Thursday, February 20, 2014

Baseball Bloodlines: Ashes Under the Radiator

My fascination with my mother’s father—my Pépère—started with moving his toolbox for my Uncle Bobby a couple of years ago. My mother then entrusted me with his pocket watch, providing yet another link to the man I never met.

Not too long ago she unearthed a trove of family photos, many of them featuring the Frenchman I resemble in body and spirit. My mother filled my head with stories of her father. The more time I spent looking at those old photos, the more new tales started forming in my imagination. So what if I didn’t get the chance to meet my Pépère in real life? As a writer, I could bring him back to life on the page!

This is the first new chapter in a much more complex and rich tale about both of my grandfathers. I hope by the end of 2014 I'll have a story ready to sold in bookstores or downloaded on your Kindle or Nook.

In the meantime, enjoy Arthur’s first appearance.

Arthur Blanchette

Frenchville, Maine 1960s

Arthur eased into his rocking chair.

He knew his movements would be limited given the early hour, but his French-Canadian blood didn’t allow him to stay stationary while sitting down. He didn’t want to wake his wife or young ones who wouldn’t be up for another hour or so. At least, he hoped those were the only people still asleep in his house. Two of his older sons better be down at the potato farm getting ready for a hard day’s work. If they weren’t, hellfire would pale in comparison to what Arthur was prepared to unleash.

He took his pack of Winstons out of his front shirt pocket. He slowly and quietly lifted the closest window and the screen behind it. The chill of early October whistled into the house.

Arthur scowled.

He didn’t want the first noise of the morning to arouse suspicion. He tapped a cigarette on his wrist and brought it to lips. His first drag of the day was heavenly. He couldn’t help himself from rocking back and forth completely. The old wood floor beneath him creaked.

He sighed.

He was sure to hear it from his wife now. He sat very still and waited for her to thunder down the stairs and point an accusatory finger his way. She always preferred catching him in the act rather than grumble about circumstantial evidence. However, the moment of crisis passed silently.

Arthur gripped his cigarette with his lips as he straightened his black tie. As the head of the farmhands, he had to look professional. It didn’t matter that by the end of the day his white, starched shirt was as dark as his tie. The men respected he brought class to the job and could still get dirty like the rest of them. He pulled the cigarette away for a moment and watched as a clump of ashes fell to the floor. He’d have to remember to sweep them under the radiator before he left.

He felt around his front pants pocket. He angled past his tangle of keys and removed his pocket watch. It wouldn’t be long now before Al pulled into his driveway. Arthur risked one more ride in his chair before finishing his smoke. The floor didn’t creak this time. His house was on his side for once. He took one last deep, satisfying, soul-enhancing puff and tossed the stub out the window. He stealthily closed the screen and the window. He made sure the rocking chair was at a standstill before rising. He then walked the short distance to the kitchen.

He put the coffee pot on the burner and waited patiently. He had his thermos ready. His sandwich and apple were in a sack in the refrigerator. A turkey sandwich and a Granny Smith was all Arthur needed to get through a day during harvest time. In the off-season, he usually just had the apple. The faint smell of baked goods invaded his nostrils. His wife didn’t like when he overdid it on sweets, but she kept making them. He’d find them tonight. Steam rose from the pot and he heard bubbling. He waited another heartbeat before filling up his travel mug.

Al hadn’t shown up yet, so his first taste of coffee happened at his kitchen counter. It mingled pleasantly with the tobacco still lingering in his mouth. His eyes rose toward the ceiling as he heard his wife get out of bed. He didn’t blink until he heard the bathroom door close.

Arthur sprung into action. He marched back to his rocking chair. He removed his hat from the stand nearby and swept his forgotten ashes under the radiator. He pulled his hand away in pain as the flesh on his right hand made contact with the hot metal. He put his hat on his head and again looked toward the second level of the house. He sure wasn’t the one that turned the heat on this early in the fall. His wife could have every blanket she owned on her and she’d still insist on the house being 90 degrees. Arthur wore short sleeves indoors year-round.

The couple normally didn’t see each other this early in the day. He was usually out the door well before this hour. Yesterday had been a grueling day of harvest, so he gave his crew an extra half hour of sleep to recover. There were thousands of potatoes to yank from the ground, and he couldn’t afford to lose any of his men to exhaustion. Arthur didn’t leave anything he could directly control to chance. He was even alternating his son’s shifts to keep them fresh. God help them if they took advantage of him being more generous than his old man ever was.

Al honked his horn. Arthur would have to wait to see his wife later that evening. She was making her way down the stairs as he retrieved his coffee and lunch. He was already in the truck’s passenger seat when his wife appeared at the screen door.

“Moitzee!” She screamed. “Avez-vous balayez les cendres maudites sous mon radiateur de nouveau?”

Arthur shrugged.

Arthur on top of a snowbank with my mother and Uncle Bobby
“She’s going to light your clothes on fire in the yard one of these days if you keep smoking in her house,” Al said. “A big ol’ pile of flaming flannel. Hell, half the neighborhood will show up to keep warm and roast marshmallows. That fire will last so long, the town might cut its heating expenses in half.”

Highway 1 was empty. The countryside was a blur. Al liked to drive fast.

“Got some new boys starting today. I know, I know, I’m a soft touch,” Al said. “They aren’t criminals or anything. Just some good boys helping their families. If they go bad you can throw me out too.”

Arthur nodded.

“Weather is going to get cold fast,” Al said. “It may not seem that way since its been balls hot during the day, but my feet just won’t keep warm at night. You know I tried to sleep with my slippers on the other day? My goddamn slippers. You figure my feet would have sweated through the yarn, right? Nope. My feet were blocks of ice all night. That means we’re going to have a bad winter. But then again, I suppose we haven’t seen a good winter in more than five years. The only warm thing that happened during the recent winters was your baby girl Gail. What a peach that kid is. She cried for everyone when she was born that February, but not me. You remember that? She liked me best for a while there. I think her brothers scared the hell out of her for a little bit. You can’t blame her. If it weren’t for you and your wife raising them right, boy, I don’t know.”

Signals flashed in front of them.

“Dammit,” Al said.

The two couldn’t see the logging train yet, but they could hear and feel it. They were stopped just before the tracks that cut through the middle of town.

“We’re not five minutes away from where we need to be,” Al said. “Good thing I got the boss with me, so I don’t get in trouble for being late.” Arthur instinctively checked his pocket watch.

“Now don’t get ornery on me,” Al said. “We’ve got more than enough time. Besides, those boys have been working hard the past week. A few more minutes of rest won’t lose us anything.”

Arthur chose not to disagree with that statement at the present time.

“See, look it wasn’t even a full train,” Al said. “Not a good sign those loads have gotten smaller and smaller. Plenty of trees out here, but not many people demanding lumber I suppose. Or maybe I’m just remembering the past years wrong. I can’t keep all these harvests straight.”

They arrived at the farm. Arthur rushed out of the truck. He walked into main barn and took his clipboard off his tidy desk. He didn’t linger and went back outside. He watched the men head out in to the field. He made a small check mark beside each man’s name. He noticed many of the men had been here a while, ignoring his orders to get more rest. He liked that. He liked the sight of his son-in-law Onias even more.

Onias, who was married to his daughter Lucille, gave Arthur a quick wave before continuing his work on the old tractor. He wouldn’t have been surprised that Arthur hadn’t given him a return reply. The two hadn’t talked much since Arthur caught wind of the job offer Onias had from a carpentry company in Connecticut. Arthur knew his oldest son Roland had arranged it, which didn’t make him any happier. Half of his family was already in that state, so he wasn’t thrilled with the thought of another daughter joining them. Besides, Onias was a good worker and a good card player. Arthur knew how much the brothers and sisters hated being apart. It wouldn’t be long before everyone moved down there. He was lucky Bobby and Gail were both young enough to be dependent on him and his wife hated the thought of moving away from where she was born. They weren’t going anywhere without him, that was for damn sure.

Arthur wrote in the names of the two men Al had hired the night before when they arrived and checked them off as well. He starred both so he could remember to keep an eye on them. By the time the last man present made it into the field, only two names remained unchecked. And they were both Blanchettes.

He didn’t try to stifle his anger. He wouldn’t need any more coffee to get his heart rate up. He was thinking of which son’s head he was going to dump the rest of it on whenever they decided to show up.  He took his pocket watch out and balanced it on his clipboard. Every time he watched the second hand passed 12, he felt his blood pressure spike. He knew he was going to be at full boil when his sons were standing in front of him. Arthur’s son Clifford practically walked willingly into his open hand. As Clifford recoiled, Arthur grabbed the collar of Jimmy’s shirt and pulled his face close.

“A man needs to live his life on time! There’s nothing more important in his life! Be ass early, be on the dot, but sure as shit don’t be goddamn late! You lose a helluva lot more than time when you’re late!”

Arthur pushed Jimmy away and walked a few paces away from the boys. It did nothing to calm his anger. Seeing that Clifford’s face red with frustration and hurt made the pot boil over again.

“I’d send you back to your Momma, but she’d goddamn die of embarrassment and shame at the boys she raised!” Arthur shouted. “You let me down. You disappointed me. You lost my respect. Get your asses to work and goddamn earn it back.”

His sons ran by him with their heads down.

“Keep those heads up, goddamn it,” Arthur shouted after them. “You break a leg after being late and I’m cutting it off myself and throwing you back to work.”

He put his hand up to discourage Al from saying a word. Al ignored him like usual.

“A little harsh don’t you think?” Al asked.

Arthur didn’t reply.

Arthur attending a wedding.
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Saturday, February 8, 2014

Brothers, Baseball, and Beer: Perfect Pat

When half your life is hanging out with your younger brother in the backyard playing Wiffle ball, why wouldn’t you make him a central character in your novel about baseball?

My brother Patrick was a pretty damn good pitcher in Little League, and I had the privilege of being his assistant coach throughout his career. When I started writing Pastime in high school, I knew I was going to base a character on him and make him do something memorable (my older brother Tom makes an appearance later in the novel as Dante’s Pony League coach).

So enjoy the tale of “Perfect Pat” while you wait for Spring Training to start. And I don’t care how cold it is, I’m going to find a way to have a catch with my brothers.

My brother Patrick during his last year on the Phillies
Little League World Series: International Championship

Italy is known for food, wine, and beautiful women, but not its baseball. That’s because their Little League team in recent years hasn’t played much better than a tee-ball team.

However, this year, the Italian team had been struck by the destiny bug and had swept their way unto the Little League World Series’ biggest stage. Two teams of destiny in one game? Which team would the baseball gods’ favor, and which would be tormented by baseball demons?
“All the hoopla crap going into that game was totally bogus. Don’t get me wrong, I’m Italian and I love Italians, but there was no way they were going to even try to beat Patrick Russell.”—Dante Cimadamore 
Both teams had more than each other to contend with. When Russell took the mound, the temperature had risen to a sweltering 97 degrees. There was a slight breeze that had, but it scalded rather than soothed. Russell showed no signs of being affected by the heat.
“I had a job to do and I wasn’t going to let a little hot weather keep me from doing it right.”—Patrick Russell 
Italy’s first batter grounded out weakly to second baseman Simon Capodi who easily scooped up the ball and threw to first base in plenty of time to get the out. The second batter whiffed on three straight pitches. The last batter of the inning hit a lazy fly ball that Tim Nix tucked away in his glove for the final out. Russell had thrown five pitches.

Italy’s pitcher Franco Vennero was no slouch. He hadn’t given up a run in the two games he’d pitched in Williamsport, and at the start of the tournament he pitched a one-hitter against powerhouse Japan. He looked to put the U.S. team of destiny to sleep from the start.
“I never saw the first three pitches he throw at me. He had to be throwing 85 m.p.h.”—John Machado 
Jeff Prince willed a bloop single down the right field line with two outs. Capodi followed with another to left. It was time for Vennero to meet Dante.
“Everyone who watched ESPN knew the kind of season he was having. I pretty much wanted to wet myself when he stepped to the plate with runners on.”—Franco Vennero 
He handled the slugger with ease. Dante hit a weak liner to the Italian shortstop who stepped on second base to double up Prince who had strayed too far off the bag. The first inning was in the books.

Russell went back to work. The heart of Italy’s lineup had done damage throughout the tournament, but left the plate with broken hearts after their first at-bats. The third batter of the inning tried to bunt one by the American pitcher, but Russell darted off the mound and made a strong through to first base. Italy had nothing to show for their six weak at-bats.
“Looking back it was tough to say who had the upper hand early on. It was a pitcher’s duel from the word go.”—U.S. coach Tom Doyle 
Vennero didn’t give the next three batters in the U.S. lineup any chances. Two strikeouts and a fly out later and the Italians were back in their dugout. The pitchers weren’t letting up and neither was the weather.

The temperature at the top half of the third inning was nearing 100 degrees. Tournament officials debated on whether to let the kids keep playing or have them take a break from the heat. Russell was on the mound throwing warm up pitches before they could rule one way or the other. The game continued and so did Russell’s dominance.
“There is no other way to put it folks, this kid from Connecticut is the real deal.”—ESPN television announcer 
Russell actually threw three balls to the first batter he faced in the third. He quickly found his focus again and blazed three straight fastballs by him. It would turn out to be the only three-ball count from either pitcher. Another strikeout followed. Dante and company headed back to their dugout after Russell left the last batter in Italy’s lineup crying for pasta.

All of the American parents thought Vennero was finally going to falter in the bottom half of the inning. All they got was three groundballs and a smile from the Italian pitcher.
“This guy, what’s his name, Franco? He wasn’t making things any easier for me.”—Patrick Russell 
Italy’s first batter the next inning became Russell’s sixth strikeout victim, and his fourth in a row. The next batter fouled out to catcher Kurt Saucier, affectionately known as Pig Pen. The last batter of the inning upped Russell’s strikeout total to seven. Vennero got Dante to hit into a nifty double play to end the bottom of the inning. It seemed the game had lasted mere minutes.

As the U.S. team trotted out the field once again, it began to dawn on them that their pitcher was unscathed. With only six more outs left in the game, the players behind Russell were 100 times more focused and serious about winning. And they didn’t say another word to Russell. Well, with one exception.
“After the fifth, I was the only one who could get away with talking to him.”—Jocelyn Nocera 
The heart of Italy’s lineup gave Russell his first scare. The crowd held its breath as it heard the high-pitched ping! emanate from the bat of Italy’s cleanup hitter. Tim Nix dove for the ball headed for the outfield, snared it in his glove, and stepped on first base.
“Let’s just say, whenever we play poker and we go up against each other on a hand, Russell always folds.”—Tim Nix 
Another Italian batter tried to bunt his way on base. Russell once again made an easy play to get the out. Three strikes latter the last batter of the inning was wearing his glove again.

Vennero was too busy trying to get outs that he didn’t realize at first what was going on. It wasn’t until the bottom of the fifth inning that he felt the electricity of the crowd reach another level. Instead of being intimidated, Vennero used the crowd noise as fuel to strike out the next two batters. Russell and Vennero exchanged smiles as Russell made his way to the batter’s box. He was a great hitter, but up to that point hadn’t done anything worth remembering with a bat that day. The crowd buzzed with anticipation that the game was about to be decided by the two kids who had so far defined it.
“Yeah, no would believe this story if it hadn’t actually happened. There’s video footage, and I still have trouble believing it.”—Dante Cimadamore 
The young competitors showed no sign of fear. Russell fouled off two pitches and eyeballed two others out of the strike zone. Russell knocked the dirt off of his cleats with his bat and stepped in to face Vennero’s next pitch.
“Here’s the pitch from young Franco Vennero…Russel takes a swing and launches one to deep center…the fielder is drifting back…the outfielder just hunched over…that ball is gone! On the verge of pitching a perfect game, Patrick Russell just gave his team a one-run lead with a monster homerun! The only thing hotter on this field is this kid from Connecticut!”—ESPN television announcer
The entire stadium was shaking. No one was sitting down, not even Italy’s cheering section. Russell stepped on home plate and was out of breath because he had run the bases so fast. Everyone low-keyed the celebration at home plate because there was still work to be done. Russell looked back to the mound and Vennero was still smiling at him. The two pitchers tipped their caps to each other and Vennero finished his near-perfect outing with a strikeout. He didn’t feel anything but pride in himself and his country as he walked off the mound to a hearty applause.

The temperature at the start of the top of the sixth pushed past 100 degrees. It seemed everyone in the crowd was pounding Gatorade. Russell looked unperturbed as always, and finished up his warm up pitches. He wasn’t afraid, he wasn’t anxious, and he wasn’t unfocused. He was ready. The first batter struck out. The crowd gasped as Russell lost his grip on a pitch and it came close to hitting the next batter. Once the batter recovered from the accidental brush back, he saw Russell mouth a silent “sorry.” Three pitches later, the batter was headed to the dugout. The next batter stepped to the plate eager to put an end to perfection.
“He had our number all day and I felt like I was going to be the one to steal his glory.”—Italian Little Leaguer 
Confidence would get the young Italian nowhere this day. Russell fired a quick strike. The next pitch beautifully caught the outside corner for strike two. If anyone was still sitting in the state of Pennsylvania, they were deaf, blind, and dumb. Russell didn’t hear any of that. His focus was on Pig Pen’ glove. It looked as big as a beanbag chair. He went into his pitching motion and fluidly threw the ball toward the plate. The batter put his head down and ripped the ball to the gap in right center.

Neither Dante nor Tim heard the other call for the ball because the crowd was so loud. The two boys collided. Dante was about to spring up and chase after the ball that undoubtedly skipped past the two outfielders when he heard Tim whisper,

“Sorry, pal. You got the homerun record, but I caught the ball that won us the Little League World Series.”
“Bastard.”—Dante Cimadamore 
“Don’t let it go to your head,” Dante replied. “Oh, you might want to show the umpire you caught the ball so we can start celebrating.” Tim smiled and shoved his hand in the air. The pure white baseball was clutched in his dirty hand.
“I really could have used all the Gatorade in the park at that point. My teammates pig-piled on top of me instead.”—Patrick Russell 
The U.S. team that year started out as underdogs and ended up perfect American heroes. The players stayed on that field for as long as they could before worried officials and parents made them return to the shade. However, they would always stand in the summer sunshine of glory and their story became baseball legend. 
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