March 4, 2010

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Play ball!

The ground is still partially covered with snow as I write this, but winter already seems long gone. In two days, pre-season baseball will begin again. One month from now, the season will start on April 4 with a prime-time matchup between one of the game’s great rivalries — The New York Yankees at Fenway against the Boston Red Sox.

Better than a robin or a gopher’s shadow, spring training signals the end of winter — and it will be the end of a winter we’re all happy to see gone. It’s one reason why the game has come to mean even more to me. It’s a ritual of renewal — the start of a seven-month epoch, a 162-game drama. Every year its promise returns.

I’m getting anxious for the games to begin.

But I think I don’t have a lot of company. Baseball has lost a lot of room in the national consciousness from the time when it really was the national pastime. Those were the days of afternoon games and baseball cards. As a kid, I had annual sticker books in which you collected stickers of the game’s lineups around the country. I played Whiffle Ball almost every night through the summer. Everyone I knew liked baseball, even if they didn’t love it. And I was a kid while baseball’s popularity was clearly on the wane.

It seems that today the summer game no longer competes with football for the attention of the populace. Ours is a culture of shorter and shorter attention spans. Why follow 162 games, log reams and reams of statistics? Football gets it done in 15 games and ends with a single championship match that is one of the most-watched events in television.

Football is the perfect sport for these Google times. It’s fast, intense and has appeal to people, even who know little about the game. You don’t have to be a student of the game to “get” a good tackle or marvel at a completed Hail Mary pass.

Here a lot of football critics would probably get into the sport’s violence. That doesn’t bother me so much. If adults want to run headfirst into each other, and do so for a big fat paycheck, I say more power to ‘em. And I don’t think our culture’s love of football reveals some sort of hidden bloodlust. People like violence. All people. Football isn’t remarkable in that respect. Nor is Americans’ love of the game.

What football lacks for me — and I’m sure football fans will rebut this — is subtlety. There’s nothing on the gridiron that resembles a pitch-by-pitch battle between pitcher and batter: how a pitcher chooses to throw when ahead of the hitter (strikes over balls) or behind and how the hitter adjusts to what he sees from the pitcher. Every pitch is a crucial moment. Every moment the possibilities of what a hitter might do (or not do) to a ball are many.

At least in Philadelphia, baseball’s has been resurgent with two World Series appearances. Before the amazing Phillies team of today, this was a city of Eagles fans. And it was a really lonely place to be a baseball fan. As the new season starts, my expectations are high. My team, the Red Sox (I come by it honestly as a New England native) is poised to be brilliant and my new home team, the Phils, should win the NL East handily.

There’s a lot to be optimistic about if you’re a Philly baseball fan. If you don’t like the game, give it a shot this season. It’s long, but you won’t be disappointed. Baseball  is here and summer isn’t far behind.

Pete Mazzaccaro


My First Job: A winter story

From the time I was 7 years old, I wanted to have a job. I wanted spending money. My parents were not poor, but there was never any extra money from my Dad’s paycheck for an allowance. Besides, my Mom and Dad did not believe in allowances for kids.  They felt that “doing chores” was part of childhood responsibility — no pay for chores.

Back in 1940, there was a little strip mall about three blocks from our house with two small “supermarkets”: an A & P store and Loblaws. Every time I went into the A & P with my mom, I said to myself, “If only I could get a job in this store.”

In my neighborhood, there were a few part-time jobs. Kids would work on a job for a while, then get a better offer or just get tired of doing menial work.

So, one day I heard about a job opening at the local International Grocer’s Association store.  The name was much more grand than the store. It was a small “mom and pop” store with vacant lots on each side. They sold deli meats, sliced cheese, sodas, a few bags of potatoes, canned goods, laundry soup, bread, milk and they had a small freezer for ice cream.

That was it. It was about half the size of Caruso’s Market. Once a week, the owner would hire a kid to distribute single-page, black and white advertisements in the neighborhood.  For 250 single pages, the pay was 50 cents.  I was nine years old, and the thought of earning a pure silver half-dollar sounded great to me. So I grabbed my 250 and set off into the neighborhood. 

I tucked the heavy, tightly packed bundle under my right arm.  Unfortunately, it was mid January at about 3:30 in the afternoon. Two feet of snow had fallen the day before and the temperature was about 28 degrees.

Some of the houses were “two family” duplexes with one home on the first floor and one on the second.

That made the delivery a bit easier.  At this point I was very eager and moving along at a good pace. A woolen mitten on my “carrying hand” gave me some comfort.   My left hand was “bare” so I could get hold of the sheets.  I had to wet the tip of my thumb with my tongue in order to slide one or two sheets out of the solid pack.

By the time I had delivered about 60 of the ads, the sun had gone down and it was dark.  I stood in front of a house located diagonally across from the store.  My hands were so cold that I started to cry.  The tears froze to my eyelids.  I was too embarrassed to return to the store. What to do? 

The sidewalks at this house were carefully shoveled and the snow piles on the “rock hard” lawn stood four feet high.  With painful hands, I dug a deep hole in the pile and buried 190 grocery ads.  The papers would stay buried until the snow melted in April. No one knew my name or where I lived.

So I didn’t get my silver half-dollar, but I was alive and my poor hands had not turned black from frostbite.   I walked back to our house in the pitch-dark, winter cold. I never said a word to my parents and for the second time, I was embarrassed about the whole incident. I was embarrassed to tell them what I had done. For years, I told no one.

My first job had become my first failure. To a degree, I was a small-time criminal. Me, the little guy who couldn’t wait to get a paying job.  But I never bargained for an outdoor winter job with a bare hand and a wet, frozen thumb. But there’s a good ending.

Later that year, I got a job selling and delivering The Saturday Evening Post.  That was more my style.  I think I was paid five cents for each magazine sold.  In the days before television, The Post was a welcome sight for the people in my neighborhood. Norman Rockwell drew most of the covers — people loved his drawings. It was good work, and my hands never got cold on the job.

David Schofield is a long-time resident of Chestnut Hill.


A good reason for getting out of town

If you’re reading this column on Thursday, around 1 p.m. in the afternoon, look up and I’ll wave to you.

I’ll be the pale, grinning guy sitting behind the third-base dugout at the Phillies-Yankees game in Clearwater, Fla. Roy Halladay vs. C.C. Sabathia for the first two innings that day. If they ask me to fill in after Halladay tires, I’ll give it a go. 

I referred to myself above as “pale” because I’ve been locked in my downstairs office every day since October, writing what I hope is the final draft of my novel. And I’ll be “grinning” because I finished two days ago.

I am very happy to be delivered from the tyranny of my own self-discipline. I write in an office I keep at home. My habit has been to get up in the morning, make coffee and toast, and immediately walk downstairs.

No matter what I’d rather do, I first had to finish my daily my stint at the novelists’ workbench. My “real” life could not begin until mid-afternoon when I came up for a late lunch. 

And now I’m done. The past two days have been delicious. Long breakfasts, reading the newspaper, and watching the morning birds from a feeder near the window. Then, after a long, satisfying cat-like stretch, I didn’t mind moving on to the normal chores of a day.

Last October, I had researched nearly 100 agents hoping for representation for my book. Of the 40 or so who seemed appropriate to me, none wanted to be the agent for my book. That was quite discouraging. I felt like dropping the project.

But a number of Local readers wrote to me and urged me to keep trying. I reluctantly decided to rewrite the book “every day from now to New Year’s eve,” and then see what happened next. New Year’s eve came and went, and I still hadn’t finished. Not until February 24.

You might wonder what I did all that time. After all, I’d rewritten the book four times prior to that. Yes, true, but this time I finally understood what my characters were up to. I had been stubbornly clinging to a character named Brian Berrew (a play on the Irish king Brian Boru), filtering the entire book through him. Because he was my avatar in many ways, I was unable to let him do or say anything that would not reflect well on my personal self. I couldn’t disassociate myself from the book’s characters or story. I feared being at a book signing where I sensed someone thinking, “So that’s what goes on inside his pointy head.” 

Once I realized that I am not my characters and they are not me, I was free to let my supporting actors step center stage and be as interesting as they dared to be. I owe two of my earlier-draft readers, Tim Moxey of Chestnut Hill and Shawn Hart of Mt. Airy for that suggestion. In fact, Tim told me – but it took a year for me to hear him – that I should lead off my book with one of my villains – the most twisted one at that.

That would be the very tall and very round Klaus Richter, a 35-year-old German immigrant who came to America to pursue a doctorate in physics. He never finished his dissertation, but stayed on to live in a university town (not unlike Ann Arbor, Mich.). He is a dishonest book shop employee whose fantasy is to one day sing the role of John the Baptist in “Salome.”

The novel opens with him sitting and looking out a window in his apartment that overlooks campus. He is crying. Below him, a half-block away, red and blue lights are whirling as police and EMT personnel fill up a scene where a woman has been senselessly murdered.

“Little Women,” it ain’t. But for the eight characters whose lives intertwine because of the murder – and the theft of a valuable rare book collection that preceded it – Klaus’s guilt about that dead lady will lead him to take actions that will affect them all.

Something like that. The preceding was my first attempt to write a brief synopsis of the action. When I return from the hammock I’ve asked the State of Florida to stretch out for me, I’ll write a sharper synopsis and a query letter and start trying to find an agent again.

I don’t know if a change of title, synopsis, plot and characters will fool any literary agents into thinking they’ve never heard from me before. But I doubt that they’ve created a profile of me based on the thud I made after trying to crawl over their transoms last year.

I thank all those who encouraged me to finish when I wanted to quit last October. I’m pleased and proud to have stuck with it (though I’m fully aware that I might be writing these same words next year!).





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