Everyone on the block called him Joe,
Except for me. Somehow it always seemed
Right to call him Mr. Donnelly.

He worked at the big house up the street – the Sawyers’ –
Mowing, raking, fixing, tending – a house
Like that would always have chores to be done.

Now and then he donned a gray cap and uniform,
Pulled the lumbering Chrysler out of the drive,
And drove the Sawyers to church or their club, then home.

Mr. Donnelly could do almost anything.
But no one would know, except me, that the thing
He did best in all the world was playing pepper.

One day he walked the half-block down to our house
And, standing there, watched as I threw a ball
Against the concrete stoop, at work on my fielding.

I told him I dreamed of making the major leagues.
It was the only thing I really wanted.
I was a big kid then, somewhat awkward.

He seemed amused that I would have that dream.
After observing for several minutes, he asked
A question that would change the course of my life:

“Do you have a bat?”

Sure, I replied, and ran to my room to get it.
That’s how our summer of pepper games began.
Time after time he punched my tosses back.

Soft liners shoulder-high were his specialty.
But he could spray those beautiful grounders, too.
Left. Right. High-hoppers. Grass-cutters.

Who could have known that Joe from up the street
Could hit those spinning pop-ups tree-top-high
Almost at will, or drop those dead-stop bunts ten feet out?

I watched his hands … so big … envelope my skinny
Bat as though it were a soda straw …
Palms light tan, long arms lean and brown.

Mr. Donnelly observed my every chance,
Patiently spoke about eyes, feet, hands – soft hands –
Staying in front of the ball no matter what.

He smiled and waited while I ran and chased
The balls he hit, easy as they were, that I misplayed.
Now and then he’d glance up toward the Sawyers’.

After weeks of fielding drives and bouncers,
Even though I was a big kid, somewhat awkward,
I felt I was actually starting to get the idea.

When it came my turn to do the hitting,
He put each pitch right over the unseen plate –
Easy lobs that hung there letter-high.

He spoke about choking up, controlling my swing,
Nodded when I made contact, which wasn’t that often at first,
Smiled when I started connecting more cleanly.

When the summer ended, and the crisp air
Began to set in, after what must have been
Thousands of tosses by me and as many by him,

I was beginning to feel – despite being a big kid,
Somewhat awkward – like an actual ball player.
One day Mr. Donnelly and I sat down on the stoop.

He was wearing his gray uniform and cap.
I asked if he thought I could make the major leagues –
It was the only thing I really wanted.

Mr. Donnelly took off his hat and wiped his brow.
He glanced toward the Sawyers’, smiled and – once again –
Asked a question that would change the course of my life:

“Do you have a football?”