Eleven-year old Gene Paul Noble pinned the spoon to one side of his bowl and tipped back the last of the milk, one-handed, not quite spilling down his front. He dutifully set the morning's cereal gear in the sink, gave it the daily minimum required half-second rinse, wiped his mouth with the front of his freshly laundered, permanently earthen stained Minnesota Twins T-shirt, and darted across the kitchen floor, snatching his baseball glove and cap from their designated hooks on his way out.
"Be home for lunch, mom!" he shouted over his shoulder, patting his back jeans pocket out of habit, routinely confirming his daily wad of trading cards, the back screen door slamming shut behind him.
His glove dangling from the handlebars of a ruggedly ridden 24-inch Speed Racer -- christened Myron, after the only school principal he had ever known -- Gene Paul had already reached the base of the driveway before his mother could manage, from the back bedroom, an unheard, "Wait, Gene Paul, I wanted to tell you..."
The year was 1967. It was late July, 7:30 a.m., and the mercury had already topped eighty degrees with drip-worthy humidity, typically brutal for the season. Gene Paul's father had gone off to deliver the morning newspapers a few hours prior. Teenaged sister Penny wasn't out of bed yet. Mom was busy doing "that mom stuff," as Gene Paul referred to his mother's daily household chores when chatting with his friends who had mothers that worked away from the home.
His beloved Twins were embroiled in another heated battle for first place. Harmon Killebrew was still everybody's favorite player and rookie Rod Carew had been astonishing the American League with his magic wand-of-a-bat all year. Gene Paul had scarcely considered the upcoming school year, sixth grade at Fair Oaks Elementary still more than a month away, and the shelter at the park would be open in a little over an hour; he could hardly wait, park activities plus hot and sunny weather promising another day of pure summer fun. All was right in a young boy's world.
The Noble family had moved into a small, two-bedroom Rambler in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center -- a neighborhood that absolutely defined modesty and middle-class -- directly across the street from huge Orchard Park, the year before Gene Paul started kindergarten. Prior to that, Gene Paul retained only vague memories of another house -- actually half of a twin-home of sorts, a half-hour out in the country. One recollection in particular and not a particularly pleasant one: an overweight dachshund named Leona, next door, an aged creature Gene Paul remembered not liking very much, one that nipped at his fingers whenever it had the chance, but an animal which, when the old pooch was finally "put away" (his father's words, quite solemnly spoken, the exact meaning of which the boy was unclear, at the time), Gene Paul found himself resisting the urge to cry throughout the better part of an evening family meal, but had no idea why.
He often cheerfully referred to Orchard Park, far and away his favorite place to play as a child, as his "home field advantage" -- although it was surely no more of an advantage to him than it was to any of his other buddies, he just liked the way it sounded -- and ever since receiving Myron as a birthday present the morning he turned six, he loved speeding around the park as fast as he could, at least once or twice a day, and always first thing in the morning. Unless there was rain, of course; oh, how Gene Paul hated summer rains. Two blocks up Orchard, a left onto the dirt bike path in front of the ball field, two blocks back down Perry, then one final left onto 65th and back across Orchard, which completed the loop of the park, and quite a sweaty loop it was most summer mornings. Then, usually, a block further on 65th, a half-block left, one sharp right, to the fourth house on the left, to his best friend Pete Kahler's house, whose parents worked early and long hours and were almost never home.
"How 'bout ... my '63 Juan Marichal ... this year's Frank Robinson -- he won the triple crown last year, ya know ..."
"I know," said Gene Paul.
"... and I'll even throw in the '66 Mets rookie card ... for your this year's Killebrew and last year's Tony O?"
Gene Paul yelped in derision. "You're crazy, Pete," he blurted. "Killebrew? He's a home town hero. And Oliva is still our second best player, two batting titles -- forget it! And that Nolan Ryan guy on the rookie card? He's never gonna make it -- too wild. That's what they say, ya know. Way too wild."
"Yeah, well, that's what they said about Koufax, too," argued Pete good-naturedly. "Look what he did to us in the series a couple years ago."
"I know," Gene Paul grudgingly agreed. "But he was different."
"How was he different? Other than being left-handed, I mean?"
Gene Paul hem-hawed to himself, concealing a wry grin. "I don't know. He just was."
Pete Kahler shook his head and laughed at and with his friend. Top-40 dynamo KDWB blared a Beatles medley from the living room; Pete's older sister Jeanette had apparently not yet gone out for the day.
"Okay," mused Pete, "How 'bout this ... straight up; Oliva for the '63 Marichal ..."
"Aw, c'mon ... Marichal threw a no-hitter that year, ya know ... "
"Not a chance! Oliva's a natural hitter. That cool batting stance, too. And how come you're tryin' to get rid of that Marichal card so bad?"
Pete's face deluged smugness. "Got doubles on it."
"Aw, man ..."
"Traded with Timmy."
"... that's a cool lookin' card."
"I know," said Pete, his grin spreading. "And now I got two of 'em."
"Aw, man ... "
"Figured it'd be worth something someday. Whad'ya say, G.P.?"
Gene Paul loved everything about baseball and was a sharp kid, knew more about the game than every one of his other friends -- by quite a bit -- but nowhere near as much as his friend Pete. Always the smartest kid in class at school, particularly in arithmetic, Pete had a mind absolutely designed for statistics; Gene Paul never ceased to be amazed. He was also very sure Pete had memorized the backs of every baseball card he had ever seen and most of the entire Baseball Registry and could probably rattle off the lifetime batting averages of every baseball player who had ever played the game at the drop of a cap.
"Did you know that the most home runs Home Run Baker ever hit was twelve?"
Gene Paul scrunched up his face. "Really?" he challenged timidly. "That doesn't sound right."
"Yeah, well, in 1913 he led the American League with twelve round-trippers."
"Yup." Pete leaned in for emphasis. "And only eight years later, in 1921, Babe Ruth hit fifty-nine taters to lead the league. Fifty-nine! That's a difference of forty-seven ... in only eight years!"
Gene Paul gave a knowing smirk. "Dead ball era?" he guess-stated, nodding confidently.
Pete nodded back. "Very good," he smiled to his friend. "Can't get anything by ya today, can I?"
Gene Paul loved spending time with Pete. Pete was a good egg (mom's phrasing) and, most of the time, Gene Paul learned "something cool" from his friend without leaving Pete's presence feeling overly schooled. There was only one problem with the friendship, one regrettable inconvenience as far as Gene Paul was concerned: Pete Kahler was the most physically uncoordinated kid Gene Paul had ever seen, especially with a bat in his hands.
Couldn't catch, either. Kinda threw like a girl, too.
And, more than anything else, Gene Paul loved to play sports. Participating. Competing. Winning.
Still, the best of friends, albeit occasionally weather regulated.
"... KDWB Top-40 time is eight fifty-two..."
"I suppose I should get going," said Gene Paul, standing.
"To the park?"
"Yup." Gene Paul collected his baseball cards from the floor in front of him. "What are you gonna do today, Pete?"
"Read," said Pete, smiling, flopping back on the couch. "I'm not going anywhere."
"Figures," Gene Paul smiled back, sliding his cards back in his pocket. "See ya maybe later." And he skipped out of the room and out the door.
Gene Paul scooped up his beloved Myron and sped toward the park. Once on Orchard he could see that the shelter door was still closed, so he veered onto the dirt path and pedaled to the house of his friend Randy Collison, who conveniently lived right next door to the ballfield.
"Hey Ran," squealed Gene Paul enthusiastically, wheelying Myron over the raised lip at the base of the Collison family's driveway.
"Hey, Gene Paul." Randy was launching long range set shots at a basketball standard attached to the family garage, with little success.
Gene Paul dismounted and readied his hands for a pass. "Wanna get up a game?" he asked hopefully, breaking for the basket.
Randy fed the ball to Gene Paul in stride. "Naw, can't," he lamented.
"Why not?" as Gene Paul scored the easy lay-up.
"Ooh ..." Gene Paul grabbed the ball out of the net and snapped off a chest pass to his friend. "I hate dentists," he said.
"Me too," retorted Randy, rocketing a moonshot hard off the backboard. "Maybe this afternoon, if you guys are still playin.'"
Gene Paul whisked away the one-bounce rebound just before it reached his friend's hands. "Probably will be," he said smiling, pivoting, and missing a set shot of his own.
They shot the breeze -- and baskets -- for all of five minutes before the boys heard the Collison front door shut and a key turn in the lock. Randy's mother appeared from around the corner, rattling a key chain.
"Oops," said Gene Paul, after swishing an especially long one. "I think that's for you."
Mildly anguished, Randy casually flipped the ball over his shoulder and into the garage as Gene Paul scrambled after Myron and took off like a pit-stopped race car, Mrs. Collison offering an affable "G'mornin', Gene Paul" in his wake.
"So, what are we doin' today, Jim?"
James Sykora was a junior Physical Education major at the University of Minnesota-Morris and genuinely enjoyed his summers back home in the Twin Cities, working for whichever city's Parks and Recreation department hired him first. He was a better than average all-around athlete and Gene Paul thought he was about the coolest, nicest guy he had ever met, excepting his father.
"Well Gene Paul, how 'bout this ..."
Board games in the early morning while the dew dried from the grass; field games until noon; and a box-hockey tournament after lunch. Then, with the remaining afternoon time, whatever everybody wanted to do until five -- kids' choice -- when the park shelter closed.
After a "what the heck?" practice game of box-hockey (he won easily; he almost always did), Gene Paul won two out of three games at Checkers, sat in on a few cards of Bingo (the grape gum was delicious), and was unstoppable in a spirited session of Red Rover, which was especially enjoyable this particular summer because, up until this year -- after finally, finally, finally hitting that growth spurt his father had long professed would come, along with a commensurate acceleration of foot speed -- he had rarely been able to break through the arms of his young park companions. Now he could get through to the other side every time, which made the game much more fun.
"Hey Jim, be back this afternoon for the tournament," hollered Gene Paul, backpedaling in a trot toward Myron, not wishing to stick around for Duck, Duck, Gray Duck, which, as he had recently explained to his bemused mother, was more "... for the younger crowd."
Gene Paul accelerated onto Orchard, past his house, and proceeded on to "The 500," as he and his young buddies fancifully referred to the neighborhood bicycle obstacle course, which was simply a string of consecutive empty lots at the end of the block, all of which had yet to be leveled for construction. The course bordered on but, fortunately, was on the home side of the traffic laden and forbidden 63rd Street, forbidden to be crossed by Gene Paul's father -- "not till you're older," as he had so often expressed to his son, a warning which Gene Paul had always accepted unconditionally out of a sense of fear almost as much as the fact that it was his father who said it.
"The 500" was supremely glutted with -- among other wonderful natural impediments -- plenty of ninety degree or less turns, multiple dirt mounds, and deep gorges, many filled with tire-spinningly loose sand and sometimes water, sometimes mud, making the course an ideal challenge, winding around and through all sorts of delightful hazards. Hard on the bike, of course -- every kid knew that -- but good, relatively non-injurious, worthwhile joy to be had by all comers. Gene Paul and his friends had derived great pleasure from "The 500" many a previous summer day but, on this particular morning, he found himself riding solo, which felt odd.
Nonetheless, he bronked Myron hard, through a few quick tire abusive laps, occasionally finding it necessary to set one foot down through the steepest of turns, off the pedal, to steady himself so as not to fall. "The 500" hadn't bested him in years, not since that first year with Myron, and only once, he vaguely recalled. He had always tried to forget that time, all but entirely blocking it out of his memory. What his mind had never been able to completely erase was how it felt to have to get back up, the embarrassment, and he didn't particularly care to ever go through that again, with or without any buddies around to see it.
After three genuine get-your-sore-butt-here circuits, he skidded back onto Orchard and sped for home. "Gotta be close to lunch time," he reasoned to himself between quickened gulps of breath.
Now, like most newly double-digit aged boys, future novelties such as girls and girlfriends had yet to tempt Gene Paul's soon to be educated teen palate. But he had often jokingly claimed the next door neighbors' ten-year old daughter, Kathy Fleming, as "the little sister I never had," with whom he shared many fond, if not exceedingly juvenile and often dirt stained, memories. Not even a year younger than Gene Paul and every bit his size, Kathy Fleming now spent as much of her summers indoors as Gene Paul did outdoors, yet they still regarded themselves as "sandbox buddies." She was as zealous about playing the piano, many times for hours on end -- having taken lessons from the time she could barely reach the keys -- as Gene Paul was about playing almost anything else, but preferably outside. At the behest of his mother, he had managed to sit still long enough to take piano lessons the summer before third grade but, as much as he relished the idea of making music with his hands -- and he really did, thought it would be cool -- practice time was almost always sacrificed on a playing field of some sort, and the lessons lasted only the one summer. As Gene Paul kickstanded onto the family driveway, he heard Kathy practicing next door.
"That's really good," he voiced through the Flemings' front screen.
Kathy lifted her hands off the keys and bounded over to the door. "Thanks," she smiled, ushering in her friend. "It's new."
"What is it?"
"Chopin." She grabbed his hand and led him to the piano bench, next to her. "See? I'll show you."
She played the entire piece flawlessly.
Gene Paul applauded enthusiastically. "Play something else," he beamed.
Forth came a concert of Beethoven, Bartok, and more Chopin, culminating with a rousing ragtime number from Joplin. Gene Paul spontaneously stood and clapped long and loud when she had finished.
"Wow!" he awed. "That was really good! I can't even believe it. You're so much better."
No, she wasn't his girlfriend. But she was so good ... "Hey," he suddenly suggested, "why don't you come have lunch over at my house?"
Kathy punched him gently on the shoulder and smiled. "Mom!" she bellowed. "I'm going over to Gene Paul's!"
Gene Paul grabbed her hand and they skipped out the door and across the sandbox.
"You should hear her play, mom," effused Gene Paul, as if he had just discovered music's next great talent, while his mother finished making two of his favorite sandwiches: salami and Velveeta with tomato and yellow mustard, on white bread. "She's like ... she's almost like a professional piano player. You should hear her," he lauded.
"I'd like to," said his mother quietly, smiling subtly, cutting each sandwich diagonally (Gene Paul thought they lasted longer that way), placing them on paper plates, and setting them in front of the two youngsters. "Soon," she continued, washing her hands in the sink and drying them on the towel hanging from the refrigerator door. "Before the end of the summer -- we'll make it a date." She faux frowned, "Now eat, you two." And with that, she re-smiled, tousled her son's hair, and headed downstairs.
Gene Paul and Kathy conversed excitedly while they ate, about her piano playing, about the upcoming school year, who they might get for teachers, maybe Kathy would get stuck with his last year's teacher, old Mrs. Lambert? Which friends would be in his class, the much maligned Fair Oaks Elementary hot lunch program, recess, and gym class. They happily reminisced about their sandbox days gone by, about Tonka Trucks, all now permanently parked in their respective basements. And about playing with Kathy's big brother Will's train set, which Gene Paul thought was "seriously cool," but which was a definite no-touch item, a brotherly threat occasionally disobeyed secretly by the sandbox buddies. And how Kathy, when she was very little, on hot summer days -- "like this one," Gene Paul added -- used to run out of the house shirtless, like her brother, much to her mother's blushing chagrin. It was a ten minute, non-stop fun track while they ate their lunch, at the end of which Gene Paul again gushed about Kathy's prowess at the piano, which he still had a hard time believing.
"You gonna practice some more, I suppose?" asked Gene Paul, tossing both empty plates in the garbage.
"Of course, silly," answered Kathy, again punching him softly in the shoulder.
"I'm going back out, mom!" yelled Gene Paul down the stairs.
"Wait!" she hollered from downstairs.
This time his mother's voice stopped him just as he reached for the door. Kathy was already standing outside and Gene Paul had the door propped open with his foot -- half-inside and half-outside -- by the time Mrs. Noble appeared at the foot of the stairs, grasping an overflowing clothes basket with both hands. "I wanted to tell you this morning but you got away from me too fast." Looking up, smiling meekly, "Gene Paul, honey, you're going to have a baby brother or sister."
Gene Paul felt his face warm; having not the slightest of clues as to why, he gaped down at his mother in wonderment. Then out at Kathy, who simply shrugged a grin. Then back at his mother. "Well ..." he stammered, "... that's good ... right? I mean ... that's not what I meant ... "
His mother's smile broke into sound. "Yes," she laughed. "That's very good."
Gene Paul tried to picture it; he didn't know much about babies. His friend Donny Hamner recently got a baby brother -- Travis, he thought. Or Trevor, maybe; he couldn't remember. The little thing cried a lot, that much he knew. It could be heard almost every time he came over to the Hamner's house to play table hockey or electric football, downstairs, with Donny. And the baby smelled funny, sometimes, when you got up close to it. Gene Paul had been allowed to pick it up once, to hold it. The baby repeatedly pummeled him in the face with its little hands, afterward which, Gene Paul felt the need to wash his hands right away. And sometimes Donny wasn't allowed to play ball at the park because he had to stay home with little Trevor, or whatever its name was. It was kinda cool-looking, he decided, the little Dickens (mom's words), but he really didn't know very much about babies.
"Congratulations, Mrs. Noble," voiced Kathy from the outside.
"Yeah ... that's pretty neat," nodded Gene Paul apprehensively. "I get to be an older brother." He affected the slightest of grins. "Pretty cool, huh Kath?"
"You'll be a great older brother," his mother said, setting down the basket, now smiling broadly maternal, starting up the stairs.
"Okay, well ..." Gene Paul returned a quick smile to his mother before she reached mid-staircase. "... I'll be at the park," he said finally, darting past Kathy toward Myron.
Upon reaching the top of the stairs and swinging wide open the back screen, "Actually ..." his mother's voice trailed off as he sped down the driveway, "... there's one more thing ..."
Mrs. Noble sighed. She and Kathy mirrored feminine smiles and shrugs with each other as Gene Paul raced toward the park. "It can wait till dinner," she finished with a chuckle, shaking her head, as Kathy skipped away.
Gene Paul's father, for nine months out of the year, taught Physical Education and Health at Brooklyn Junior High, one of two seventh-through-ninth grade schools in the district. Mr. Noble was the product of very strict and religious parenting off the plains of central Kansas, the son of a sternly sober railroad man and, while he managed to drop much of the extreme stern-ness of his father's character, Gene Paul's dad inherited all of his father's positive traits. Known to be an impressively decent and fair man, Gene Paul's father was a no-drink, non-abusive, moralistic gentleman, and was almost obsessively devoted and supportive of anything to do with family, attending all of his children's extra-curricular events whenever remotely possible. He took his family to church every Sunday and insisted they all actively participate in the congregation's services and fellowship. A staunchly principled man, Gene Paul's father was a good husband and father, primarily because he took pride in providing for his family and worked hard at it. Nobody had ever heard anyone say he wasn't a good man.
He met Gene Paul's mother while in college, became romantically involved while on a choir tour through the mid-west Bible Belt of colleges their junior year, and married her a week after graduation. He pitched for a semi-pro baseball team and substitute taught for more than a year until he was hired full-time at Brooklyn Junior, in the fall of 1952, and had been there ever since.
Daughter Penny was born less than a year after the start of that first school year; Gene Paul's life commenced four years later. The Nobles bought their Brooklyn Center home in the fall of 1961, kept their little home and property immaculately maintained and groomed, and were cautiously well liked by their neighbors, admired and respected in a don't-touch-the-stove sort of way.
But educators in the '50s and '60s weren't getting wealthy teaching school. In an effort to adequately support his family Mr. Noble coached all three seasons at his school for extra income -- baseball, basketball, and football. Once the school year was over he delivered papers every morning, then went straight to Brooklyn Junior to teach summer school. The summer of 1967 marked the first time he also delivered papers in the evening. Gene Paul never questioned this additional employment, already keenly aware of his father's strength of character as a hard working, whatever-needs-to-be-done family man. It was one of the things, at age eleven, he truly loved and respected about his father.
Additionally, his dad had always taken whatever time remained and diligently spent it with his family. With Gene Paul, this allotted time was, more often than not, spent across the street at Orchard Park, shooting baskets, running pass patterns, etc. And, after church on acceptable weather Sundays and before the big Sunday evening meal, the ex-semi-pro pitcher threw batting practice to Gene Paul and any of his friends that wanted to join in, occasionally drawing a small crowd of young Killebrew and Oliva wanna-bes, even spectators. It got to be a pretty big deal, once a week, every summer. Right across the street, on their home field.
Back at Orchard Park, to absolutely nobody's surprise, Gene Paul swept the box-hockey tournament in twenty-five minutes. The championship game was a forfeit, the box-hockey equivalent of a bases loaded intentional walk -- the other kid not wishing to be embarrassed by, far and away, Orchard Park's best box-hockey player -- for which Gene Paul received a small plastic trophy and more gum. He forgot the trophy at the shelter -- didn't really care -- but, again, he enjoyed the gum very much.
And then he was off, racing his way toward Randy Collison's house.
"How's the dentist, Ran?"
"Yeah, awright," Gene Paul laughed. "Play some ball?"
"Cool. Go get Jonathon, Simon -- and his sister, get Simon's sister to play, too, she's pretty good -- and the Seavers, and that other guy that plays with them a lot; he's not too bad, either, I forget his name. Oh yeah, get Timmy, too. And get him to bring his ball."
"And gloves. As many as you can."
"I'll get my guys, my side of the park: Pauly, Deano, Jeffrey, Donny, those guys. And some bats, too."
"I know, I know."
"Meet back at the field in ten, fifteen?"
"No way ... "
Randy grabbed his shiny new three-speed from the garage and streaked down the driveway. Gene Paul didn't even bother with the bike path, cut right through the park, splotchy grass, gopher holes, mini-ramp hills and all. "Awright!" he squealed, bucking Myron airborne. "Double awright!"
A half-hour later, "Okay, since we only got eight guys," started Gene Paul, taking charge once back at the park's ball field, "ya gotta supply your own pitcher and catcher ... and no hitting to right. Got it?"
Seven young heads, ages twelve and under, all but two donning Twins caps of varied wear and tear, nodded in unison. Only two summers removed from regularly being the last kid picked Gene Paul took it upon himself to captain one team -- with unanimous approval -- and Timmy, mostly because it was his ball, picked the other. In the ensuing two hours, two of the boys went home -- one because of a bloodied, briefly sob-worthy, sliding-into-home skinned knee, and the other due to the general lack of attention span ennui of a no hit, poor field, smallish, eight-year-old kid -- only to be replaced by a couple other boys who just happened by on their bikes. Ball gloves were shared between teams every half inning, Billy Seaver cracked Donny's bat (unintentionally, of course, leaving only one bat for everybody to use the rest of the day) and, at one point in the afternoon, Jeffrey Walters pulled Timmy's ball very foul and into a neighbor's sprinkler puddle, prompting Randy to sprint home to get his ball, which was filthy dirty and not in very good condition at all, but dry. Gene Paul played shortstop and handled well over half his team's chances, often ranging far to either side to make nice plays. At bat, despite not being able to hit the ball to the right side of the field (at which he excelled) and, because the other team played him so deep he wasn't likely to hit it over their heads, he nonetheless was able to find holes through which to hit nearly every at bat, often ending up standing at second or third as the result of good baseball instincts and sheer speed. In short, he was able to dominate most of the afternoon's play, as usual -- as of this summer, anyway.
At three-thirty, just as some of the boys were beginning to fade under the hot sun, Gene Paul noticed two older boys, bigger boys -- easily thirteen or fourteen or more, he figured -- ride up on their bright and flashy ten-speeds; Gene Paul didn't recognize them from the neighborhood. He watched as they parked themselves behind the backstop, where they sat watching intently for fifteen, twenty minutes, often smiling or laughing out loud at the play in front of them, always with a keen eye on the action. Unused to such assumedly seasoned scrutinizing, especially for a simple pick-up game, Gene Paul shrugged off most of the intimidation he felt percussing in his chest and continued to play well. After making an impressive diving stop on a ball hit up the middle, followed by a strong throw to first for a third out, Gene Paul trotted off the field, feeling a bit more confident, purposely taking a route that led him directly in front of the two outsiders, who looked even bigger, stronger, and more imposing up close.
"Hey kid, hold on," said the big boned, red-headed stranger to Gene Paul, as Jeffrey grabbed the bat and headed toward the plate.
Gene Paul stopped between the two larger boys and wiped his brow with his gloved arm. "Hi," he panted. "What's up?"
"Got a proposition for ya," said the other boy, a very tall, long-haired blond. "Wanna play in a Cub League championship game tomorrow night? For us?"
Gene Paul's Midget team had just finished their season, getting upset in the first game of the playoffs, despite some excellent play by their starting shortstop. Gene Paul had made several good plays at short, got three hits, and scored the go-ahead run in the top of the seventh with a perfect hook slide at the plate, only to have his team lose in the bottom of the inning. He had assumed his summer of organized ball was over.
Gene Paul felt a blood-rush to his face, coloring a burgeoning smile. A real Cub League game? Of course he did! And a championship game at that? Hitting off live pitching, good pitching, curve balls and all, and not just his father throwing batting practice to him after church ...
"Sure," he said. "But ... why?"
Their starting shortstop had a sprained ankle, it was explained, and his back-up wouldn't be there either, due to an out of town marriage in the family. A previously planned family reunion vacation in California eliminated another possible replacement, leaving the boys' team with a huge hole at short. The two strangers had heard about Gene Paul, that he was a pretty decent little shortstop, and had come to see for themselves.
"We got practice," said the red-head, checking his wristwatch, "in a half-hour, Kylawn Park. Can you be there?"
Kylawn Park; that would explain why Gene Paul had never seen them before. Kylawn Park was about a mile away, across 63rd, the road he wasn't supposed to cross.
"Sure," he said uneasily. "I'll be there."
"Great," said the tall blond. "You know where it is, right kid?"
"Yup." But only because his father took him there once, to watch Kathy's father play in a softball game, more than five years prior. He most certainly had never been there by himself.
Gene Paul watched as the two older boys sped off. With butterflies flitting about in the pit of his stomach like never before, but smiling hugely from the inside out, Gene Paul turned to his friends on the ball field and loudly and proudly exclaimed, "I gotta go, sorry 'bout that," a sentiment which was largely "Awww!"-ed by his friends but tacitly welcomed, as the boys were hot, tired, and more than ready to give it up for the day.
Everyone except Gene Paul. He was freshly rejuvenated, re-energized to the max, and as nervous as he had ever been in his young life.
He pedaled Myron faster than ever, exhaustion not an issue, not now, out of the friendly confines of his beloved "home field advantage" and onto Orchard, across 65th. As he passed his house, he looked in on the driveway; the family car wasn't there. His father wasn't home yet, now, undoubtedly, well into his evening paper route. Gene Paul sighed relief. When he reached 63rd, right next to "The 500," he stopped and looked both ways; there really was a lot of traffic, he hadn't noticed before. Lots of folks coming home from work, Gene Paul figured, that was the problem. Still, there were plenty of opportunities for him to cross 63rd, yet he sat agitatedly at the curb of the ill-starred road for several minutes, his father's words etched in his mind.
Supremely anxious, Gene Paul glanced over his shoulder at "The 500," thinking one more lap might not hurt, might calm him down a little. A few bumps and a spin out or two; "... Could work," he muttered under his breath.
That's not what he did.
Suddenly feeling more like thirteen or fourteen than eleven, he sucked in a huge breath and, at the next sliver of an opportunity, sped Myron across the road. Then, keeping a wary eye peeled rearward as he pedaled furiously down 63rd, hugging closely to the curb, his heart throbbing high in his throat for the next half-mile, he finally saw the most welcome yet foreboding sign he had ever seen: KYLE STREET. He veered sharply right, exhaled with relief, and slowed the last two blocks, coasting into Kylawn Park.
"Okay gang, one last time around the horn, and we're outta here! Let's make it sharp this time!"
Practice with the Kylawn Park kids, for the most part of an hour and a half, had gone well for Gene Paul. Defensively, at short, he made all the plays, displaying good range and a better than average arm, easily living up to expectations. And after all, the coach explained to him before practice started, that was the main reason he was there in the first place: solid defense, no errors, and "... any hitting you do will be a bonus."
He could do that.
"Good job, kid. Good glove, way'ta go."
As for batting practice ...
"Okay, ten swings, and ten swings only ... and run out the last one."
Gene Paul, on his first nine swings, didn't hit the ball very far but made fairly good contact. But only two or three might have been hits and he knew it -- not a good batting practice ratio against a pitcher just lobbing the ball up to him.
And he certainly didn't hit anywhere near as good as Sunday afternoon in the park against dad, back at Orchard, where he regularly sprayed hits all over the field. Despite what the Kylawn coach had said, Gene Paul knew he could hit better and wanted desperately to prove it.
So, before his last swing, he was determined, no matter where the ball was pitched, to hit it as hard as he could down the right field line, where nobody was standing anywhere nearby -- not during batting practice -- then run like hell.
Which is exactly what he did.
It was the big boned red-headed kid that finally ran over and retrieved the ball. But by that time, Gene Paul was speeding around third.
The relay went big boned red-headed kid to the tall long-haired blond to the plate.
Gene Paul was out at home. It was close, and he made a nice slide, but he was definitely out. And he skinned his knee, one big league raspberry, seeping redness. It stung like mad.
"Little better arms out there than what you're used to, eh kid?"
Guffaws of laughter amongst the older boys.
"Nice hit, though."
Gene Paul forced a weak smile past his eleven year old tear ducts and hustled back out to his position, ignoring the pain.
After practice, on the way home, adrenaline still thumping hard in his chest, Gene Paul carefully but much more confidently handled the crossing of 63rd, then routinely turned onto "The 500" without even thinking about it.
Starting shortstop for a Cub League team, jaunted through his head. Wow, even a year ago, who'd have thought?
He raced through "The 500" faster than he ever had, up and down and around, spinning superbly through the sand and mud, negotiating every hairpin turn like A.J. Foyt.
Then it happened. He never saw it coming. Sometimes the unimaginable actually happens.
Supremely stunned, more dumbstruck than physically hurt, he glanced around to see if any of his friends -- or anyone else, for that matter -- had seen it. Nobody.
But it was only after that that the real shock set in.
"Please pass the taters."
Gene Paul grinned into a brief giggle, as he always did when his father called for "taters." It went Mrs. Noble to sister Penny to dad, and Mr. Noble had his taters.
Pot roast and roasted potatoes with carrots; Gene Paul's favorite Sunday evening dinner presented a most pleasant surprise when he finally got home, albeit somewhat unusually formal for weeknight fare, he thought. He had enjoyed a particularly fun and eventful summer day and was famished, even more than usual, and listened more than participated in the family dinner dialogue, chewing politely rather than excessively chatting.
"I have some great news," said Mr. Noble during dessert -- Mrs. Noble's family famous chocolate "crazy" cake topped with vanilla ice cream, another of Gene Paul's favorites.
"Wait, wait!" Gene Paul blurted between bites. "I know what it is, I know what it is!"
Gene Paul smiled meekly. "I'm getting a baby brother, right?"
Penny and his parents laughed...
"Or ... sister... maybe," Gene Paul added.
... and laughed.
"What?" Gene Paul felt his face warming.
Penny derided, "We all know that, silly."
Mr. Noble waved off the dinner hour levity and nodded, "You're right, son, there's gonna be a baby in the house. But that's not what I wanted to say." He paused, mulling over a prudent choice of words. "I know I haven't been around much lately, this summer, working more ..."
Gene Paul swallowed hard, anxious with uncertainty.
"... and I apologize. But your mother and I feel that this house ..." He smiled softly. "... I mean, with another little brother or sister running around ..."
Gene Paul's spoon dropped from his mouth, bouncing off the table and onto the floor. While bending down to retrieve it, wiping up a small vanilla mess in the process, the rest of his father's great news went in one benumbed ear and out the other.
"What?" From an astonished Pete Kahler, the following morning.
Forcing a grim smile, "I said," repeated Gene Paul, producing two baseball cards from his back pocket, "is that Killebrew and Oliva deal still good?"
"Marichal, Robby, and that rookie card. For Killebrew and Oliva. It was your idea."
Then, brushing aside a single tear from the corner of his eye, Gene Paul flopped down on the Kahler's couch, hugging the two cards close to his heart, and sprawled horizontal, as if he would never leave.