Nonfiction | March 01, 1994
Trading Off: A Memoir
Winner of the 1993 Editors’ Prize for Essay
“Only a child expects justice.”
Jack Kerchman, my old high school baseball coach, was a classic ball-buster, a lot like those Marine D.L’s you see in old World War II movies. A Jew himself, “Mr. K” had a reputation for hazing the Jewish players that he thought were too soft. One of them was me.
I started hearing stories about Mr. K in the mid-fifties, when I was in junior high. In three years at the high school, his football teams won Queens (borough) championships, and the baseball team got as far as the city championship semi-finals. People in the Rockaways—neighborhood kids, parents, local merchants—began to take notice. Winning teams and wars have a way of galvanizing a neighborhood, especially in New York, where everything is measured and articulated in terms of “turf.”
According to the buzz on the playgrounds Mr. K was an obsessed man. Max Weinstein, a tight end on the football team, told us about the impassioned locker room speeches. Before each new season, Kerchman would gather the team around him in the boys’ shower and reminisce about his old college days at Syracuse, where he was a one-hundred-sixty-pound offensive guard and defensive nose tackle for coach Biggie Munn. He proudly revealed how after the war he’d had a tryout with the New York Giants and had made it to the last cut. He always finished up by saying that he did it all “on a little talent, a big heart, and a whole lot of guts.”
A Jew from the roughest part of the lower East Side, Mr. K believed that young Jewish boys, especially those from my suburban neighborhood, were “candy-asses” and quitters. At football tryouts he talked about the time he liberated a concentration camp at the end of World War II, and of how important it was for the next generation of Jews to “toughen up.” So at the first scrimmage of each new season, he made the Jewish boys play without equipment. And if you were Jewish and you wanted to pitch for the baseball team, you had to show him you could brush hitters back by throwing at their heads.
The rumors were enough to convince Ritchie Zeitler and Bobby Brower, the two best athletes in our neighborhood, to transfer to a local prep school. The stories frightened and fascinated me. But I knew I’d be trying out for the high school baseball team next year and I wanted to see this Kerchman character in action, so in September of my last year in junior high, I collared Mike Rubin and Barry Aronowsky, two of my summer league baseball buddies, and off we went to the first Saturday home football game. outside the high school field, the street hawkers sold hot dogs and popcorn, along with Rockaway High pennants, pom-poms, and trinkets. In the bleachers, students and parents chanted, “Let’s go Seahorses! Seahorses, let’s go!” The cheerleaders bounced up and down in their red-and-blue sweaters and short, pleated skirts, as the football team ran out on the field. Most of the players were only a few years older than me, but in their scarlet helmets and full gear they looked like Roman gladiators.
As I scanned the field, I saw the pitcher’s mound to the right of the south goalposts. For a long, slow moment, I floated free of the razzmatazz while I imagined myself standing on that mound in a Rockaway baseball uniform. My parents, kid brother, and friends were all in the stands, and the cheerleaders were chanting my name as I went into my wind-up and got ready to snap off a sharp, dipping curve ball.
Then I spotted Kerchman standing in front of the team bench. He was in his late thirties, maybe five eight, heavyset, wearing a chocolate-brown porkpie hat and rumpled tweed topcoat. You could hear him yelling above the crowd noise. Sometimes he’d hurl his hat to the ground and scream obscenities at a player who screwed up. He reacted to missed blocks, fumbles, broken plays—whatever derailed the game plan he’d engineered in his head. A couple of times I saw him hold offending players by the shoulder pads and shake them back and forth; and once when he was really angry, he grabbed Stuie Schneider, a Jewish kid from my neighborhood, by the jersey and tattooed him with vicious open-handed helmet slaps. His temper tantrums frightened and fascinated me; I wondered why anyone, Jewish or not, would want to play for such an animal. Then that image of me on the mound would kick back in.
My two friends had seen enough, so I went back alone to the rest of the football games that season. When I announced I was going to try out for baseball next year they told me I was crazy to even think about it.
They didn’t understand. It wasn’t a matter of merely wanting to play; I had to play. My dad, an old semi-pro infielder, had taught me how to play ball when I was eight. After dinner, out in the backyard, he’d hit me ground balls and pop flies until the sun dipped below the Union Carbide tank near the bay. On Sundays, he took me to Riss Park to watch him play fast-pitch softball double-headers with a bunch of other middle-aged jocks. By the time I turned nine, I wanted to be a ballplayer like him.
As soon as the weather turned mild, I’d scale the schoolyard fence, or be out on the street with my friends playing punchball or stickball. On weekends we’d trek twenty blocks up to Riis Park for marathon choose-up baseball games on the grass and dirt fields. Even when we went to the beach, the first thing we’d do was carve out a patch of sand near the water’s edge and get up a diamond ball game.
After school, I’d grab a broomstick and run down to Casey’s Lot, a weed-choked, rock-infested vacant field on the corner of 129th Street and Beach Channel Drive. There I’d pretend I was Duke Snider or Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, and I’d swat stones across the road into Jamaica Bay until my palms sprouted blood blisters. At night, my brother and I would grab a pink “Spauldeen” high-bouncer and play stoop baseball till the streetlights flickered on.
As much as I loved to play, though, I knew I’d never be one of the top jocks. I was what coaches called a “shlepper,” a slightly ungraceful athlete who somehow managed to get the job done. Whatever the sport, I would work hard at it, no matter what the costs—and there was always a cost. At thirteen, I was cut from the local Police Athletic League (P.A.L.) squad. Coach Bluetrich told me that I didn’t have the quick reflexes needed to play shortstop. Not playing was unthinkable, so I made up a lie. I told Bluetrich I could pitch. There isn’t a coach in his right mind who wouldn’t take on an extra batting practice pitcher. The next day he gave me an old torn uniform two sizes too big, and told me to concentrate on throwing strikes to the hitters.
That summer I taught myself how to pitch. I cut a twelve-inch hole in a bedsheet, and at night in my backyard I threw hundreds of rubber-covered baseballs at the target. I got the balls by trading my Topp’s bubble gum cards with a friend who worked at the local batting range. Under the pretense of teaching my kid brother how to bat, I pitched shaved tennis balls to him for hours. By shaving the fuzz, you could make the ball curve and dip crazily.
I didn’t throw hard enough to have what coaches call a “live arm.” In fact, my ex-teammate Andy Makrides still likes to remind me, “You had three speeds, Mike, slow, slower, slowest. And your sinker was just a dying quail. You were lucky that the pitcher’s mound was sixty feet, six inches, because if someone ever moved it back a half a foot, all your pitches would bounce before they got to the plate.”
But I worked at it. I read how-to books on pitching and studied the strengths and weaknesses of professional hitters on TV. All summer I taught myself how to throw curve balls, sliders, knuckle balls, and sinkers. I kept honing my control, and by mid-July, I could throw four out of every five pitches through the bedsheet hole.
My improvement took Bluetrich by surprise. By the end of the summer I was the team’s second starter. In the borough championship game, Bluetrich started me ahead of Lee Adnepos. Lee was my best friend and team captain, and up until then, the team’s ace pitcher. We lost the game 3-2, and Lee was so upset that he didn’t speak to me for two months.
I was happy I got to pitch the big game, but I knew Lee had worked as hard as I did. So by age thirteen, I was already vaguely sensing where all this was headed. Character and hard work didn’t have a whole lot to do with who played and who sat. It was a simple trade-off: coaches used you if they thought you could help them win games, and you put up with them because you wanted to play.
Knowing this gave me even more incentive. I improved so much that the next summer, I convinced myself that I had a chance to make the high school baseball team. A lot of others had the same illusion, though. Three hundred dreamers came out for football and another two hundred for baseball. With a student body of over three thousand, Far Rockaway was the only high school in the entire district and Mr. K had his pick of all the best jocks on the Rockaway peninsula.
As tryouts approached I knew I needed an “in.” My dad, a traveling salesman, always preached to us, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” Well, I knew Gail Sloane, my parents’ friend from across the street. Gail was an attractive woman who worked in the central office at the junior high where Kerchman taught Hygiene and Guidance, of all things. The summer before I started high school, I asked Gail to put in a word for me.
It was early September, my first day of high school. Baseball tryouts were in February, so I figured I had plenty of time before I had to worry about Kerchman. In first period homeroom, though, the teacher handed me a note: “Be at my office 3 o’clock sharp.” It was signed by Mr. K. By three, my stomach was in knots.
Kerchman’s “office” was across from the boiler room, deep in the bowels of the ancient brick building. To get there, you had to walk past the showers and through the boys’ locker room. Opening the stairwell door, I inhaled the steam from the shower, and above the hum and buzz of locker-room banter and casual small talk, I heard the clackety-clack-clack of aluminum cleats hitting the cement floor. An entire bank of lockers was reserved for Angelo Labrizzi, Mickey Imbrianni, and Leon Cholakis, the veterans I’d been watching for the past year. I’d seen them around school and at the State Diner jock table, but here in their domain they had the undeniable aura of a prestigious, exclusive club.
Though football would never be my sport, playing varsity baseball offered many of the same privileges. I’d already witnessed it for myself: Adults—your own parents—and your friends, actually paid money to watch you play; cheerleaders chanted your name (“Steinberg, Steinberg, he’s our man. If he can’t do it, no one can!”), and they kicked their bare legs so high you could see their red silk panties. After school, you sat at the jock table in the State Diner; you got to wear a tan leather jacket with a big blue-and-red “R” across the left breast, and your girlfriend wore your letter sweater to school. Maybe the biggest ego-trip of all was everybody watching with envy when you left sixth-period Econ to go on road trips.
I tried to push those thoughts out of my mind as I timidly knocked on Kerchman’s door. “It’s open,” he rasped in a deep, gravelly voice. The room was a ten-foot-square box, a glorified cubbyhole smelling of wintergreen, Merthiolate, and stale sweat socks. The brown cement floor was coated with dust and rotted-out orange peels, and on all four sides were makeshift two-by-four equipment bays, overflowing with old scuffed helmets, broken shoulder pads, torn jerseys and pants, muddy cleats, and deflated footballs, all randomly piled on top of one another. Mr. K stood under a bare light bulb wearing a baseball hat, white socks, and a jockstrap. He was holding his sweatpants and chewing a plug of tobacco. “You’re Steinberg, right?” He said my name, “Stein-berg,” slowly, enunciating and stretching out both syllables.
“I don’t beat around the bush, Stein-berg. You’re here for one reason and one reason only. Because Gail Sloane told me you were a reliable kid. What I’m looking for, Stein-berg, is an assistant football manager. I’m willing to take a chance on you.”
I wanted to run out of the room and find a place to cry. Assistant football managers were glorified water boys; they did all the “shitwork,” everything from being stretcher bearers to toting the equipment. He sensed my disappointment and waited a beat while I composed myself.
“Gail also tells me you’re a pitcher,” he muttered, as he slipped into his sweatpants.
Another tense beat. Finally he said, “In February, you’ll get your chance to show me what you’ve got.” To make certain there was no misunderstanding between us, he added, “Just like everyone else.”
Then he said, “So what’s it going to be, Stein-berg?”
It had all happened too fast. I couldn’t think straight. In a trembling, uncertain voice, I told him I’d think about it and let him know tomorrow.
My parents told me to make up my own mind. Anticipating his own embarrassment, my brother advised me to tell the coach to “shove it.” That night I lay awake, endlessly debating: “Let’s say I take the offer. Will it diminish me in Kerchman’s eyes? Will he write me off as a pitcher? Suppose I take this job and don t complain? Will it give me an edge at baseball tryouts?”
The next day in sixth-period Math, I convinced myself I had to take it. Later, when I told Kerchman the news, his only comment was, “Good, we’ve got that settled. Report to Krause, the head manager, right away. Get some sweats and cleats, and as soon as practice ends, clean up this room. Get everything stacked up in the right bins, mop the floor, and get this place shaped up.”
On his way out the door, he said, “And make sure we’ve got enough Merthiolate, cotton swabs, gauze and tape. First game’s in a week and when we step out on that field, I want us looking sharp and ready. We set the example, Stein-berg. If we do our job, the players will do theirs. You understand me, son?”
Before I could open my mouth, he said “Let us hope, Stein-berg, that you’re not one of those candy-ass Jewish quitters.”
I wanted so badly to tell him to take the job and shove it. But I told myself, “He’s testing you, trying to see how much you can take. Just hang in there.”
Along with doing the coach’s dirty work, I had to put up with a lot of crap from the other student managers and star players. Moose Imbrianni sent me on a fool’s errand for a bucket of steam; I searched for a rabbit’s foot for Leon Cholakis and came up with a pair of luck dice for Angelo Labrizzi. Before games I taped ankles, treated minor injuries and sprains, and inflated the footballs. At half-time I cut the lemons and oranges. During games I’d scrape mud off cleats, carry the water buckets and equipment, and help injured players off the field. After the games ended, I had to stay and clean out the locker room.
The worst jobs, though, were water boy and stretcher bearer. It was bad enough that I had to run out there in front of thousands of people during the time-outs. But it was humiliating to have to listen to the taunts and jeers of my friends. Whenever I heard “Hey water boy, I’m thirsty, bring the bucket over here!” or “Man down on the fifty, medic; get the stretcher!” I wanted to run off the field and just keep going. Away from practice, I avoided my friends. As often as I could, I took the public bus to school, and I stayed away from dances and neighborhood parties. I thought constantly about quitting, but I was already in too deep. If I quit now, I could kiss my baseball dreams goodbye.
Much as I hated those menial jobs, watching Kerchman in action still intrigued me. In his pre-game pep-talks, he invoked the names of past Far Rockaway football heroes, and gave impassioned sermons on the value of courage, character, loyalty, and team play. His practice scrimmages were grueling tests of stamina and fortitude. If players didn’t execute according to his expectations, he’d single them out for public ridicule. His favorite victim was poor Stuie Schneider.
One mid-season practice, it was getting late and everyone was whipped. On a drop-back pass play, Stuie gently brush-blocked Harold Zimmerman, the oncoming defensive tackle. Harold and Stuie were friends and neither one wanted to hurt the other, especially in a meaningless scrimmage. But as soon as Kerchman smelled it, he stopped the scrimmage and gave them the “Jews are chickenshits” routine. Then without warning, it turned into a scene right out of High Noon.
“Let’s see what you’re made of, Schneider,” he said. Without pads or a helmet, the coach took a three-point stance on the defensive line and came charging right at Stuie. As scared as he was to hit the coach, Stuie knew what the stakes were, so he knocked Kerchman right on his butt. Everyone looked down at the ground and pawed the dirt with their cleats, waiting to see what the coach would do. Just as Harold shot Stuie an “Oh shit” look, Mr. K got up and brushed himself off. Then he clapped Stuie warmly on his shoulder pads, stuck out his jaw and spat out a wad of brown tobacco juice. “That’s the right way to hit,” he said to the rest of the squad. “You make the man pay.”
It didn’t take me long to understand what Kerchman was trying to teach the Jewish players. In an early season game against St. Francis Prep, Stevie Berman, our star quarterback, was picking the St. Francis secondary apart with his passing game. When we lined up offensively, their guys tried to unnerve Stevie, calling him “dirty Jew,” and “kike,” and yelling, “The Jews killed Christ.” We’d heard it all before—at our own practices. All it did was make our linemen block harder. By the end of the first quarter, we were ahead by three touchdowns, and everyone could sense a fight coming. On the next offensive series, their nose tackle deliberately broke Stevie’s leg as he lay pinned at the bottom of a pileup. It’s an easy trick: you just grab a guy’s leg and twist. As we carried Stevie off on a stretcher, Mr. K grabbed his hand and said, “Don’t you worry pal, they’ll pay for this.”
Leon Cholakis, our 275-pound All-City tackle, lived for moments like this. All game, he’d been waiting for Coach K to turn him loose. Sure enough, on the next offensive series, Cholakis hurled himself full force on their prone quarterback and fractured the guy’s collarbone. Even on the sidelines, you could hear the bone snap. It made me nauseous, yet a piece of me felt like cheering Kerchman for protecting his players.
At the season-ending awards banquet, Kerchman surprised me again by giving me a varsity letter. When I stepped up to the podium, he shook my hand and said, “Nice job, son, see you in the spring.” It would have been a breach of decorum for a student manager to wear his letter; still, the gesture flattered me and my hopes shot up.
On February 15th, over two hundred jittery hopefuls gathered for baseball tryouts in the high school gym. Kerchman announced that he had only ten spots to fill and that four of them would be pitchers. Then he began the tryouts. Standing twenty yards away, he swatted rubber-covered baseballs at the would-be fielders. When he ripped a hard grounder at a player, the rubber ball would skip off the basketball court’s wood surface and spin crazily across the floor. If the fielder missed the ball, it would rocket into the gymnasium’s brick wall with a loud “thwack,” then ricochet back. The terrified rookies watched from the oval running track above the gym while those veterans who’d already survived this ritual stood confidently behind the coach, horsing around and heckling the newcomers.
The last to try out were the new pitchers. To make this ordeal more unsettling, Kerchman placed seven or eight pitchers in a line across the width of the basketball floor. We each had our own catcher, and one hitter to.pitch to. No nets or batting cages. Kerchman stood up on the running track, and when he blew his whistle all the pitchers threw to the hitters. It was rough enough trying to concentrate on throwing strikes to varsity hitters, but as soon as you let go with a pitch, line drives and ground balls went whizzing past you. It was a scene right out of a Keystone Kops movie.
We did this drill for three consecutive days before I was able to screen out all the distractions and dangers. By the last day, my arm ached every time I threw a pitch. I was sure I would never make the cut. Two days later, Kerchman posted the final squad list. One spot was sure to go to Mike Saperstein, a cocky, Jewish left-hander from my neighborhood. I disliked him, yet envied his arrogance. A rich kid with a chip on his shoulder, he was handsome, a good athlete, a ladies’ man, and an honors student. Saperstein kissed no one’s ass. Like Kerchman, you either came to him on his terms or Sap simply ignored you.
As I scanned the alphabetically listed names, right below “Saperstein” was “Steinberg.” At first I thought there must be another Steinberg, but when I read my first name, I was so happy I wanted to phone everyone I knew. When I went to the equipment cage, though, the student manager informed me that “batting practice pitchers don’t get uniforms.” Nor, as I learned, did they travel to road games with the rest of the team. Then came the kicker. “At home games,” he said, “your job is to stand at the home plate entrance and retrieve the foul balls that are hit out of the park.”
My gut burned; I wanted to march right into Kerchman’s office and ask him why. But I already knew what he’d say. He’d cut at least three or four pitchers who were far more talented than I was. When I calmed down, I reminded myself that at least I’d made the team. I remembered my P.A.L. days and how surprised Bluetrich was by my progress. Maybe if I worked hard enough and improved, Mr. K would give me a chance to pitch.
When I began throwing batting practice, Kerchman was observant enough to see that I could throw strikes. But I was cannon fodder, just what Mr. K and the hitters wanted. In the beginning, most of the veterans teased me because I couldn’t throw very hard. “Hey water boy, toss that watermelon up here,” Imbrianni kidded. This time the hazing didn’t bother me. Two years of summer league had taught me that big, free-swinging sluggers like Imbrianni were usually too impatient. They wanted to crank everything out of the park. When I threw off-speed sliders and curves, most of the time the big hitters overswung and popped the ball up. I got a real kick out of that. I also enjoyed it when I got to pitch a few intrasquad game innings with the varsity fielders behind me. I had a good sinker and when it was working, the best a batter could do was to hit a hard grounder, a piece of cake for a good infielder.
I wasn’t doing too badly for a flunkey, but when I looked to Mr. K for some kind of acknowledgment, he’d say things to the hitters like, “What’s with you guys? If you let a little piss-ant like Steinberg here make you look like a monkey, what’s gonna happen when you face a really good pitcher?”
Then there were days when I’d have to stay late to pitch batting practice to the scrubs. The worst times were those Saturday mornings in March when the stiff ocean breezes blew winter’s last snow flurries across the frozen diamond, and the rest of the team sat huddled in parkas while Henry Koslan, another scrubbie, and I threw batting practice. Another painful indignity was having to listen to the varsity players complain about how hard Mr. K was driving them. Those guys didn’t know how good they had it.
By mid-season I was feeling so down that I had to do a psych job on myself just to get to practice. The team was good, I rationalized, on the way to winning the league championship. Imbrianni was leading the city in hitting. Stevie Berman and Jack Gartner, both still juniors, were two of the best pitchers in New York. Even Mr. K’s protégé, Mike Saperstein, only got to pitch the last few innings of a blow-out. It was only my first year, I kept reminding myself. I just had to wait my turn. But chasing those damn foul balls while my friends in the stands ragged on me was too much like the humiliation I’d felt as a freshman football manager. By season’s end I was just putting in time. We won our last five games and cruised into the playoffs. Just when it seemed that we might go all the way, Berman had his only off game of the season, and we were eliminated in the borough finals.
The long season ended, as always, with the traditional awards banquet. The local media, school bigwigs, and our families all attended. I got a minor letter and enviously watched each member of the “big team” receive his varsity letter. It came as no surprise that Imbrianni won the John Kelly Award, the gold medal that traditionally went to the team’s inspirational leader and most valuable player. Next year it would be my turn: I’d prove to that S.O.B. I could pitch for him.
Over the summer, I grew a couple of inches and put on twenty pounds. I worked in a factory lifting heavy boxes, ran two miles a day, and worked out with weights. On those nights when we didn’t play a summer league game, I went over to Al Seidman’s to work on new pitches and strategies. Al was a friend of my dad’s and a former minor-league pitcher. Three nights a week in his backyard, he made me concentrate on pitching to specific spots. Al also showed me how to throw the curve ball at three different speeds, and in post-workout conversations he doped out strategies for out-thinking hitters. When I went to the Dodger games on Saturday, I sat behind home plate and kept detailed notes; I charted the good hitters’ tendencies, and scrutinized: the best pitcher’s mechanics.
That fall I wasn’t planning on being an assistant football manager again. On the first day of practice, though, Mr. K cornered me in the boy’s john, and told me this year I’d be the liaison between the football players and the head manager. “Look at this as a promotion, Stein-berg,” he said, while I stood at the latrine fumbling with my zipper. It later occurred to me that this was the first time Kerchman had ever sought me out for anything. There was no way I could turn him down.
That season, I had a much easier time of it. Mostly I worked with Krause, delegating my old chores to the junior managers. On game days, I stood behind the bench, keeping the stats, and after the games I wrote up the results for the newspapers. At the banquet I got another varsity letter that I couldn’t wear. The one I wanted I was determined to earn this spring. By early January, I’d already begun working on it, throwing indoors with Bob Milner, the team’s second-string catcher.
This time at tryouts I practiced with the veterans, made the cut, and got a uniform. I knew I had to wait my turn behind Berman, Gartner, and Saperstein, but I hadn’t counted on Andy Makrides and Steve Coan. Both were a year younger than me, and both were big and strong and threw hard. I sensed I was being passed over, but I pitched batting practice and took studious notes on opposing hitters. It was hard, but I kept my mouth shut and waited my turn. Just as I was ready to confront Kerchman, he gave me three innings in the last pre-season game. The man knew just how far he could go with me.
I knew if I didn’t show him something special right then, I might never get another chance. I started out tight, my concentration was off. I walked the first man, got the next on a force play, then gave up a hard-hit double, and walked another man. I remembered Al Seidman’s advice, “Keep the ball low and change your speeds,” and I got through that inning and the next two without giving up a run. Even doing less than my best convinced me I could pitch at this level. What mattered was that Kerchman believed it; and I knew I’d have to wait to find that out.
I got my answer when the league season began. We had another strong team. Berman and Gartner pitched the important games, Saperstein got an occasional start, and was first man out of the bullpen. In the blowouts, Makrides and Coan always got to finish. I never even got a call to warm-up. During the bus trips home and in the locker room, everyone partied. I felt invisible. To avoid having to deal with teammates, I’d linger in the shower and wait for the cliques to leave. Then I’d dress alone, and take the bus home by myself. The few times I hung out at the State Diner with the rest of the team, I had to watch the guys preen for the cheerleaders and hold court for the crowd. And when I read the write-ups in the newspapers about our great team, I was sure I was missing out on something special, something that might never happen again. What if we won the city championship and I never got to play?
During the games I found myself silently rooting against my own team. I sat on the bench or in the bullpen and prayed that we’d get blown out, just so he’d give me a few innings. At night I dreamed up scenarios where Mr. K would be up at bat and I’d hit him in the head with a pitch. Or, I’d be at bat and I’d rip a line drive right at his nuts. There were so many days when I was mad enough to walk into his office and confront him, but I was sure that he’d order me to turn in my uniform. If I quit, I wanted it to be on my terms. With three games left, the team clinched the Queens championship. Everyone got crazy on the bus ride home, and when we arrived back at school, the cheerleaders and a crowd of screaming boosters greeted us. I slipped away as fast as I could.
Some guys can handle sitting on the bench, wearing a uniform and boasting to envious friends that they’re on a winning team. Henry Koslan, the other batting-practice pitcher, had that kind of disposition. Henry went to practice every day, never got in a game, and never complained. The Koslans of the world are blessed: somehow they’ve learned to accept their destiny without questioning it.
Not me, though. Every time I sat and watched, I ached to participate, to contribute; I needed to be acknowledged, especially by this coach, this hard-nosed Jewish street-fighter, this man whose ethic puzzled and repulsed me. I wanted Kerchman’s respect and naively I believed that if I did what Mr. K asked of me, and didn’t complain or quit, eventually I’d earn his approval. Too absorbed in self-pity, I’d forgotten what I’d learned from Joe Bluetrich three years ago. Hard work didn’t matter, character didn’t matter, respect and approval didn’t matter. In coaches’ minds, the only thing that counts is winning games. But you couldn’t win games if you didn’t pitch. There was still enough time to earn the letter. Surely Kerchman owed me that much, didn’t he?
The next game was at home and we were playing Richmond Hill, a weak team. It was a perfect opportunity for him to make it all up to me. But in front of the home crowd, in front of my friends and family, Kerchman started Henry Koslan. I was stunned, but I figured I’d get my innings later on. Before he even got an out, Koslan gave up six runs. I kept waiting for Kerchman to tell me to head for the bullpen and warm up. Instead he brought in Saperstein, then Coan, then Makrides. How could he pass me up? What was he thinking?
I sat on the bench and brooded,. counting the put-outs until the game would end. In the last inning we were two runs down when he told me to warm up. I wanted to scream, “What took you so fucking long?” Instead, I threw listlessly, waiting for the end. But with two outs, we loaded the bases. A single would tie the game. Suddenly I saw myself out there pitching with the game on the line. That got my adrenaline going and I started throwing harder. I prayed for a banjo hit, a blooper, a dying quail, a nubber with eyes—anything to get me in there. But Hausig’s fly ball ended the game and my dream. Next thing I knew I was standing in Kerchman’s office, screaming wildly at him, tears running down my face.
He stood there in his jockstrap and undershirt and didn’t say a word. When I wound down, he shook his head and said, “Not bad. I didn’t think you had the balls for this.” Then he let me have it.
He began to lecture me about the importance of momentum to a winning team, about morale and confidence, and how the team couldn’t afford a losing streak right before the playoff. I wanted to say, “What about my goddamn morale, how about my confidence?” But in a voice I didn’t recognize, I blurted out, “You don’t even have to pitch me, coach. Put me in the outfield, let me bat just one time. I just want my letter.”
As soon as I got the words out I knew I’d said the wrong thing. “I decide who plays and who doesn’t,” he snapped. And then, as if he knew he’d gone too far, he backed off. “Your day in the sun will come.” His eyes narrowed and he spat out, “And you better be good and goddamn ready when it does.”
I walked home in a daze, thinking about how life would be without Kerchman. No more five-hour practices and sitting on the bench, no more getting home at nine o’clock too tired to even do my homework or to hang out at Irv’s candy store with the guys. Now was the perfect time to tell him to take the uniform and stick it up his ass. But I waffled. There was only one more week to get through. Not wanting to give him the satisfaction, I told myself to stick it out until the end of the season, then put it all behind me.
I went to the last two games pretending not to care what happened. But Kerchman had one trick left. He called me in to pitch the last two innings of a tune-up game. We were winning by six runs, so there was nothing at stake. Too surprised to be nervous, I packed two seasons of frustration and rage into those innings. I bore down and concentrated like it was the last game of the World Series. I threw curve balls and sinkers, I changed speeds and mixed locations. I got all six hitters in a row, easy outs. It felt so exhilarating to be out there that I wanted those two innings to last forever. When they were over, I was so high I wanted the varsity letter more than ever. Once I got it, I could walk away from the whole thing. Clean break, nothing more to prove to him—or to myself.
As it turned out we were eliminated again in the borough finals, by the same team and same pitcher that had beat us last year. For the first time since I’d known him, Kerchman didn’t yell on the trip home or make a locker-room speech. He just went into his office and shut the door. I was relieved and elated that this painful season was over; I couldn’t wait to turn in my uniform and get the hell out of there. But when I passed by his office, Mr. K was still sitting in his uniform staring at the wall. I realized that it was more than just a play-off loss to him. He was losing two All-City pitchers and two All-Queens seniors from a squad that had won three straight borough championships. Next year, he’d be starting from scratch. My first impulse was to feel sorry for him.
At the banquet, the mood was subdued. Still, it was a prestigious event. Kerchman had invited the past years’ Kelly Award winners to make the customary inspirational speeches. When I listened to them deliver the old rah-rah, I remembered how good it had felt to pitch those last few innings. Stevie Berman and Jack Gartner shared the Kelly Award, and Mike Hausig won The Long Island Press M.V.P. trophy. Next year, those guys would be gone. No matter, I’d made up my mind to pack it in.
Then Koslan received his varsity letter. That sealed it. I knew I had to be next. When Kerchman shook my hand and handed me a minor letter instead, my stomach turned over and I had to bite my lower lip hard. I don’t recall a single detail from the rest of the evening. I didn’t even wait for my dad or brother to take me home. For hours I wandered around the neighborhood, playing the same tape over and over in my head: “How could I have let him do this to me? Why didn’t I quit when I had the chance? Why didn’t I throw the letter back in his face?”
When I came out of it, I was wandering barefoot on the beach, my suit pants rolled up to my knees. I took the letter out of my jacket and scaled it like a seashell out to sea. I felt some relief when it disappeared into the black water, but that night and for three nights after that, I didn’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time.
The last week of school I avoided my teammates and friends, and cut out as soon as the three o’clock bell rang. When school ended, there was no question that I was through with Kerchman.
With the pressure off, that summer I pitched better than ever and I beat Makrides for the league championship and was a starter on an American Legion team that went all the way to the state finals. Yet every time I thought about Kerchman and the baseball banquet, the sting was still there.
The first week of the next school year I was chosen sports editor of the paper, and given my own monthly column—headshot, byline, the whole works. When the New York Times and Herald Tribune sports desks assigned me to write up the high school football games for them, I said to myself, who needed baseball? Who needed to put up with Kerchman’s horseshit?
A week after football practice started, I was working late at the paper when Kerchman phoned. “Where the goddamned hell have you been?” he rasped. “You’re my head football manager. Get your ass down here!” What chutzpah the man had! I stammered that I’d made other commitments this year and I wouldn’t be coming back; then I braced myself for the fall-out. All he said was, “I see,” and hung up. Instead of feeling vindicated, relieved, I felt guilty, like somehow I’d undermined him. It was all I could do to fight off the impulse to call him back.
Two days later, Andy Makrides called and dropped the news on me that Henry Koslan had died of Leukemia. Kerchman had known about Koslan’s condition for almost a year, but he’d promised the family he wouldn’t tell anybody. Makrides said that the baseball team would be attending a memorial service the next day and Kerchman wanted me there.
Mr. K’s backhanded gesture didn’t compensate for what he’d done to me for two years, but it did explain a few things. After the service, I told him I’d take the job, but only if I got time off to write my column. I deliberately made no mention of baseball.
The next day Mr. K held a special squad meeting. “If any of you gives Steinberg any flak,” he told the troops, “you’ll answer to me.” It was the first time he’d pronounced my name with the right emphasis. Momentarily I was flattered—he’d never said anything like that about Krause or any of the other student managers—but I decided to reserve my judgment.
As his second in command, I delegated all the menial jobs to the new assistants. During the season, I became a kind of silent confidant to this obsessed coach. When the other managers scurried around servicing the players, I stood next to him taking notes on a clipboard while he muttered complicated strategies to me. Though I felt a secret pride at being taken into his confidence, I was angry with myself for feeling so beholden to him.
In the early practice sessions, I noticed a change in Mr. K. He still threw temper tantrums when we lost games we should have won, and he still inflicted public punishments on players who screwed up, but I never heard him make one cruel or derogatory remark about Jews being quitters or “candy-asses.” With so many of his veterans graduated, Kerchman had resigned himself to rebuilding the team. Several times that season in fact, he caught me off-guard by sending me to counsel some of the more troubled players. I wondered what he had up his sleeve.
At the banquet, he gave me the customary “See you in a few months” line, as he handed me my third useless letter. This time I wasn’t going to get my hopes up. I wasn’t even sure I’d try out for baseball.
Two weeks before tryouts, I was working late on my sports column when I came across an article in the Long Island Press sports section. It quoted Kerchman as saying, “The mainstays of my pitching staff in this rebuilding season will be my two seniors, Mike Saperstein and Mike Steinberg. Juniors Andy Makrides and Steve Coan will be the number-two and -three starters.” About Mike Steinberg, he went on to say that “the right-hander will be the first man out of the bullpen, as well as an occasional starter. He has excellent control and an effective sinker, both important weapons for a relief pitcher.” I read the interview over again before it finally sunk in. Two more articles spotlighting me and Saperstein soon appeared, one of them in the school paper, written by my own sports reporter. It was just too seductive. How could I pass it up? I had to at least call his hand on this one. Didn’t I?
From minute one of the new season practices were like a day at the beach. Because I was part of Kerchman’s inner sanctum, all of the new players looked up to me, strangers in my classes—even some of my teachers—treated me with a respect I’d never experienced. When I sat at the State Diner jock table, girls fawned all over us. I loved it, yet part of me was waiting for the other shoe to drop.
In the pre-season games, Mr. K made sure I got to throw a few innings in every game. By the time we opened our league season, I couldn’t wait to get out there and show him what I could do. In the first home game, against Wilson Vocational, Kerchman brought me in to relieve Saperstein. It was the last inning of a scoreless game, and Mike had pitched beautifully. Everyone on the bench saw he was getting tired, but when Mr. K came out to the mound, Sap did something I’d never seen before. In front of the team, fans, and school officials, he screamed, “I’m throwing a shutout here! The scouts came to see me pitch, not Steinberg!” Normally, Mr. K would can a player’s ass for a lot less than that, but Sap was our best pitcher, and Kerchman needed him. Bringing me in was his only way of keeping his hot-headed ace in line.
Maybe it was because Sap’s outburst had shaken me up, or because my parents, brother, and girlfriend were watching—maybe I was tight because this was my first league game. Whatever the reasons, I froze up. I threw my warm-ups in a daze. My first pitch to Fletcher Thompson, Wilson’s best hitter, was a gut shot, a letter-high fast ball that he jacked out of the park. As I watched the ball disappear, I was sure Saperstein would come charging out to the mound and strangle me. That is, if Kerchman didn’t beat him to it.
My cheeks burned and my shirt was soaked with flop sweat. How could I have thrown him a fast ball when I didn’t even have a fast ball? Thinking about it tightened me up even more, and I walked the next two men on eight pitches. I looked to the bench, then to the bullpen for help. Nobody was throwing. Kerchman was going to leave me in to take a beating or to pitch my way through it. Just knowing that somehow settled me down, and I started concentrating on what I knew how to do best. Keeping the ball low and mixing my pitches, I got the next three outs.
In the bottom half of the inning our first baseman, Dickie Webb, hit a home run off Thompson. The game ended in a tie, called on account of darkness. I should have been relieved at getting off the hook so easily, but it ate away at me that I’d almost blown the game. The hardest part was knowing that if I didn’t get another chance to redeem myself, I’d carry my failure and shame for the rest of the season—and for who knows how much longer after that.
The next game was away, at Jamaica High. Right away, we got off to a five-run lead. But Makrides lasted only four innings before they tied it up. I looked over at Kerchman, but he’d already signaled for Coan to warm up. No surprise there; still, it felt like a razor nick. We went ahead again, but Coan couldn’t hold the lead. It’s a terrible thing to have to root against your own teammate, but I did, and when Jamaica got within a run of us, I began to feel a flicker of hope. In the Jamaica half of the fifth, with the score tied and the bases loaded, Kerchman motioned at me to warm up. Just before he put me in he said, “Show me you’ve got the guts I think you have.” Then he handed me the ball. It was all I needed to hear.
Right from the start, I held my concentration and made sure I kept the ball down and away. By forcing the batters to hit ground balls, I got my three outs without giving up a run. We scored four more times and won the game, 10-6. When it was over, I’d pitched three scoreless, hitless innings. The full impact didn’t register until the bus ride home, when for the first time, I joined in as we yelled and whistled and hooted out the window at the girls on the street. We loudly sang along as Dion and the Belmonts harmonized, “I Wonder Why” on the bus radio. Everyone on the team—except Saperstein—signed the winning game ball for me. That night as I walked home in the dark, it began to rain. I slid the baseball under my jacket pocket and clutched it to my chest. When I got to my block, I was soaking wet, crying hysterically, and singing “I Wonder Why” at the top of my voice.
Like most coaches who find a winning combination, Kerchman went with the same formula almost every game. He’d start Saperstein, Makrides or Coan, and in the fifth or sixth inning of close games, he’d come in with me. Usually I got my outs, but the one time I blew a lead I couldn’t study or sleep until I pitched again.
All spring it felt strange to read my name in the newspaper write-ups, sign autographs for neighborhood kids, and listen to the cheerleaders chant “Steinberg! Steinberg!” My new problem, of course, was Mike Saperstein. He hated sharing the limelight, especially’ with a former scrubbie. Every time I came in to relieve him, Sap took it as a personal insult. “You better not blow my game, peckerhead,” he said one time. And on another occasion, “Keep it low, jerk-off. I don’t want my E.R.A. getting screwed up because you can’t keep the fuckin’ ball in the park.” But after two years of Mr. K’s hazing, Mike couldn’t rattle me. I was pitching well and I knew it.
With a week left, our rag-tag team was in a four-way tie for first place. The whole season came down to consecutive road games against the three other leaders. In the re-match against Wilson Vocational; Saperstein threw eleven innings of one-hit ball before he walked two men and gave up a sacrifice bunt. At that point, Kerchman brought me in. We had a 1-0 lead and they had the tying run on third, the winning run on second. With everything on the line, I had to pitch to Fletcher Thompson again. From the bench, Saperstein screamed, “Walk him, asshole!” This time, Sap was right—with first base open, it was the obvious strategy—but Mr. K didn’t agree. He came out to the mound and ordered me to pitch to him.
I knew Thompson would be salivating to get another crack at me. Tease him, I told myself. Keep the ball low and away, out of his kitchen. Walk him if you have to, but don’t give him anything fat to hit. On a two and one slider that was deliberately low and outside, he reached out and uppercut a soft fly ball to left field. Ira Heid dove and caught it on his shoe tops. When the runner at third tagged and headed home, Ira bounced up and threw him out at the plate. Bang-bang play. The game was over; we were still alive. When I got to the bench, Saperstein was livid, and to tell you the truth, I didn’t blame him. He’d pitched an almost perfect game for twelve innings; I just threw just four pitches and got the game ball—and the next day’s headline.
Against Andrew Jackson High, Kerchman put me in again in the last inning of a 5-4 game. Coan was pitching with a one-run lead and they had the bases loaded and no outs. At bat was Otto Agostinelli, a six-four free-swinger who led the league in home runs and strikeouts. My favorite kind of hitter. For reasons I’ll never understand, Kerchman waited until Coan went all the way down to 3-0 on Agostinelli before he yanked him and brought me in. It was an impossible situation.
“You’ve got a run to give, but that’s all.” He spat a plug of tobacco juice and slapped the ball into my glove. “Get me out of this with a tie. I just want one more at-bat.”
I was sure that with a 3-0 count, even Otto would be under orders to take the first two pitches. So I threw him two strikes, both gut shots with nothing on them. I saw him grimace on the second one. He wanted that pitch back. With the count full, I had a chance. He’d seen my first two pitches and he’d be looking for another cripple right down the middle. On the 3-2 pitch, I gambled and jammed him with a sinker that should have been ball four. He swung, thank God, and tapped a weak ground ball to me. Easy force-play at home plate. One gone.
A kind of seesaw psych game goes on between a pitcher and opposing hitters. At first you’ve got to prove yourself to them; they’re all over you, yelling stuff like “Come on cream puff, show me what you got!” But once you get that first out, the pressure shifts, and the hitters start to tighten up. And that’s just what happened. The last two outs were almost too easy. A soft line drive to second base, a grounder to third, and that was the game.
On the bus trip home I wanted to sink back in my seat and enjoy what I had just accomplished, but I didn’t have that luxury. We still had to beat Van Buren. Their pitcher, Joe Sabbaritto, was the top prospect in the city, and their three and four.hitters, Bill McNab and Al Schumacher, were leading the borough in hitting.
For the first three innings of the Van Buren game, Sabbaritto was throwing over ninety miles an hour. But he couldn’t find the plate, and when he did, his catcher couldn’t hold onto the ball. Kerchman knew that when this guy got his rhythm back, we’d never hit the ball in fair territory again. So we scratched out five runs on walks, passed balls, bunts, errors, and stolen bases. In the third inning, Sabbaritto found the groove and then he shut us down, striking out eight of the next nine hitters. He was throwing so hard his fast ball looked like an aspirin tablet as it buzzed past.
Meanwhile, Van Buren kept pecking away at the lead, and when I relieved Makrides in the sixth inning we were ahead 5-4. With two out and two men on, McNab hit a hard single to tie the score. I knew we were in trouble.
From the sixth inning on, there was a strange sense of inevitability about the game. We all felt it. There was no chatter on the bench. Even Mr. K was subdued, almost as if he, too, was hypnotized by what Sabbaritto was doing out there. We were in a tie game with the league title on the line, yet it felt like our team was ten runs down. It was weird going out there every inning and knowing that unless Sabbaritto had another sudden wild streak, we wouldn’t score again. It didn’t look like that was going to happen, so I decided to take it one batter at a time. I created my own private little game-within-a-game just to see how long I could make the real game last.
Mainly on adrenaline and fear, I got through six more scoreless innings. But in the bottom of the thirteenth McNab got to third on a misplayed fly ball, and on a 2-2 count, Schumacher punched a weak-ass sinker past the shortstop for the winning hit. For the last six innings I’d known it had to end this way—we all did. On the bus ride home no one said a word. One minute I was empty and sad because I’d lost the season’s biggest game; the next minute I was elated because I’d pitched the seven best innings of my life.
A few days later I realized that we’d gone way beyond even Kerchman’s expectations. He knew it too. So much so that at the banquet, he gave everyone a varsity letter. While I was chewing on that injustice, Mr. K began to recite the customary platitudes before giving out the Kelly Award. I’d heard the speech so many times that I tuned most of it out. Besides, Louie Stroller, the student manager, had leaked it to several of us that the Kelly already had Saperstein’s name engraved on it.
Mike was a jerk, but he’d had a great season. We all knew he deserved the award. I looked over at him and I could read his mind: with one hand he was slipping the medal around some pretty cheerleader’s neck; with his free hand he was reaching down her blouse to cop a feel. So when Kerchman announced my name and said to that roomful of people, “Mike Steinberg is a kid who’s made the most out of a little bit of talent, a big heart, and a whole lot of guts,” I was too stunned to move. Before I could even stand up, Sap yelled, “I don’t fucking believe this!” and stormed out of the restaurant, kicking over tables and chairs as he went. I hated Sap for upstaging me again, but I admired his chutzpah. A year earlier in that same room, I’d wanted to stand up and tell Kerchman to stick it. Instead I let him sweettalk me into playing. And now this.
I can’t recall how I got to the dais, but I remember standing next to him—my thoughts scrambled, my throat so dry I couldn’t swallow. Kerchman had his arm draped around my shoulder, flashbulbs were popping all around me, and everyone was standing and applauding. I squinted through tears, frantically searching the crowd for a glimpse of my dad and brother.
Last year while rummaging through an old trunk, I found the Kelly Award and a memoir my brother had written about his own high school baseball days. In his locker room speeches, Alan wrote, Mr. K talked about this little Jewish relief pitcher whose uniform didn’t fit and who didn’t have a whole lot of talent. But the boy, he said, always seemed to be at his best under extreme pressure. In fact he’d bring this kid into impossible situations—tie game, bases loaded no outs, that kind of thing—and he’d say to him, “Son, I want you to get me two ground balls and a pop fly.” And that pitcher, my brother Mike, would somehow figure out a way to get the other team to hit two ground balls and a pop fly.
As I scanned the passage my first response was: “A typical Kerchman speech; the old psych job for the benefit of the rookies.” But I was also moved by what I’d read. Some part of me knew that in his own perverse way Mr. K had given me what I had been asking for all along: a nod of acceptance from one kind of Jew to another.
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