"I'm having a terrible life," said Colin.
The two ladies who heard his lament burst into strangled hoots. Unlike some you might point to, this pair of women were not entirely insensitive to a man's pain. One was even his mother.
But Colin is only 5 years old. Naturally he has more drama than perspective. Even strangers recognize with a single glance that his blue jeans are without patches, that here is a child who swims in pools of affection deeper than a summer trout's. The boy's misery is a wonder.
Convinced that life's struggle is uneven, Colin has hinged his survival upon improvement. (On New Year's Day, he resolved to stick up more for himself and to stop ratting out his older brother, Roarke.) He practices for his upcoming T-ball debut with the dedication of Cal Ripkin.
Colin's combination of anxiety and pluck anchored his nickname, "Knuckles."
On the Arizona Diamondbacks' opening day, Colin pounded his black, Wilson glove with a tiny fist. Again, and yet again, Knuckles slapped leather. He was determined to catch a foul ball.
Instead, the little boy snatched a miracle at the ballyard.
Eight-year-old Roarke, meanwhile, had his own pregame ritual.
He slipped into his Boston Red Sox tee shirt before heading out to Jerry Colangelo's much ballyhooed Bank One Ballpark. Roarke became a convert to the Red Sox nation--the only franchise in professional sports operating under a hex--after watching Roger Clemens pitch for the New England nine.
Though only a third grader, Roarke believed in tradition. It was his old glove, handed down, that "Knuckles" wore.
In the days leading up to the premiere of major-league baseball in Arizona, press coverage, like Sputnik, lost touch with the pull of gravity. Baseball wasn't just a metaphor for life; it became the very plasma of the cosmos, and the Diamondbacks' managing general partner, Jerry Colangelo, was our cosmonaut.
The hoopla was not a surprise. Since the awarding of the franchise three years ago, the pressure had built until baseball became more manic than major league. The sales tax that financed all but a third of the stadium was so controversial that Colangelo's political ally, Mary Rose Wilcox, was shot in her behind by an outraged citizen.
Certainly Knuckles was not the only fellow without perspective.
It was reported on the front page that Colangelo responded to the shooting by installing bulletproof glass in his offices. But if he'd once been the focus of death rays, Colangelo was now timeless, ageless, a titan.
Profiled days before the game in these pages by Deborah Laake, Colangelo dropped his air hose long enough to reveal that he was a CEO who craved the public's affection. He was not the first man to need unqualified love, he was simply one of the few to seek it from journalists.
Laake disclosed that Colangelo personally berated the Pulitzer-prize-winning editorial cartoonist Steve Benson, as well as the morning paper's signature columnist and Pittsburgh Pirates apologist E.J. Montini. Colangelo informed the writer that he had betrayed their mutual Italian heritage by saying negative words about the sports mogul.
Colangelo believed he was Italy.
Laake also discovered that Colangelo had recently attacked Janice Goldstein, a confrontation so off-balance that it made one queasy. Like most fights, its origins were improbable.
People get injured at ballgames.
On March 16, 1992, Oakland Athletics' pitcher Matt Keough was almost killed by a line drive as he sat in the dugout in Scottsdale during spring training. The errant hardball ended the hurler's career. More often than you might imagine, fans also snare foul tips with their skull casings. Think about it: Is there any glove large enough to protect a 5-year-old?
To thwart potential lawsuits, a recent bill at the statehouse exempted team owners from liability.
Janice Goldstein has represented the Arizona Trial Lawyers Association since statehood. If an attorney is discovered inside an ambulance trying to breath life into a corpse, it is her responsibility to explain the barrister's behavior. Of course she lampooned the proposed legislation, labeling it the "Colangelo Protection Act." That's her job.
Goldstein said Colangelo threatened her, telling her, "I have a long memory and I know my enemies." She felt intimidated enough that she reported the bullying to her lawyer. Colangelo denied behaving like Frank Nitti, but what was he thinking when he called Goldstein in the first place?
Because Roarke and Knuckles never discussed Colangelo at recess, they headed to the ballpark with only the game on their minds. They were unaware that all around them, and for years, adults had lost all sense of proportion about baseball.
Once inside the ballpark, the boys were thunderstruck by the new stadium and the opening festivities.
Parachutists descended, fireworks erupted, men rappelled from the highest points of the structural steel to deposit the bases. Willie Mays stood in the outfield and waved to everyone. Film clips replayed the game's most historic moments on the scoreboard's enormous screen; suddenly, the stadium reverberated with that courageous speech of Lou Gehrig's: "I'm the luckiest man on the face of the Earth." Gehrig's words echoed over each other precisely as they had done on July 4, 1939. It gave you a chill.
But all of the opening spectacle was just so much sparkle. The diamond was the thing.
The ballpark is joyous.
Dark, forest-green girders frame your views, recalling ghosts from the Polo Grounds. Angles and quirky lines rim an outfield promising ricochets and new memories of left fielders playing caroms, like Carl Yaztremski once did.
The ballpark is gracious.
While long-legged centerfielders like Devon White will run down fly balls, the dimensions of the park are graceful, not cavernous.
The swimming pool, in right center, is even larger than the one in Colorado Springs belonging to the minor-league Sky Sox. The pool is unspeakable. It assaults the eye like a pinky ring upon the hand of a gentleman who is otherwise draped in a Saville-row suit.
Roarke, the budding purist, was contemptuous of the pool when he strolled past it on the grand concourse. But the water feature was only a distraction; even Wrigley Field has pigeons.
Picnic benches in the bleacher area beckon with terrific views. In the farthest reaches of dead centerfield, a clock of perfect proportion ticks off the minutes. Eschewing cold, digital technology, the timepiece's face is dignified with simple Arabic numbers.
The grass is green, and real, and not plastic, the fruit of a revolutionary seed that grows glorious sod in the shade.
Shadows and shade . . . for denizens of the Sonoran desert, nothing is more important during the blistering summers than shade. And there, up in the sky--part of the sky, actually--Colangelo's wondrous roof offers life-sustaining shade.
But at night, when the desert cools and the game is on, the roof will open.
On those spectacular days when the Arizona weather and the scent of damp creosote tempts visiting Canadians to abandon ice and snow to move to the Valley of the Sun, on those days the roof will retract; enormous panels on the north side of the stadium will also swing open to let views of the distant mountains into the ballpark.
On opening night when the roof peeled back, tens of thousands of fans roared. Gone were the bitter memories of the quarter-cent sales tax.
Fifty thousand people stood clapping their appreciation, their respect for Jerry Colangelo.
Only Deborah Laake was missing. She said she just did not feel up to rubbing elbows at Bank One with the volatile Colangelo. She watched the opening game on television at home. It was a sad turn.
When she was critically ill with cancer, Colangelo's Phoenix Suns arranged to let the bald-headed Laake sit behind the bald-headed basketball players at a game in order to lift her spirits.
Many professional teams extend such courtesies, yet when Laake approached Colangelo about the possibility of an interview, she readily expressed her gratitude.
At that moment, Laake glimpsed a facet of Colangelo that he seldom reveals to the press.
Unpredictably fragile after the ravages of chemotherapy, Laake will tell you that she is not her old self. And so she told Jerry.
Colangelo agreed to help this woman. He gave generously of his time so that Laake might complete the first story she has undertaken for New Times since she became ill.
He did this against his better judgment.
Following criticism of him in this newspaper, he has refused to speak to journalists from this publication.
He made an exception for Deborah.
Despite this sort of core decency, Colangelo's vendettas (and his gut instinct to Hoover every copper penny off the civic shag carpeting) keep his love affair with Phoenix dysfunctional.
Laake's story made you want to grab Colangelo in a headlock and give him a noogie.
The next time he feels like doing something as mean-spirited as banning fans from toting food into the ballpark, or he wants to lash out at a critic, he ought to paraphrase the wisdom of Stewart Smalley and remind himself: I'm better than that, and doggone it, people like me.
If he is wounded by a journalist's words, Colangelo might regain his sense of composure if he considered what happened to the most beleaguered 5-year-old at the ballpark on opening day.
During the sixth inning, Knuckles began pounding his mitt and shouting, "Hey mister, hit me a foul ball."
By the end of the seventh inning, Knuckles was mad. None of the players had hit the ball to him, which only confirmed his view that the world was tilted against him.
Knuckles told his mother he wasn't leaving until he got a ball.
After the seventh-inning stretch, Roarke took charge. He escorted his kid brother down to the back of the dugout of the visiting Colorado Rockies, who were blowing out the Diamondbacks 9-2.
Knuckles began to ride the Rockies for a ball.
"Hey guys, how about a ball," shouted Roarke.
A man in a Colorado uniform emerged from the dugout.
Not just any man, it was Larry Walker, the most valuable player in the National League last year.
Walker tapped on the dugout to get the boy's attention.
He didn't flip them a mere baseball; instead Larry Walker handed over his own, personal baseball bat to Knuckles.
The 5-year-old spun on his heel facing the fans. For a brief moment, Colin's head looked like it might explode from the sheer force of his smile.
Knuckles wove back to his seat, unsteady with a bat so huge that it stretched from his toes to his chin.
"I am so excited I will not sleep," declared Knuckles.
He was more thrilled than he'd ever been in his entire life. Everything about his world was now different, better.
"You know what you can call me?" he asked.
"Lucky!" he answered.
"I'm the luckiest kid here."
Indeed he was.
According to several members of the Colorado press, Walker is one of the sport's great guys. He's sweet, normal and down to earth, said a woman in the Rockies front office. It's no surprise that he keeps life in perspective, that he remembers that the game is about little boys' dreams. Walker, after all, grew up in a home with a sense of humor.
Credit his parents Larry and Mary, who named their children Gary, Cary, Barry and Larry.
After the game, Colin slept deeply, the new bat propped against his bed.
The next morning, he walked out of his bedroom and into the kitchen with the giant Louisville slugger upon his thin shoulder. He had a new outlook on life.
He lugged the bat to school to show his classmates and teachers.
Of course everyone called him by his new name, "Lucky."
He insisted on it.
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Jerry Colangelo has created the possibility for so many of these moments for all of our children. Instead of counting his enemies upon his fingers, he should count his Knuckles.
The despised sales tax has expired. Those of you who are still livid over the levy might want to take a kid to the ballpark. The hometown heroes are off to a shaky start. Instead of brooding, you can teach your child to root for baseball's biggest underdog.
As for Colin, he's no longer called Knuckles. In honor of his special bond with Larry Walker, he now answers to . . . Harry.
(Just kidding, Lucky!)