Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Sherm kept the ball
Sandlots, in my neighborhood, were not exactly made of sand. And they were not always lots, either. Most of the places kids played baseball were either attached to a school, or in a parking lot. And the school’s lots were paved over or covered in gravel.
The biggest lot was about four blocks away, attached to Nicholas H. Hayt Elementary School in Chicago. I went to kindergarten there. It was, and probably still is, an enormous brick building. Three stories high, it seemed to cover about half a city block. I never went there much. After kindergarten, I went to the Catholic school down the street. I was suspicious of the kids that attended Hayt. For one thing, the name of the school was not exactly inspiring. Given that I was raised in a pretty strict Catholic family, Hayt Public School conjured up visions of ritual torture. I never went during the day; when I did go, in the afternoon, I always went with a crowd of kids.
Hayt’s lot was comprised of two big rectangles, one about the size of a football field going east, and the other, about two thirds the size of the first, going south. It surrounded the back of the school. On each side of the rectangles were six swing sets, two for littler kids and four for big kids. Near the swings were a couple of sets of monkey bars, a sandbox, and other assorted playground stuff.
Just where the rectangles met was the backstop; the infield, on gravel, sat between them. Behind the backstop was the field house, a single story L shaped building that housed baseballs, basketballs, kick balls, swing repair kits, and a small, dank office, with aluminum screens on the windows. This was the office of the great Sherm Janowski.
Sherm was a very large man. He had a sloped forehead, a big, busted in nose, and square jaw. He wore thick, horn rimmed glasses that covered tiny, iridescent brown eyes.. He squinted at you, even if it was overcast and forty degrees. He had a strong neck, iron arms, calloused hands, and an enormous upper back and shoulders. Sherm played a little professional football in his day, whenever that was. He was purported to play some with the Baltimore Colts. I’m glad I didn’t have to play against him.
Sherm wasn’t really a menacing individual, but because I didn’t always hear him speak, or see him interact with the children much, there was a mystery about him. I went to the park after school and on the weekends, when he was cleaning up the playground, or gone. On Saturdays he was in the field house, but never came out. I never remember him speaking to any child, ever. He did his job, kept the grounds clean and made the equipment available, then went about his business quietly.
My first and only encounter with Sherm happened just before my ninth birthday. It was October, an overcast fall day, and I don’t remember why I was at Hayt. It was after school, and a couple of my friends had ventured up that way, or I had met them in the neighborhood, and we went there. When we arrived, the place had been vacated for the day. School was over, and the rest of the kids had gone. Closing in on 5 o’clock, it was the three of us, alone and this monstrous, gravel covered playground.
The two kids I was with lived closer to Hayt than I did; when it came time to leave, they left and headed south, toward the front of the school. To get home, I needed to go east, toward the side of the school. They grabbed their stuff; we said our goodbyes.
For some reason I lingered a little bit. Ever since my childhood, I like to be alone in big places, but only for a little while. I like to be there long enough to get the sense of the place, but not too long to me to feel overwhelmed by its size. So I decided to run around the infield. I pretended to hit a long one, and ran around first, second, and third. When I came into home, I discovered I wasn’t alone on the playground. Just as I hit the backstop, the field house door opened, and out stood the big backed, thick necked frame of Sherm Janowski.
He didn’t move. He peered out past me, up at the sky. He was looking out toward left field, down the huge rectangle past home plate. He glanced down at the ground for a moment, then went back inside. I paused at home plate, because I wasn’t sure what he would do if I made any sudden moves. This was not a man that I wanted to make angry, and having known so little about him, I wanted to be invisible.
He reemerged from the field house, with a bat in his left hand, and a 16-inch softball in his right. He let the door close behind him, and he walked toward the backstop. Instinctively, I began to walk toward the third base line. I wanted to get off the infield if Sherm was going to occupy the same space and, as big as he was, I didn’t figure there would be much space left for me to occupy. As I was inching off the infield, trying not to make eye contact, he called quietly to me, “You. Come ‘ere a minute.”
I froze. With a prayer, I looked around quickly, hoping that he was speaking to another kid. But he was talking to me. I caught his eye and moved my feet a little bit. I felt my body walking toward him, but I was not conscious of exactly where I was going. He looked down at the softball, looked at me, and with his sledgehammer arms, tossed an underhand right to me. I caught the ball off my chest, with both hands, and stood there in front of him, a little to right of the pitcher’s rubber.
“You a McShane?” I answered that I was. I also had five older brothers and two older sisters. My little sister never showed up there, and all my brothers did Maybe they knew Sherm, although they never spoke much about him to me. To them, he was a guy at the playground; to me, he was a presence that embodied mystery.
“Pitch me that ball once, will ya?” He dug his right foot into the ground to brace himself, took the bat off his shoulder and swung it loosely over his head. He was getting ready to hit the ball! This ball, the ball I had in my hand! For a minute, I thought about the bat hitting me if he let go, then I thought, “Forget the bat, stupid, what if the ball it you?” Oh my God, Sherm Janowski, the towering, steel shouldered field general of Hayt playground, is about to kill an eight-year-old kid with a softball. And I was that kid! I was about to die!
And just then, I felt myself almost wet my pants. I caught myself just in time, but I wasn’t sure how much I really wet myself. I didn’t dare look down, because I didn’t want Sherm to know. Then I thought, “Oh great, I’ll be dead with wet pants.” And I just knew all my friends would make fun of me, even though I was dead. Dead kid with wet pants with softball marks in his face. They were really going to get mileage out of this one.
“Put it right about here.” He stuck his bat out, about belt high, right across the plate. I looked into his face, and grabbed the ball like you’d hold a bowling ball before you let loose for the pins, with both of my hands shaking around its laces. I stood there for what seemed an hour. Sherm was steadying the bat on his shoulder; he must have sensed that I was nervous. He then said “I just need to hit it once. I just want to see how far I can jack that thing.” I wasn’t exactly sure what “jack” meant, and I didn’t want to ask. But his statement made me feel a little better. He wanted to hit it far, and his eyes pointed toward the end of the rectangle, more than a hundred yards away.
For a second, I lost track of my nervousness, and thought “this guy’s crazy.” He’s not looking into left field, but beyond it, well past where the fence that enclosed the playground was. I looked quickly over my shoulder. I thought ,”Damn, that is a long way out there.” At the same time, I wanted to be clear with Sherm, letting him know that at the very least, make sure you miss the pitcher. I don’t care how far you hit it, as long as it doesn’t hit me.
I looked back in; he was ready. I gripped the ball one last time and let it go. I had a pretty good idea that it was running in belt high, but I thought it might have been a little fast. I wanted to make sure that it got to the plate. I was small, and although I had pitched sixteen inchers to my friends, this guy was so much bigger that his belt was about the same height as an eight year old’s head.
Sherm swung. To this date, I have never heard anything that has replicated the sound of his bat against that ball. The closest thing that might describe it is that of a rifle shot muffled in a mattress. It was loud, and it was almost crashing in its explosiveness. Startled by the noise, I closed my eyes,then glanced at Sherm. His head was looking up into the sky, and his bat was held loosely in his left hand. His legs were twisted over each other, and he stepped quickly over the plate to steady himself.
Then I looked over my shoulder. The ball was airborne, at a speed I thought reserved for bullets and buckshot. It was soaring, not floating, but soaring through the afternoon sky.
I remember moving toward the ball, sensing that, if it ever came down, I wanted to get an idea of it’s point of landing. I wanted to know where it hit, and memorize that place.
I stopped, waited, and the ball started coming down. It had cleared the entire playground and hit on the other side of the fence. A three hundred fifty foot shot, easy. The ball bounced high when it hit the ground, and kept going, across the street and down the alley. I couldn’t see how far it rolled, but I figure it may have stopped by now.
I looked back to the backstop, and saw him. Sherm just hit a 16-inch softball out of Hayt playground. He held onto his bat, and kept his head down, and started walking toward the ball. “I’ll get it. Thanks.” was all he said. He walked past me, and strode toward the fence to retrieve his prize.
I walked home. I didn’t ever go back to fine the place where the ball hit. I felt it was almost sacrilegious. I couldn’t ever bring myself to look down that street again, never even search the spot. I knew that I was part of history, that I had witnessed one of the most amazing physical displays of majesty ever. I pitched it, he hit it, and I watched it go. That was enough for me. I still see that ball. The rocket leaving left that bat sometimes visits me when I look up at the sky, particularly on October afternoons. If the sky’s just right, I can look up and see that ball fly. And if I look back, I can see the great Sherm Janowski walk past me, retrieving his part of history.
I hope he kept the ball.