For The past ten years my wife and I and our children have spent all or part of every winter on the Keys off St. Petersburg, Florida. We go there because a branch of our family has lived in St. Petersburg for half a century, but there are times during every winter when I find myself wishing that these particular relatives had settled somewhat farther south. In Key West, for example, or even Rio de Janeiro. Because St. Petersburg weather is as unpredictable as Miss Tallulah Bankhead.
On almost any day from December through March you can be lying out in the sun, soaking up vitamin D the way a dunked doughnut soaks up coffee, and find yourself an hour later huddling over the radiator in your hotel room, wondering if you will ever develop enough intelligence to remember, when you're packing up in New York, to bring along not only a heavy sweater but your topcoat as well.
This past winter there were quite a few days like that. On the sixth or seventh—after a while the days begin to run into one another, like pancakes that have been poured too close together on a griddle—the television set suddenly went dark. I put down my hot toddy, slipped off my mittens and knelt in front of the screen. My two small sons watched impatiently while I twisted the dials back and forth. Nothing happened.
"Better see about calling the repair man," my wife said after a few moments. "God alone knows what they're doing to Superman during this blackout."
"The set belongs to the hotel," I said. "Let them call their own repair man."
It turned out that they had already done so. At any rate that's what the man at the desk downstairs told me on the phone. He told me a good deal more. When I repeated it to my wife, she refused to believe me.
"That's what the man said," I said. "Honest."
"Say it again," my wife said.
"The aerial has to be hosed down," I said doggedly. "It's the salt in the air. It accumulates on all the aerials around here and puts the sets out of commission. Every couple of months the repair man comes out from town to hose down all the aerials out here on the beach and wash off the salt. The man at the desk downstairs said they called the repair man a little while ago because several other sets in the hotel have conked out but the repair man won't be able to get here before tomorrow because there are just too many aerials for a man to hose down in one day."
"My God," my wife said, staring out at the beach. It had the sullen gray look of a freshly painted battleship. "What a state."
She turned to look at our two sons. Jeff, aged eight, shoved John, aged seven. John feinted with his left and clipped Jeff's ankle with his toe. Jeff started for him with both fists doubled. I managed to get between them just in time.
"If I were you," my wife said, "I'd take them outdoors to let off some steam. They've been cooped up in this hotel room for days. It looks cold on the beach, but at least it's stopped raining. If you borrow a. bat and a ball from the locker room downstairs, and you keep them moving, it shouldn't be too bad."
It wasn't. For a while, anyway. I'm no Willie Mays but I can hold my own with a couple of boys aged seven and eight. Especially when I stay at bat and keep them out in the field. The trouble was that we were not the only family in that beach hotel that had been catapulted into a crisis by the accumulation of salt on the television aerials.
A few minutes after I started batting out fungoes to my sons on the beach, four more small boys came loping out of the hotel and asked if they might join us. I did not see how I could refuse. Especially since their desperate parents were obviously watching from the windows of their rooms in the hotel.
Another thing I didn't see, because it had never happened to me before, was that batting out fungoes to six small boys is not the same as batting out fungoes to two small boys.
In the latter case you hit the ball, both boys race for it and one snags it. When you've got six in the field, however, they are fairly widely spaced. Consequently, when you hit the ball, only the two—and at most three—boys who are reasonably close to it will try to get the ball. At all times, therefore, at least three boys—and usually four—are standing still, doing nothing.
This is not good. Especially on the beach in St. Petersburg on a raw, gray day in February.
Before long the boys who are standing still begin to clamor for action. There is only one way to provide it: by giving them turns at bat in rotation. There are several things wrong with this.
SMALL BOYS AND FUNGOES
First, except for those rare exceptions who grow up to bring joy to the hearts of men like Leo Durocher, small boys of seven and eight are not very good at batting out fungoes. On the few occasions when a small boy of seven or eight does manage to connect, certainly on the beach at St. Petersburg on a raw, gray day in February, the ball invariably dribbles into the surf. As a result, three-quarters of an hour after I came out on the beach with Jeff and John to help them let off some steam, I was ready to blow up. My shoes and socks were soaked, my slacks were wet to the knee, my back ached, and I was beginning to sniffle.
At this low moment, my son Jeff connected with the first decent hit of the afternoon. It was a neat grounder, running parallel with the surf instead of toward it, and coming straight down the beach at me. With a murmured prayer of thanks for not having to dash once again into the Gulf of Mexico, I dipped down to scoop up the ball, and missed.
Nonplussed is a word that is usually best left in the dictionary. On this occasion, however, I think I am justified in risking it. Nonplussed certainly described with peculiar accuracy the way I felt when, before I could turn to retrieve the ball my butterfingers had just allowed to scoot between my legs, I saw the ball come hurtling back across my head, toward Jeff at bat. He caught it neatly. I turned to see what had happened behind me, and saw a tall, husky, good-looking man all bundled up in a blue sweater, a cashmere muffler, and a floppy linen fishing hat.
"Hi," he said cheerfully.
"Hi," I said uncomfortably. I felt a little silly about missing that ball. If he had not come up behind me and retrieved it, I would have had an undignified gallop down the beach in its wake.
"Crumby day," he said as he continued his walk and passed me on his way up the beach.
"Yeah," I said.
At this moment my son Jeff, obviously drunk with success, swung and connected again. The ball came down the beach in a hard line, perhaps four feet from the sand, straight toward me. Before it reached me, however, the man in the blue sweater casually shoved out one hand and caught the ball with a loud, satisfying smack. All six boys sent up an involuntary cheer. The man looked back across his shoulder at me.
"Sorry," he said apologetically, as though what he had done was inadvertent, due to no effort or desire on his part.
"That's all right," I said.
But it wasn't. It was all wrong. His two small feats had shifted the center of gravity of the relationships on that beach. I could see that the boys themselves were unaware of it. And it was obvious that the stranger in the blue sweater didn't know what had happened. But I knew, and I didn't like it.
For three-quarters of an hour, at the cost of a severe backache and a case of sniffles that was clearly snowballing into a king-size head cold, I had been the center of the small world that those six boys and I had created with a bat and a ball on that stretch of windy beach. Now it was as though I had suddenly and literally vanished into the sea. Those six boys, two of them my own sons, had eyes only for the stranger in the blue sweater.
It was one of those moments when life seems determined to impress you with its inequities. Nothing of any particular importance was at issue. In fact, under ordinary circumstances, I would have welcomed the respite that the stranger's arrival had provided. But the circumstances are never ordinary when a man's pride is involved.
I had worked hard for almost an hour to hold the attention of these boys. It didn't seem fair that this total stranger, effortlessly, unintentionally, with a couple of casual gestures as natural as breathing, should have taken it all away from me.
"You're not holding that bat right," he said as he reached Jeff. "Here, mind if I show you, son?"
Willingly, eagerly, with the sort of look in his eyes that indicated clearly how much he wished it was not a piece of mere wood but a bucket full of gold dust, Jeff offered up his bat to the stranger. The other boys came hurrying in across the beach. I followed more slowly, wrestling with my emotions, telling myself severely to stop being what my own father, when I was a boy, used to call a horse's patoot.
"You don't want to pull the bat all the way back over your shoulder like this," the stranger said, giving a perfect imitation of Jeff's stance at home plate. I winced slightly. It was the stance I had taught him. "If you hold your bat all the way back across your shoulder like that, son," the stranger said, "your swing has to travel too far. Like this." He swung at the air. "If that's a real fast ball coming at you, by the time you get this long swing around to it, that ball is four feet behind you, in the catcher's mitt. Now here's the right way to hold your bat."
A SAVAGE LUNGE
The stranger spread his legs, dipped his knees in a half-crouch, and held the bat up straight in front of him, almost parallel with the vertical line of his body, the way a proud marcher in a parade might hold up a placard so that all the world can read the glowing words that describe his great cause.
"This way," the man in the blue sweater said, "when that old apple starts coming at you, and you see it's the one you want, and you take your cut at it—" He swung, slicing the chill, damp air with a savage, whistling lunge that spun him completely around on one foot in a swift, perfect, and graceful circle. His free foot came to rest lightly in the exact spot on the sand from which his body had started moving, and he smiled at the six small faces gathered around him as he said quietly, "That one, now, that one would have been out of the ball park."
There was a pause.
"All right, son," the stranger said, handing the bat to Jeff. "Now you try it."
"Just a minute," I said.
The man in the blue sweater turned. He must have sensed what was going through my mind, because all at once his pleasant smile took on a note of unmistakable embarrassment.
"Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to hog the show." He held the bat out. "Maybe you'd better show them."
AS DAVID LOOKED AT SAUL
I looked down at the six small boys. They were all staring up at the stranger in the blue sweater. Thus, it came to me with a funny little feeling in my heart, the way young David must have looked up at Saul when the boy was first admitted to the great king's presence. Something had just happened on this stretch of windy beach that I knew instinctively would happen to me again and again as my sons grew older. It was part of the process of growing up, of setting them free to find their own models and fashion their own yardsticks. Whether I liked it or not I could see, from the expression on the faces of Jeff and John as they stared at the man in the blue sweater, that at least so far as baseball was concerned, my day was done.
"No, you go ahead," I said, thrusting the bat back at the stranger. "It's perfectly all right."
If it wasn't at that moment, it became all right the next morning, when the sun finally broke through and I came out on the beach for a sun bath to find Jeff and John, along with at least a dozen other small boys, clustered around the stranger in the blue sweater. Except that he was no longer wearing a blue sweater. He was wearing swimming trunks and that engaging smile as, unhurriedly, patiently, with great care, he wrote a few words in one autograph book after another. When Jeff got his, he came belting across the sand toward me.
"Look!" he cried happily. "Look!"
I looked, and that's when it became all right. On the mauve-colored page, in jet black ink that was still slightly wet, the handful of words read: "To Jeff—with the best wishes of—Stan Musial."