By: Mitchel Montagna
Stanford Goldman’s rental skidded into the parking lot of a school just west of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, near Amish country. He’d forgotten how suddenly that entrance appeared, following a sharp bend in the road. Slowing, he eyed the schoolhouse; it looked like a shoebox compared with his memories. It had been 40 years since Stan had attended grade school here, and until today, he hadn’t returned. But having recently turned 50, and by chance being in the area, he was drawn by nostalgia to have another look.
It was a warm Saturday morning in mid-July. A couple of boys were horsing around out front, but the school looked otherwise deserted. Stan settled into a space and shut off the engine. As he sat and stretched to ease the aches and stiffness of his drive, he scanned his once-familiar surroundings. Nearby houses appeared the same as back in his day, modest one-and two-story homes, some needing paint, all with small, square lawns. Behind the school’s property, cornfields stretched all the way to the horizon, with tall stalks gleaming in the sun. The view reminded Stan of a day he had snuck back there with classmates, pushing through rows of corn and discovering a wide, sparkling stream. Water bubbled over rocks and flora, releasing a cool, fragrant mist, a truant kid’s paradise.
Stan appreciated that the area had preserved the open, rustic feel of his memories—not that he was opposed to progress. Stan’s late father had been a successful real estate developer, a pile driver of a man with a healthy appetite for work, yet also with a thoughtful, academic manner. Stan had loved and admired his dad and knew he couldn’t have had a better role model.
While Stan had not gone into the family business, his father would surely have approved of his position today: Stan was the head baseball coach at Western Ohio University, a Division I school, where he had won more than three-hundred-and-fifty games in eight seasons, twice earning coach of the year honors. In fact, Stan was here because of his job; he had spent most of the previous day visiting a potential recruit in Gettysburg, an hour’s drive away.
Stan hauled himself out of his car, feeling a little short of breath and, as he straightened up, wobbly in the knees. He placed a steadying hand on the vehicle’s roof and after a few moments pushed its door closed and walked toward the school. It was a square, two-floor building with a dull brick shell. Stan figured he’d take a few photos to show Tina and the kids where it had all started.
He stepped from the lot’s blacktop up onto the front sidewalk. As he raised his phone to frame a shot, he felt the suspicious gaze of the two boys.
“Don’t worry,” Stan said. “I’m not spying. I actually attended here myself.”
The boys were about ten, not much younger than Stan’s smallest. “Yeah,” one said. “The school is supposed to be really old.”
Stan laughed. Well, he thought, the kids are seeing a balding, gray-haired man with a trim white beard. A slightly stooped man, at that. No way they could fathom that he was once a skinny boy, enthusiastic and often grinning, with black hair and thick glasses. “I like it,” Stan said. “Not just old, but really old. Keep those modifiers coming.”
Stan took a few shots, the sunshine sparking some life back into the building. He walked to the front doors, found them locked, then went around to the side.
The boys continued to loiter. “Does it still look like you remember?” one of them called. “Mister . . . uh.”
Stan turned back to them. “Yeah, pretty much.” He winked and added, “You can call me Coach,” and the kids couldn’t have failed to recognize the pride in the old man’s voice.
Stan walked alongside the school onto a gray asphalt playground about 150 feet long and half as wide. Beyond it was a larger grass field with a swing set, slide, soccer goals, basketball court, and, farther back, two baseball diamonds.
Stan wore a sweater vest and long khakis, probably not the best outfit for walking in the heat. He removed his glasses and dabbed his perspiring forehead with his shirtsleeve. His face felt flushed. Maybe it was this discomfort that triggered a memory, one of a game they had played on this very spot during recess. He recalled it was like tag, with one player designated “it,” and the others trying to run from one end of the asphalt to the other without being touched.
As a plodding asthmatic, Stan had no hope of doing well in this game. In fact, he wasn’t allowed to participate in what his parents called “strenuous” activities. But he’d always been stubborn, and one warm spring day, when no teacher appeared to be watching him, he took a spot among the others waiting to sprint across the asphalt. He couldn’t remember the identity of “it” on that day, but when the kid turned to chase someone else, Stan took off at an angle he felt might deliver him safely to the other side.
But as always, when Stan tried to run, he may as well have been in a different film than everyone else—one in slow motion. While the other boys galloped back and forth, Stan hobbled. The opposite end of the playground looked miles away. When Stan sensed “it” closing in, he ran with desperation, pumping his limbs and sucking air, hearing the wheezing inside his chest that he feared and hated. Of course, his effort failed, and “it” slapped him firmly on the shoulder. Stan saw that despite his determination, he had managed to run only a few yards before he got tagged.
But the worst part was when he assumed the role of “it,” the game’s booby prize for being the first one caught. As he labored to give chase, sweat fogged his glasses, and his lungs felt clogged. All he could do was gasp and swipe at his fleeting schoolmates. They taunted him, of course, zooming close, then dancing away. When recess finally ended, he had caught nobody, and he dropped to his knees, starving for oxygen. He spent the afternoon supine in the nurse’s office, sucking on his inhaler till his mother arrived to take him home.
Now Stan left the asphalt for the grassy field. Walking toward the baseball diamonds, he felt his steps grow lighter. This was more like it, he thought—his playground, his office.
It all began here, Stan was thinking—well, not exactly. It had really begun at home, as he sat in his room while other boys played outside. He discovered a way to participate—in his head, by creating fictional baseball teams, players, and box scores; an entire league along with the imaginary club he, as manager, strategically guided to a World Series win.
Baseball riveted Stan. The geometry of player movements on that impeccably designed field thrilled him. His emotions stirred like someone moved by an opera. Watching Phillies games on TV, Stan buzzed with infinite constructs and possibilities. After each game, he’d hurry to his room and begin making charts in his notebook, gripped by a distinctive, fired-up concentration.
But if his passion for baseball had started at home, Stan first applied it to the real world here, on this field near Lancaster—out by the corn, a Field of Dreams before there was a Field of Dreams.
Stan stepped onto the pitcher’s mound, a patch of dirt, barely elevated. He smiled and put his hands on his hips. He looked at the backstop then slowly turned 360 degrees, taking it all in—the school, the houses, the two-lane country road, the luminous farmland. It struck him as perfection, as if time had stopped here 40 years ago and he still burned with the same youthful enthusiasm.
Stan closed his eyes and tilted his face toward the sun. He recalled when, for about a month in the spring, each fifth- and sixth-grade class would play softball against each other during recess. It had seemed like a big deal. Stan knew he wasn’t good enough to play if his team wanted to win; he could barely swing a bat. But he talked his classmates into letting him be the manager. They accepted his proposal with little argument. Despite his frailty, Stan was well-liked. He knew how to engage and motivate people; traits he would eventually hone to razor-sharpness during his career.
He remembered one of his first discussions as a 10-year-old manager, one that had happened on this very field.
“Mike leads off,” asserted MacGregor, one of the alpha fifth-graders, talking of a skinny classmate. “And then . . .”
“Wait, hear me out,” Stan said affably. “You ever watch the Giants? Bobby Bonds leads off? He hits like, 30 home runs a year, yet he bats first.”
“Well I mean,” said MacGregor, confused. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Know why Bonds leads off?” Stan said. “He’s a power hitter who can wreck the game right away. None of this single, maybe steal second, Maury Wills stuff. Leadoff guy hits a double, triple, or home run. You put the other team on its heels early. And a single brings them home. Let Mike hit cleanup. Or even one of the girls. The percentages are there, believe me. I’ve figured it out.”
Stan added, pensively, “Wish the Phils had done that with Richie Allen.”
The other boys looked at each other. “C’mon, Goldie, so who leads off then?” asked Roberts, the catcher. “Ritter?”
“Exactly!” Stan cried.
Ritter was the biggest and strongest boy in the class, the kind of hulk who, at 10, looked five years older than his peers.
And so it went. The others let Stan manage, and the powerful Ritter always seemed to be on base, either as leadoff hitter where he usually scored, or batting later on, driving in runs. Stan thought of this move as one of his first successes as a baseball skipper, and he often employed versions of it later on as a college coach.
Now Stan had turned so he was staring out at right field, its tint a glimmering, sunstruck green. The smell of grass and dirt was intoxicating. There was something magical about right field, Stan believed; stuff occurred there beyond the ordinary, swayed by forces you sensed but couldn’t see.
Stan considered himself fairly cultured, but aside from his wife and children, he thought the most beautiful thing he had ever seen occurred on a ball field, a catch-and-throw that Phillies’ right fielder Johnny Callison executed on a bright summer afternoon in 1968.
Young Stan was there, at Connie Mack Stadium, with his father. They had great seats—front row, near first base. They could not have chosen a better spot.
The Cardinals’ Mike Shannon had popped one off the end of his bat into right field, moderately deep, near the foul line. Johnny, playing the right-handed Shannon to pull, had to cover a great distance in order to reach the nosediving ball. During Johnny’s sprint, Stan felt like he was in a dream; he saw the right fielder running in graceful slow motion, like a dancer floating across a stage. But everyone else in the stadium, players and spectators, looked frozen in place and were stone silent. The ball, too, seemed to have mystical qualities. It hovered weightlessly above the field, as if waiting for Johnny to catch up.
Finally, after what felt to Stan like the passing of several minutes, Johnny reached the foul line where the ball dropped snugly into his mitt.
Immediately, everything roared back to a normal state, with fans leaping and bellowing and players scrambling into position. Stan’s head, like everyone else’s, swiveled toward third base, where the Cardinals’ Lou Brock was poised like an Olympian near the starting gun. Everyone knew Brock would tag up and bolt home. Given the depth of the ball, and Brock’s renowned speed, it seemed doubtful he could be caught.
But Johnny had other ideas. As soon as he had secured the ball, he performed a long, loping stride, whirled around, then launched the ball home. Stan, with a clear view down the right field line, was awed at the way Johnny’s momentum lifted him acrobatically off the turf as his throwing arm lashed forward. The ball sailed on a line over the shimmering outfield grass, then descended gradually. It landed about 20 feet short of catcher Clay Dalrymple, who was hunkered down over home plate awaiting the charging Brock. Against all expectations, the play was going to be close.
Stan squeezed his father’s arm in exhilaration. He watched as the ball bounced deftly into Clay’s mitt, then the catcher spun toward Brock just as the Cardinal was whipping up a cloud of dirt sliding home.
The ump paused for an instant, lifted an arm, then punched downward.
The crowd cheered and danced jubilantly. Stan yelled with all his might but he couldn’t hear his own cries in the pandemonium.
What they had just witnessed was a masterpiece, Stan thought—it ought to hang in a museum. And as he reflected later, if you rehearsed that sequence a thousand times, you couldn’t repeat what, through dazzling improvisation, had actually occurred.
Stan took away an important lesson: if you focus and play hard, you might build your own masterpiece. Baseball offered that rare opportunity. He would make this point to his players, expressed in a thousand different ways, throughout his career.
Stan was addressing Roberts and MacGregor, his young classmates. “When you’re an outfielder trying to throw out a runner at the plate,” he instructed, “your throw should one-hop to the catcher. Never throw it in on the fly.”
He tried to stifle a cough.
“Why’s that?” Roberts wanted to know.
“Yeah,” MacGregor also wondered. “Ritter could throw the ball to China.”
“You’re more accurate with one hop,” Stan said. “You throw on the fly, the ball has more chance of drifting off course.” He coughed deeply. “Remember, we’re not here to show off how far we can throw. We’re here to win.”
“What did he say?” Roberts asked.
“He don’t look too good.”
Now Stan was on his knees, looking at the two boys whom he had met earlier in front of the school. He fished in his pocket, pulled out his rental car key. “Run and get my inhaler. Please.”
Stan hadn’t taken the damn thing with him, not expecting to be out here so long. He pitched forward onto all fours, facing shadows of the boys imprinted on the dirt. “Call for help,” he wheezed. “My phone.”
Stan was sopped with sweat. He pictured Tina, Eric, Avram, and Joline. He had a moment of terror. Then, furious, he pounded his fist onto the ground. He fought the darkness stubbornly, groping for strength as his ability to breathe slipped away.
One of the boys spoke up. “I got a phone.”
Stan couldn’t lift his eyes to look at them. He heard, “Don’t worry, Coach. We got you.”
Stan crumpled and lay on his side. But he would have smiled if he was able. He never did hear the ambulance arrive.
Later, as Stan looked back on it, he acknowledged how lucky he had been that the boys were present and that they had brains. And most important—they had feelings. He pondered the effect of being called “Coach” at that moment.
As he told Tina, it’s funny how things work. “I think it might have saved my life,” Stan said.
Mitchel Montagna has worked as a special education teacher, radio journalist, and corporate communicator. His fiction and poetry are attempts to better understand himself, the people he has known, and the passage of time. He is married and lives in Florida.