I’m at “The Cove, ” home of the South Bend White Sox, on a Saturday afternoon 26 years ago, when I happen upon the pitching of Uncle Wally.
I’m out of the sun because my seat was too hot for my bare legs
Right after the national anthem, eight people mosey down my aisle. I see a grandma and grandpa, their daughter and her husband, three kids, and a young woman. The older ones make sure the younger ones’ seat numbers match their tickets and they remain in their seats, across the aisle and two rows away from my shade, as the temperature passes 90.
They root, politely, for the visiting Burlington Braves, and glance at the visitors’ bullpen.
Between the top and the bottom of the third, two red-faced guys, in loud John Daly type golf clothes, amble down the aisle looking for seats.
One of them asks if they are in the right section and the other one says not to worry so everybody can hear, “It’s not like it’s a real ballgame.”
Two rows ahead of where they plop down, not one member of the family looks back. They remind me of my own mom and dad, my sister, Linda, her husband, John, and their kids.
In the sixth, a Burlington error leads to two runs, and to more of the steady stream of insults, but my family continues to ignore them.
I think about late-September Wrigley Field, 1977, on a foggy Friday afternoon, by myself with fewer than four thousand people in the stands, a drunk guy insulting Steve Swisher a few feet away in the on-deck circle. The major league catcher did not turn around.
On this day, though, when the John Daly guy yells, the minor league infielder looks back.
“Don’t look at me!”
“Hey, that’s the guy that made the error. Watch the ball, not me you bum!”
“You’ll never make it to the majors!”
Two rows up, Dad turns around. “Why don’t you just be quiet?”
“Shut up, old man!”
Linda is up from her aisle seat. “Don’t you talk to my father like that!”
“Go back to Burlington.”
Linda stands for a second over Daly, and then, snap, dumps her Coke onto his lap.
He throws his beer into her face.
They yell and slap and grab.
Everybody looks our way.
An usher and a security guy and a South Bend cop all arrive in seconds and the cop and the security guy take Linda and Daly and his caddie somewhere while the usher and a second cop get things under control.
On the field, where no one looks, a new pitcher gets ready on the mound.
Burlington players peer out from the dugout. Mom settles Linda’s kids; one of them won’t stop crying.
Mom knows that in order for this matter to settle, what’s in the game and what’s in the stands, will have to merge. She looks up, back at the field of play and spots the opportunity.
“Look, Billy, she says, “Uncle Wally’s pitching.”
I wasn’t certain, this many years later, how much of this story is a product of my imagination. So I tracked down Wally.
Walt, actually. Walt tells me, yes, he remembers that he was on the mound warming up during the nastiness in the stands, so focused, he was unaware of the whole crazy thing until a teammate described it to him after the game. Yes, that was his family, and they told him it happened a lot like I remembered it. They came down to watch him pitch and there was trouble in the stands, all going on just as he was coming into the game.
I didn’t want to mention to Walt how the story ends, so I’m glad he did it for me. “I remember,” he said to me last month.
“I came in and the first batter I faced hit the ball over Mickey Mouse’s ears in left field and won somebody a trip to Disneyland.”
I don’t remember the ears or Disneyland but I remember the woman I knew had to be his mom trying to turn the day around. “Look Billy, Uncle Wally’s pitching.”
I looked back out to the field, too, and at that moment, Uncle Wally threw a pitch that didn’t touch the ground until it landed beyond the fence in left field. Nine heads drooped and while a South Bend player circled the bases. Walt’s future wife passed the peanuts down the row.
For Michiana Chronicles, I’m Sid Shroyer