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Cracker Barrel: Frankie B.

A few nights ago I had a very long talk on the phone with an old friend from boyhood days near Chicago. You might say we spent the time on a salvage operation, dredging up long-lost memories ...

Summer, 1953. I am 11 years old, a haunter of the north side of Chicago, a frequenter of Wrigley Field. Father, already a Cubs fan for decades, has nurtured within my heart a wondrous emotion. I am smitten with 25 people, all at the same time. I am in love with the Chicago Cubs.

I spend as many days as possible in the bleachers, above the ivy-covered bricks, absorbing the crackle of flags, the Lake Michigan wind, the odors of hot dogs and mustard and popcorn and beer and cigar smoke.

As a bleacher bum, it is only natural that I should take a particular interest in outfielders, and especially in Frankie Baumholtz.

Frankly, Frankie is no demolisher of fences. Instead he is compact, dependable, tough. When he turns to spring after a sinking line drive or charges back, leaping, to snag a sure hit, my blood pounds in sympathetic exertion.

“Attaboy, Frankie!” I yell. “Way to go. Way to go!”

The pinnacle is reached one August day when my man makes a stupendous rally-killing shoestring catch against the Reds in the top of the ninth and then comes to bat in the bottom of the inning and smacks a game-winning double against the right field wall.

Frenzied with love, I race halfway around the ball park to the place under the grandstands where the catwalk from the dugout passes right next to the spectators’ ramp. I position myself against the restraining fence, clinging like a monkey to the wire, along with dozens of other jabbering kids.

The players file past like a pantheon of gods before my eyes: Hank Sauer, the old slugger, his face incised with deep furrows like the face of the Indian chief in our social studies book, hawk-nosed, proud; big Bob Rush, the fastball pitcher, raw-boned and red; Randy Jackson, the stalwart third baseman, his eyes snapping with a bright good humor.

Little by little the crowd thins out and the sounds of scuffing feet and cackling voices die away and I am alone, waiting for my hero. He must have passed, I think. I must have missed him.

But then I hear the sound of spikes clacking against concrete and a moment later he turns the corner and starts up the long incline to the clubhouse, the click of his steps filling the universe, filling my heart; and on he comes, walking slowly, tiredly, his eyes fixed upon the floor of the catwalk, his blue warmup jacket hooked on his forefinger and trailing back over his shoulder, his cap pushed back on his head.

And then he is right before me, and I can see the deep reddish tan of his face and the matting of hair on his forearms and the way his sweat-soaked hair lies lank upon his forehead.

“Hi, Mr. Baumholtz. Nice game.” I want to say more but I can’t think of anything.

He turns, nods his head just a little, smiles at me with tired eyes.

“Yeah. Thanks, kid.”

He reaches up, pulls his cap down lower over his sweaty hair, continues on his way. I cling to the wire fence as though electrocuted. It is as if I have looked upon the face of God.

Then the clack of his spikes grows softer and a door creaks open and a faraway babble of voices spills out and the door slams shut and he is gone and there is only silence.

Copyright 2013 by Craig Nagel