Slugger

Ron Karpinski  1995

 

It's been twelve years since I last saw him.  That's been the pattern.  Every once in a blue moon I pop in, just to see how he's doing.  I think he likes it.

Of course, he would never say so.  A lot of men from his generation are like that.  For whatever reason, they're afraid to let their real feelings show; but I'll tell you a little secret.  His wife took me aside once and told me how much it meant to him.

There he is, on page four of my faded old eighth grade yearbook.  The inscription next to his photo says it all:  "Ron To the Slugger, from Coach Mr. D."

Mr. D came along at just the right time in my life.  At thirteen, I needed a positive male role model to nudge me in the right direction.  Luckily, Mr. D cared enough to "swat me" or "root me one" whenever I crossed the line.

*          *          *          *          *

Joe D'Auria had a natural, easy gait.  Kids liked to be near him, just to bask in his casual banter and seek his approval.  We could call him Mr. D, for short, or we could call him "Coach," if we wanted.

Joe turned twenty-three that year.  Ours was the second class he taught since leaving the University of Tennessee.  In college, he lettered in four sports; and as a superb athlete, he had given more than a little thought to turning pro.

Born twenty miles north of New York City, Joe grew up a Yankee fan.  The New York Yankees are a famous baseball team.  One of Joe's prized possessions is a baseball bat signed by the great Yankee, Joe DiMaggio.

The Yankees offered Joe a contract, but he didn't take it.  His older brother had signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers before him and languished in the minors, never making it to the major leagues.  Joe said his brother's ordeal prompted him, instead, to attend college and pursue a teaching career.

After college, Joe and his wife moved to southern California where Joe found a job as a gym coach; and, for thirty-five lucky kids, he also served as "home room" teacher.  Home room teachers taught core subjects, such as geography, history, and math.

Rivalry among home rooms could be spirited.  Classes often competed in various events, with bragging rights on the line.  Each home room acquired a character of its own, taken in large part from the teacher's traits and habits.  We were proud to have the handsome and athletic Mr. D on our side.

Mr. D stood five feet nine inches tall, with classic Italian good looks.  He had close cropped dark hair, olive skin, and a natural well-muscled build.  Those muscles caused a boy to think twice before sassing him.

Gym coaches were allowed to wear shorts at school.  They might teach gym one period, math the next, and gym again after that.  It made no sense to change clothes that often, so they wore shorts and polo shirts the whole day.

In class, Mr. D often leaned back in his chair, feet propped on the desk, hands clasped behind his head.  A boy couldn't help but notice those hairy muscular thighs.  Looking down at my own scrawny legs, I made a mental note never to sass him.  The girls, well, who knows what they were thinking?

*          *          *          *          *

Mr. D had one great passion in life.  He loved the great game of baseball.  The man could talk for hours, debating the finer points of our national pastime.

In the fall of 1960, Mr. D's beloved Yankees played the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series.  The first team to win four games out of a possible seven would be crowned champions of baseball.  Heavy favorites, the Yankees had played in eight of the past ten World Series and had won six of them.

Back then, professional baseball games were played in the early afternoon, during the middle of the school day.  Not wanting to miss out on the World Series, Mr. D brought a black and white television set into the classroom.  He thought we ought to learn about our national pastime; so, for one full week, we studied baseball rather than math.

The first game fell on a Thursday.  Pittsburgh won, six to four, but Mr. D showed no concern.  He said it took seven games to decide the winner.  When New York came back and won the second game sixteen to three, he wore a smile from ear to ear.

New York won the third game, ten to zero.  At that, Mr. D's smile turned into an "I told you so" grin.  Then Pittsburgh came back and won the fourth game in a squeaker, three to two.  The series stood even at two games each.

The fifth game also went to Pittsburgh, five to two, and Mr. D looked worried for the first time.  If Pittsburgh won just one more game, it would be all over; but the Yankees won the next match and evened it at three games apiece.

At this point, the Yankees had out hit and outplayed the Pirates in every category.  The Yankees held an edge, going into the final game.  Mr. D knew his Yankees would pull it out, just as they had done so many times in the past.

The final game fell on Friday, October 13.  Both sides swapped the lead early on. Then, in the top of the ninth, New York came from behind to score two runs and tie the score at nine to nine, sending the game into extra innings.

Mr. D sat on the edge of his desk.  He was so absorbed in the game, he probably forgot the rest of us were even there.  Likely, we could have all gone home, and he wouldn't have noticed; but, by then, we were all caught up in the action.

When Bill Mazeroski hit a Ralph Terry pitch over the center field fence in the bottom of the ninth, he became a hero and a villain at the same time.  His solo home run won it all for the Pirates, but it also broke Mr. D's heart.

Mr. D hung his head.  The whole class sat in silence, as the TV screen exploded with the excitement of Pittsburgh's first world series win since 1925.  After a minute or two, Mr. D turned off the TV.  "Well," he said, "that's that."

Every kid in the room felt his pain.  For a week, we had lived the World Series with this man, our moods changing with the ebb and flow of the game, as the tide of victory shifted back and forth.  We wanted his team to win, if for no other reason than to see him happy; but life played to a different script.

*          *          *          *          *

With the coming of spring, interests again turned to the great outdoors.  The school schedule allowed one hour of free time per day called an "elective" class.  In this time slot, each home room planned an outdoor event to its liking.

Our class chose softball.  Softball is a variation of baseball played at a slower pace and with a larger ball.  In this version, the pitcher lobs the ball to the plate with an easy underhand motion, thus reducing the risk of injury.

Each morning, Mr. D checked the weather to see if that day would be suitable for a game.  If it looked good, he hurried to reserve the ball field.  Over lunch, he arranged a contest against one of the other home rooms.

The whole class joined in the event.  No one got left out.  Boys, girls, and Mr. D, too, all played an inning or two in each game.

Mr. D played shortstop.  In slow-pitch, you usually put your best athlete at shortstop, the most demanding position on the field.  I played right next to him at third base the hot box.  He called me "Slugger."

I'm not sure why he called me that.  I rarely hit long, majestic shots.  Mostly, my hits were line drives up the gaps; but, the fence in left field stood pretty close in, and other players did occasionally accuse me of trying to hit the ball over for a cheap home run.

No, Mr. D was the real Slugger.  He could hit the ball a mile high and a mile deep; and he could pick his spot.  The man made it look, oh, so easy.

Day after day, we played ball under the warm afternoon sun.  There is an aspect of poetry to the game, if you think about it.  All that motion, all at once, as players react to the batted ball and move from one spot on the field to another.

The pitcher lobs the ball in a high lazy arc toward home plate, and ten players in the field all lean forward as one.  Time hangs in mid-air, as the ball floats toward the catcher's mitt.  As it nears the plate, the batter swings.

Mr. D sees something in the location of the pitch or the batter's stance, the way he shifts his feet, or how he swings.  Coach lunges to his right.  Crack!

It's a hard grounder, deep in the hole at short.  Mr. D, already on the move, ranges to his right, backhands it, and fires a bullet to first base.  One out.

Next batter comes to the plate.  Crack!  It's a long fly ball to deep right field.  Bob "twinkle toes" Clarke glides back easily, settles under it, looks up, and watches, as the ball sails cleanly over his head.

Turning his back to home plate, Bob chugs after the ball, chases it down, stomps on it to make sure it's dead, and picks it up.  Firing a strike to the cutoff man near second base, he holds the runner to a long triple.

For one precious hour a day, the ball field was our classroom.  Soft green grass at our feet, the sweet scent of oranges in the air, we learned teamwork and discipline.  At times we quarreled, and at times we hugged with joy.  Always, we cheer each other on.

Boys and girls alike learned a lot about life out on the ball field that year.  Kids in other classes thought it unfair that we had Mr. D on our side, but they lined up to play against us anyway.  As I recall, we always won.

*          *          *          *          *

Teenagers, as a general rule, need a fair amount of discipline, and Mr. D had a special knack for it.  He knew just when to give a boy an arm around the shoulder and a warm squeeze or a whack across the backside.

For minor offenses, like reading a comic book during a lecture, he might walk up quietly from behind and rap you on the wrist with a ruler.  It smarted for a second or two, and a few eyes turned your way, but the moment passed.

Major infractions earned sterner rebukes.  If, say, he caught you writing on a desk top, he ordered you in front of the class.  A hush fell over the room.

We all knew what to expect.  Either he was "gonna root ya one" or he was "gonna swat ya."  If he gave you a "root," you got off easy.

There you stood, facing the class, with Mr. D standing next to you, his arm around your shoulder.  First, he explained your sin, so you knew what not to do next time.

With a fatherly demeanor, he said, "Now you know, Ronnie, I'm gonna have to root ya one for this."  You hoped for a chance to plead your case.

The instant you opened your mouth to speak, though, he struck swiftly.  His outside leg moved in a wide arc that landed the flat instep of his shoe squarely on your fanny.  The force of the blow knocked you a foot forward.  You took the hint, kept on moving, and eased back into your seat without a word.

On rare occasions, Mr. D hauled out his "whopper."  Most of the male teachers had one.  The wood shop teacher made them as gifts for his friends.

Whoppers all had the same basic design.  They looked like oversized cricket bats.  Mr. D's had a long, narrow handle and a broad, flat contact surface with a pattern of neatly spaced holes one inch in diameter.

He didn't really want to use his whopper.  Most of the time, it stood propped in a corner of the classroom, a deterrent more than anything else.  If the whopper didn't work, then you went to see the principal.

Once or twice per month, though, the big stick did see action.  Swearing or fighting could do the trick.  As before, the guilty party stood before the class, heard the nature of the offense, and received sentence.

Then came those dreaded words "Bend over and grab your ankles."  Whoosh!  You could hear it coming, as air whistled through the holes in the paddle.

It landed with a flat "whaap" and stung a little, but nothing like you expected.  Like so much else in life, the anticipation was worse than the actual event.  Being embarrassed in front of your classmates hurt more than the paddle.

*          *          *          *          *

As strict as he was in teaching us our limits, Mr. D could also be quite flexible at times.  He often bent the rules, so we could test our own self-discipline.  Willy Wilson presented a good case in point.

For a while, Willy wielded a big influence over my best friend, Bob, and me.  Red-headed Willy stood taller than either of us and outweighed us both.  He lived with his mother in the hills above Turnbull Canyon Road.

During a discussion with the principal, Willy's mother insisted that, due to the long steep climb up to their house, her boy should be allowed to drive his motor scooter back and forth to school.  Her boy had a lazy streak in him.

Mrs. Wilson failed to mention that the scooter had no license plates or that her Willy, at thirteen, had no driver's license.  Thus, it came to pass that the school bicycle lot that year contained one battered old maroon Vespa.

When class let out for lunch each day, Willy, Bob, and I raced for the parking lot.  Pushing the scooter through a small gap in the gate, we set off for the Tastee Freeze, two miles away.

The old scooter rarely cranked over with the kick starter.  Luckily, Newton Street ran downhill at that point.  While the corpulent Willy sat and steered, Bob and I pushed . . . and pushed, until the motor belched to life.

Once the engine started, Willy gave it the gas, and Bob and I had to run hard to catch up.  Bob hopped onto the moving scooter from behind, landing on the passenger seat.  Then I hopped atop the spare tire behind Bob.  Off we roared, three boys atop a scooter designed for two, and the police never stopped us.

At the Tastee Freeze, we ordered hamburgers and leaned against the wall, trying to look cool, watching the high school kids cruise by in their cars.  After twenty minutes of looking cool, it was time to head back to school.

Without fail, the scooter would not start.  With Willy at the helm, Bob and I pushed and pushed, but it would not fire.  The longer we pushed, the more Willy frowned.

Frowning, for Willy, signaled deep thought.  He needn't have bothered.  We all knew why the scooter wouldn't start.  The spark plug had fouled out.

Any filling station attendant would have cleaned the spark plug for a quarter; but we didn't have a quarter.  We had spent all our money on lunch.

One might imagine that we would hold a little money back, in case of a problem, so we could get back to school on time; but, young boys, whose entire net worth is measured in loose change, don't think in those terms.

Finally, we walked over to the corner gas station and asked for help.  With no money, getting the man to sandblast the old spark plug took a real sob story.  That's where Willy came in; that boy could bring tears to your eyes.

We arrived back at school ten minutes late.  The kids were all in class, and the school grounds stood empty.  Willy headed for his classroom, and Bob and I made quick tracks for ours.  Opening the door ever so gently, we peeked inside.  Mr. D, well into the lesson, had his back to the class, writing on the chalk board.

Bob and I tiptoed inside.  Raising index fingers to our lips, we signaled our classmates for quiet.  Then we slipped into our seats.

Looking over at each other, we nodded and smiled.  Then Mr. D spoke over his shoulder, "Welcome back gentlemen.  We're on page thirty-four, lesson six."  The class laughed, Bob and I blushed, and no one said another word.

Mr. D knew all about our lunchtime forays.  He never said anything because he wanted to give us a chance to show how responsible we could be on our own.

Better late than never, we came to our senses.  After talking it over, we decided to leave Willy Moore behind . . . and stick with Mr. D.

*          *          *          *          *

Late one sunny day in June, 1961, home room B-3 said goodbye in the school parking lot.  Thirty-five kids milled about, each waiting to take their turn at Mr. D's side.

One by one, we sidled up and tried to say something profound that would capture our feelings for him and the year just past.  No one wanted to be the first to leave, it seemed.

Each kid had looked forward to that day and wanted to move on to the next phase in life; but, at the same time, we had bonded, and we wanted the mood to last forever.

If only one could capture that feeling and put it in a bottle.  Then you could take it out and savor it once in a while.  That's what they make yearbooks for, I suppose.

*          *          *          *          *

Joe did not stay in California.  His family and friends all lived on the east coast.  A year later, he moved back to the tiny hamlet of Sparkill, New York.

We exchanged letters a few times.  I sent him a copy of my high school graduation photo.  Then we dropped out of touch.

*          *          *          *          *

By the spring of 1968, I had been drafted into the army.  That summer they sent me to Fort Dix, New Jersey, for advanced infantry training.  One weekend, I received a pass from Saturday noon until Sunday evening.

Pondering this windfall of free time, I thought of Joe D'Auria.  Didn't he live nearby, just a few miles up the Hudson River?  I purchased a bus ticket.

Sparkill didn't have a bus station.  The driver just pulled off to the side of a country road and opened the door.  "Sparkill," he barked.

I walked to the front of the bus.  "Are you sure this is the right place?" I asked.  The driver looked tired.

"This is Sparkill," he said.  "Are you getting off, or not?"  Baffled, I stepped down onto the pavement.  The door slammed shut, and the bus roared off.

A rustic tavern stood nearby.  I walked over stepped inside.  "I'm looking for Joe D'Auria," I said into the cool darkness.  "Can anyone help me?"

"The school teacher?" answered a voice from within.

"Yes, Joe D'Auria, my old teacher," I said.  The voice said to walk a few hundred yards through the woods.  Make a left turn, a right turn, and then another left, and Joe's house would be on the corner.

A path behind the tavern led into a thick grove of trees.  I took it.  A few minutes later, the woods gave way to a small cluster of new homes.  The house sat on the corner, right where the voice said it would be.  I approached and rang the front door bell.  Joe's wife opened the door and peeked out.  She looked prettier than I remembered.

She stared at me for a few seconds, fidgeting on the porch in crisp, starched khaki's.  Then her gaze fell on the name tag pinned above my shirt pocket, and her eyes lit up.

"Why, it's Ronnie Karpinski!" she cried.  "Joe will be so happy you're here."

Noon had come and gone.  Members of the local volunteer fire department had gathered for a picnic at the park, and Joe had joined them.  Mrs. D drove me over.

The old shortstop stood over a grill, cooking a large slab of ribs.  Fat dripped onto the hot coals, and a flame shot out, causing him to step back.  He glanced up and saw us.

Joe tried hard to hide his feelings, but his eyes betrayed a hint of pride.  He put his arm around my shoulder, and we wandered about the picnic grounds.  At each stop, we met with warm smiles and pats on the back.

One after the other, he introduced me to his friends.  "This is Ronnie Karpinski the Slugger," he said.  "Best third-baseman ever to play the game."

These were his closest friends, people he had known since childhood.  A few minutes of shaking hands with them, and it became clear why he had moved back there.  Kinship of that sort is rare these days.

On my guard, I waited for him to "root me one" that day, for old times sake, but he didn't.  We ate fried chicken and drank beer.  Then we joined in a game of softball, he at shortstop and me at third base.  As I recall, our team won.

Later, Joe drove me down to the main part of town where a bench on a corner served as the Sparkill bus station.  We talked for a while, about life in general and things in the world that were changing.  Then the bus pulled up.

As we stood to say goodbye, he thrust out his hand, and I took it.  On the surface, it seemed a simple thing, two men on a street corner shaking hands; but it went much deeper than that.  He now viewed me as a man.

*          *          *          *          *

June 1983 found me in the passenger terminal at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey.  Two army pals and I had embarked upon a three-week trip to Europe.  We hoped to catch a free military hop across the Atlantic.

An airman behind the space-A counter knew of a C-141 cargo jet leaving for Spain the next day.  He thought it would have plenty of room for passengers.  So far, so good.  Now, what to do for the next twenty-four hours?

The city of Tom's River, the nearest seashore, was a good an hour away by car.  We drove over and spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach, working on our sun tans.

After a couple of hours, John felt his first hunger pang.  When big John got hungry, there wasn't much to discuss, except where to find dinner.

"Hey," I said, "I have a friend who lives not far from here.  He's Joe D'Auria, my old school teacher.  I'm sure he's good for a free meal.  Let's give him a call."

*          *          *          *          *

The phone booth barely held the three of us.  Scott and John pressed hard against the glass, as I searched my wallet for the number.  One by one, the buttons on the face plate beeped in response to my touch.

The line on the other end rang and rang.  While we waited, Scott asked, "By the way, when was the last time you saw Joe?"

"Well, let me see.  Hmm . . . it must have been in 1968," I answered.

"What!," he screamed.  "You haven't seen this guy in fifteen years, and you're calling him up to invite us all over for dinner?"

"Sure," I said.  "We were close back then."

At last, someone answered.  "Hello," boomed a deep male voice.

"Hello," I replied.  "Is this Joe D'Auria?"

"Yes," answered the voice on the other end.

"Joe D'Auria who used to teach school out in California?" I asked.

"Yes," echoed the voice, somewhat suspiciously.

"Joe D'Auria, best shortstop ever to play the game?" I demanded.

The phone went silent.  Two, three, four seconds ticked past.  Then he spoke.

"Slugger, that you?"

 

Click here to return to Stories.          Click here to return to Home Page.