CREWE'S FATHER PLAYED SHORTSTOP
Crewe's parents met at Ohio State in a driving blizzard. Ballplayer asks out future school teacher as form of apology. Given the circumstances, the dean suggested he chaperone. The baseball team called it the snow series: a race across campus during the first snowstorm of the new year playing an inning in each quad. Standard equipment: a punctured tennis ball and a bat, no gloves. Sliding was encouraged. By the third inning the tennis ball could drive roofing nails through granite. A glimmering opal, the boys marveled at its iridescence before each throw. The shot heard around the campus happened in the sixth inning on an especially brisk January afternoon in 1954. On the Belzer Quad lawn with men at the corners, clean-up hitter Cal Crewe pulled a fading curve through Martha Massacello's dorm window. Cal was left clutching the bat. The dean called the game, then the varsity coach. Martha kept the ball.
She stored it in the utility drawer of her summer kitchen in Lamar. "It's too ratty for anywhere else," she always said, picking the bald fabric. "Besides, nothing is ever lost in the junk drawer." Cal picked at the faded yellow skin too, not just to remember that day, but all the days when his diamond skills meant something important to people.
Cal almost made the bigs. In 1955 he spent two weeks at spring training with the Brooklyn Dodgers in Clearwater, Florida. Fourteen days of fielding, hitting, sleeping, eating, shitting, joking. Fourteen days on the top of the world. In the weeks leading up to spring training he took infield practice after midnight in the fraternity lawn under the tunneled headlights of De Sotos and Thunderbirds. Make a date out if it, he'd tell the brothers. During winter finals he recruited Martha to bunt him balls in the OSU fieldhouse. On the train to Florida he traced the seams of stitching seemingly tattooed on his right palm from all the one-handed put-outs.
After fourteen days in Clearwater the Dodgers shipped him to their Montreal farm. Pee Wee Reese stopped by his locker and wished him luck. "I gotta retire some day, kid," the all-star shortstop said. Martha moved home to Cleveland and started teaching third grade. That fall on his mother-in-law's couch, he listened to the Dodgers win their first World Championship, taking the Yankees in seven. The Bums had done good. Back in Clearwater in the spring of '56, Reese remembered the tenacious Tennesseean and gave him a signed championship ball, but in May he made the long train ride to Montreal. Cal batted .274, but a pesky knee injury limited his range to the hole and he missed a chance for a call-up in July. In the fall classic the Dodgers succumbed to Yankee pitching in seven games. At twenty-two, with his baseball pay spent on beer and long-distance calls home, Cal moved Martha home to Lamar. The next winter Cal didn't report. He could walk away knowing he'd backed-up the best. GM Branch Ricky promptly traded Cal's rights to Pittsburgh. When the body fails, athletes have no choice. Until then, the dream is potent. At Martha's encouragement he packed his spikes for another shot. But after four weeks on the Pittsburgh farm, Cal retired at age twenty-three.
Later that summer he dug his spikes into a crab grass and rock-baked infield three miles from his family's farm. He batted clean-up during the Fourth-of-July game and the Harvest Jamboree. They called it half-A ball. Local taverns took book. Cal played into his early fifties. He walked off the diamond on a ginger knee in the middle of the fourth one sunny July afternoon. The second baseman had dropped the ball on a long single he'd pushed for two. Feet-first slide. Cal caught the left fielder's throw on the knee. He retired to the bleachers next to Martha and his oldest daughter, and devoured two bags of popcorn and half a jar of Martha's blue ribbon pickles.
Cal worked his three daughters into a skilled infield. But Crewe was the surprise he'd been waiting for. The '55 championship ball had one more crib to knock around. He tried convincing Martha that naming the boy after his baseball idol, Pee Wee Reese, would be a good omen. But Martha figured the name would give every playground bully in the land the green light to kick the stuffing out of her boy. They compromised with Reese in the middle. "Paul for my father," she said. Then added, "and the apostle."
During Crewe's sophomore year of high school he grew a head past his father, near his grandfather's size. Much too bulky for a fleet-footed shortstop, so Cal set up a bullpen in his hayloft for the boy to work on his new position.
"Show 'em the heat, son," Cal was fond of saying in front of the town boys. He'd lick his palm and crouch down in a catcher's stance. "About ninety percent." The old barn door backstop was riddled with splintered planks and more than one grapefruit-sized hole. At sixteen Crewe knew one speed. And he about threw himself off the mound releasing the heat. He licked his fingers then ran them down the seam of his jeans. He'd wave off signs and peer over his shoulder at the garbage can cover they called first base. Then the nod to the catcher, the high kick he'd seen on Nolan Ryan. Whoof! A white-hot rock on a string. Whack! The sound said strike.
"You're outta there," Cal called. This kid was no fluke. "Another son." Whack! Whack! Whack! All day long. The stinging sound left Cal's ears buzzing till the next morning. But one pitch doesn't make a prospect. Crewe accepted a baseball scholarship at Vanderbilt. It was a gift. Ball equaled free books. But his senior year he gave it up to study for his medical boards. If he'd quit for any other reason his father would have killed him. The major league was Cal's dream. The summer after graduation, father and son turned two double plays in the Harvest Championship game, thrashing visiting Shelbyville, 13 to 4.
Jotham Burrello teaches in the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. He has recently completed his first novel.