Baseball, Community, and Family Legends: “The Babel”

Last Friday, during the final Spring Creative Writing Forum of the semester, senior Michael Mainuli read the following short story, one that he characterized as a family legend. It became clear to me very quickly as he began his story that Mainuli carries himself in a way that embraces the rich tradition that produced him, holding his family’s legacy and the community-building mystery of baseball close to his identity as not only a man, but an author.

The Babel

By Mike Mainuli

Babe Ruth walked through my grandfather’s shed. I don’t know much about my grandfather so he is a bit of a legend himself. All I really hear about him are stories like this: Babe Ruth walked through my grandfather’s shed. When it comes to family legends and the origins of my passion for baseball, there is no one more legendary than the Babe.

There used to be a minor league baseball club in Hartford, Connecticut, which was just down the street from where my grandfather, father, and I were raised. It was a neighborhood that, just like the kids who lived there, was born in a post war boom. Tucked into square neighborhoods, the street is as straight as any city block with each corner so similar to the next that you’d have to see porcelain figurines in the window of the blue house before you knew to take a left.

The park was regularly used by the team – the Hartford Chiefs I want to say – up until the early nineteen fifties. It was only my grandfather who grew up with the team and who actually got to see them play. By the time my father was born, the team was long gone from Hartford, but the field still remained. After years of neglect, the field was in disrepair. The grandstand was shabby and dangerous. Its wooden beams that once supported the weight of thousands of cheering baseball fans splintered like an ash bat against a Mariano Rivera cutter. The clubhouse where all the old players dressed, joked, and smoked before games sank in the middle. Still though, the aura of the stadium inspired the neighborhood boys, including my dad, to play sandlot ball. While the kids saw the old diamond and found somewhere to play, my grandfather saw the rundown clubhouse and decided that the field could be useful after all. He wanted to build a shed.

In the early sixties, when my dad was just old enough to start little league, my grandfather and some other old men from the street scavenged the broken clubhouse for scraps of wood and a door. He took the door from the entrance to the clubhouse. For decades that door to the clubhouse, like the field of dream cornfields in Iowa, transformed the fireman and detectives that marched through it into heroes and legends. It was a project that brought the neighborhood together long after the field fell apart. These men of war created the shed and used the door to preserve the memories of community and baseball.

The shed is still in Hartford, just as my grandfather left it, in the backyard of the small home my uncle inherited. Its wood walls are painted white and are still supported by the fractured concrete foundation. It smells like gasoline and cut grass, just as did when I was kid, and just as it did a generation before. Spiders and bugs nest on the tools, which haven’t touched human hands in fifty years, because there’s only one corner of the shed we ever use anymore, and that’s the corner with the baseballs. The door, now, will splinter your fingers, but lower your shoulder and give a firm push and you’ll break the Babe Ruth barrier and step into the clubhouse.

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