This Holiday Season, Jon Sindell remembers the man who believed in him as a kid – and a ballplayer.
Mr. Blake was the first real baseball man I knew, and the first man who believed in me as a ballplayer. In my mind, therefore, he was the first man to believe in me as a kid.
Mr. Blake managed the Pirates in my Los Angeles little league in the late 60’s. His frame was trim and his face as wizened and leathery as Leo Durocher’s. During afterschool practice, in his Pirate–blue windbreaker—the team colors in our league had nothing to do with their Major League counterparts—his eyes gleamed with baseball knowledge far beyond our ken. He cracked grounders with snap, and his chatter was crisp. And he knew tricks. He taught us, for instance, how to slide with spikes high to kick the ball out of the fielder’s glove. His son and protégé demonstrated the move, and I envied his son his father’s devotion. Once Mr. Blake grabbed a bat in BP. The pitch came in. Crack! A sharp, sweet liner rolled through the gap. The man was The Man.
My father didn’t like baseball at all—more proof in my mind that he didn’t like me. I was eight when Dad left, and Mom loved telling me that he had asked her how to get close to me. “He loves baseball,” she told him. “Play catch with him.” Of course he never did. That was the stiletto point of her story.
But Mr. Blake gave me the ball at eleven. I had played two undistinguished little league seasons, but I was also the veteran of hundreds of hours of ball on the street, in the yard, in the locked–up playground after scaling the fence—so I had built a strong arm and could throw strikes. Not corner strikes, but strikes right down the middle, where the catcher set up. I thought that’s where you aimed, like in darts. Anyway they were strikes, and that was enough.
Our team was not bad, and I pitched okay. Once I pitched half of a six–inning no–hitter with a 101–degree fever. I won games, I lost, I was having a blast. And for the first time ever, I felt truly special. Thanks to Mr. Blake.
Though he betrayed me once. We were playing the Braves, the best team in the league. They had bunches of sluggers, all older than me. One looked like Harmon Killebrew and one looked like Ice, the tall, wiry blond Jet from West Side Story. I remember the clamor building in the bleachers as the underdog Pirates, in our jeans and cheap blue pullover uniform shirts, took a lead into the sixth and final inning. I had gone the whole way, pitching out of my head. Now I had to close out the game.
I got two outs and we still held the lead. But there were men were on base, and one of the Braves’ great hitters was up. With the crowd going wild, and me pitching on desire, I got him to lift a soft fly to center. The manager’s son glided under the ball. But to my surprise, he set his glove pocket up at his belt for a basket catch like Willie Mays.
He dropped it.
After that I have only the vague recollection of green–and–white streaks circling the bases—how lonely to be surrounded by rampaging hordes!—and of a nightmarish feeling as I battled in vain and the game slipped away. But afterwards, I was proud of myself. I was young for the league, and had almost defeated the mighty Braves. After the game, everyone lingered for the league carnival—tables with hot dogs and sodas and such. I looked on as a grown–up asked Mr. Blake about our heartbreaking loss. I knew he would praise my valiant effort and lament his son’s vanity–born error. He must have considered the error especially galling, given his reverence for baseball fundamentals like the two–handed catch.
Instead he said sharply: “Sindell couldn’t get the last out.”
That was true in a literal sense, and appallingly false. But looking back, I think I understand. Mr. Blake was protecting his son—not some boy for whom he was, unbeknownst to him, a father figure. It hurt, but hey—family hurts. I knew that already.
The next year was my glorious year. I was twelve and an all–star, and our team made the playoffs. And on the last day of the regular season, on a soft June morning, I met a once–in–a–lifetime puffball down the middle with a once–in–a–lifetime swing and clubbed the ball so far over the left fielder’s head that a kid from another team said it was the longest homer he had ever seen. After the game, in the shade of the trees behind the bleachers, Mr. Blake asked me to demonstrate my swing for the team. I was not a great ballplayer and felt a little self–conscious, but as I slowly drew my bat through an imaginary strike zone, I felt like a god.
And for that, Mr. Blake, I’ve honored you always.
—Photo Boston Public Library/Flickr