker for any kind of organized baseball game–from t-ball to slow pitch, beer-league softball. I have a hard time watching high school, college or minor league ball on TV, but live, I can watch the game played on any level. Girls softball has its own vibe–it feels like bumper pool, or maybe what indoor soccer was supposed to be: fast, compact, active. The space is truncated and the girls are fundamentally sound. The don’t jog off the field, they practically sprint. When a batter hits a weak grounder in the infield, her teammates still encourage her, “Run it out, hustle!”
The field is slightly elevated from the sidewalk and a group of people are hanging around watching. The opposing team wear off-white jerseys with the letters “pYo” in orange below the numbers. We stand towards the end of the fence, just behind where the right-handed batter’s box, a terrific view of the action. The first thing I think of was that when I was went to high school in the suburbs, the umpires would often not allow people to stand right behind the plate for fear that they would distract the pitcher. They don’t have that rule in New York City, and immediately I was impressed that these girls were accustomed to playing in front of a crowd. They had poise. Even if that crowd is small, they are used to random passers-by just hanging around. But it didn’t appear as if any of them noticed.
Behind Cliff stands a black dude with droopy eyelids and a close-cropped beard. He has a sympathetic, droopy countenance, which reminds me a bit of Harold Baines or maybe James Worthy. On his head is a black baseball cap with a black “NY” logo on it; underneath, a skull cap. His buttoned-down, short-sleeved Fed Ex shirt is opened. On his belt a cell phone rests horizontally. On his left wrist, he rocks a black digital watch on the outside of a navy blue sweat band. In his right hand is a comically large waffle ice cream cone that he is nursing with great satisfaction.
The umpire is a taut, muscular man, who looks to be in his mid-fifties. He lends an air of seriousness to the proceedings. The pitcher on the mound for the pYo team is a small mound of a girl, Lou Costello in pigtails. It is between innings as we arrive and she stands waiting for her catcher. Huge legs, powerful arm, narrow shoulders. A tall man in his late thirties grabs a glove and moves behind the plate. The first pitch she uncorks sails over his glove and richocets around the backstop.
“Hey now,” I say as it slams into the fence, a few feet in front of us. This girl is throwing cheese. The temporary catcher was slow to reach for the ball. Is he drunk? He bends down, in a half-assed way, and his reflexes appear dull. He catches the next couple of warm-ups before her regular catcher, in full gear, takes over. The pitcher strikes out the first batter of the inning with nothing but high heat. She isn’t necessarily throwing strikes but she’s putting the ball up in the hitter’s eyes and the first batter has no chance.
The second hitter is a rail of a girl. She has small face with fine features and wears little, round glasses. A black pony-tail sticks out of her helmet and she has smooth skin the color of cafe au lait. Her arms and legs–what little you can see of them between her sleeves and batting gloves, her shorts and high socks, are like sticks. She isn’t exactly bony. Her limbs are simply straight and thin. Pretzel sticks. It looks like she could snap in two.
She bats from the left side and holds her hands up high behind her head. Swings at the first pitch, a high riser. She is late and fouls it off over the third base dugout. An Endy Chavez swing. Cliff starts to talk about Otis Nixon. The next pitch is high for a ball and the third pitch is low and outside, 2-1. I can hardly take my eyes off the pitcher, who erupts like a volcano with each delivery, but the frail girl is fascinating. It looks as if she’d too too delicate to be coordinated, but she’s determined.
Then, another riser out of the strike zone. The skinny girl swings and is late again, foul to the left side, 2-2. The following pitch is low and away, full count. Cliff and I expect the gas. Here it comes, but the pitch is up and inside and bang, it nails the batter in the brim of the helmet. The skinny kid goes down. I gasped, not knowing how badly she’d been struck. I had been looking at the pitcher. Cliff knew it wasn’t bad. All I could think of was Goose Gossage hitting Ron Cey in the 1981 World Serious. The skinny girl picked herself up, surrounded by a few teammates, smiled in relief, and jogged to first base.
She steals second and then third. The next hitter is a round black girl, who looks like Kirby Puckett. The first baseman. Here we go. She takes a huge first cut, her top hand coming off the bat on the follow through. She swung so hard that she lost her balance. Going for the Downs, baby. Still, as she gets back in the box, we can tell she has an idea how to hit, even though she was smiling at the ridiculousness of her first swing. She swings and misses at another pitch, but this swing is less wild. Then she drills a fastball that doesn’t get up high enough through the right side for a single. A solid line drive. How do you like that?
The skinny catcher scores. Moments later, she is on the bench, gupling at a bottle of water, smiling and talking to her teammates about what had just happened, as if she had survived a near-accident. She is gawky and kind of nerdy and entirely endearing.
Standing a few feet away is a pretty Latin girl with high cheekbones and a handsome beauty (you know that high-cheek boned, full lipped sensuality that makes Latin women handsome and Latin men pretty). She had been staring intently at the action for the entire inning. She coms to bat with two out and quickly strikes out.
Between innings I ask the umpire what grade the girls were in. He doesn’t know but says that they are fifteen. Cliff and I continue to chat.
The skinny girl reappears replete in full catchers gear. The equipment dominates her long, slim frame. She kneels her bony ass down, cushioned by the puffy padding she sports on the back of her calves–they are connected to the chin guards. Just like the pros. The pretty girl who had been focused on watching her teammates hit, walks to the mound. It became clear to me then that she had been studying the opposing pitcher, not the hitters. She says to her catcher, “You okay?” referring to the hit she took in the previous inning. “Cause you let me know if you need somthing…” she trails off into a gargble, finishing the thought with a neck-rolling gesture, giving away a private joke shared between the two girls. She speaks in a knowing, precocious way that you find in city kids, and you can tell that she cares about her skinny catcher.
The pitcher comes to a set and hold her hands in front of her face, before extending her elbows, and raised a leg–then raring back and exploding into her delivery. The motion she makes before going into her wind-up is like catching the middle of a yoga position, or an exotic Martha Graham dance move–her elbows pointing out, chesting caving in, full breath, and then release. It is all of a piece and seems to invlove her entire body. It is distracting, designed to be intimidating. It makes the pitcher look like a Spider waiting to pounce on her victim, or a Count Dracula going in for the kill.
The girl has a fierce look of concentration and determination on her face. She looks older than she really is, sleeves are rolled up, exposing her shoulders. After each pitch, the motion becomes increasingly exaggerated, as if she needs a few pitches to really warm up into her routine. (Remember late in his career how David Cone would throw in that bit of hesitation occasionally, just as another way to distract the hitters?) This bit of theater is done intentionally to throw the hitters timing off, to mezmerize them. It is a self-possessed act, one that seems to be important to the pitcher as the pitches themselves. It is fluid and sensual in nature, but studied, as if she practices it in front of the mirror for hours. There is also something comic about it too, the exaggeration of it all. But it is also genuine and done with pride.
I hardly notice when she walks the first batter. Her motion, and her involvement in it, is too absorbing. If she ever learns to throw a change up–most everything both pitchers threw was hard–she’ll be really tough. The second hitter lays down a sacrifice bunt. The pitcher fields the ball and throws perfectly to first for the out. The runner on second then tries to steal third. The skinny girl behind the plate nails her. (Hot dog, and she can throw too!) The next hitter pops up to the second baseman. As the blue team walks off the field, the pitcher demands the ball. She gets it and places it back on the mound, calming her superstitions.
The last girl off the field, trotting in from left, may also the prettiest on the team. A languid creature with big, round eyes and pouty lips, she wears a gray tank-top instead of a jersey. She is one of only a handful of the girls who has developed breasts. Hers are accentuated by her shirt. While many of the girls look like jocks first and foremost, this girl is hyper-aware of her budding sexuality. Just looking at her, you know that her looks have already brought her a lot of attention. She is the first batter up in the next inning, but when she gets to the plate, the umpire calls time. Maybe they won’t let her hit without a proper jersey. The opposing coach, a large man wearing a black t-shirt and a black Yankees hat, huddles with the umpire half-way up the third base line. After a few moments, the umpire turns back to the plate and points for to the girl to stay put. He smiles sheepishly at her and tilts his head to the side. No wonder she is self-conscious. Her sexuality clearly tripped up this middle age man. His slightly uncomfortable but gentle smile suggests that he might have a daughter or two of his own.
This girl is not like her teammates. The other girls are ball players. This chick has other things on her mind. She takes a strike and then two mighty hacks that don’t come close to making any kind of contact. She struts back to the dugout, drops her helmet and then kicks it. She looks to be a girl who is used to getting her way because of her looks. But her temper is fake; she’s just trying to act like she cares. But she is distracated, too cool to care about a game.
The skinny catcher is on the bench sitting next to her pitcher. She makes a face and grabs her neck as if she’s choking herself, goofing around. She is very much an athlete. The girls on the bench talk. They look both serious and loose at the same time. I envy their commradery. It is not so unlike watching the private world we observe with professional ballplayers. They are just girls, without a professional care in the world, but they are also true jocks. While I notice their budding femininity, I find myself responding to them as ballplayers first.
Cliff and I are getting hungry so we move on (Good lookin’, Joe.). As we reach the end of the block, there is a private little garden just behind the left-field wall, but before the end of the block. It can’t be more 15 feet wide. There are flowers and a small pebbled path. A chair sits in the middle of the path. It reminds me of Paris, a quaint scene out of a Mattise or Bonnard painting. A little oasis between black chainlink fences. As I look at the garden I can see the outfield. The pouty left fielder is just getting to her position. The rest of her teammates have been throwing the ball around with purpose between innings. Her shoulders slouch, as she glances around self-consciously to see if anyone is paying attention, her eyes big and round. Waiting for something to happen.