In a town noted for nicknames, his is one of the best.
“Fizzer” Adonizio practically sings.
Some may have called, or still call him, Pat or Patty or even Patrick, but outside of his household, they surely were and are in the minority. To most of us he’s Fizzer and always has been. It’s a name you cannot say without smiling.
I know my face lights up every time I see him coming, and these days that’s often when I am in my front yard tending to my wife’s flowers and he is halfway through his daily walk. He’s usually ready for a break and so am I. Stereotypical of the old bucks we now are, we chat over my picket fence.
We both live in the houses we grew up in, a half-mile (if that) apart, he on William Street and I on Butler. As such, our conversations often turn to the old days when, as kids in the 1950s and ’60s, we had two things in common: baseball and Fleming Park. Which, when I think of it, were really one thing. The Fleming, on the top of Butler Street, was where, during long, carefree summers, we played ball. All day. Every day.
The movie “Sandlot,” which celebrated its 25th anniversary last weekend with showings in theaters across the country, was our lives. The movie poster and video cover, with hands on the handle of a bat, is familiar to all of us who grew up “choosing up sides.” That’s the way the two best players on hand that day picked their teams prior to a game.
I once used that expression — “choosing up sides” — in a conversation with Kim (then) Collins, coach of the Pittston Area boys and girls tennis teams at the time, and she had no idea what I was talking about. Kim was an athlete all her life, but she came from a generation long removed from my sandlot memories.
Fizzer and I agree that one of the coolest things about “choosing up sides” was its absolute fairness. Whether only eight guys showed up, necessitating rule adjustments like hitting to your “opposite field” being an automatic out, or 16, meaning we could fill every position (a catcher was unnecessary), every kid was well aware which two guys were the best and they got to pick their teammates, the second-best players being chosen first and worst last.
It was fair because you, and everyone else, knew exactly where you stood. There were days when I took one look around and knew I’d be picked last, no doubt about it, and other days when I’d be one of the two guys doing the picking. That was when the really good players were on vacation.
As opposed to the movie, there were no coaches on our sandlot. And that was a good thing. That’s not meant to be a knock on our coaches. We all played Little League, where we toed the mark, practiced hard and became better players. But Little League carried an element of pressure. A strikeout there could cost your team a championship. A strikeout on the sandlot was just an out. You were sure you’d smack a homer the next time around.
There were no called balls and strikes on the sandlot either. That’s why we didn’t need a catcher. You could only strikeout by swinging and missing a third time. There were no arguments about whether a pitch was just outside or caught the corner. And there were no walks. Hitting was fun. Walking was not. You were at the plate to hit.
Speaking of hitting, Fizzer reminded me what we used to hit with. It was a baseball bat, of course, but usually one that had been given to us by a Little League coach or even a coach of “Sunday ball,” which grown men played. Those bats were usually way too big for us, but we knew how to “choke up” so we could “get around” on a pitch. (If those terms sound foreign, ask your grandfather or great uncle to explain.)
Whether big or small, our bats had one thing in common: nails. They were given to us because they were broken. All bats were wooden back then and sooner or later would crack. That didn’t bother us though. We’d drive a few nails into them and wrap some tape (masking, electrical, adhesive, whatever we could find) around them and were good to go.
Tape held our baseballs together, too. Like our bats, they usually got handed down to us, as well, typically with the horsehide cover half hanging off. Didn’t matter, though. We were thrilled to have them.
Fizzer brought up something I had temporarily forgotten. Not everyone had a baseball glove. Which brings up something else we learned on the sandlot — brotherhood. When the third out was made, the fielders would drop their gloves on the ground at their positions and run in to bat. The other team would trot out onto the field and find a glove waiting for them.
We’d often be at the Fleming at 8 a.m. and play ball all morning. Time disappeared there and the only way we knew we’d better run home for lunch was the Angelus, the ringing of church bells at noon. We’d be back as fast as we could, some of us with a little mustard on the side of our mouths from our baloney sandwiches.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.