Editor’s note: Originally published in Florida Today, Melbourne, Fla.
Melbourne, Fla. – It was a sound that shall never go away. The sloshing noise of the washing machine was like a siren going off to my 11-year-old ears. Disaster was imminent.
My jeans were in the washer, dirt caked on each knee, as usual. And precious – no, priceless baseball cards were in the right rear pocket. One of the more monumental trades in the history of the neighborhood was about to become a soggy wad of sloop.
Mickey Mantle, Warren Spahn, Ernie Banks. Soon to become indistinguishable, illegible, worthless. All because of a frivolous error of omission.
The panic was so real, the disappointment so looming. A month of negotiation, 20 cards of lesser significance and several days’ lunch money were undoubtedly being washed away.
I ran full speed through the house, screaming, demanding the cursed Maytag be stopped. I slid on my knees, pulled open the washer door, dumped both hands into the hot, soapy water and began groping for my jeans.
“Are you looking for these?” asked my mother, reaching into the sanitary pocket of her sterilized housecoast, and pulling out the baseball cards.
It was the first time I ever kissed her without being asked.
Good ol’ Mom. Steady, dependable, covered a lot of ground. Batted cleanup. Sacrificed a lot. Great team player. She’d have made one hell of a shortstop.
Which, of course, she was. It was during the time I was infatuated with the notion of becoming another Nellie Fox. I always wanted to be a second baseman. But before I got up the courage to ask Dad to work with me on the double play, I asked Mom. She became Luis Aparacio.
The routine was simple. My brother would tap a ground ball to my mother. She’d scoop it up and flip it kind of ladylike to the vicinity of the dish towel we used for second base. I would try to catch the ball, drag my foot across the rag bag and throw to my brother, in Nellie’s image. By then, he had discarded the bat, picked up his glove and transformed from hitter to first baseman with only a twinkling of imagination. It was 6-4-3, if anyone was keeping score.
My throws were awful, my form ridiculous. More often than not, the dish towel would get tangled in my rubber cleats and I’d trip. My throw, already off balance, would go straight down and bounce inches from where I soon collapsed.
Whenever that happened, the shortstop became a mother again. First aid, sympathy, whatever was needed. She wasn’t a good athlete, only a good sport. But Dad liked sports and Mom was Dad’s wife. This was in the days when ERA meant earned run average and Title IX didn’t mean anything. What it really meant was the TV game of the week took precedence over the romantic movie she loved as a kid. It meant sitting with the family folding socks or underwear, reading a magazine and occasionally asking who was winning or what was the score.
Mom managed the clubhouse. The team came first. She wanted it that way.
There was the time I decided to chew tobacco in Little League. Nellie Fox chews it, I argued. No deal. I knew it was futile. I’d secretly experimented with a chaw once. It was awful. So I found a substitute.
It looked like tobacco, smelled bad enough to be tobacco and, if mixed with gum, formed a nice semi-lump that made my cheek stick out. Just like Nellie’s.
An hour before gametime, Mom discovered my intentions. She laughed at the thought of turtle food being in my mouth. Then she fretted. Then she suggested the magical qualities of Tootsie Roll as an alternative. Wad up one of those babies, flip it in and … perfect.
I jumped on my bike, making allowance for the extra ballast crammed into my disjointed jaw. I almost didn’t hear the stern warning, “I’d better not hear of you doing any spitting.”
Then, as always, she added, “And have a good time, honey.”
There was always a special meal that had to be cooked because someone had an early game and someone else a later one. There was only one way to put an ouchless bandage on a skinned knee. And only Mom knew how to do it.
There was only one Mom.
I don’t remember if I always told her thanks for playing hurt, so often, for supplying emergency sew jobs and last-second pep-talks. Or if I always told her I appreciated the uniforms, which were always clean, the bleacher support, which was always positive and the coaching, which was always by the rules.
I think I forgot to do all these things. I thought she was like Lou Gehrig and would always be in the lineup. But it’s been 15 years since I realized nothing is forever.
It is a fine day to brag about mothers. I just did.
Now, it’s your turn.