by Sea Glassman

On a scruffy softball diamond and a dusty field, the infamous yet almost secret society called the Third World Softball League played a sort of ball. Composed of reclusive Nantucket-ian saints and partying sinners, none of whom ever wore a watch, we were the artists who made stopping time our mission. The human glue that held us together was Frank Conroy, who wrote a few books, one of them called Stop-Time. He was the Director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and in 1986, won a Grammy award for his jazz piano playing. He was an upstanding guy, a writer’s writer, a man’s man, and you wouldn’t likely forget the slight bulge of gentle alarm in his eyes, the grinning, sardonic expression of having been there, done that, or the hunched nod, quietly affirming friendship. You wouldn’t forget the cranky yet affable grind of his voice, or the jazzy, fluent play of his fingers across piano keys. No one knows a pitcher like his catcher, and though we each had our own claims to fame, I secretly identified myself -to myself- as Frank Conroy’s catcher.

We were a scattered, slightly skilled skid row of part and full time occupants, shabbier than the bottoms of well worn jeans. Off the elbow of Cape Cod, 30 miles out to sea on the island of Nantucket, just outside the teeny town of ‘Sconset, at the end of Milestone Road we met, camoflaged by low scrub brush so no one could really see us: actors in various stages of fame and comebackdom, local poets and printers, writers and inventors, vacationing cameramen and a few flimsy armed but spirited gals clueless about the great game, who all appeared miraculously whenever word leaked out - via the progeny of Conroy, that There Would Be A Game. The edict was handed down to Frank himself first, whispered into his ear in fevered sleep by Something Higher. The team materialized as if by magic, a psychic hunch emerging from an unspoken but collective urge.

The Conroys were the keepers of the bats and mitts- in a ratty old bent up cardboard box that had stood for decades, changing shape. Towards our last games, bathed in the waters of thunderstorms, the box was a triangle. Somehow at the same moment of summer, everyone pulled up in their rusted jalopies, jogged onto the field in sawed off shirts, rolled in on bikes with rusty spokes or got dropped off by wives amidst hollers and door slams and rejected “Can I come?”s. The old canvas bag and beat up cardboard shape got hoisted from the back of Conroy’s wagon by his two older boys and flung to the ground to be pawed and tested in a fever of machodom. One by one, teams were chosen. Frank picked slowly, deliberately, the underdogs, as if he had a plan.

Was it weekly? Was it monthly? Was it Saturday or Sunday? How many years did it go on? Nobody knows. That cantankerous voiced and jazz fingered Conroy ran us demurely, like the benevolent Irish Kingpin of some uncivilized writing Mob, swinging big pens. Summer air hummed. Ribbing was poetic and jousty, quips thrown through bee buzzing air by people who knew each other for one or four

decades. The song of “battah battah battah” was a great hymn equaling the songs of summer birds. It was a kind of bliss, that ragtag team. My tomboy streak enabled me to catch, really catch, so Frank picked me, with just enough girl streak to cover the tomboy to catch the cute boys.

Aside from the Iowa Writer, it was the usual bunch of dirty shirts and grass stained knees: Dick of Poet’s Corner Press, Tom who invented the Pepper Gun, Gene of the Camera Shop, John Shea the actor, Frank’s sons Will and Dan, and the little one, Tim, me the NY actress/director, John Mitchell, a movie theatre owner and restauranteur whose restaurant we’d break into at midnight for sneaky pasta, Greg Shepherd, an art dealer from New York and my paramour, another Dick, rightly named, a playboy poet who told me I smelled of the sea, and various ex-spouses, girlfriends, children, nephews and out of town guests who could not be shaken. A proud and ramshackle bunch to be sure, speaking the unspoken language of glances and nods.

Frank’s pitches were even, quiet and secretive. His pop eyes rolled at me knowingly, and though he was a man of words he didn’t have much use for them come game time. He pitched so people could hit. He leaned in slow and low for the kids and the girls, dropping his head and showing me the back of his hand, like a dog giving his paw. Sometimes for show I’d drop an upside down peace sign between my knees for the crowd, as if that meant something, and he’d shake his head seriously like he’d consider it, or I’d give the I Love You sign, and he’d cock his head and sneer as if I were a fool and that was a bad choice, or I’d lower a Thumbs Up, and he’d solemnly agree with one long vertical nod. He knew how to put a little spin on it if he wanted to, but he liked to not be too fancy.

John Shea became legend one summer when, seeing a home run to be sure, bound for right field and Milestone Road beyond,- he ran from left field with his mitt outstretched like a frenzied cartoon, so fast and so gazelle-ian hard, yes, no, it was not his ball- flying so high over his head that he lost track of the whole world, until SMACK! - hit the chain link fence and ricocheted 5 feet off with a force; knocked the wind out of himself. There he lay face down on the ground, motionless- everyone standing in the stands and all the players doing an impression of Frank, eyes too big, mouth too open. Nothing.

And then, is it my memory or my imagination? - the ball slowly rolls from his mitt. He picks up his head and shakes it a little like a wet dog his jowls after a swim in the sea, and putting his hands- one of them gloved, beneath his shoulders, he looks around and sees all of us, and we cheer. And as he gets up slowly and dusts himself out of that dream where he is our hero, we cheer and busily envy his green knees and the winning emblem of the brown skid marks down his t-shirt front. He walks to the infield, everyone rushing him, everyone laughing and shouting and patting him on the back, while he narrates the play by play.

It was our own Field of Dreams on that tortured, tufty patch of weeds, in that town, with that gang, every summer.

The whole game went on for years or decades and we couldn’t remember the beginning, but the day it stopped, we all knew, didn’t we. Frank even wrote about it in his book.

That final summer we were invited to a private field in the town of Nantucket. We should never have left ‘Sconset, because we were mostly ‘Sconset people, and ‘Sconset people are the most particular, peculiar and intimate people on earth, easily repulsed by the antics of out of towners, off the Rockers, and Americans in general. Admittedly, we were swayed by the beauty and extravagance of the rich man’s field, green and perfect, a metaphor for wealth, which was a paradox our name would not allow. Despite our poor beginnings we aquiesced with wide eyes, like starving paupers sensing cream puffs.

We showed up in good faith at the mansion and private baseball diamond of that nice rich guy, the murderer of our team. God bless him, he recognized the purity of a true American past-time, had seen us play - wanted to put his new field to use!- despite our pathetic yet endearing mess of a team.

When we got there, fumes of butter and salt issued from a shiny red and golden popcorn cart, vintage yet spankin’ new. The rag tag team sprawled toward the field, the spaces between us filled with a sort of pre-game shame. We were underdogs worried with high expectation. Our very name, The Third World Softball League- didn’t belong. Frank had his doubts. He smelled doom. You could see it in his eyes
- they were hanging a little too low under the pupils - suspicious, he was. That hang dog mouth a little too open, as if he were playing dumb. They offered us t- shirts, and handed us release forms saying we wouldn’t sue the nice rich guy if we got hurt swinging our cracked bats on his fancy field, and as soon as we slapped our John Hancocks down, we all looked at each other guiltily and knew the Third World League would never survive the luxury.

I don’t even remember the game, and I don’t have the t-shirt. We knew it was the end of an era, and yet it never fully died in us. There was always the hope of a game, the hint of it whenever one of us saw an other.

But when Frank Conroy died, we knew, without a doubt, that the Third World Softball League would never play again.

This past summer, some of us spoke of a reunion, still looking with such sweet longing onto the lumpy, weed bludgeoned field that lay unmowed in our memories. We could have done it- made a come back.

But without Frank, it wouldn’t do.