iovanni, a twenty three year old macho Italian, arrived in San Francisco, called us from the airport and waited for us to pick him up. Another friend of a friend, Giovanni was staying for a few weeks and "maybe looking for a job." He expressed a love of sports, which to an Italian, means he's a soccer fanatic. Nonetheless, as we drove past Pac Bell Park on our way from the airport, he said that his dream was to see an American baseball game. "You Americani lova da bassabol lika we lova da soccer. It musta be great game." Coincidentally, we had tickets for a game that week between the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies.
I knew we were in for a unique tutorial experience, when on the way to the park, Giovanni asked me how many bases there were in "bassabol." We settled into our center field bleacher seats about the time that the Giants' starting pitcher began warming up in the bullpen. Giovanni was focused on the bullpen action and I soon realized that he thought the game had started. It was time for a baseball lesson. How difficult could this be? It's a simple game. Five year olds play this game.
We got out paper and pencil, drew a diamond, nine players, three outs, three strikes, four balls, all that stuff. The more we got into it, the more perplexed he looked. We had covered strikes in detail - a foul ball, a called strike or swing and miss - three and you're out. Then the leadoff hitter took a strike, swung and missed and fouled off three pitches. While clarifying that fouls are strikes only sometimes, the batter hit a foul pop to the first baseman, after I'd told him that one had to hit the ball between the lines or it didn't count. "Mamma mia," he exclaimed, while hitting his forehead with his palm.
Arriving late and sitting in front of us were a family of Rockie fans. Complete with Rockie hats, t-shirts and one of those spongy "We're No. 1" finger things, Giovanni asked why they were there. "Why dey no sita in da Colorado section of the stadium?" "There is no Colorado section, everyone sits together," I explained. This amazed the Italian. "At Italian soccer match, da udder team people sit in special place and are guarded by the polizia." He kept watching them, surprised that they appeared to flaunt their loyalty in the face of Giant fans and no one seemed to care. "Potrebbe essere un grande problema in Italia," Giovanni muttered. From what I know about Italian soccer fans, I had to agree.
Giovanni was interested in the Giant outfielders, watching them warm up in front of us before innings and occasionally flipping a ball into the stands. That day, the Giants had Barry Bonds, Marvin Benard and Ellis Burks in the outfield, all of whom happen to be black. Not so quietly, he told me he knew about American racism from American movies. "Do dese players playa far away because dey are black?" "Just a coincidence," I assured him, hoping the black couple two rows down was hard of hearing.
The questions kept coming. Who are the players standing outside the lines near the bases? Why do some batters stand on the other side of home base? Are the batting sticks made of wood? Why do you say "steal" a base? Can you keep the foul ball if it comes to you? Why does he launch the ball from a hill?
By the fourth inning, Giovanni had resigned himself to watching the action and asking only a few questions. "Why does the launcher throw da bol to first bassa?" "It's to keep the runner close to the bag - ah base - and we call him a pitcher, not a launcher." I'm thinking he'd begun to get it and then there's a one out grounder to short and a quick double play. The inning was over. "Che stupito, how coulda one player maka two outs?"
During the fifth inning, Giovanni decided he must buy me and him an American hot dog. We finally flagged down a vendor coming up the aisle. Giovanni wanted to know what he's saying. "Getta red hot hea" made no sense to him. I assured him he had hot dogs and we signaled for two. The vendor passed the dogs down our row going through about ten people. Giovanni got up to move down our row to pay. I told him to sit down and give the $10 bill to the lady next to him. He looked at me like I was nuts, but complied. To his amazement, the bill got to the vendor and the change came back to him. "Incedibile, in Italy we would never getta da money back." The lady next to him said "Really, they'd steal it?" "Or maybe putta one more dollar, but it woulda not be right, I am sure."
Dealing with the wonderment of an American hot dog purchase, Giovanni missed Barry Bonds' long home run over the right field bleachers. He whipped his head around to the roar of the crowd, heard the celebrating fog horn and saw the spouting water behind the right field wall. Bonds had circled the bases and was in the dugout before Giovanni even asked me what had happened. Luckily, the big screen behind us did several replays, so he saw his first home run several times.
By the seventh inning, Giovanni had advanced as a student of the game. With typical macho assertiveness, he proclaimed that it doesn't appear that difficult to "heet the bol wit da stick." He thought that all the batters should be able to get a home run. I explained that the pitcher often changes speeds and throws curves. "He can maka da bol dance?" "Yeah, well, sorta," I answered. He seemed impressed and began to watch the "launcher" with a new intensity.
He also noted that, unlike soccer, baseball doesn't require a lot of energy, unless you are the "launcher." I told him that the pitchers only pitch every fourth day or so, which reinforced his notion that it's a lazy man's game. This was okay till the ninth inning when the guy behind us mentioned that this was Rob Nen's third straight appearance as a closer. By this time I just accepted Giovanni's conjecture that Nen must be strong enough to play soccer if he pitched every day.
The Giants won in the ninth, with Doug Mirabelli getting a key hit. Giovanni was particularly thrilled since Mirabelli had an obvious Italian name. We left the park with the happy crowd. Giovanni said he really liked "bassabol," even though he admitted there was a lot he didn't understand. Soccer was still his favorite, but he'd do baseball again, even though "bassabol match ees confusing, very slow and hava no passione."
He mentioned he'd take me to a soccer game next time I was in Italy. He'd help me, since there might be a few things I wouldn't understand and might surprise me. I'm sure he was right. In fact, that very day I showed him a headline in the Sacramento Bee that read "Soccer Stampede Kills Twelve." This kind of passione would definitely be a surprise. Nonetheless, I think I could figure out soccer, but I do not know how five year olds ever figure out the game of baseball.
oaching JV baseball at the regular high school was a good balance to spending most of the day at the school for the weird. These baseball players were not only happy and well fed, but had real live parents who cared about them. And when it came to baseball, they - especially their fathers - cared about them a lot.
2. JV Baseball and Marv
They also cared who coached them and a scruffy haired newcomer wasn't their first choice. We got along just fine, but I sensed it was a tenuous relationship. I knew enough about baseball, loved the kids and, most importantly, they were a talented group, which translates to winning. For me, it was thrilling to deal with parents whose biggest family trauma had been the extra inning loss to the Cottonwood All Stars.
Winning was no small thing. After all, with some of these very same dads as coaches, this group had been very successful Little League All Stars. So when this new coach moved Peewee, the Little League All Star second baseman, to center field, there was a perceptible rumble through the grandstands. Didn't this idiot know that Peewee had started two doubleplays against the Weaverville All Stars?
However, my credibility took a quantum leap upward when Marv showed up at practice. Marv Grissom, born and raised right here in Tehama County, had played a lot of years with the Giants. He'd pitched in World Series and All Star games and was currently a big league coach. He usually was Bill Rigney's pitching coach. Luckily for me, Rigney was canned as manager by the Angels or somebody, so Marv was out of a job and hanging around our ball park.
Marv was not a chatty guy, but always had time for kids. My players (and dads) had great respect for Marv. I had his baseball cards and was in awe of the guy. I loved eavesdropping on his stories about Willie Mays and Ted Williams. He'd often bring a bat or something to practice that he'd used in the '54 Series and give it to some kid. I was horrified knowing the kid would take it home and hit rocks with it.
Marv asked if I minded if he worked with my pitchers. Would I mind if a big league pitching coach would take time with my JV goobers? I just hoped they wouldn't share too many stupid things I'd taught them. I'd played a lot of baseball, but the one time I'd pitched was in high school and the line drives up the middle almost killed me.
Prior to Marv, I got a lot of fatherly advice; after, nearly none. Marv had great style and timing. He'd watch kids throw, say very little and just make small adjustments and tell subtle stories. My favorite was Billy, who, against my advice, threw his curveball with one finger knuckled. It had worked against the Cottonwood All Stars, but was now getting whacked. In his dry, slow style Marv told Billy "I've seen about 300 pitchers hold the curve that way. Larry Jansen, a great pitcher who pitched in Series and All Star games, held it that way." After a pause, he added, "the other 299 weren't worth a shit and you're no Larry Jansen." Billy dropped the knuckle.
I quit coaching soon after that. Some said it was because Rigney and Marv were hired by the Twins. Others said that the dads had voted and I was out. None of that was true. It was actually the superintendent who told me that a principal had more important things to do. I've wondered about that ever since.
f you're old like me, it's Roy Campanella and Yogi Berra. Mike Piazza for you young ones. Baseball catchers are definitely a different breed. Pitchers are prima donnas, who look good and play every fourth day or so. Center fielders run fast and stand around a lot. Catchers play every day. They get dirty every day. They guard home plate with no regard for their own body. It's not important to them who gave up the hit or made the error allowing that runner to barrel around third base. They just brace for the collision. Some say catchers are not too smart. There certainly are easier jobs in baseball.
3. Catchers and Principals
High school principals are catchers. When I played baseball, I was a catcher. I loved wearing that ugly equipment. I never cared that they (probably pitchers) called it the "tools of ignorance." I was always in the game, always in charge. I could rag on the umpire. I gave signals to the pitcher and told him what to do. The coach would usually ask me if the pitcher "had anything left" before he jerked him out. I could step in front of the plate, put up one or two fingers and teammates would all nod like they had no clue how many were out unless I told them. If batters whacked the ball, it wasn't my fault. I also loved being dirty after the game; no one ever wondered whether or not I had played.
Good teachers are shortstops, often very talented, but you don't know it unless you hit the ball at them. No good team ever had a terrible shortstop, yet infielders spend a lot of time watching the home plate action, spitting or just scratching something. They do hold up one or two fingers on occasion and sometimes make great plays and get dirty. You can't win without them. I've also met a few slow right fielders, who, if they were on a lousy team, got away with daydreaming a lot. They didn't even know where to scratch.
Superintendents must be pitchers. I never understood pitchers either. What do baseball nuts say? Pitching is 80% of the game. Obviously, pitchers are important. I could just never relate to not playing every day. Hanging out in the district office bullpen most of the time sounds quite boring. Besides, pitchers may be well groomed and clean, but they get hurt a lot. They have ailments invented just for them, like tendinitis and rotator cuff stuff, which are just tricky words for paid administrative leaves. Catchers are just sore all the time. I've known more than a few pitchers and superintendents who have thrown a no-hitter or two and then were washed up the very next season. I also never understood the catchers who wanted to try pitching, thinking they were moving up or something. Pitchers don't even wear protective cups, for God's sake.
There are a lot of old catchers. Like principals, most have more than
their share of warts and scars. Not many reflective moments, relaxing golf
games, long range goals or strategic plans - just another game. Hey, but
they think they boss people around, play every day, get dirty and it is
never, ever boring. For me, a principal can relive the excitement of a great
ball game every single day. Like Yogi says, "it's deja vu, all over again."
|Joe Pelanconi is a high school principal living in Northern California, married to and humbled by a semi-sarcastic wife of 32 years. He never wanted to be a principal, but a certain lack of talent was the only glitch on his road to Cooperstown. For years, Joe pretended he was named after Joe Dimaggio, when in fact he was given the name of his late grandfather, an Italian immigrant who never saw a baseball game and had the misforturne of being asphyxiated in a wine barrel during Prohibition. Joe's wife insists there is a message there.|