Martin Pops


                    Twice Stung in the Bee-Loud Glade

Thirty-five and more years ago young and youngish members of the English Department—graduate students and faculty—played softball, Friday afternoons, on a makeshift diamond at the University at Buffalo’s Main Street campus.   On one such rural afternoon Irving brought his son who was twelve or fourteen at the time to join our game, and that’s how I met Fernando Feldman.  He was pitching, I was batting, and swinging hard at a ball softly thrown, bounced it feebly right back to him. 

As every fan knows, it is sometimes necessary to tag a runner out in the course of a game:  if he’s picked off base, say, or if he tries to steal one.  But most of the time it’s not necessary and not desirable.  If the bases are empty, second basemen, third basemen, and shortstops throw the grounders they field to first basemen who simply touch first base for the out.  First basemen who field grounders find it simpler and easier to step on first base than tag batters, just as pitchers who field grounders find it simpler and easier than tagging batters to throw the ball to first basemen.  These are conventions of the game, one might say, that batters expect first basemen and pitchers to respect.

Having fielded my feeble bouncer, Fernando chose not the simpler and easier way--certainly simpler and easier for him but for me too, who having failed to distinguish myself at the plate would have preferred watching my little death recorded at a distance, not felt on the pulses.  But Fernando ran to the first base line with the intention of tagging me, thereby turning baseball into a game of tag in which I was an involuntary player.  Surprised and insulted, I tried to squirm away but slipped instead, twisted my ankle and fell.  Fernando tagged me as I lay on the ground between home and first.  I walked with the help of a crutch for a week.  Insulted and injured.

A year or so later the English Department’s softball team played Chemistry on the same makeshift diamond.   A seven inning game, and now, with Chemistry batting, it was the last of the seventh.  We were ahead 3 to 2 and there were two out, but they had runners on second and third.  If those runners scored, they would win.  If they failed to score, we would win.  But their clean-up hitter, a hulky fellow, was in the batter’s box: not an easy third out.  Irving was pitching for us, Ed Dryden was our shortstop, and I was playing left field.  Sluggo hit a high pop-up behind shortstop, and it was clear that Dryden, wearing an ace bandage around his right knee and hobbling backward—if one can hobble backward—was not going to catch the ball.  In the high-light film I now and again project I am running hard, stooping low, and catching the ball, in the lingo of the trade, at my shoetops.  The infielders—not least of all Ed Dryden—surrounded me in celebration and congratulation.  It was, after all, a game-saving catch.  In delight I threw the ball underhanded as hard and as high as I could, and I didn’t try to catch it. In the high-light film it hasn’t come down yet. 

Trotting through the infield--through some of our players, some of theirs, and some few spectators--I saw Irving near the first base sideline, arms crossed.  He wasn’t smiling, and he didn’t say: “Good catch.”  All he said--and he said it in a measured tone--was:  “Playing back too far.”  I heard—and felt—a string of stressed syllables.  Those Feldmans, as I thought later, father and son, tough guys who don’t give you an inch, even if you’re on their side.  When I ran into Irving on Elmwood Avenue three years ago, we chatted of softball days long gone, and I reminded him of the game against Chemistry--the last of the seventh in particular.  Then I quoted his sideline remark.   “Playing back too far,” I said and he laughed on hearing it.  “That,” said Irving, “sounds just like me.”

                 Martin Pops