Acito on the Mound

You can pray all you want to stay in the game; sometimes the answer is no.

A good buddy of mine once pointed out that each at-bat in any given game of

Joe Acito

Photograph courtesy Elder High School

baseball represents a complete literary narrative with a beginning, a middle, and an end; with intensely and complexly motivated major characters (the pitcher and the hitter) in direct conflict with one another, surrounded by a host of supporting characters, all of whom wish to contribute meaningfully to the action; with a plot comprised of rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement, the final outcome determined sometimes by character interaction, sometimes by an allegedly neutral arbiter (the umpire), and sometimes by Fate and/or God Almighty Himself—all played out within, and against, diamond-shaped settings resonant of both the iconography and the landscape of the game. As a jock and a literati, Joe Acito would love this theory of baseball as the ultimate form of narrative; as a pitcher, he frequently found himself right smack dab in the middle of the drama it entailed.

 

Joe was a legend, an institution on the west side of town where he taught English at Elder High School for more than 40 years. When he died suddenly in March, the visitation was held at the Schaeper Center—named in honor of former principal Father Jerry Schaeper—a converted grocery store that now housed Elder’s library, computer center, music rooms, and the glee club. It was a place where Joe no doubt had spent countless hours in pursuit of truth and beauty. It was also the only place on the EHS campus spacious enough to accommodate the thousands of people who came to pay their respects. Joe, who could appreciate the humor in practically anything, would probably have been amused at this situation, too. Seeing his open casket on display, he would certainly have said something like this: “Jesus, I’m dead, and I’m still at work!”

As I walked around the Center, I noticed a photo montage that included familiar faces. There was an 8 x 10 glossy depicting the Stegner Food Products team, Cincinnati Class B Municipal League Champs, circa 1964—all of us EHS grads proudly wearing our team jackets (thank you, Stegner, if you still exist out there on Muddy Creek Road making actual, and mock, turtle soup), the two huge trophies firmly in the grasp of a couple of guys in the front row. In the photo, I’m standing next to Joe, and it got me thinking about my favorite Joe-as-pitcher story, one that he told every time we reminisced about our history as teammates over the years.

In Sunday Municipal baseball—we liked to call it semi-pro ball, but that was something of an exaggeration—games were played all over the city. This meant that guys like us, who were raised behind the Sauerkraut Curtain and who rarely ventured beyond the influence of Glenway Avenue, might suddenly find ourselves on the EAST SIDE or the NORTH SIDE, or the SOUTH SIDE of town where teams were legendary in stature, and worse, Protestant (if not certifiably heathen) and therefore pretty damn intimidating and imposing. And so one Sunday afternoon, at a far-away cross-town field whose name I can’t recall, the Stegner Foods Boys of Summer from Price Hill/Bridgetown squared off against a team of giants, titans, warriors, hulks—men, not boys. At least it seemed so to us. One of their players, rumor had it, was recently returned from the Baltimore Colts training camp, where he’d just missed the cut at linebacker. And he was the runt of the litter. Though weight training and steroids had not yet been invented, nobody, presumably, had bothered to tell these guys. Clearly, we were overmatched. And Joe had been named starting pitcher.

Pitchers I’ve talked to—and I’ve talked to a lot of them—will readily admit that they have their best stuff only about a third of the time. At those times, when they have their most intimidating and dominating stuff, no one can touch them. Another third of the time, they’ve got decent stuff, which gives them at least a chance to win. And then there’s the rest of the time, when nothing seems to be working and they’d be better off playing another position entirely. This was one of those times for Joe. Though he labored mightily and sweated profusely, his fast ball wasn’t fast, his slider wouldn’t slide, his change-up didn’t change, and location was a consummation devoutly to be wished for. The top of the first inning had lasted longer than a High Mass at Easter; to extend the conceit of my opening metaphor, the only dramatic question left unanswered was how long Joe would remain in the game. With the score 6–0, the bases loaded, and nobody out, my father, Coach Miller, had seen enough.

You need to know at least this much about our two coaches, Coach Miller and Coach Trentman. Both men were combat veterans of the Second World War and neither man was to be trifled with. As members of the Greatest Generation, they had done their duty, led by example, and commanded our respect. Having saved the world, they did not suffer fools gladly, nor did they tolerate much dissension within the ranks. When they said Jump you asked How high? And that was pretty much that.

Now  Joe Acito knew this, and when he saw Coach Miller approach the mound—mercifully approach the mound, I might add—he knew what was coming. As per the ritual, the infielders (including me) and the catcher joined Joe and my father on the mound for the mandatory conversation, not so much to belabor the obvious as to comfort our comrade in arms who had just had his rear end handed to him by a pack of Neanderthals. In his most politic and diplomatic tone of voice, my dad delivered the verdict: “Joe, you just didn’t have it today, so let’s bring in Jerry and see if we can get a couple of outs; we can still win this thing. Gimme the ball, son.”

That’s when Joe says, “No, Coach, I’m not coming out!”

If five jaws going slack simultaneously could make a sound, that’s the sound you would have heard.

Understand that my dad was partially deaf, having lost most of the hearing in his left ear during an artillery barrage in the Ardennes. He honestly thought he’d misheard. So, a second time, he says: “Joe, I’m taking you out of the game.” And Joe, for the second time, says, without the slightest hesitation, “No, Coach, I’m not leaving the game. I can beat these guys. I know it. I’ll get this next batter out and then I’ll get us out of the inning.”

Again, the hypothetical sound of jaws falling slack.

Though he’d dropped out of high school to join the Army, my dad was a smart guy—a good judge of character, who practiced a kind of follow-through-on-your-swing philosophy that he applied to life as well as baseball. And in Joe’s recalcitrance he read neither defiance nor disrespect nor rebellion. Instead, what he saw was determination, aggressiveness, moxie. And moxie was a value he prized above all others. For a long time, I thought it was a word he’d simply made up, as he was wont to do. But no, by God, moxie was real. The word traced its origins to the brand name of a soft drink popular in the 1920s (you can still buy the stuff in the state of Maine, which has—I’m not making this up—adopted it as its official drink). At some point it became associated in its various advertising campaigns with courage, daring, and energy. As in “This guy’s got moxie!”

Dad saw Joe’s gesture as a pivotal and defining moment of moxie. As the rest of us stood around mute, wondering how this tense stalemate would end, Dad, who loved Joe like a son, simply said, “OK, Joe, I’ll give you one more chance to get somebody out. Let’s see what you got.” Then he left the mound.

If this were a Hollywood movie, it would have a happy ending, and somebody like Gary Cooper or Kevin Costner or Dennis Quaid or Robert Redford, or yes, even Geena Davis, would come through heroically in the clutch and the game would turn around and the good guys would win. Instead, what happened was real life: Joe threw the next pitch, a fastball without movement, without velocity, right down the middle of the plate, right into this guy’s wheelhouse, and what transpired was the hardest-hit line drive I’d seen in my career. The kind where you can see the stitches on the baseball, frozen almost in time, as it leaves the bat. The kind that starts off about six feet off the ground and continues to rise in trajectory as it reaches the center fielder, who can only stare in utter amazement as the ball clears the fence and is still rising as it slams into the apartment complex just outside the park.

Cut back to the diamond. Before my father can even leave the dugout, Joe, walking sheepishly off the mound, shouts out to him: “OK, Coach Miller, I’m ready to come out of the game now.”

Joe Acito, my best friend for 53 years, left us in March, way too early, way too young at the age of 66. I can’t know for sure, but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if the Lord didn’t get just a bit of an argument when He told Joe it was time for him to come out of the game. Altiora, my friend. Altiora.

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