The Gratitude I Owe a Stranger
by Adan Alvarado
My pre-adolescent summers were spent watching baseball games. Not at Comiskey or Wrigley, but at a local field. Twice, sometimes three times a week my Mom dragged me to my Sister’s games. I was one of the most vocal yet reluctant supporters of the Alley Cats. Perhaps I should explain the team name. As one may expect, in our park district the baseball teams got most of the attention. Baseball fields had announcer booths and digital score boards, while the Softball fields had a fold up table and a few ten year olds who worked the manual board for a cup of RC. So when it came to uniforms and team names, the Baseball teams wore button ups with the names Brewers and Phillies across the chest, while the Softball players were reduced to pullover polyester and cheap script spelling out some sort of feline, e.g. Wild Cats, Black Cats, Jungle Cats, etc.
I remember a multitude of moments spent at those fields; moments ranging from trivial to pivotal. I remember huddling under the field house almost every year on “picture day” because like clockwork on that day a monsoon would sweep through the Midwest for an afternoon. I remember the sound of my Sister’s cracking fibula after an aggressive slide into home plate. I can recall how I spent half of some games chasing around a young girl named Katie after she would grab my trusty Hornets cap from atop my head and throw it as far as her arm would allow. I also remember the sour face Katie made when I tried to kiss her under the awning of the concession stand.
But amongst the memories of broken bones and broken hearts there is one day that stands out, that remains garishly vivid, yet surreal – a nightmarish archival singularity. As I mentioned my Sister was an Alley Cat; a fitting team for my sister to end up on because her gritty play was the stuff of legends around the fields, and at times a bit controversial. My sister was a back catcher and embodied the traditional mold for the position, which is to say she talked a lot of shit behind the plate. On numerous occasions she caused players to cry as they stood in the batter’s box. This halted play for the issuing of warnings and consoling of young girls who were just told they swing a bat like their “snatch was clutching the handle – choke up!” I tell you this because it was my Sister’s style of play that set the circumstances for the witnessing of an event that still haunts me two decades later.
Watching my sister typically consisted of two reliable scenarios.
1.) Dicking around with “field” friends who were either waiting to play a game, or also “watching” older siblings.
2.) Buggin’ the shit out of my Mom with one of the following questions:
a.) When I was hungry – “Can I have money for a hotdog?”
b.) When I was thirsty – “Can I have money for some pop?”
c.) When I wasn’t hungry – “Can I have money for a Cow Tale?”
d.) “Can we go now?”
This is to say I paid very little attention to the actual game. Unless of course I had done something foolish: throw rocks at porta-potties, hit rocks with an aluminum bat, anything really regarding rocks typically landed me on the bleacher next to my Mom. However, this day was a bit different. On this day it wasn’t my “dicking” or “buggin’” that had me sitting on the bleachers went it all went down, but my Sister. I remember my Mom shouting my Sister’s name. It seemed a little out of place because the tone being used was usually reserved for when my Mom shouted my name. When I went to investigate I saw my Mom shaking her head in disappointment and my Sister’s coach leading her back to the dugout as she randomly glanced back and hurled the kind of epithets at the ump that would most surely get her grounded once we got home. Once the scene concluded and the game resumed I found myself sitting next to my Mom worrying for my Sister’s safety.
It was at that point that my vivid recollection of the day really begins. I noticed a man walking up the white gravel that paved the paths to the baseball diamonds. He stood out to me in the crowd (relatively speaking) because he looked remarkably like Marty Jannetty of World Wrestling Federation fame. Jannetty was one half of the perennial tag team championship contenders: The Rockers, a favorite of mine at the time. He had long feathered hair, and he was wearing a waist length leather jacket over a t-shirt with an abstract design comprised of the neon colors that ruled the era. He climbed to the top bleacher on the Alley Cat side of the field. I had forgotten about my Sister’s outburst, and my worry for her dissolved with every glance I sneaked of this cool looking stranger. “Marty” sat there, solemn, looking out onto the diamond.
The manners my Mom worked tirelessly to instill in me quickly fell to the wayside, and my clandestine glances became a shameless stare, but Marty didn’t notice. After a good few minutes of staring at Marty he began to fall out of focus; my attention suddenly directed elsewhere; toward a quartet of men making their way toward mine and Marty’s bleachers.
One of the members picked up his pace heading to the front of the pack. He had smashed his long coarse hair under a hat yet strands still hung over his eyes and against his stubble laden face. His cheekbones pointed to the heavens and his eyes sat deep in his narrow skull. To this day I am not sure if it was intuition or the re-imagining of history, but I seem to remember, even feel the churning of my stomach as his proximity grew closer. There seemed to be a nastiness to him; in this man existed a part of humanity that I had never seen, nor had ever wished to. Again, this may just be editorializing on my part for what was to follow.
The man reached up grabbing the shoulders of Marty’s leather jacket. He yanked back with gangly brute force and let out a howl in the process. Marty had turned completely over the back bleacher and now lay on his belly dazed; desperately attempting to shake the embedded gravel from his beautiful face. Those sitting on the bleachers jumped up, and some yelled, but I just sat. The pack moved in quickly delivering one malicious and hateful blow after another. The man with the stubble and high cheek bones back peddled – laughing as he moved. After fifteen seconds or so he called for the rest of the men to follow. They vanished from the fields amongst the threats of called police.
I still remember the fear in his eyes as he went over. It was a heightened version of the fear I noticed when he first sat down. A fear I had mistaken for sadness. At that time I couldn’t comprehend fear like that. Sure, my Folks verbal fights would induce some pretty strong fear in both my Sister and I. It was also never fun receiving one of those looks from my Mother when I was misbehaving in public; those car rides home were full of fear. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand fear; it was that I didn’t understand fear that was free or detached from some kind of love. When my Parents fought, regardless how vicious it got, I knew love existed between them. When my Sister or I really screwed up, and we got physically punished; I knew our Parents still loved us. In fact, I think a part of me knew that the act itself, despite the momentary pained it caused, was out of love. This wasn’t the case for Marty, for his eyes were full of fear without love. And to find out that such a fear was caused by another human being was simply incomprehensible.
A couple people helped Marty to his feet, but any further assistance was met with resistance. Marty brushed the tiny rocks from his palms and wiped the blood from his face. He departed in the same direction as his attackers. It was at this point that I finally moved. I swung my legs to the left and off the wooden plank and placed my feet on the gravel making my way around the back of the bleachers. I looked as Marty made his way down the path and over the white dusty horizon, and as he disappeared into the forest that surrounded the baseball field, he took with him any desire I’d ever have for acts of violence.