The visiting team is already waiting at the fence when Murry Bergtraum High School coach Nick Pizza arrives on Cherry Street to open the gates to his field, which are kept locked. His players haven’t arrived yet, though the visiting team, Beacon High School, has already dressed on the sidewalk, a cluster of parents standing a few feet away, averting their eyes. No metal cleats are allowed in the complex, because the turf and dirt are that nice. The backstop opens up toward the Manhattan Bridge, and right field ends at the FDR Drive. The Brooklyn Bridge unspools to the south. The field is well dragged, and a custodian walks around its edges, using a leafblower to blow stray baseball dirt off the surrounding track. Back in October, the field looked different: after Hurricane Sandy, for almost a week, it was under three feet of water.
By the time Coach Pizza (“Brooklyn born and raised”) has changed into his uniform, his players are beginning to arrive, some of them on rollerblades, from Murry Bergtraum proper, a jail-like facility wedged between the Brooklyn Bridge and City Hall. “I got a good bunch of kids,” Coach Pizza says. “Gotta find that balance, get the classroom stuff out of the way.” Bergtraum, with a record of 3-10, is a perennial underachiever in Manhattan A West, while Beacon, 10-3, has won the division the past two years. One problem for Pizza’s team: eligibility. Too many players have failed too many classes to play. Hurricane Sandy didn’t help—early games had to be rescheduled, and Bergtraum didn’t have use of their field until mid-April, well into the season: after trucks of clay were redeposited over the infield, the locker rooms dug free of sand by the custodians.
Bergtraum High School, a once-proud jewel of the city education system that prepared students for practical careers in business, is now perhaps more famous for hallway riots and the fact that it’s one of the few large schools that the DOE hasn’t broken up (more positively, too, for its phenomenal girls’ basketball team). The student body, predominantly black and Hispanic, comes from all the far reaches of the boroughs, along the stretch of the J, M, Z, and L lines, necessitating commutes of over an hour in some cases.
While the hordes of Beacon players assemble in orderly throwing lines, the Bergtraum twelve disperse to their warmup routines. One of the twelve, ineligible pitcher and outfielder Jose Rodriguez (“Would go through the wall for a ball,” Pizza says of him), writes down the lineup. Rodriguez, who is dressed in jeans and wears small Nike Jumpman earrings, lives a few apartment complexes north of the Manhattan Bridge. He had no lights or water for two weeks after Sandy, and had to walk up to the twenty-sixth floor of his building with the elevator out of order. And the Bergtraum field: “Como ondas—waves,” he says, making the motion with his hands. The outfield turf, eventually fixed, had buckled. Though the team wasn’t doing much better, the big three-hitter Giovanni Peña said. “Not so good. A lot of little mistakes.” He hits grounders to the infielders along with Deion Roberson, first baseman, a junior who travels from Canarsie to avoid Canarsie High School. “A lot of people left Canarsie for the hurricane,” he says. “But my father lives on Coney Island. The whole thing got shut down.” Peña points his Baum bat at the Manhattan Bridge in left and changes the subject. “Everything I see I wanna hit it out,” he says.
There is a legend of Manny Ramirez, who played for lordly George Washington High School, coming down to lowly Bergtraum and hitting a home run over the fence, skimming the bottom of the bridge, over the street and past the parking lot and Pathmark a block away. “He has to be on steroids or something,” Peña says. “You know how high that shit is,” Roberson says incredulously. When Coach Pizza started working at Bergtraum, he saw some of the old scorebooks—Manny Ramirez, two for two, two home runs and two walks. “My question is why did they pitch to him twice,” Pizza says. He looks over the left field fence toward the bridge. “Parking lot, maybe,” he says. “I’m sure an extra twenty-five feet get added to that story every year.” Once the coach walks away, Peña picks up his bat again. “I dunno, he probably did hit the Pathmark,” he says.
The game starts. “It’s hot and cold,” Peña complains on the bench. “Global warming,” he says, kidding. In the first, he’ll roll into a well-hit double play, but Bergtraum will surprise everyone by taking a quick lead an inning later, when Roberson cranks a solo shot to center, not quite Ramirez distances. Everyone on the bench jumps up and says, “Finally!” Roberson, smiling wide, takes his batting gloves off carefully as he sits back on the bench.
Beacon scores solidly, two an inning almost every inning: their big, adolescent muscles pounding line drives in holes, or into errors. “Creatine,” is the muttered joke. Their pitcher is reeling off big reliable curveballs, and his team makes the majority of its plays. An empty number 28 jersey, for a senior second basemen who died midseason in 2011, hangs inside their dugout, matching the black number 28 patches on their sleeves.
Down 6-4 in the top of the sixth, Coach Pizza calls in a new pitcher, Miguel Salas, from Bushwick, who had been the third baseman. Salas isn’t quite the best player on the team—the most promising might be sophomore catcher Jason Paredes Mora, who came straight from the Dominican Republic in August, to a building near Rodriguez’s twenty-sith floor walkup in the Lower East Side (“Jason moved here in August, couple of months later he’s in the dark,” Coach Pizza notes)—but Salas is a ballplayer. He’s batting .405 and played for the storied Brooklyn team Youth Service growing up. He’s also a joker, keeping everyone alive on the bench. After a missed tag at third and a missed pop-up between shortstop and center, right where the turf had buckled back in October, Salas comes back to the bench and holds forth.
“We suck. We’re 3-10. As a team we suck. As individuals, we’ve got some talent. But as a team, we suck.” It was now only cold. The sun was falling behind the Knickerbocker Houses and the blank Verizon building. “Why’d I go to Bergtraum?” he says, “It’s the only high school that accepted me.”
A Bergtraum batter singles to left, a runner scores from second. Salas is up and shouting. “It’s not over,” he says. He’s the first one off the bench to congratulate the runner. A ground ball scoots through the shortstop’s legs, and the suddenly successful Roberson, whose back has the proverbial piano dropped on it, nevertheless scores from third, and it’s 6-6. “Vamos ganar,” Salas is screaming. A long double to left, and it’s 8-6. “Let’s fucking go,” he yells, leaping around the dugout. He almost forgets to get a helmet on his own way up to the plate, where he knocks a nice little line drive to right. Another run scores, but trying to stretch a single to a double he gets thrown out at second, sliding headfirst. “Yo we don’t suck,” he says, coming back to the bench unfazed. “We’re elite.”
As the rush hour traffic creeps strangely quickly towards the Brooklyn Bridge, Salas slowly gives up three runs, none of them entirely his fault. With a tie score, back on the bench, Salas is valiant. Beacon changes pitchers. “This man throws everything outside corner,” he says, after watching closely. “Let’s go, hit it right field.” Nobody does. “I’m gonna pitch till my arm falls off,” he says, going out to the mound for extras. He doesn’t pitch for long. Number 18 for Beacon walks. Number 2 slips a single past third. Finally number 8 homers over center, and Beacon gathers at home plate to celebrate. Salas had good movement on his ball. He didn’t pitch badly. Still, they made their at-bats. “That’s it,” Coach Pizza says. A corporate softball team rushes forward to take the field. They paid for a permit to avoid the Parks Department, and were glad that the Bergtraum field was open again. The players head for their respective train stations.
Mark Chiusano’s collection of stories, Marine Park, will be published by Penguin in July 2014. His stories and essays have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Harvard Review, and online at Tin House and The Huffington Post, among other places.