Friday February 15, 2013

Telly Halkias

In the weeks-long news blitz surrounding Super Bowl Sunday and its aftermath, it escaped me that Major League Baseball spring training camps are opening this week. While channel surfing, I noticed a countdown clock behind a sportscaster. Then he spoke the magic words: "Pitchers and catchers report!"

As a teenager I followed the national pastime, even after my family emigrated from New York to Greece. Between subscriptions to U.S. magazines, sports news on Voice of America and games on Armed Forces Radio, I kept up with baseball hoopla.

In February of 1975, on the day that pitchers and catchers reported to major league camps in the U.S., a bunch of guys at my American high school in Athens decided to celebrate by playing sandlot hardball.

The affair was spontaneous and well suited to a Mediterranean clime. While not balmy, it wasn’t New England, either. During lunch, we scoured the gym for bats, gloves, and one baseball. A few of us freshmen bottom-feeders were asked along to fill out the teams.

With bases locked away, four boys skinned off their jackets and threw them around the diamond. No one wore protective gear; the two catchers didn’t have masks or helmets. Short a glove, we took turns between batters alternating who played the next out with bare hands.

The crew also had international flair. Our ranks included Jun from Japan, Kyung-duk from Korea, Julio from Venezuela, and Darko from Yugoslavia.

Far removed from bloated salaries and prima donnas, this sandlot troupe played for keeps. We dove headfirst into second to take out covering infielders. We bowled over the catchers while trying to score. Our pitchers threw at batters to brush them back off the plate. We scraped forearms, skinned knees and ripped our already tattered jeans, leaving raspberries for our moms to treat that evening.

The only sounds were hardball chatter, manhood challenges, laughter, and the crack of a bat against our only ball, a scuffed up pellet unfit for long toss. The game was tied, and when the bell rang at the end of lunch, no one left.

We had started an inning and were determined to finish. My team scored in the top of that frame, just as the sixth period bell tolled. Tom, a California surfer type, was on third. With one out, on the first pitch, he broke for home and Jun laid down a perfect suicide squeeze, giving us the lead.

I’ve watched big leaguers botch that play for years. We had no signs, no coaches, no strategy, no nothing. Just two teenagers who looked at each other over the third base line and knew what to do.

As absentee slips from our sixth period classes headed to the principal’s office, my team trotted out to the field for the bottom of the inning.

With one on and two outs, I stood in right field as Scott stepped to the plate. Destined for a major college program in the U.S., he was a threat to send us packing. Darko, who had never seen a baseball before attending our school, but had a howitzer for an arm, fired some heat high and tight.

Scott took a Ruthian cut and launched a drive to deep right. I sprinted for the fence, screaming obscenities I can’t write here. As the ball sailed over me, I jumped at full speed, extended my body, and somehow snagged it before it was gone -- then crashed into a fencepost.

Crumbled on the ground, I saw a blur of boys in the distance bounding up with lifted arms, and others slumping down with their hands on their knees. Then, within moments, both winners and losers ran out to the warning track and made a pig pile on top of me.

Eventually we dusted off and headed back to the gym to return our gear. There waiting for us was Mr. H., the assistant principal. He stood with arms akimbo, glaring daggers from under his Mets cap, a stack of absentee reports in his shirt pocket.

"Hey Mr. H.," one of the guys called out, "did you know that back home pitchers and catchers are reporting today?"

The dean of discipline growled: "Gentlemen, get to your classes -- now!"

Then he took the pink slips, and right there in front of us, ripped them in half as he tried to hide a smile, offering a sacrifice to the gods of early spring.

Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist. You may e-mail him at: tchalkias@aol.com.