They sit together now as they sat together then, 60 years ago and more. In their long lives, almost nothing has stayed the same. Except baseball. The three Mazotas brothers have changed. But the game, the marginalia of their common lifetime, hasn't. It was there at their start; they remember the dead ball and were adults when Babe Ruth played. And it's still there, a kind of gentle chamber music on the clavier, at the last.
"They about soured me last summer. But they couldn't drive me away. The game pulls you back. The game is strong," says 78-year-old Red, the way somebody born on the farm--as they were--might say, "The land is strong."
The strike last season was just "a temporary annoyance. Oh, I still enjoy the game," says Leo, 73, a former lawyer, as though the mere thought of abandoning the game were the extreme of cutting off one's own nose. "The players are more intelligent now. There's more finesse. Baseball's just got a lot more to it than other sports, more substance."
"Game's just as good as ever, I guess. Some ways better. More speed now," says the youngest, Ted, 70, whose words are clipped and pruned--partly by a life in New England, partly, perhaps, because he was a telegraph operator. "Best part is, the game's there for you every day."
Shoulder-to-shoulder in the third-base stands, the two burly fellows--Red and Leo--are bookends around thin Ted, who looks like actor Don Knotts. All wear floppy baseball-style caps and have the rumpled, self-sufficient look of a harder but simpler age. They're senior citizens, retired, no wives left.
These three Connecticut Yankees migrate to Florida from Hartford as soon as the ballplayers arrive. In the morning, they play golf. Then they head to the Yankee ballpark here. They come early to catch the bargain days when workouts and calisthenics and drills and rookie B games are free. They've got tickets to nine Yankee spring training games, but resent paying $5 for an exhibition.
"Fifteen years ago, you got a real program. Now, they hand you this lousy piece of paper," says Red, looking at the flimsy, tissue-thin scorecard.
Long ago, in their bygone playing days, they watched Jim Thorpe when he came through Hartford, playing in the Eastern League. And they spotted that kid from Columbia University who played under a fictitious moniker so he wouldn't lose his amateur status. Sure, they remember him--Lou Gehrig. Matter of fact, Red played semipro ball against Gehrig one summer. Or, at any rate, figures he probably did, seeing as how Gehrig was born in '03 and Red in '04.
"I'd have to say he (Gehrig) was pretty damn good," says Red, a tough man with a compliment.
Has anybody since hit the ball like Gehrig?
Red Mazotas chews this over, then decides that maybe one upstart was worthy of comparison.
"Hack Wilson," he says, naming the ex-Cub, dead for 33 years.
To sit with the Mazotas brothers is to be reminded of why ballparks are one of our last, best community gathering spots. That it's a cliche doesn't diminish the fact that in few, if any, of our public places do our differences of age, race and the rest give way so readily to our common tastes.
One minute, the talk is of Hank Greenberg and Warren Spahn--the way they looked when the Mazotas clan (seven brothers and two sisters) first spotted them as minor leaguers. The next instant, a Yankee pitcher named John Pacella has just given up a long home run to Atlanta's Dale Murphy; "He'll be back in AAA again," says one brother. The whole process of sifting a young crop is being done again, this time with Pacella failing to fill the shoes of Spahn.
On each new baseball subject, the brothers' opinions run the gamut, no two exactly agreeing--although not absolutely disagreeing--on anything. It's as though, through all the back porch discussions during advancing age, they have, by convenience as much as conviction, each staked out a slightly different position, the better to wile away the hours.
In this sense, they are perhaps deeply typical of any group of lifelong fans. For instance, Red, a flight maintenance chief who was with the Flying Tigers in China in World War II, didn't like the players' position during the strike one bit; he sees all that fresh green money being stuffed into their young pockets and figures it's being taken from his old pocket. "The fans are the suckers," he says. "Oh, I guess I shouldn't say that since I'm still one."
Leo's no flaming liberal, but he likes to point out that "all that TV income today helps the owners now. The old owners didn't have that . . . There's more money from advertising and everything else. Salaries are bound to be higher. More power to them, if they can get it." Then he pauses. "I just hope it doesn't kill the game."
What's of note is that none of the Mazotas--"and none of those we hang around with," adds Red--holds any significant grudge against a sport that has given them 60 or 70 good summers to one poor one.
Oddly, these spry codgers even look for the best in Bowie Kuhn. "He just gets stuck trying to satisfy everybody," Ted says.
Like all who care for the game, they'd rather talk the loyalties of the heart than the economics of the wallet.
"There's Yogi Berra," says Red, spotting the Yankee coach. "Gets $50,000 or $60,000 a year to count the baseballs."
"Bill Dickey was better," says Leo.
They all nod agreement.
Chris Chambliss steps to the plate.
"Dignified," says Red.
"Journeyman," amends Ted.
"A top journeyman," says Leo, getting it precisely right.
"The Babe was my all-time favorite, an automatic showman," says Ted, who's such a Yankee fan that he says he drinks Ruppert's (whiskey) in honor of Roaring Twenties Yankee owner Jake Ruppert. "Never compare to Ruth."
"Ted Williams compares to all of them," demurs Leo, giving the perspective of the lifelong suffering Red Sox fan.
Since Hartford is midway between Boston and New York, the Mazotas are part of that town's historic schizophrenia regarding the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry. As a consequence, Hartford has, for decades, been bombarded with TV broadcasts from both clubs, making it a fans' paradise.
The buffoonish pop-sociology question to ask these gentlemen, with nearly 200 years of bearing witness to baseball among them, would be: Now, after the historic strike of '81, how often will you see baseball in '82?
Red Mazotas--the old semipro, the Flying Tiger--has the proper answer. To him and his brothers, baseball is the whole package: spring at the Yankee camp, minor league ball around Hartford, an occasional pilgrimage to Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, plus all those radio and TV games.
How often will he be in the ballpark?
He answers as he would have any summer since before World War I.
"In a sense," he says, "every day."