When I was 6, my grandmother put on her open-toed shoes that smelled of rose sachet and went to Saks Fifth Avenue to buy me a baseball mitt.
To everyone's surprise but hers, they had one. A Sam Esposito model. I didn't know who he was but neither did she. I told her Sam was a Yankee.
My mother always said it killed grandma to buy it. When she died seven years later of a stroke, I had nothing left but Sam and the New York Yankees.
My grandmother lived a block from the stadium in a building called the Yankee Arms. In the foyer, there was a blue and white stained glass coat of arms with diagonal bats where the bars should have been.
In the 13 years she lived at 751 Walton Ave., the Bronx, she was never once tempted to visit her neighbors at the stadium. It was hard to figure out but I accepted it, just the way she accepted me.
When I was very young, Sam and I would sit for hours on a bench at the corner of 157th Street staring at the outside of the right field wall. They were just behind that wall: Moose and Mick and Hector Lopez.
I waited for a ball that never came.
In the fall, I became very religious. The closer it got to the World Series, the more I had to atone for, the more I had to go to services.
Because of the overflow crowd of penitents, the congregation always moved to the Concourse Plaza Hotel for the holidays. The hotel, where the players stayed when the Grand Concourse was a Beaux Arts suburb of Manhattan, sat atop the hill at 161st Street and the Concourse. From the ballroom window, you could see the green of the outfield but not Hector Lopez's smile.
I wore my Mary Janes, otherwise reserved for the first day of school and the first day of the baseball season. My grandmother wore a rose corsage, open-toed shoes and a mink coat she bought a size too big in order to accommodate grandchildren. There was plenty of room for me, my transistor, and Sammy Esposito.
She would wrap me up inside the fur and hustle me and my glove and my radio past the serious men in yarmulkes, upstairs to where the women prayed alone. While they rocked and prayed and sang, I hid behind the heavy velvet curtains watching for a flanneled figure running hard after an unseen ball. While they listened for the sound of the ram's horn signaling the start of the New Year, I listened to Red Barber from my catbird seat.
"Do you still have it?"
That was the first thing Sam Esposito wanted to know.
I lost the glove years ago but I finally found Sammy.
He has been the baseball coach at North Carolina State University for the last 15 years. He doesn 't have his Sam Esposito glove, either. "I went looking for it in my locker," he said. "The last one I had. I was gonna give it to my son. A couple of years ago, I gave it to Monte Towe because he didn't have one. I never have seen it since.He swears he gave it back to me. I feel kinda bad about it."
Sammy remembers seeing the Sam Esposito model in a couple of local department stores. "But I don't remember many kids wearing them," he says.
He can't quite figure out how he ended up in Saks Fifth Avenue. "It's kind of shocking, really," he says. "It's not like I was Mickey Mantle."
I assured him my grandmother never would have known the difference.
Sammy was a utility infielder for the Chicago White Sox, a man who used all his wits to stay in the majors 10 years despite a .207 career batting average. His best year was 1958 when he played in 98 games, had 81 at bats, three doubles, three RBI and a .247 batting average. "Mrs. Esposito never raised any dummies," he said.
At the Sox Old-Timers' Day last year, Sammy managed to field the one grounder hit to him at short despite his bad back. "Then they asked me to go to bat," he said, "but there was no sense in changing things now."
Guys like Sammy, who earned $17,000 playing baseball once, didn't get any money for endorsing a glove."In those days, as soon as you made the club, you'd sign with Spalding," he said. "That's what you signed for: two pairs of spikes and two gloves.
"Luis Aparicio used my model. In fact, he let me break'em in. He'd get a ton of 'em, I got two and he'd always be stealing mine."
Sammy's glove and mine didn't have a lot in common except that they were both small. "They did try to imitate you model," Sam said. "But as far as the construction of it, it was very cheap."
I know. I broke my thumb twice trying to catch with it. The glove had no pocket, no padding, no fold. Just Sammy's name.
"Your grandma probably just picked out the first one she saw," he said.
When I was 7, I spent a lot of time in front of the television practicing my wind-up and the pitch. I practiced how to walk in from the bullpen and how to drape my warm-up jacket over my shoulder just so.
When I was 8, I mopped up for the Bluejays of the Roslyn, Long Island, Little League. I was 2-1 with a 2.54 ERA. Baseball had no gender but the manager wasn't sure. He gave me a cap but no uniform.
When I was 12 in 1964, the Yankees lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals and Yogi Berra was fired. Two years later, New York finished 10th in the American League. That was the year my grandmother died of a stroke. I inherited the white porcelain heart in which she kept her rose sachet.
One day in art class, I asked the most popular girl in the seventh grade why I wasn't being invited to all the parties. "They think you like baseball better than boys," Gwen said.
I did, but I didn't know I had to choose. That's when I started hiding the transistor under my pillow after night games and noticing that my arm hurt after the first catch of spring.
In 1977, I finally reported to spring training as a rookie reporter working for a magazine. I arrived at the winter home of the New York Yankees at noon, seven hours before game time, and sat in the stands watching a sprinkler water the outfield. The grass really is greener in spring training.
I couldn't understand why there were no ballplayers limbering up in the sunshine. "On game days they drift in around 4," said the woman in the press room. I looked perplexed. "It's a job," she said.
Some job. At 4:30, the field was full of grown men in pin stripes whose biggest worry was whether their arms got sore after the first catch of spring. I introduced myself to Lou Piniella as a reporter from womenSports magazine.
"Women!" Piniella bellowed. "That's for me."
He pinned me against the outfield fence and began to playfully nuzzle my neck.
That's when I knew Sammy's glove wouldn't fit anymore.