My left foot is aching again. It always does when the barometer is falling. For 26 years I've been able to predict the weather with my left foot, a very palpable memento of my brush with the legend.
It wasn't a mere brush, actually, it was a collision.
Even as a 14-year-old I knew about legends. They were the guys who hung around the playgrounds in the summer and the gyms and bowling alleys in the winter, high-school dropouts mostly, who had once been blessed, or cursed, with bodies that matured too early. They had been bigger and stronger and better coordinated than others their age, young men in a world of adolescents. They had once hit a baseball farther, scored more touchdowns and shot more baskets than their peers in high school. Later, though, they became big-gutted from too much beer and not enough exercise, full of stories of what had been and what, if it hadn't been for a bad break, might have been. Most of them could still dominate us kids. But we knew why they tried: they couldn't compete in the world of men.
My friends and I tolerated them, but we were wise enough not to be flattered when they boasted to us or frightened when they bullied us. We didn't admire them, we pitied them.
October 11, 1981
I assumed that Joe Bellino was another such legend. Oh, he had done it all for our next-town rival, Winchester (Mass.) High. In the state championship basketball game he stole the ball and drove the length of the court for the game-winning layup—in sudden-death overtime. All the big-time football powers were recruiting him. And as a catcher, he was compared by major league scouts to Roy Campanella.
I wasn't impressed. Another precocious jock—I knew about them.
Still, as I sat on the bench that sunny May afternoon in 1955, waiting to play third base in my first varsity baseball game for Lexington High, my nervousness was compounded by the prospect of playing against Joe Bellino, who was then a junior and already an established legend. I watched him as Winchester went through its infield drills. He had a stocky, Yogi Berra body. His throws to second, flicked so casually, seemed to be still rising when they arrived. He didn't chatter or yell, and carried himself with such grace, such sublime self-confidence, that he commanded attention. I was still skeptical; he was no hero, no legend to me. But the more I watched him, the more I began to feel that I, a skinny freshman, didn't belong on the same field with Joe Bellino.
I certainly played as if I didn't belong. The first ball hit to me was the easiest kind of lazy three-hopper. I grabbed at it too eagerly. It hit the heel of my glove, bounced off my knee and came to rest in the third-base coach's box. An inning later I threw a bunt into rightfield. I struck out. Twice My first varsity baseball game (my coach called it my "first debut") was becoming a nightmare. My teammates ignored me, for which I was grateful. The Winchester players didn't say much either. They knew a good thing when they saw it.
In the sixth inning we were losing by five runs, most of them directly attributable to my errors and my failure to hit. I slumped miserably by myself on the end of the bench. When my coach came to sit beside me, I figured he was going to take me out. He didn't look at me, and at first I didn't realize he was talking to me. He seemed to be studying the game from beneath the visor of his cap.
"Errors are part of the game, son," he mumbled, never taking his eyes off the Winchester pitcher. "Never blame anyone for an error. There! See how he twists the ball in his glove? Curveball coming."
He went on and I listened to him. I began to think of the game and not just my own part in it. My next time at bat, when I saw the pitcher twist the ball in his glove, I managed to bloop a hit into short rightfield. As I stood on first base 1 thought, "Two strikeouts and a single. I'm a .333 hitter!"
I scored a run and we got a couple more. When we took the field in the seventh, the score was tied.
Bellino, meanwhile, was playing the way legends are supposed to play, hitting line drives and throwing out base runners with impressive nonchalance. Then he was on second base, the potential winning run.
"Watch the steal!" yelled our shortstop. I glanced toward second, where Bellino stood, hands on hips, staring at me and, it seemed, sizing me up. I looked quickly back to the plate, praying for a passed ball, a wild pitch, a base hit—anything so I wouldn't screw up.
When the pitch was released someone shouted, "There he goes!" I moved to straddle the bag. Our catcher's throw was perfect, and as I caught it I turned to face the sliding Bellino. I had him dead to rights.
They told me afterward that he didn't slide, that he caught me with a perfect cross-body block as I was pivoting to make the tag. I don't know. I never saw him hit me. The next thing I knew, I was lying on my back in foul territory, some distance from third base, with an enormous weight on my chest. When I opened my eyes I was staring into Joe Bellino's face.
"You O.K.?" he asked softly.
I started to answer, but he was gone. I realized I was holding the ball in my glove against my chest. I tried to stand up. That's when I felt the screaming pain in my left foot. I sat looking at Bellino as he perched on third base, arms folded across his chest. He and the umpire seemed to be studying me as they chatted. I saw Joe nod once and look down, tapping the bag lightly with his toe.
"Hey, you're out!" I said from where I sat.
The umpire smiled at Bellino, then shrugged at me. He spread his hands, palms down.
"Wait a minute," I yelled. "I got the ball. See?" I held up my glove for him.
"The runner," pronounced the umpire, grinning, "is safe."
My coach didn't argue with umpires. He felt it set a poor example for us. This time, as he knelt beside me and touched my foot gently, he muttered only, "Bad call." Then he spoke to Bellino, who had come over to look. "I've always admired you, Joe. Not anymore."
The pain took over and I lost interest in the conversation. I lay back on the ground, surrounded by coaches and umpires and players and Joe Bellino, and I couldn't help it, I cried.
After the game, which Winchester won 9-8, Bellino came to the bench where I sat with my throbbing foot. He half carried me to the bus, never saying a word. In spite of my pain, it embarrassed me that my chest was bony where he held me under my arm, and that he was able to bear my weight so effortlessly. He helped me to a seat, then touched my leg and said, "Take it easy." As he walked off the bus some of my teammates called to him, "Hey, take care, Joe" and "Nice game, Joe."
I thought to myself that legends aren't easily tarnished.
The X rays showed that the first three metatarsals in my left foot had been broken clean through. I wore a cast and hobbled around school on crutches for the rest of the baseball season. For the first few days I was treated like a celebrity: I was the kid whose foot had been broken by Joe Bellino. Senior girls actually volunteered to carry my books. The boys on the varsity gave me rides in their cars. The local barber even gave me a free haircut.
I should have gloried in all the attention I received. I was almost a legend myself. But not quite. Too often, people I didn't know would stop me in the school corridor or in a store. I had many conversations that went like this:
Stranger: "Hey, I hear you got that [pointing to my cast] from Joe Bellino. huh?"
Stranger: "I've seen him play football. He can hit. People, I mean."
Me: "He can hit all right—people and baseballs."
Stranger: "So what was it like?"
Me: "I don't know. Never knew what hit me. Knocked me cold. First thing I remember was lying on my back in the coach's box with Joe on top of me. Ten feet beyond the bag at least."
Stranger: "Wow! I guess he can hit. So, anyway, was he out? Did you hang on to the ball?"
Me (lamely): "Well, I held the ball. I did. But the umpire, he called him safe."
Stranger (terminating the conversation): "Oh, sure. That's too bad. Oh, well."
My story was flawed, my small claim to distinction diminished. I quickly learned to divert those conversations. My cast and my crutches, which by all rights should have been emblems of my courage, became instead my curse. I refused to talk about it. I knew he was out. He was lying on my chest, right on top of the glove that held the ball, and we were yards away from the base. But none of that really mattered. I had to be honest and say he was called safe, and that ruined it all.
I grew to hate Joe Bellino, not for breaking my foot and making me cry but for being called safe, for having that kind of power over an umpire, for being a legend. I found that there was some stature in being the victim of a legend, but not much.
My foot and my ego healed thoroughly over the course of the summer, with the exception of the ache that I soon recognized could forecast stormy weather. My attitude toward legends remained as skeptical as ever.
The next winter the Winchester basketball team—led, naturally, by all-every-thing Joe Bellino—was undefeated and on its way to another state championship when we played them. I was a sophomore second-stringer. By halftime Bellino had 16 points and we were losing 38-17. I played most of the second half; Bellino didn't play at all.
I was peeling the tape off my ankles in the locker room afterward, when someone touched my shoulder and then sat beside me.
"Billy, how you doing?" said Joe Bellino in that soft voice of his.
He knew my name! I glanced up, then returned my attention to my ankles. "Oh, hi, Joe. Nice game."
"Good game yourself. You've got a nice jump shot there."
"Look, I never heard. Your leg, was it hurt bad?"
"Couple broken bones in my foot. It's fine now. No problem."
"Well, listen. I shouldn't have done that. I should have slid. But you had the ball waiting for me, and...."
I shrugged. "It's O.K. You gotta try to win."
He stood beside me. I picked at the tape. He spoke loudly enough for my teammates in the locker room to hear. "I couldn't believe you held on to the ball. I gave you my best shot. You had me cold. I was out. No question. The ump blew the call." He paused for a moment. "You're a tough kid."
I looked up at him. He grinned and held out his hand. We shook solemnly.
"Accept my apology?" he asked.
"No sweat," I replied.
My teammates seemed to look at me a little differently after that, though perhaps it was only my way of looking at myself. I do know that my attitude toward legends—or at least to that particular legend—changed. I watched Joe Bellino win the Heisman Trophy, a first for the Naval Academy, and later run back punts for the Patriots. I saw him hit people who were considerably better padded than a bony freshman third baseman whose foot he had broken.
Now, when a low-pressure front moves in and that foot begins to throb, it still pleases me to remember one tough kid who hung on to the ball.