1. From space, Maple Shade’s borders resemble a tiny elephant or maybe a rhinoceros head. I forgot how the town extends across Route 38 along the interstate. This gerrymander bulwarks the apartment complexes neither Cherry Hill nor Moorestown wanted on its school rolls.
2. I like to zoom in over our old house. The new owners set up an above-ground pool and white privacy fence.
3. Beyond our block and around the curve of our street sits a black circle. This is Maple Shade’s sewage processing plant. At street level, all we saw was a mysterious carousel arm that sprayed water over what looked to be wet, black coals.
3a. The boys in town nicknamed this “aeration ring,” as the township website calls it, the “Shitty-Go-Round.” It only occurs to me years later, looking down from sky, that living next the town’s shitwater sieve probably kept our property values down.
4. Further east are seven orange teardrops with green centers, baseball diamonds that line the back of West Woodlawn Avenue. Near the Shitty-Go-Round are girls’ softball and tee-ball fields. A bigger diamond with a proper clubhouse right behind out backyard was where public school kids played.
4a. If it were a stadium, our backyard would be in the 100 section, 20 rows back from right field. The only thing separating home run balls landing in our backyard was a 20-foot guard fence and a dirt path in right field.
4b. On the opposite side, next to the never-used-for-tennis tennis court, sits the CYO field. That’s where I would play. Or, to be more accurate, where I’d strike out and drown my sorrows in fountain sodas, Swedish fish and soft pretzels. Springtime in The Shade revolved around boys’ baseball. Orange clay and line chalk blew around behind our house.
4c. As a kid, I’d lie in bed, smelling of baby powder, sunlight peeked through drawn drapes, and listen to scratchy Star-Spangled Banners play in succession from the clubhouse PAs. Old men announced line-ups in flat monotone: Next batter, for the Dodgers, Stephen Kassakert. Next batter, for the Cardinals, Tommy Babcock.
5. Walking and biking around the streets of Maple Shade, I’ve wondered why I was an easy mark. I wasn’t any more gawky or nerdy than many other kids. Socially, I was awkward, taller than most. Who wasn’t awkward as a prepubescent? We’ve gone over the trombone-playing business.
6. There was also the complete lack of athletic poise. I also didn’t excel at sports or acts of random violence boys liked to do at that developmental stage.
7. The only answer I can come up with is baseball. From 1976-1982, I was the worst player in Maple Shade’s Catholic Youth Organization, minor and major leagues. No one came close. I might’ve been the worst ever.
7a. I could play this up for laughs, but please know that when I cite my lifetime batting average of .057 playing right field, never got more than one base hit each season, we are talking about a formative humiliation that cuts deep to the present day.
7b. To suck in baseball in Maple Shade in the 70s in and 80s—or, worse, not even play—consigns a boy to untouchable status, a ne’er-do-well; or, in turns of a faggot or pussy.
8. To compensate, I developed an ironic distance. And this only led to more ridicule. Somewhere along the line, I just thought I was somehow better than that, or felt more deserving of praise than I really was. Purpose and direction governed my day-to-day life, at least until fourth or fifth grade, at which point streaks of sadness peeked in, pockets of despair over any mild disappointment. This is when I started to play baseball. Still, I felt entitled to be a cool kid when I should have been content to sit at the Retard Table with the other kids in the A-Level Reading Group, or boys with stunted growth who cowered in the corner, or the one or two who turned out to be genuinely gay.
8a. A big game for boys my school, for example, was to go “nigger knocking,” which involved throwing rocks at people’s screen doors from the other side of the street, then running away before people answered the door. The reason I didn’t take part in this kind of game was not that I hated the name or even damaging property; it was I knew I wouldn’t hit the door with a rock, and I couldn’t run fast enough to get away.
9. My father hated sports of all kinds, except boxing.
9a. “It wouldn’t matter to me,” he proclaimed on January 25, 1981, Super Bowl XV, watching the Eagles fall to the Raiders, “if all the professional athletes in the world died in a fiery plane crash.” He was trying, in his way, to console my uncles and grandfather as Ron Jaworski threw three interception passes.
9b. I deduced the old man wouldn’t be up for playing catch in the backyard. I didn’t hold it against him. I dreaded my status as the town’s suckiest baseball player. The fewer people who saw me striking out three or four times a game, the better.
10. Mom tried to keep things upbeat. “Look at this way,” she’d say, “somebody’s gotta play right field.”
11. At nightly prayer sessions, I made more and more elaborate offerings to God. After the Sign of The Cross, the Our Father-Hail Mary-Glory Be and the Thanking-God-for-All-My-Gifts-and-Talents segments, I’d hold an open forum for Endless Petitions. The What-I-Need-from-God part included itemized lists of wants, and what I’d be willing to bargain to make the deal happen.
12. Horse trading with God seemed natural to me; it was an ongoing conversation. For A’s on spelling tests or getting Anne-Marie Marin to wear my baseball cap on the class trip, I might offer up praying a couple decades of the rosary.
12a. Mostly during these years, I prayed for success on the baseball field.
12b. “Listen, Lord, just give me one hit,” I said aloud in my bed. “It doesn’t have to be tomorrow. But, for my sake and yours, if you could just help me get two or three base hits, my social life will vastly improve. I can concentrate on my grades, and you won’t hear me bugging you each night. We can focus on world peace.”
12c. Mom prayed, too, she told me years later.
13. The only sure way to get on base, I figured, was to get hit by a pitch. When that happens, you get to go to first base. It’s as good as a hit.
13a. And that’s exactly what I’d do. The first time was the championship game in 1980, the Cardinals versus the A’s. The bases were loaded, two outs, and we were losing by one run.
13b. Our third base coach, a player’s dad who sipped from a flask he kept in his back pocket, shouted at me before I entered the left-hander’s batter’s box.
13c. “Just put your ball on the bat!” He curled his hands around his mouth to make sure I heard him. “Just get the bat on the ball!”
13d. The pitcher threw so hard the ball’s stiches hissed across the plate.
13e. “Steee-rike one!”
13f. “C’mon, Danny! Ball on the bat!”
13g. Thing was, I could even see the ball. My undiagnosed myopia turned out to a good thing. If had seen it, I would duck or dive or run away. At a county fair a couple Augusts ago, with both daughters and wife watching, I entered a batting cage to see if I was still afraid of spheres hurled toward my head at great speeds. The first one spat out and I ducked, covered my helmet with both arms as it slapped the canvas backstop. Even with glasses I never saw the ball coming.
13h. The pitcher wound up again. Coaches called the outfielders in, practically up to the diamond, the infielders on the grass. Second pitch: another , a pound in the glove, and the umpire’s call for a strike.
13i. “Steee-rike two!”
13j. Dread filled the air from our bleachers. Parents started to gather their things, the other team got ready to celebrate. This was it; I could prove myself a hero.
13k. Our third base coach wasn’t giving up. “Contact!” he shouted. “Contact!”
13l. On the third pitch, I turned my right ass cheek toward the pitcher over home plate, and swack! Everything goes quiet when someone gets hit by a ball, but I was overjoyed. After the look-over by ump, I flung the bat toward the dugout and jogged to first base.
13m. Good as a hit. Tie game.
14. For my last two years playing baseball, I led the league in hit-by-pitches, with at least 10 per season. If the pitcher didn’t throw a beanball, I bunted, a strategy that flabbergasted opposing teams. There I’d be, top of the third inning and no one on base, no call for a sacrifice or squeeze play, stooped over home plate well before the pitcher began his wind-up.
14a. “Danny Nester, the Bunt King,” our coach, Mr. Cerasi, called me. Whatever. Good as a hit.
15. Most times, though, I just struck out. Fellow players avoided looking at me during the game, afraid they might catch strike-out-itis from me. Sometimes I think the indignities of my childhood would have been lessened if I had been good or even competent at the national pastime. Other times, when my family’s brighter-side, silver-lining mentality kicks in, I’ll think it hastened my exit out of town, and that was a good thing. Every bad thing is a blessing in my family’s theology.
16. I still imagine what it would be like if I got, say, one hit a game, batted .250, and was one of the boys. Maybe I would have made more friends? Got in fewer fights? Stayed in The Shade?
17. In the off-season, older boys played pick-up games and smacked home runs over the guard fence, which left dents in our aluminum siding. Some considerate outfielders screamed look-out! as the ball sailed over, but most of the time there was a plink or crack of the bat, silence, and then a thud on the ground next to me as I played with my trucks. Or a maybe a ker-ploosh into our three-foot above-ground pool.
17a. As a young boy, it seemed like an asteroid had hit the Earth, and whoever came to retrieve them muscular, mustached spacemen.
18. When we sold the house in 1987, we gave away the edger, sleds, end tables, sets of tools, we couldn’t fit into mom’s apartment went into an uncle’s pickup or aunt’s trunk. It was August; the air was filled with the Shitty-Go-Round’s humid sludge. I put dad’s books into boxes and drove around with them in my van for a year. I was assigned to clear out the garage. Last check around, the moving truck idling outside, and I looked up. There, suspended from the rafters, was one of dad’s Navy duffle, the same camo canvas sack where I stashed my BB Gun. It looked empty, but at the bottom were about 30 scuffed-up baseballs and softballs.
18a. Turns out Mike Nester had a policy to never throw home run balls back when they landed in his yard. He just took them and put them in the bag and sat back down in his lawn chair. I’d like to think it was his way of getting even, setting the cosmos aright, moving just a couple beads on the abacus in the Nesters’ favor.