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By Dick Meister
Bernard Regan looks as if he's going to burst. He grinds his teeth, scrunches up his eyes, and twists his face as he teeters on a low curb, a most determined 8-year-old. Up and down he bounces, one-two, one-two, one-two.
Bernard bites his tongue, leans back, all stiff, and raises a pudgy hand.
He's gripping a baseball protectively wrapped in black electrician tape.
He takes a deep breath and, finally, he pushes the misshapen ball toward a concrete wall directly across the narrow brick street.
A white square is painted on the bluish gray wall, at precisely the height of a first baseman's outstretched mitt. Well, not a real first baseman, not one of those real big guys like the San Francisco Seals' Ferris Fain, but as high as Angelo Sapio's mitt, and he's over five feet tall! The wall fronts a basement that stretches across the space below the Regans' third-floor flat and our second-floor flat next door near the top of Rose Street, three blocks of steep alley that run straight down to where Market Street cuts across at an angle and heads deep into downtown San Francisco.
Thunk. Bernard's throw hits a good two feet beneath the neat white square, and I dash over to pick up the ball as it rolls down the hill, pathump, pathump, pathump.
"My turn, my turn!"
I back up to the curb, take squint-eyed aim, and--wow!--the ball goes wobbling right into the square. I leap forward to scoop up the ball as it bounces erratically off the dusty red surface of Rose Street, make a quick sighting, and, damn, toss it way off to the right of the square.
Bernard's turn again...then mine again...then his and mine. We keep it up even after the sun goes down, even after the white square has grown gray under the dim streetlight, and we do it night after night--Bernard, me, often three or four other kids.
You have to practice all the time, you know, if you're going to be a professional.
Others delivered newspapers, helped in the backrooms of grocery stores, and did the other things kids usually did to help struggling families in those economically troubled times of the early 1940s. But not the kids on Rose Street. We worked all right--but we worked at Seals Stadium.
Those dark green wooden seats were hard, the striped cushions rented cheaply to fans were soft, and it required whole gangs of young boys to gather them up after the games. Dozens of us would scramble up and down the concrete steps of the stadium and dash along the rows of seats, snapping up cushions, often out of each other's grasp, driven to a competitive frenzy by the reward awaiting us. Ten cents each we got--plus passes to future games--but only if we worked hard enough and fast enough to grab off enough cushions to satisfy a sharp-eyed supervisor in the crisp black-and-orange uniform of the Seals' concessionaires.
The supervisor's name was Red Haas, and he was more than a source of dimes and passes. He was a baseball manager! Red operated at Big Rec, a sprawling field at Ninth Avenue and Lincoln Way in Golden Gate Park, which swarmed year-round with players of all ages. Under the pecking order, the older guys, those who played on real semi-professional teams--some for professional teams, even--had full and sole command of the two baseball diamonds. We were relegated to the far corners of the outfield, where the master was Red--in his 20s, but not good enough to be welcome among the real players on the diamonds.
We stand eagerly on the grass of Big Rec--hoping, oh, how we're hoping--as Red Haas, broad and dumpy, swaggers slowly among us, his dirty corduroy pants going swoosh, swoosh. His arms are folded and he's chewing on his lower lip, a man on a very serious mission. Finally, Red snaps his wrist toward our ranks.
"You--yeah, you in the red cap...and you, the guy in the blue hat, get over here...and you...."
Red pairs off the chosen ones for a game. As usual, Red's going to catch for one of the teams, as the cleanup batter and, of course, manager.
Some of the kids who didn't get picked stick around, looking all pouty. But most of them go over to the diamonds where the people who hang out at Big Rec all the time are watching the older players. The only grownup watching us is Red's mother. She keeps yelling, like she always does. "Norman," she hollers--Norman, that's what she calls Red-- "smack it good!"
Red made up for the lack of spectators at his game by getting us some attention in the daily newspapers. All four of the papers regularly carried extensive coverage of sandlot and semi-pro baseball, based mainly on reports from team managers. Red called the papers after every game.
That almost always resulted in at least a box score, with Red invariably listed as having gotten three, four, and sometimes five hits.
Our names all there in a row, one after another, each of us with his own position in the field and place in the batting order, each with a specified number of times at bat, and hits, and runs scored, each with a record of his own--those box scores, the neat little columns of statistics, gave each of us a history and an identity, and gave a sense of order and precision to the games that was never evident on the field.
We'd lurch at pitches over our heads or down at our ankles, or far to the right or far to the left of the satchel that served as home plate. We'd dash toward a base--a shirt or coat laid on the grass--and find it had blown away. We'd stumble and sometimes fall as we chased after batted balls, lucky if we caught half of them, luckier still if we threw out a runner in less than two bounces to first base.
But when we saw the box scores in the papers, we knew we had been real players in a real baseball game like at Seals Stadium. We were somebody. 4
Dick Meister is a writer who spent most of his youth playing baseball and most of his adult life as a journalist. He reported for the Associated Press, the San Jose Mercury News, and KQED-TV's Newsroom, and was labor editor for the San Francisco Chronicle for eight years. He is currently a freelance columnist whose work has appeared in more than 150 newspapers and magazines, from the New York Times Magazine and Christian Science Monitor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Anderson Valley Advertiser. In 1977, Meister coauthored a history of farm labor, A Long Time Coming (Macmillan). He has lived in Upper Noe with his wife Gerry for 38 years--in a home where the "raccoons, skunks, possums, neighbors' cats, scrub jays, and sparrows regularly visit the garden." Noe Valley is special, he says, because "it's a genuine, self-sufficient neighborhood with friendly, laid-back people, and wildlife and lots of greenery despite the urban setting." You can read more of Meister's articles--on travel, sports, movies, labor, and public affairs--at his web site, www.dickmeister.com.
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