It's late on a school night and while my wife and kids lay in their beds asleep, I sign in. 'Vindoggie'- that's my alter ego. I haven't left the country in over 30 years, but Vindoggie dashes around the globe meeting people from around the world. Yeah, that's right, I'm on eBay where I can get lost in the jungle of strange, unique and sometimes bizarre items people put up for auction. I buy and I sell, sometimes the same item. I'm interested in everything and anything. I recently bought a hand-painted coffee mug that has a baseball glove, a ball, and the upper extremity of a voluptuous woman shaped into it, and it was only ten dollars shipped to my doorstep. There were no other bidders. I told my three boys I bought it because the mug had all of Daddy's favorite things. I consider it a novelty item, harmless in fact. Who knows, maybe a future family heirloom? Over the years I've won bicycles, motorcycles, books, baseball bats and gloves, some rare and exotic coffee mugs, and a whole host of other items that would take too long to mention. I've sold and shipped bicycles, antique telephones, and baseball gloves to people all over the world. I shipped a Cannondale bicycle frame to a fellow in Moscow, and a Klein to a guy in Japan. It's all great fun. On this night my obsession has me in the category of 'Baseball Gloves', more specifically, 'Mitts'. My pulse quickens as I scroll down to a guy living in a small town near Seattle who has a Smokey Burgess autograph model. "No ink, in usable or displayable condition", according to the seller who's got feedback of over 100 positives, and in reading the comments, I see that everyone seems pretty happy with this guy. No, I quickly decide, this mitt is not the one. With a click of my waiting mouse I continue my search, hoping I will stumble across the perfect catcher's mitt...
It was back in 1976, I had just purchased a cherry 1963 sun-faded, light blue, 4-door Chevy Impala from a very old man whose decision to stop driving was not his own. His last name was Tate. The car was parked beside his small, white ranch house, on a quiet side street not far from Lake Massapoag in Sharon, MA. With the 'for sale' sign he purchased at the local hardware store carefully taped to the inside of the dusty windshield, the car caught my eye while I jogged by, and so I circled back later that afternoon to get a better look. He told me he had used the car daily, the longest drive being a weekly run to Mattapan to pick up his favorite newspaper, The Jewish Advocate, about 26 miles round trip. He claimed that nobody had ever sat in the back seat, a fact that absolutely sold me, and all my testosterone, on this particular car.
I made the car purchase at a time in my life when I was going through serious changes. My parents had recently sold our house and moved to Miami, 1500 miles away. There were no longer any free meals or any women jumping through hoops to do my laundry. I had just turned 20 and had no immediate plans for the future. After dropping out of college a year earlier and spending some time living with a friend in South Florida, safe from the New England winter, I moved back up North and lived in my Uncle's basement in Needham, MA, sharing the space with my cousin's two untamed dogs, Sheba and Mishma. When that arrangement didn't work out, I moved into my best friend's basement and lived there until his father discovered his two boys keeping illegal substance, my apparent bad influence to blame for their wrong doing.
From there I took myself and all my worldly possessions, which amounted to very little, to a boarding house owned by a guy I had worked with while still in high school at a garage called Cook Brother's Getty on route one in Walpole, MA. Dick had once been a crackerjack auto mechanic who drag-raced at Epping, New Hampshire, driving and wrenching his Ford Shelby to many impressive victories. At the time he was fast approaching forty years of age, stood about six foot tall, lanky, with a mid section that was very capable of liquid storage. He wore mirrored, aviator sunglasses, had some color from the sun on his face during the summer months, and struggled to keep his thinning, light brown hair under control. He spoke through thin lips, displayed a wise-guy smile, and had a good size helping of the devil peering out through his light blue eyes. He was a character who had "been there, done that" and showed no signs of slowing down! The problem was he had an incredible thirst and the booze interrupted and eventually consumed his life.
After the divorce in 1975, Dick maintained possession of the house in Walpole, something modern day divorced husbands are rarely able to do. He divided the 3-story house up into rentable spaces. The entire first floor was turned into an apartment where a family of four lived. The second floor had three rooms, shared a full bath, and each room was rented by the week for a mere twenty-five dollars, cash only, which Dick collected every week, early in the morning, open six-pack in hand. A trucker who drove 3-11 p.m. and spent three hours each evening after work yelping on his CB radio with blatant disregard for others, rented one of the rooms. An unassuming middle-aged man, who was married, rented another for afternoon dalliances.
I rented the third room. It was 10' X 12' with two double hung windows, one that overlooked the front of the house just above the roof of the front porch, and one on the gable end that had a great view of a wonderful patch of green at the edge of Bird Park, which abutted the property on the driveway side. My room got the most sun of the three, but because it was located over the stairwell, it was also the noisiest. I had a beat up old mattress and box spring sitting directly on the floor that I was able to claim just moments before the set was headed for the local landfill, a red and white cushioned Adirondack type chair that was given to me by a friend, an ordinary table lamp, a 14" black and white television with missing knobs that required the use of vise grips in order to change channels, and a second hand 4-slice toaster I picked up at a local thrift shop. I survived on warm Kellogg's Pop-Tarts, frosted cinnamon being my staple, and in the winter, I washed them down with ice-cold whole milk I kept out on the front window ledge. It was all I needed; it was the place I called "home".
Up on the third floor, an older man lived alone. Aside from the stairs he had to climb, I was envious of the privacy his apartment afforded him. Because of the amount of cars needing parking spaces, the front lawn became an expanded driveway, and in Dick's condition, he didn't seem to care too much about the dying grass.
The Impala first appealed to me because it had obviously been well maintained, but when I opened the trunk and saw the size of the space, I knew it was the right car for me. In a boarding house, you can only get so comfortable living with strangers in tight quarters and there are usually good reasons why someone ends up living there. It's never thought of as permanent living arrangement and the bathroom functions much like a public restroom. There were things I felt uncomfortable leaving in my room, even with a locked door. The Impala's trunk was the perfect solution to my dilemma. It was a huge locking suitcase on wheels that I could take with me everywhere I went. Once the car was mine I carefully filled the trunk with my worldly possessions, which immediately looked like a whole lot of stuff.
When I was younger and my family was still living under one roof, my father took great pride in oiling up our baseball gloves before storing them for the winter. I'd sit on the couch and watch him as he sat diagonally across from me in the big armchair, oiling our gloves. It was at a time when people regularly polished their own shoes. He always looked so impassioned while he did it, his tongue pressed between his teeth and just slightly visible through his closed lips, looking like he was holding his breath, gulping air only at certain intervals during the process. Working in just the right amount of oil with the rags he kept, he always finished by placing a baseball in each glove and then tying them up tightly with the age-darkened rawhide laces he had for that purpose. When one of the gloves was complete he would smile at me and ask, "How's that?" I was speechless. The gloves looked perfect; they would be ready to go. The process became a ritual I looked forward to every year.
I initially wanted to become a pitcher and waited for my chance. My first year in organized baseball, playing for the Algonquians, I watched as eight-year old Stevie Norman pitched every game. His father owned a popular bakery in town and I suspected the coach was no longer paying full price for his cinnamon raisin scones...
One night my father arrived home with a complete set of catcher's gear. I was so happy that he was going to help me become a better pitcher and maybe I'd bump Stevie off his perch. Was I surprised when he told ME to put on the gear. He told me that if I became a catcher I would get to play every day... I hated it! The gear was too big, it was heavy, I was hot, and I was the only kid who had to wear a protective cup... He was right. I played everyday.
Funny thing about being a catcher, you're the only one on the field of play other than the home plate umpire that sees the game looking out. Everyone else is looking in. It's a completely different perspective, the only one I'd ever know.
My mitt was a Del Crandall autograph model, given to me by my father. Crandall had four gold gloves to his credit and 8 All Star appearances, not bad for a lifetime .254 hitter who had 179 home runs in his 16-year major league career, a career he began in 1945, as the game's youngest player at just 19 years of age. It took a while, but I embraced my responsibilities as a catcher, eventually getting used to the cup.
I played organized baseball until my sophomore year in high school, when football conditioning became more important to me. Besides, my father was traveling a lot more then and the ritual I enjoyed and associated with baseball had ended. I still slid my hand into the mitt on occasion, pounding the pocket and imagining I was back behind the plate looking out. I never played organized baseball again, but I did catch whenever I could. I was proud to wear my Del Crandall autograph model, and proud enough to keep it with me years later, making it an important part of my worldly possessions.
Steve Pokorski and I became friends my senior year in high school. Nobody called him Steve except his parents; to all of us he was Poky. Due to some technicality, he was unable to graduate with his senior class, and so he was back in high school for a fifth year. We sat next to each other in the last two rows, last two seats; we were the last two in -first ones out, in Mr. Bryant's film class. It was the closest thing to basket weaving our guidance counselor could find, and Mr. Peckham knew we would both receive passing grades and graduate.
Poky and I became friendly outside of school, but it was two years later when we were both still hanging around, that we became best friends. It was then that I began working with him in his landscape construction business. Poky was six feet tall and around 190 lbs. back then, with medium length, light brown hair combed deliberately to one side, blue eyes, and a reddish tan from working out in the hot sun without a shirt or any lotion. He never wore shorts or sneakers; even on the hottest days he wore blue jeans and work boots laced all the way up. He had a very strong, chiseled upper body and could both hit and throw a baseball as far and hard as anybody. He never backed down from an altercation either, even if the odds were stacked against him, or us. He was pigeon-toed and 100% Polish, and I never let him forget it. We argued, teased, and challenged each other daily, in good fun. During the winter months we cut, split, and delivered cord-wood. In the dead of winter we plowed streets and driveways using his F1300 dump truck. But most of all, we became the brothers neither one of us ever had. Our girlfriends were friends, we did things together as couples, and I spent a lot of time at his house, which was fine with me because it meant I wasn't back in Walpole at Dick's boarding house waiting for my turn on the porcelain.
I was the first to realize what a big sensitive lug Poky really was. When his aging terrier died, I listened to his hoarse voice describe all the fun he had with his dog. Later that summer, I drove to a job-site in the dump truck to tell him his father had just passed away. I drove him back to the house. He yelled at me at the funeral parlor when I showed up wearing a leisure suit- it was all I had. It was the first time I attended an open casket service and I tried to avoid the casket, but Poky asked me to go over to view with him, so I did. When he asked "He looks good, doesn't he Vin?" I agreed, not knowing what else to say. Joe was an individual I always looked forward to talking with. When Poky and I were splitting wood by hand using splitting mauls, in freezing temperatures just outside the kitchen door at the rear of his parent's ranch house, Joe would be coming home from his night shift at UPS in Watertown, MA. While he drank a cold one and ended his day, we sat and drank hot coffee and began ours. We did this often enough that Joe's passing impacted me tremendously too.
At the local watering hole on any night you could find the same group of people swapping stories and telling lies. In its heyday, Thackeray's was like a crowded bus full of friends who were living like there was no tomorrow. We ran up huge tabs, often closing the place. Conveniently, it was only a couple of miles from the boarding house.
After work and a shower one night, I met Poky and the rest of the crew there. I pulled up, searching the Mall parking lot for the ideal parking space. Dave had a brand new lipstick red Firebird with white-lettered tires and chrome wheels. He was parked in one of the spaces on one side of the middle drive that was flanked by curbing, a preferred spot for sure. Bambi's Dodge Challenger was nearby in a similar space. In the surrounding lot, confined to painted spaces, you could expect to have cars on both sides of you, and door dings were likely, especially late in the evening when the patrons of the pub were leaving. I parked the Impala right behind Dave's Firebird and entered Thackeray's through the large wooden double doors that were dark stained, heavily varnished, and carved to look medieval. Inside the high ceilings and dark wood were complimented nicely by the rich red carpet that ran throughout the pub and lighting that was kept down low the way we liked it. The bartenders were dressed in white-white long sleeved shirts with over-sized cuffs held closed by large black cuff-links, black bow-ties, and blood red vests. There was always live music, usually a solo act playing an acoustic guitar, a guy or gal who was unaffected playing above the constant, sometimes out of control murmur. The place produced its own energy and on that night, we were there to enjoy it.
It was a night like any other. We sat at the bar and ordered Thackburgers, which were over-sized sirloin burgers stacked with ham and cheese, on restaurant quality rolls, served with steak fries and a mound of coleslaw, all of which filled the huge oval plate the food was served on. After a day in the sun doing landscaping, we all needed nutrition. After digesting the meal, we slowly eased our way into the real reason we were there...
Poky left early, around 11:00. I stayed with Dave, Bambi, and some others and closed the place. When we finally made our way back out through the big double doors, our perspective was like a catcher's- looking out. It all looked so different than when we first arrived and were looking in.
After talking some late-night parking lot non-sense, we all headed for our cars. I had trouble finding mine, and at first I was willing to concede that I had probably spent too much time inside. Then I remembered I parked behind Dave's Firebird and his car was still there, but mine wasn't. I began laughing hysterically, telling everyone that Poky took it! I went inside and used the phone to call him. It was after 1:00 am, but the phone was in his room next to his bed, so I didn't hesitate. After two rings I heard his pillow-muffled voice say "Hello". I wasn't as formal; all I said was "Where's my car?" When he said he didn't know, I laughed again. I was sure he had it, that he was playing a trick on me. When he finally got upset about being woken up in the middle of the night, I knew my car had been stolen. The bigger tragedy was that all my worldly possessions I thought were safe in the trunk, were gone too. I didn't care that my empty wallet was in the glove box, or that my favorite dungaree jacket was on the front seat; all I cared about was that my two baseball gloves, one that had been my father's, and my Del Crandall autograph model catcher's mitt, were gone!
In that moment, I realized not only all that was missing, but what little I had left... Only the beat-up old mattress that belonged in the landfill, the chair, the table lamp, the 14" black & white TV with missing knobs, and the 4-slice toaster I got at the second-hand store, remained. I caught a ride back to Dick's boarding house with Bambi, and once inside my 10' X 12' room, without my sun-faded 63 Impala parked out front killing more of Dick's grass, to look out at - I never felt more alone...
The next day Poky picked me up in the light blue Chevette Joe had used to commute back and forth to Watertown, and the two of us drove back to Sharon Center where I told my story to a cop who was parked there. Sensing it wasn't just about the car, he took me in his unmarked cruiser and drove to all the local spots where stolen vehicles were apt to be found. After the search was exhausted, I was forced to face the reality of what had happened the night before.
I never saw the 63 Impala again or any of my worldly possessions that were in it, with the exception of my wallet. Two weeks later my wallet arrived in the mail with my driver's license, social security card, and some pictures still intact. I was at least thankful for that kind gesture. I bought another used car from a private owner and a new dungaree jacket at the mall.
It's late on a school night and while my wife and kids lay in their beds asleep, 'Vindoggie' signs in. I'm in the category of 'Baseball Gloves', more specifically, 'Mitts'. My pulse quickens, it's a mint Johnny Roseboro autograph model being auctioned by a guy in a small town in Indiana. "No ink, in usable or displayable condition", according to the seller who has 254 positives, and in reading the comments, I see that everyone seems pretty happy with this guy. No, I quickly decide, this mitt is not the one. With a click of my waiting mouse I continue my search, hoping I will stumble across the perfect catcher's mitt...