In November and December of 2019, I dreamed of traveling and making new catch-playing friends leading up to and beyond the publication of A Year of Playing Catch in September. I had a notebook where I wrote down schedules of minor league and major league and independent league baseball teams, and then carefully plotted multiple routes around the US, depending on where I wanted to end up.
I had one trip that would take me to Cooperstown and a different trip that would follow a collegiate summer wood bat league. I had a trip to Florida and one that coincided with MLB’s visit to the Field of Dreams movie site. I didn’t know which trip I would actually take, but I was excited at the sheer possibility of playing catch in new places.
I’m not traveling anywhere in the Bryan Family Millennium Falcon. So, I thought I’d join the ranks of those playing Quarantine Catch. Or, as Thoreau said, “The world is but a canvas to the imagination.”
Today, I’m headed to New York to meet Thomas McDonald, better known as Porky to his friends.
I first met Porky at the Cooperstown Symposium in 2017. He and I were co-presenters in the last session of the Symposium, sharing stories and baseball poetry. Along with sharing his poems, Porky was also there to honor the memory of a friend…by flushing cremains of his childhood friend Roy down the toilet. His tributes were featured on news stations across the country, including a story in the New York Times.
“The final count on flushing the ashes of my friend Roy Riegel (plumber extraordinaire) in the bathrooms of ballparks was 14 Major League parks, the National Baseball Hall of Fame, an Irish pub in Minneapolis (where the whole idea was hatched) and the final flush in Durham Athletic Park, the old Bulls AAA yard that was used for the movie Bull Durham. I also spread his ashes in the Allegheny River, outside of PNC Park in Pittsburgh and at the former sites of Comiskey Park, Tiger Stadium and Shea Stadium.”
(Here’s a blog that posted one of Porky’s flushing days.)
Porky is a Mets fan, so I’m headed to Citi Field to play catch.
“I am an old leftfielder (because of Cleon Jones), so out there would be a nice place. Actually, it would be better to play catch outside, in front of the ballpark, after a game, under the lights. Citi Field has the best entrance of any park in the Majors. Period. That old Ebbets Field look is stunning, especially looking at it from the Mets-Willets Point Number 7 Elevated train platform at night, after a game.”
Ah, today’s game of catch will take place in two locations. I’m up for that. Since I’m visiting the site where the Royals won the 2015 World Series, I’ve got my George Brett glove with me.
“I would love to bring the first glove I ever had, a Hawk Harrelson model that my Dad got for me at a place called Dan Rinaldo’s, which was on Roosevelt Avenue, about 2 miles from Shea Stadium back then. The owner, Dan Rinaldo, had been in the Navy with my Dad, like a lot of people I met when I was a kid (The World War II and Korean War group). I got that glove when I was 7 years old, in 1968. And though the Hawk was known more as a hitter (and later a Hall of Fame broadcaster), it was a beautiful glove.”
What’s your earliest baseball memory?
“My Dad got me watching the Mets, of course, but the Yankees, too. (We watched baseball all the time and being in New York, we could see every team in the Majors, with the Mets on Channel 9 and the Yankees on Channel 11. So, watching the Yankees let me see places like Tiger Stadium and Comiskey Park on TV, too.) The biggest thing back then, though, was the NBC Game of the Week, which I started watching in 1965, when I was 4 years old. My earliest recollections are of Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax. My Dad must have known something, in making sure that I saw Koufax, because Sandy would be retiring after 1966 season, at age 30.”
Who were your baseball heroes growing up?
“As I kind of alluded to previously, Willie Mays and Sandy Koufax were my first heroes, but since Willie was still playing through 1973, including those two final years as a Met (which was thrilling), he was the lasting hero. My Dad started taking me to Shea Stadium in 1967, when I was 6 years old. Every year, we went to at least one Dodger game and one Giant game, in deference to the old New York teams, so I saw Willie play a number of times before the Mets got him on May 11, 1972. My Dad was an old Brooklyn Dodger guy, but he would tell you that Willie was the best he ever saw and obviously, he saw more of Mays’ great years (though he was in the Navy from 1942-62, so some of the time it was on furlough). After the Korean War, my Dad was assigned to the Brooklyn and Norfolk Navy Yards until 1959, when he was assigned to the USS Forrestal, for his final three years. So he saw a lot of games in those years. By the way, when I hear people say that Mays should not have kept playing for the Mets, I laugh, because as an 11-12 year old, I understood that he was 41-42 and not the Willie Mays of his prime. But he still WAS Willie Mays on a number of days, because only he could be Willie Mays. He played very well in about 69 games in 1972 and had a number of great days in 1973, though that year he finally slowed down. Being able to see Willie for 2 years, at such a young age, was wonderful. My other great baseball heroes as a kid were Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Norm Cash, Dick Allen and my two favorite Mets ever, Tug McGraw and Cleon Jones (my favorite player of all-time.)”
You’ve been invited to throw out a first pitch before a game. Whose jersey do you wear?
“I have a 1969 Cleon Jones jersey that I would have to wear for any event like that. Before Darryl Strawberry, Jose Reyes and David Wright, Cleon was the best position player ever developed in the Met organization. One of the greatest right-handed swings I’ve ever seen.
Top three baseball movies?
“A League of Their Own. Field of Dreams. Bull Durham. Honorable Mention: There is a lesser known HBO-made movie called Long Gone, starring a pre-CSI William Petersen and a gorgeous Virginia Madsen. That is a great Minor League flick.”
Top three baseball books?
“Tough one, I own about 600 baseball books. But here goes:
- The Glory of Their Times (1966) by Lawrence S. Ritter
- The Boys of Summer (1972) by Roger Kahn
- Babe: the Legend Comes to Life (1974) by Robert S. Creamer
“Honorable Mention: Pen Men (1992) by Bob Cairns (a hilarious look at the history of bullpens up until that time).”
How good is your knuckleball?
“Mine, no big deal, but I did teach the knuckler to a great friend of mine named Monah Johnson, when we were both in our 30’s. She did not play ball as a kid, but was/is a natural athlete, from what I saw. She asked me about the knuckler one day and I got a ball and showed her how to throw one. She picked up on the knuckleball in about 5 minutes and could throw a wicked one almost immediately. Put me to shame.”
This sounds exactly like my daughter. She’s been my catch-partner throughout these days of isolation, and her knuckler is really good. I really do love playing catch with a good knuckleball thrower. I know you go to a lot of games. Do you have a favorite place to sit? What are your favorite memories of games you’ve witnessed in person? No-hitters?
“We sit in Promenade Section 428, Row 1, Seats 19-22 (top deck, the end of the row), down the left field line. These seats are wonderful, because from the first row up there, you can see everything well. My other favorite seats are in the Excelsior (middle) level, behind the plate (Sections 319-320) or just below our seats, down the left field line (Section 333). Great views from that level. I have so many great memories of games, but I was 5-0 in post-season at Shea Stadium, including series clinching games in 1973 (Game 5, NLCS vs. Reds), 1986 (Game 7, World Series vs. Red Sox) and 1999 Game 4, NLDS vs. D-Backs, (Pratt HR in extras to win it). I went to about 12 games as a 12-year old in the Summer of 1973, when the Mets rallied to take the NL East. That was the greatest month ever for me. As for Citi Field, the 2013 All-Star Game and weekend and the entire 2015 post-season (7 play-off games).
And the night that David Wright played his final game (9/28/18) was one of the most moving games I have ever been to. I was at 2 no-hitters, in Dodger Stadium in 2008 (Angels lost, 1-0 to Dodgers, without giving up a hit. I was also as Max Scherzer’s no-hitter at Citi Field in 2015. And I saw a tremendous 3-6-3-2 triple play against the Giants on Irish Night at Shea in 1998. And our 6 Shea Bridge games at Citi Field from 2011-2016 (where 72 friends and Transit family sat in the group section right in front of the Shea Bridge) were all memorable.
You are a brilliant poet of baseball and life. How many books of poetry have you written? Where can they be found? Have you written any baseball poems during isolation / quarantine?
I currently have 25 books published, available on AuthorHouse, Amazon and Barnes & Noble websites. These include (8) chronological poetry collections, covering the years 1989-2011, a 3-book “Irishman’s Tribute” Series, which includes An Irishman’s Tribute to the Negro Leagues, Over the Shoulder and Plant on One: An Irishman’s Tribute to Willie Mays and Hit Sign, Win Suit: An Irishman’s Tribute to Ebbets Field. Each book contains short stories, historical material and baseball poetry. The Negro League book, my book of baseball poems only, Diamond Reflections: Baseball Pieces for Real Fans and my 21-season ballpark travel/poetry book, Poet in the Grandstand; An Enlightened Tour of Ballparks and the Places Where They Live (featuring over 300 poems) are all a part of the permanent collection at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. I also have a book of poetry called Dem Poems: The Brooklyn Collection, featuring pieces that I wrote during 20 years working out of Brooklyn for NYC Transit. Not much poetic baseball thoughts since this lockdown began, but I did write the piece below last month:
September of ‘73
We age or we grow,
though one thing I know:
there are times that so deeply touched me;
Of all those I recall,
there was nothing at all
quite like September of ’73.
We would never let Summer
ever become a bummer;
This no matter how the standings turned out;
So, when magic arrived,
and our dreams still survived,
we were blessed to have dismissed any doubt.
Maybe age has its duty;
For me, 12 was a beauty;
Chasing buses, parking lots, Diamond Club;
And the games took you higher;
Storm the stands, feel the fire;
Many years before boys in a pub.
Reading stories; Dad’s regale;
Filing numbers from the tale;
Was it great? Did you see? What’s the latest?
45 slapped his thigh;
21 was my guy;
And 41, well, he was the greatest.
Though we came up a game short
in October’s final report,
the month before would always resonate to me;
Years will come and they will go,
but the one thing that I know:
There was nothing like September of ’73.
Do you have any poems about playing catch?
“I know I have a number that allude to playing catch, but just one that directly mentions that, although it’s really about the connection, forged by baseball, between my Dad and me. You see, he had his leg shot up in WWII and we could never actually play catch, ostensibly because I would have to make perfect throws all the time, since he wasn’t very mobile by the time I came along. What we did do was put the lines down and manicured the field for all my CYO home games from age 8-12. He held the chain from home to first or third and I poured the chalk, before doing the batter’s boxes, the mound, laying the bases down and raking the infield. So that was our “Game of Catch.”
Game of Catch
It was on and off the field
where our bond was tightly sealed;
When it rained and also when it shined;
On a someday, good to fair;
In the murky nighttime glare;
In our hearts, in our souls, in our minds.
We knew it was quite clear,
how each other was so dear;
Each and anytime, a game could break out;
From here on out and in,
I’ll tell all those tales of him,
since there never is a time spent in doubt.
The game goes on and on,
from cool Dusk to tepid Dawn;
In places where life and death hardly matter;
Our private game of catch,
just like that old man Satch,
pays no mind to the crowd or the batter.
If the trembling Earth should move,
on or about our latest groove;
Or at noon, in the wake of fallen friends;
There will still be only one
whom he’d choose to call his son;
Our special, private game of catch, it never ends.
Thanks so much, Porky.