I used to play for hours in the schoolyards, on the streets,
In the gyms, on the fields of the Bronx many years ago:
Touch football, basketball, handball, punchball, street hockey —
And above all were the weekend softball games organized
Informally by neighborhood teams looking for a sign
Of their athletic superlative in pro-sports-fed imaginations.
It was softball but it might as well have been Major League baseball,
With its parallel rules and basic concepts:
You pitched and hit and fielded and scored; you wore mitts
And used a spheroid ball with stitches, and sometimes even had an ump
‘Though mostly you the players were the umps and
Fairness dictated that calls would be honored, not argued.
Because of my mental connection with the Yankee player who was then
My idol, I gave myself permission to be that player when I hit and caught the ball;
I smoothly imitated the batting stance of The Mick
(Though the contact and power would bear little resemblance)
As well as the speed — which blazed only in my mind.
I once cut the sleeves short on a good white shirt
And drew not quite straight black pinstripes on it with a crayon
And crafted the number 7 on the back (Then — as now — the Bronx Bombers
Were too prideful and classy to have players’ names on uniform backs;
Why make it easy for the fans to know identities?).
This was decades before MLB licensed its merchandise, so I guess I was
A sort of prophet of but no one knew – except for now — because
I never had the nerve to wear that shirt outside my comforting apartment.
How we played those softball games for real! Almost every Saturday
In the good weather months in the Big Apple, on the land once owned
By Jonas Bronck and all those other Broncks, we representatives
Of local neighborhoods, with a fine mixture of styles and intelligence,
Set up the games, agreed on which schoolyard would serve our needs,
Two groups of guys ready for the competition we craved as a semi-civilized
Sublimation of our genetic leaning toward our masculine desire
To do worthwhile (but civilized) combat, and at the time agreed upon, we would
Take formation on the schoolyard battlefield and execute our plans,
And may the best team win! (which didn’t always happen).
Now an octogenarian, I engage in games on the playing fields of Physical Therapy
Where the ball I use is squeezed (not thrown) to strengthen my arthritic knee
And my balance at the plate has been replaced by exercises on foam stairs
And my run around the bases now are steps cautiously executed over low hurdles
Placed with care on the PT floor, each succeeding pair distanced by some inches
For me to try to walk between, a maneuver which I used to do unconsciously —
And instead of sliding, now I go feet-first upon a device termed a leg press.
My coach doesn’t tell me when to run but when to slow down
And my uniform is not like any worn by the others on this team of players
Focused on regaining what approaches what was once their prime.
There is no crowd but there are always those who cheer us on
For who is there that can’t appreciate and respond to words of encouragement?
And indeed, the competition that I once thrived on still remains
And I rise to every challenge and I do my best and refuse to bow my head
For even now I do honor to my neighborhood and therefore
I cannot allow myself to accept defeat! I am from the Bronx;
Defeat does not reside within me. Bring it on!