The Boy in The Bullpen
Where: York Avenue , 10028 New York (United States). When: on 08-07-1961.
Written at 02-08-2011 by Thomas Pryor
Labels - Boy in the Bullpen Yankee Stadium 1961 Thomas R. Pryor Loftus Tavern Johnny Cash I Walk the Line Whitey Ford Mickey Mantle
“Nice catch, Tommy,” Dad said.
“Thanks,” I answered.
We continued our ritual - Dad on the south side of 85th Street and me on the north side. We played outside Loftus Tavern on York Avenue.
Loftus, where my Dad danced on the bar the night I was born.
He threw high ones off the wall, teaching me how to play Fenway Park’s left field. If I was going to play for the Yankees, I had to conquer the “Green Monster.” The most treacherous barrier in baseball.
I described the action to the fans. “Oh my! Tommy makes a shoestring catch, whirls, and fires a strike into second base robbing Carl Yastrzemski of a double.”
“Last throw,” Dad said.
The ball flew over my head. I turned and put my hand where I thought it would be.
Dad ran across the street and gave me a hug. Our catch never ended on a dropped ball.
Arm in arm, we entered the tavern, where the air conditioner buzzed over our heads. The mingling of my sweat with the chill delighted me. Our thirst was deep.
It was July 1961. I had a dime in my dungaree pocket. I put Johnny Cash on the jukebox and draped my body over it. The bass rumbled through my belly, boom, boom, boom:
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.
I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds.
Because you’re mine, I walk the line.
After the song, I climbed onto a barstool alongside Dad. Jack Loftus brought us a beer and a Coke – our usual. The newspapers were spread over the bar. I grabbed the Daily News and dug into the sports pages. There were three other customers – Dad’s friends, Gene & Allie – and my Uncle Mickey.
I hurled my first salvo, “Ford’s pitching today and going for his 10th straight win. Imagine that, old Whitey going for 10 straight before the All Star break?”
Gene and Allie’s ears perked up. They loved Ford.
“Chairman of the Board,” they said with hushed respect each time his name was mentioned.
My next target was Uncle Mickey.
“Wow, Mantle and Maris are both ahead of Ruth’s home run pace. The way they’re slugging the ball, they both could break the record.”
Uncle Mickey’s eyes left his newspaper. He knew I loved Mantle.
“They better do it in 154 games,” he said. “Otherwise, the record may not count.”
“Will too,” I said.
“We’ll see. There’s a rumor the Baseball Commissioner will give the record an asterisk if it happens after the 154th game.”
I had no clue what an asterisk was - but whatever it was, I didn’t want one next to Mantle’s name. I glared at my uncle. He smirked. I didn’t care.
I had an agenda today: These guys were taking me to Yankee Stadium to watch Whitey Ford beat the Boston Red Sox.
I knew I had to ask at the right time. Too soon, would be before the third beer.
I’d learned that somewhere between the third and fourth beer, euphoria took grown men to a place, where most normally dismissed suggestions, became done deeds.
Too late, would be any point after the fourth beer. They’d be settled in & lazy and the thought of going back out into the heat, would keep them in the bar all afternoon.
The third beer was served – I waited ‘til each took a sip.
“Hey guys, when was the last time we went up to the Bronx together? Wasn’t it the Indians the day before Mother’s Day? We gotta see the old ballpark; catch some sun in the bleachers? What do you say?”
My tanning reference was aimed at my handsome uncle.
Everyone exchanged looks. I put on my pathetic face. Dad paused for a moment then shook his head and said, “You’re a real piece of work.”
He rubbed my dirt brown crew-cut, pushed off his barstool, and slapped both hands on the bar.
“Let’s go men. Chairman Ford needs our support. Jack, save our seats.”
We rose together and drained our drinks. Jack cleared the glasses and the cardboard Rheingold coasters off the wet bar. He swept it dry with one long ride of his rag.
“Have a great time men,” Jack said, winking at me. He leaned over the bar and whispered, “Nice job, Tommy.”
Out in the street, the heat smacked us in the face. A Checker cab flew by. Fearing a retreat, I yelled “CAB-BAY.” We piled in and Dad said, “Johnny, Yankee Stadium.”
Unbelievable, he did it again. Dad knew every cab driver’s name and they were all Johnnies.
We raced up the FDR Drive with all the windows rolled down. I sat on the East River side of the cab with my head sticking out the window, catching air in my mouth. Done with that, I began singing beer jingles, getting in the mood for the game:
Baseball and Ballantine, Baseball and Ballantine,
What a combination, all across the nation, Baseball and Ballantine!
I moved into my next number. The fellows joined in:
The most rewarding flavor in this man’s world,
For people who are having fun.
Schaefer, is the, one beer to have,
When you’re having more than one!
The pull up seat built into the cab’s floor resembled a toilet bowl with no opening for doing your business. It was my favorite amusement ride. I flew around the space like a bottle cap in an empty clothes dryer. Trips were rated by the number of times my head smacked the roof. Eleven. This was a good one.
The driver dropped us off under the El on River Avenue. A train roared over our heads. I looked up at the large green sign, “Bleachers 75 cents.” I held Dad’s hand tight. I didn’t want to lose him. Going through the turnstile entrance, we moved into near darkness under the outfield seats. Dad bought me a program and a pencil. I ran ahead with Allie toward the sunshine into the bleachers. We found a spot up against the bullpen fence that separated the fans from the Yankee players. All around, people were laughing & screaming at each other. I took particular notice of certain words. Words I vaguely understood, but knew I could never say in front of an adult. Allie had his eye on me while I absorbed the colorful language.
“Hey kid. How old are you?”
Allie put his arm around me and said,” Well, pard’ner, when you leave here today you’ll be eighteen.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Dad playing with his lips trying to hide a smile.
I carefully drew the starting lineups into my program in neat block letters.
Finishing my artwork, I lifted my head and saw Gene talking down into the Yankee bullpen.
“Dad, who is Gene talking to?”
“Luis Arroyo, the all star pitcher. Gene and Arroyo played in the minors leagues together 10 years ago.”
“Gene knows Luis Arroyo?”
“Yep, they were roommates for two seasons.”
I had no words. Dad’s friend was the ex-roommate of the best relief pitcher in baseball who happened to be a Yankee. This fact slipped his mind? Is this what happens when you turn 32?
“Hey, Tommy.” I turned and saw Gene waving me over to the bullpen. I gulped & inched toward him. Standing next to Gene, I looked down at the ball player. He spoke to me.
“Hi, Tommy, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Hi, Mr. Arroyo.”
“Call me Luis.”
The ballplayer passed two fingers through the tightly meshed fence. That’s all that fit. I offered him my two fingers. He started laughing.
“Gene, put the kid over the fence.”
Gene, six foot four, lifted me, four foot nothing, over the bullpen fence into the arms of the Yankee pitcher. His powerful hands eased me down. My heart pounded, my legs shook. I felt loopy. Luis introduced me to three Yankees, Yogi Berra, Johnny Blanchard, and Hector Lopez. They towered over me. Whitey Ford, warming up, waved and smiled. Whitey Ford smiled at me.
It’s hard to remember the players’ faces. I was dumbstruck by the giant interlocking NY on the pinstripe uniforms. My eyes moved from one jersey to another, rarely leaving the insignia. I thought I knew every sound in the ballpark – Bob Shepherd’s splendid voice over the stadium’s loudspeaker, “in Centerfield… #7… Mickey Mantle…#7.” The vendors hawking, “BEER HERE, GET YOUR ICE COLD BEER HERE, BEER! A ball hitting the web of a glove, “WOOF!” A foul line drive striking an empty wooden seat: “THWACK!”
But in the bullpen – I heard fresh sounds. Like the players’ voices. Each one a well-worn recording, I knew from radio and TV. The sound of the players’ steel cleats scraping against the gravel & concrete bullpen floor, “sssh, sssh, sssh.” I placed them both in my memory vault.
How did the game turn out? Of course, I remember.
Ford won his 10th straight. Luis saved the game for Whitey striking out five of the last six batters. Mantle hit his 29th home run in the fifth inning.
Yankees won: 8-5.
(Reprinted with the permission of The New York Times)