(This post originally appeared on The Classical.)
The happiest moment of my childhood? That’s easy. I’m in a little league dugout just after my one perfect at-bat. I’m still seeing the at-bat: the meaty fastball over the middle of the plate, the swing, the ball clearing the chain-link fence in left field. I’d floated around the bases, floated from home plate back to the dugout in a scrum of shouting teammates. Now I sit on the bench in the dugout, beaming out at the field, my limbs still buzzing from that perfect connection. I want the moment to last, and it does. The other team is bad, and we keep reaching base. We bat around.
“You’re up again, Josh,” someone says.
I rise, put on a batting helmet, and leave the dugout for another at-bat. The huge smile on my face feels permanent. It’s like a joke has been told that will never stop being funny. It’s like my happiness has overthrown time.
I have a Yahoo email account, and before I get to the inbox I go past a page that includes sports headlines. I always hope for sports to serve as an escape, a safe place away from the world. The top sports headlines lately have featured the Penn State coach found guilty of sexually abusing several boys over many years. His face accompanies the headline. I don’t want to see his face anymore.
You’ll hear people hoping that his punishment will include the unofficial component of fellow prisoners doing to him what he did to children. But no one can do to him what he did to those boys. They were safe, and then they weren’t and never would be again. Each one had the face of a child and this face was taken.
Last night my wife and I went for a walk with our eleven-month-old son. He was nestled in a carrier on my wife’s chest. We’d gone on a walk the night before, after hours of the baby raging and wailing with teething pain, and on the walk he had eventually rested his head on my wife’s chest and gone to sleep. We were hoping for a repeat of that last night, but we walked and walked and walked and he kept staring out wide-eyed at the darkening world. He’s hungry for the world. Fireflies kept appearing in brief shin-high arcs in our path, as if part of some mysterious sanctification.
I have some Xeroxed pages from a newspaper on my desk. I got them a couple of years ago at my publisher’s request. They’re from the paper in the town I grew up in, and they back up a claim in my memoir that a coach in my town, Mick, was imprisoned for sexually abusing boys. Mick coached little league and seventh and eighth grade basketball. I didn’t play for him in little league (though at the time I wished I had since he was widely considered to be “the best”), but I played on his basketball teams. I was lucky, I realize now, to never go on a fishing trip with him. That’s where he did his thing. There were rumors about it when he was my coach, and I didn’t believe the rumors.
The article about his sentencing is difficult to read, full of disgusting, enraging details of a world oriented—as I had been—toward downplaying and ignoring the crime. Mick’s sentence was only one year in prison, and the judge who handed down the sentence said she was “impressed” with Mick and at the end of the sentencing wished him luck. The two brothers who came forward about the sexual abuse had been in recent weeks “suspected by classmates of being victims [and had] become the object of taunting and namecalling at school.” While on bail, and in violation of a specific provision of the bail that he not contact the victims, Mick sent a letter and a Christmas card, a fucking Christmas card, to the boys who reported him. There’s a description in the article of the impact of this contact.
The boys’ mother later testified that whatever the intentions, the effects were not good. She said when her son first received the letter, he took it to his room to read alone. Then he came into the living room, very upset, and slammed the letter down on the table. She quoted him as saying, “If he cares about me so damn much why doesn’t he leave me the hell alone?” (“Lewis Is Sentenced to Year in Jail,” White River Valley Herald, March 1987)
Mick was oblivious to this. He believed that contacting the boy was the right thing to do. His “impressive” courtroom demeanor seemed to imply some understanding on his part that he had done something wrong, or at least that his actions had brought him to the brink of being cast out of the community that he’d had a central role in, but the fact that he’d sent a letter to the two boys shows that he really had no idea what he did to the boys, and to all the other boys he victimized.
The card at the top of this page was intact, with a face, when I pulled it out of my shoebox of old cards at random few days ago. I always hope that by selecting from my shoebox blindly I’ll see the card drawn as if for the first time. I stuck with this hope for about a minute, lost focus, and then compulsively typed the player’s name into an internet search window.
Before typing in the name, I’d noticed the unusual setting of the photo on the card. Few photos on the baseball cards from my childhood are set in the dugout, which may be why this 1977 card is so well-handled despite the player’s marginality. I must have been drawn to the dugout. That was my first year in little league, the first year I got to sit in a dugout with a uniform on. I felt safer in the dugout than anywhere in the world. I loved that boy hive. Everyone sitting and standing and milling around and laughing, getting ready to bat or getting ready to go out into the field or looping fingers through the chicken wire and leaning close to chant no batter no batter no batter. The dugouts were where I most wanted to be even before I was old enough to play little league. My older brother played little league, so for two years I’d been at the edge of the dugout, looking in, waiting. Seven years old. Eight years old.
That was the age—eight years old—of the victim in the stories that clogged the first several pages of search results for Rusty Torres. An eight-year-old girl was playing on a pull-up bar. Torres himself supplied further details about the incident, as reported in the New York Daily News of May 12, 2012:
Torres said he and the girl “had a lot of physical contact” as he helped her down from the bar.
“Body to body, over and over,” he said. “I brought her to the back of my van and I don’t want to talk about what happened there but at one point I accidentally exposed my erect penis.”
The 63-year-old Torres said the girl never touched him, and he “stopped myself before anything bad happened to her.”
That last part, Torres believing that taking an 8-year-old girl into a van and showing her his erection constituted the behavior of someone stopping himself “before anything bad happened” is the most disturbing part of the article, especially when coupled with a later sentence: “Torres has spent the last decade working as a baseball coach on the Oyster Bay payroll, interacting with thousands of children.”
But I was telling you about the happiest moment of my childhood, that inning that wouldn’t end. I’m walking to the plate for another turn at bat, smiling like I’ll never stop. I hear someone calling my name.
I look over. Mick is the coach of the other team. He is grinning out at me from inside the opposing dugout, his fingers looped through the chicken wire. He has those pro-style flip-up outfielder sunglasses. They’re in the up position, revealing his eyes. He’s the best coach in town. He’s never said my name before.
“Hey Josh,” he says, “no batter here, huh?”
It makes me feel good. I just hit a home run, so I know that he’s being gently sarcastic, that he’s saying there is a batter here. Mick is saying it. The best coach in town.
He had to get my attention in the middle of that game. He needed to imprint his face on my happiness.
Last night my wife and son and I walked up and down the firefly-graced streets until it was altogether dark out. My son still wouldn’t fall asleep.
“Should we just keep walking?” my wife asked.
“Sure,” I said. I thought she was asking whether I was tired of walking.
“I mean is it safe?” she said.
When is the answer to this question ever an unequivocal yes? We walked a few minutes more then came home and bolted and chained the door. I used the pointed tip of a nail file to alter a card from my childhood.