"I'm mad at you," my new friend Brenda told me Thursday afternoon when I walked into her Cooperstown restaurant, Clete Boyer's Hamburger Hall of Fame. "How can you say I'm nearing 60?"
Brenda won't say how old she is, but she demands a retraction.
I haven't been very good at guessing ages during our week at the Cooperstown Dreams Park baseball tournament for 12-year-olds. Many of the players appear to me to be in their late teens or early 20s, but they really are only 12. So, if it will bring me back into Brenda's good graces, I'll happily retract what was, I admit, a rough estimate of her age.
I'm not the only one whom Brenda is mad at. She told me she and Clete, the former New York Yankees third baseman with whom she lives, haven't spoken for two days. Was she at least showing him the "Diary" entries chronicling my quest to meet him? "Not on your life," she said.
I initially attributed this news embargo to the lovers' quarrel or her desire to keep Clete from knowing that I had overestimated her age. But she confessed to my wife, Sharon, that she didn't want Clete to read that she cared so deeply for him. Whatever the reason, I was deeply disappointed to learn that one of my childhood heroes did not know I was stalking him. (My college roommate Bob Bissell, who drove in with his wife, Janet, from Massachusetts for the day, had a more cynical explanation. Clete, he suggested, knew I wanted to meet him but was avoiding me so that I'd have to come back for lunch or dinner every day.) If this was the case, I hoped Clete realized that Thursday was the last chance to meet the fan who was making him immortal on Slate.
As one of the waitresses took our order for yet another round of Jeter and Maris burgers and turkey subs named for no one (Note to Clete and Brenda: Name your sub sandwiches for those who came in off the Yankees' bench, like Johnny Blanchard or Jim Leyritz), the youthful Brenda walked over to our table. "He's here," she said. "He's in the back unloading some ice. See if he doesn't come in exactly as I told you the other night."
He did. Yankees hat on his head, he sauntered to the bar with the air of a jock who played in five World Series. He's grayer and a bit heavier than he was in the autographed photo I have of him taken in 1961. But who isn't grayer and heavier than they were 40 years ago? (Except, of course, Brenda.)
Since Brenda still wasn't talking to him, she directed another waitress to bring Clete over to our table. Much to the delight of my son Rob and daughter Nora and this old Yankee fan, he sat down with us while we ate.
For the next 30 minutes, we talked about everything from the Dreams Park tourney (great for the restaurant's business and Cooperstown economy, he says) to the proper way to field (keep the glove away from your body, not close as most Little League coaches improperly instruct) to how he made Wade Boggs into a Gold Glove third baseman (by changing the way he positioned his feet) to the major-league careers of his brothers (Cloyd, a pitcher, made the bigs at 21, but tore a rotator cuff and had to retire. Ken was an All-Star with the St. Louis Cardinals for years. "Now there was a ballplayer," Clete said.).
Clete is particularly proud of the work he did with Derek Jeter. After explaining how he helped Jeter become a better shortstop, he told Rob, "I could make you a major-leaguer." Rob's eyes lit up. I sensed he'd be willing to wash a lot of dishes at the Hamburger Hall of Fame in return for Clete's instruction. Our waitress told Clete that another family wanted to meet him. We took pictures and bid goodbye.
Back at the Dreams Park, we learned that the team that had eliminated us had lost 15-1 to the New Orleans squad that earlier in the week had bested us 3-2 on a wild pitch in the bottom of the last inning. Apparently, New Orleans had scouted our game and decided not to give the young Babe Ruth who single-handedly did us in anything to hit.
By dinner time the field was down to two: the Wisconsin All-Stars—a team made up of the entire Dairy State's best 12-year-olds—and the Fresno, Calif., Grizzlies. Each team featured several 6-footers. For the record, Wisconsin won 8-2.
This championship game started after the closing ceremony, which featured the presentation of rings to every player and coach on all 49 teams. We are all now official inductees of the American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame. After a fireworks show, the game began under the lights on a beautifully manicured field.
The stands were filled, so our Skokie Indians contingent sat on a hill overlooking center field. Our sons, who had played so intensely for four days, watched the game briefly. Then they got their own baseball gloves. Under a bright moon that was almost full, some played running bases. Others tossed the ball with younger brothers, instructing them how to get under pop-ups or field grounders. I pictured Clete and Cloyd and Ken Boyer playing together as kids half a century ago.
"Keep your glove close to your body," one of our Indians told his younger brother. I smiled. I wanted to tell them that my friend Clete Boyer said that was wrong, but I didn't. There are some times when coaches and parents should just keep their mouths shut. This was clearly one of them.
Photograph by Janet S. Bissell.