Ten Bucks if You Hit One
My grandfather had curved fingers. Old. Arthritic. His name was Ignazio, though his friends and most of his family called him Muzzy. While in the Air Force, playing baseball as a catcher, he inherited two "badges of honor," so to speak: a crop of ten bruised, broken, and bent fingers, and the nickname, "Muzzy," which developed quite logically. Catchers wore masks that looked like muzzles. My grandfather was a catcher. My grandfather was Muzzy.
If nothing else, Waterbury, Connecticut, is and always has been a baseball town. Smith Avenue, where I lived, stood poised halfway up from the floor of the Naugatuck Valley, and from my driveway at number 20 Smith Avenue, I could hear the shouts and cheers of the crowds down the street at Municipal Stadium every night. On the fourth of July, my family would sit on the flat roof of the house and watch the fireworks that pierced the sky from the outfield at the baseball diamond. The stadium may as well have been another family member, more personal than the smell of wet grass or the sweet itch of mosquito bites. If I couldn’t see the stadium, I could hear it. If I couldn’t hear it, I would think about it and wonder when I’d be old enough to play in it, to run out to first base and field ground balls or take a crack at a fast ball and try to drive it over the rightfield fence. Someday for sure, I’d always think.
Muzzy groomed me to be a Yankee fan from the moment I was old enough to grip a baseball. There were simply no alternatives. You were a Yankee fan or you just weren’t a baseball fan at all. So I became a Yankee fan. In my family, to be a Yankee fan was as natural as getting up in the morning. There were few other current events happening in the world that interested us, and even to our deaths, the Yanks were the only thing that mattered, aside from family and friends. My Uncle Mike put this theory to practice -- he had been watching a game one night in the TV room, when he suddenly felt worn out and tired. “I’m going to bed,” he said to my Aunt Lucy. “Let me know how the Yanks do.”
Mike went to bed and never woke up. But the Yanks won.
While most kids were lost in the mystique of more "exciting" sports stars like Michael Jordan, I became fixated on Yankees’ Captain Don Mattingly. Donnie Baseball posters adorned my bedroom walls. The Yankees and Mattingly were, to me, all that mattered. When I’d watch the game on TV and Mattingly would come to bat, I’d hold my breath and hope he’d hit a home run. If he did, I could count on the phone ringing not long after. It would be Muzzy. “Mattingly hit one!” he’d say, to which I’d reply, “I saw it. It was huge! Right center!”
The conversation would always end the same way. “Ten bucks if you hit one,” Muzzy would say to me, and I would shoot back, “Just be sure you’re there to see it.”
Spring would come late every year—or too late, at least, for me, who had nothing on his mind but the baseball diamond. I would spend my afternoons trying to convince my brother to have a catch with me, or I would get home after school and immediately head to the backyard, tossing the baseball against the wall of the neighbor’s garage, fielding the bounce and occasionally diving spectacularly, saving the imaginary game constantly running in my head. More often than not, I’d toss that ball until the sun went down or until the massive cluster of bushes behind me swallowed my last good ball. You could climb into that bush, but you’d never find what you were looking for until a year or so later, when you would climb in there to get the dog untangled from the branches and come out with four or five baseballs in hand.
Then spring would come, the snow would clear, and my classmates and I would take to the still-muddy fields around Waterbury to practice for the parochial league baseball season. Eighth grade was a good year for me. I was a terror in the league, the kind of batter that made the outfielders back up ten steps and the infielders punch their gloves nervously until the pitch was thrown. Yes, it was a good year...but I still hadn’t gotten what I really wanted. I was on a mission. I wanted ten bucks from Muzzy. I wanted a home run.
We had already played several games that season and were undefeated. Other teams knew that when they played against Mount Carmel, they were going to lose. We were happy and a bit smug knowing that. It was a warm day in late May, and I had gained a bit of a reputation around the league because I was the only thirteen year-old who swung real lumber—none of that aluminum stuff for me. I had three wooden baseball bats, painted black, and far too heavy for me to swing reasonably, but I used them anyway. And I did alright for myself, even if my swing was a little late on some pitches. I remember that day: walking up to the plate with my uniform looking perfect, right down to the scrape of dirt across my shin from sliding into second base earlier in the game; the umpire taking the bat from me, inspecting it and saying, “You can really swing this?” I nodded, and he handed my bat to me, disbelieving and more than likely anticipating my strike-out on three far-too-slow swings.
I dug in with my left foot and started my at-bat ritual: fix my batting gloves, left then right, three half-swings, then set. I was a lefty, which almost always screwed up the pitchers. They’d either throw the first pitch into either the backstop or my right thigh. I was ready for both. But this pitcher threw one right down the middle. “STRIKE!” The ump yelled.
I stepped out of the box, took a practice swing, and looked down the third baseline. There sat Muzzy, fixed in his lawn chair and watching my at-bat. He made a motion with his hands: line up your knuckles. Yes, line up the knuckles. That would open up my swing, keep me from upper-cutting at the ball. My dad had taught me that, but Muzzy was the one who never let me forget it. He’d made the same motion before my first at-bat and I had hit a single. I wanted a home-run that time because I knew Muzzy had to leave this game early to go pick up my brother from his high school golf match, but he was still here. That was a good sign. I could hit a homer here.
The next pitch darted in. I fouled it off.
“Keep your eye on it,” I heard Muzzy yell, quietly though, as if he knew I was really the only one who needed to hear it, and would. The next pitch: foul again. The next pitch: single up the middle.
I reached first base and heard Muzzy yell, “Alright, Daniel!”
It wasn’t good enough for me, though.
An inning later, I made a diving stab at first base and saved a run from scoring. Muzzy was standing and clapping his hands. This meant two things: I’d done well, and he was getting ready to leave. Sure enough, when I got to bat the next inning, he’d left.
I dug in with my left foot. Fixed my batting gloves: left, then right. Three half-swings, then set. First pitch: foul. “Bat’s a little heavy for you,” the umpire said. I ignored him. Second pitch: swing and a miss. “Want a lighter bat?” My coach yelled from the bench. I shook my head: No. I did not want a lighter bat.
Third pitch: ball one.
Fourth pitch: foul.
Fifth pitch: foul, the kind that pops up behind home plate and almost never comes down. The kind where the catcher pretends he’s going to catch it, but even he can’t see it anymore. It usually plops down into a pile of excess infield dirt that had been left behind the fence and a little kid, maybe five or six, runs to get it. He’s probably the younger brother of the left-fielder on the other team, and he’s never really interested in the game. It didn’t matter. Another pitch was coming.
Sixth pitch. The pitcher wound up. I saw the fastball coming at me as clear as if it were hanging in front of me by a string. I had hours, days, to see it coming. I could see the stitches in the ball rotating. My bat was already moving. Hitting a ball that way felt like nothing at all; on a hit like that, your swing was over and you were already running up the first baseline before you realized how far and how fast the ball was going. When my foot thumped on first base and I headed to second, I looked toward centerfield and saw the center-fielder was still running back, back, back, farther until he reached the fence.
My teammates on the bench went crazy. The umpire made a motion with his finger—in school, the motion would mean something like, “Whoop-de-doo, who cares,” but here, it meant Home Run. Here, it meant success. I slowed down and enjoyed the trot around the bases, unable to keep the smile from my face. But as I rounded third, the smile disappeared.
Muzzy was not there.
He missed it.
Suddenly, ten bucks in my pocket didn’t matter. Twenty wouldn’t. A thousand wouldn’t. I wanted Muzzy to be there. Wanted him to see it. Wanted him to stand and clap his hands, yelling, “Alright, Daniel!” That’s what I wanted. Not a lousy ten bucks.
Of course, when he found out I’d hit a home run, he gave me ten bucks anyway. I have no recollection as to what I spent that money on. Probably baseball cards or movie tickets. Had I known how my life would transpire after that moment, I would have saved those ten dollars. Framed them. Hung them on my wall and looked at them every day to remind me. So I would never forget.
High school baseball seemed like an entirely different world to me. My freshman and sophomore years went wonderfully, and I hit a few more home runs—all at away games, so Muzzy never saw those, either—but during my junior year, it all fell apart. Municipal Stadium did not hold the same mystique it once had; by the time I turned sixteen, I had played on that diamond a hundred times and had forgotten those days as a younger boy when I would sneak into the empty stands and just sit there, looking down at the infield grass, wondering what it felt like, wondering when I would get to play there. By senior year, I didn’t even play on the high school team anymore. I played summer ball on an amateur team the following summer and the summer after that, but my talent suffered and my drive and determination declined. Muzzy occasionally asked if I would play again, but I brushed the questions aside. My high school coaches made it abundantly clear: I was not meant to play baseball anymore. I foolishly took that word as gold.
When I went to college, Muzzy would still call occasionally to tell me when Derek Jeter hit a home run (Don Mattingly had long since retired), but my enthusiasm was no longer there. I didn’t care about the Yankees anymore, and when Muzzy got sick, I only talked about the Yankees because the conversation would otherwise turn awkward. He couldn’t hear well at that point, and it seemed we had less common ground without baseball between us; little boys grow up and the baseball diamond no longer holds a world of possibility. I had since left the diamond and found other things. Music. Hockey. Mountain biking. Beer. Girls. Most, if not all of these activities held little interest for Muzzy. That was fine, but from three states away it became impossible for me to connect to the man I had idolized as a child. He was still Muzzy. But who was I? To be honest, I had no idea.
I was living in Maine when Muzzy’s health declined rapidly. A failing heart valve was bound to do him in, and everyone in the family had been struggling to deal with this new and raw inevitability. The bulk of that burden fell on my grandmother, mother, and brother, but I was also dealing with it in Maine. For me, the hardest part was not being there, not being a part of that strain, not being able to lay claim to my bulk of the duty. But I was also in college. I wanted to have fun. Wanted to enjoy my friends. Wanted to be irresponsible and happy.
There has always seemed to be a fine line between placating one’s needs and being plain old selfish. To this day, I have difficulty deciding if I was being selfish or not on a day in early April 2003. I had just finished my classes and was floating around my apartment, not doing much of anything besides waiting for the weekend. Some friends of mine were planning a big beach party in the basement of their fraternity house, and my roommates and I had been planning to go for months. It was all we talked about. The weather hadn’t turned warm yet, and a long Maine winter would drive anyone to need a good vent like a beach party. So we held onto the idea of this party as our salvation: if we can make it until the beach party, we will make it through the rest of our college careers!
The phone rang that afternoon. It was my mother. She was calling from the nursing home where my grandfather now resided. I remember thinking, as I answered that call, about the last time I’d seen Muzzy. He was sitting in a cushy chair in his living room, tubes running out of his nose, the oxygen machine buzzing rather loudly in the corner. He had lost too much weight and looked like his own father had shortly before he died. I kissed him on the top of the head that day and knew it would be the last time I would see him alive, and I was right. It was that certainty that would compound my guilt over what happened next.
“Hi, Gramp,” I said. He could hardly hear me.
“Yes, Gramp, I’m here.”
“How are you doing?”
“I’m doing well,” I said. “How are you?”
“Not so good,” Muzzy replied, and in his voice, I could hear a fear I’d never heard in him before. Never in my life. The voice still resonates in my head today, sneaking up on me at the worst times to remind me how quickly things can change, and how easy it can be to let those changes happen without you. “I’m sick,” he said, his voice quavering. “I’d like to see you. Can you come home?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll be home next weekend. I’ll see you soon.”
“Good,” he said. “I want to see you.”
I should have known right then and there that this was the time to get in my car and drive back to Connecticut . Not in a few days, not next weekend. Right then and there. Because I knew if I waited until next weekend, he would not be there. But I wanted to go to the beach party. Wanted to enjoy myself and have fun. Wanted...and wanted. And wanted. So I didn’t pack my bags and get in the car and drive six hours home to see Muzzy. I stayed in Maine.
He died two days later.
I never made it to the beach party.
Instead, I drove home, two days after I should have done so. At some point, every boy decides that he has become a man, and men do not cry. As I drove down to Connecticut that April morning, it became very clear to me that I was not a man and had no right to lay claim to such ideas. I cried and had to pull over until it was over, and it seemed fitting that I did so, because men also do not shirk the ones they love for a beer and a bathing suit. I was no man; I was a little boy who had just said "no thanks" to the privilege of being with his hero when that man died.
Another thing little boys do is pretend that they are men. I wiped the tears from my eyes and drove home. When I got to Connecticut, I helped prepare for the funeral. My brother and I helped my mom organize. We took care of our grandmother and kept her company as much as possible. We all had dinner that night, cousins and uncles and mom and brother. We laughed and told stories about Muzzy, because that was what we needed for a temporary catharsis; I have always been the storyteller of the family, so I did my best. I picked up relatives and brought them to the church. I was a pallbearer. I did what men do.
But I was no man.
I had agreed to do a reading during the funeral mass. My brother and I sat next to each other in the front of the church and listened to the priest speak as we wore stoic faces and folded our arms across our chests. When it came time for me to read, I stepped up on the altar and took my place behind the podium. It was a reading from Ecclesiastes. The reading that later became a song by the Birds. "To everything there is a season," I remember reading through the passage and as my eyes followed the words, I became a child again. My eyes filled with tears. I could not stop them as much as I would have liked to, and before long the paper in front of me had all but disappeared. My throat closed, but before I stopped reading, I managed one more line:
“A time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant...”
Muzzy lay in a casket in front of me. The man who had driven me to every baseball game. The man who had reminded me to "line up your knuckles." The man who would call me when Mattingly hit one out. The man who sat in a lawn chair downtown for countless parades when I was in the Boy Scouts, the man who sat through class nights and graduations and every other school function imaginable. The man who would doze off on the couch but get up in time to do the chores around the house I had shirked because they were boring. He would mow the lawn. He would order a pizza, and vacuum. He would drive me to the mall or to a friend’s house. He would drive me to baseball games.
Always the baseball games.
When I sat back down after finally finishing the reading, my brother put his arm around me. He must have thought I was crying because I was sad Muzzy had died, and I was. But really, I was crying because he’d missed that home run. By fate or by chance or by simple bad timing, Muzzy had missed it, and I wanted it back so I could do it again, over and over until he got to see it a hundred times. If that would take away the guilt I felt for not being there the one time he needed me, I would swing at a thousand pitches, break a million bats. I would give him the ballpark.
If I know Muzzy, though, he doesn’t care about a home run. Probably never did. I would like to think he has already forgiven me for not coming home to see him before he died, even though I never have and probably never will. In my mind, it seems enough to know that whatever I do in my life, if I never hit another home run, he’ll still be there, down the third baseline, sitting in a lawn chair and watching. Waiting for whatever will come. Yelling to me to keep my eye on the ball, on what’s important, to line up my knuckles and swing straight. Thinking otherwise would just be an illusion, a twist created by my guilt and perpetuated by my lack of a second chance. When Muzzy died, I swung and I missed.
But he cheered anyway.
For Muzzy, a thousand home runs.
©2008 by Daniel Cavallari