Essay: Past Potential

Old Oriole Park (Photo / Babe Ruth Museum)

Past Potential – Tom Flynn

The buzz of the lights and the crowd noise and the smoke settled down onto the bench. Pzorik was lifted from the game after a flurry of singles put Newark up by five. The Bears fattened up on Baltimore regularly, and tonight was no exception.

By 10:30 it was over, Baltimore had lost again, and the Bears headed back to their hotel with another win. Pzorik hit the showers early after getting lifted. He walked the concrete corridor back to the locker room and his metal spikes clinked and echoed with every stride. He only heard the spikes like that when he’d been roughed up. If Joe had a good game, he’d stay with the boys on the bench and walk with the team back to the locker room, the noise of his spikes lost to 20 other pairs.

A quick shower and a tin bucket of ice for his arm. It was early August and although the thick air still hovered near ninety, Joe pulled on a cardigan over his shirtsleeves to keep his throbbing left arm warm after the initial ice. He threw only three and his arm ached like it used to when he went nine.

McCabe the trainer gave Joe a cheap Cuban and a foil tube of menthol rub to take home. Joe caught a cab on 33rd and headed to his apartment in Fells Point. Most of the players roomed up around the stadium, but he’d grown up around Newark Bay and needed to see some water every day to keep things right. The cabbie knew Pzorik and listened to the game that night, knowing Joe had been lit up by the Bears.

“Don’t worry about it, Joe, Newark’s been beating Baltimore since you were a kid. Hell, you’re still a kid, since you was a baby. You done no worse than anybody else.”

Pzorik shrugged and just that was enough to send a shooting pain down his left arm. He rolled up the cardigan and worked in the rub. The smell was enough to knock you out, but it didn’t do a lick for the arm. Not this arm.

The cabbie dropped him off at the Point. A panhandler on the street corner of Thames and Broadway saw Joe coming and pulled back his cap. Pzorik knew him. He’d worked the corner for at least the past three years. He knew Joe was broke himself, and didn’t even bother giving him the business anymore. Another reminder that Joe was at one stop on the minor league trail for too long. The cabbies know you. The bums know you. And they don’t even ride you after a bad game.

Out in front of his apartment was a small bag of groceries. It was from Kzinski’s deli. Victor Kzinski’s brother lived back in Newark and had a bakery up there. As a kid, Joe would go in every day and when the Kzinski’s back home heard that Joe signed with Baltimore, they sent him straight to Victor’s for his first meal.

The bags always had sausage in them, and Victor’s wife would put in some salt for Joe to put in the hot water he soaked his arm in after the game.

Victor had taken to leaving Joe notes to cheer him up after a long night. The thing of it was, Victor didn’t know baseball that well, English either, so the notes often didn’t make much sense.

An early one was a simple “Baseballs go too far,” and tonight’s read, “Even the Yankees take home runs off.” That made less sense than the first but Joe thought he got the point.

Up the granite block steps with the groceries then inside the narrow hallway and up the stairs to the third floor. Some matches out of the white enamel pot near the stove, a National Bohemian out of the ice box, and then up the fire escape to the rooftop.

The roof tilted up as it came to the front lip of the rowhouse. Pzorik had an old wicker beach chair near the front from where he could watch the steamers roll past the Point and into the harbor. He pushed up the sweater sleeve again, rubbed some more menthol on his pounding elbow, pulled out the Cuban and lit it up. It hurt to lift it to his lips, so he smoked like a righty to give the arm a rest.

The deep bellow of a passing ship slid across the water and up to the roof. It reminded him of home, and home reminded him of Newark Bay and the ferries across to New York and all the things he didn’t have now.

One night, four years ago, Joe took the hill against a group of barnstorming Yankees in a small wooden park in the city’s Ironbound section. The park was only 290 feet down the lines, and the Yanks were expected to run it up against Pzorik and the group of Newark All-Stars. It was early October, and Jersey City was done for the year, along with the Bears. The Yanks for once hadn’t won the pennant. Brooklyn was out of it by August.

Baseball men were all over the area, scraping their shoes on the ground, talking about the summer being gone, and hoping something would come up that would put off winter and no baseball and long nights and short, cold days. This game was the last thing there was for the year, no matter how you looked at it, and they would not miss it.

That night two Yankee scouts, one Dodger scout, the Bears’ owner, and Jersey City’s manager were in the seats. The Orioles’ owner was up, passing through on the way to New York. Had Pzorik known this, things might have gone worse, but he didn’t know and and he went out and set down 24 straight batters, including four Yankee starters. Except for a single in the ninth, Pzorik pitched a perfect game. That night the curve looked like it floated but it bit, the fastball ran away from the righties, and the change looked like a grapefruit until you flailed and it was only halfway to the plate.

By 10 the next morning, Pzorik signed with the Orioles. He hadn’t known about the Yankees’ scout or the Dodgers’ scout, or anyone else because Baltimore needed him the most and got to him first. Although the fastball seldom ran again, and the curve floated without the bite, he held on for three years on the thinning memory of one night. Maybe he didn’t have his good stuff on any given night, but he had potential every night.

Another steamer and bellow and more thoughts of home. From his apartment in Newark he could see the City and when he could afford the fare he’d take a ferry over. In the summer there were trips to the Empire State and the visits with his nephew to the Central Park Zoo. That kid loved the zoo and even though Joe was only eighteen at the time, he called him “Uncle Joe’ and wouldn’t let any of Joe’s brothers bring him in. In the winter there were the windows, and maybe skating, and one year “The Christmas Show” at Radio City.

Here there was a dying arm and this beer and another game against the Bears tomorrow and another loss. By morning he wouldn’t be able to lift it and if he could throw in two days’ time it would only be because his arm wouldn’t let his head know it still hurt. Some more menthol on the back of the elbow and the Cuban was almost done and the last ship rolled past. This one was the Sussex line that Joe recognized from Newark Bay. It came into Baltimore, then up to Newark before heading on to Boston.

A thought, and the beer was washed down and the Cuban out and Joe down the fire escape. By 6:00 AM he was down to Kzinski’s and taped a note to the door before catching a cab over to the harbor. The same cabbie from last night was working, he must have pulled the graveyard shift, and Joe tipped him $2 and the cabbie scratched his head and wondered if the kid had signed with a big league club.

He thought back to last night, and the week before, and the year before that and he knew this $2 wasn’t big league money paid out early. He helped Joe out of the cab and tucked the money back into the duffel bag as he unloaded it. Pzorik shook his hand and did his best to act like this trip to the harbor, with bags packed, in the early morning on a game day was just another thing.

The cab pulled away and Joe walked out to the Sussex pier.


Tom Flynn is the author of the 2010 critically-acclaimed novel, Venable Park