His love of playing baseball rekindled 40 years later

John J. Cox, 58, of Woodside, has rekindled

John J. Cox, 58, of Woodside, has rekindled his love of baseball by playing in a senior league for the first time in 40 years since graduating from high school. Photo Credit: Ann Cox

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She was lovely: tall, slender, long dark hair, reserved. By the winter of 1973-74 I had come to notice her each morning as I passed her locker on my way to homeroom at Floral Park Memorial High School. She was, I later learned, a junior. I was a senior but had been in Floral Park only a short time.

I grew up in the city and for three years had attended a Catholic high school in western Queens. In the summer of 1973, my parents, whose marriage had been foundering for years, decided to move from the old five-story walk-up I grew up in, which in recent years had so deteriorated that the vestibule had become a den for junkies and other undesirables. The hallway reeked of urine and marijuana. The small apartment we lived in had become roach-infested, despite all efforts to exterminate them. So they found a garden apartment just over the Nassau-Queens border on Adelaide Street in Floral Park. But the higher rent required sacrifices. My younger brother and I would be unable to continue in Catholic school, so we enrolled in Floral Park Memorial, and I started my senior year in an unfamiliar place.

The contrast was stark. The village was quiet and clean. The sound of police or other emergency sirens was rare; no blasting music, loud angry voices or the rumble of a nearby "el"; no vulgar graffiti in the hallway or on the exterior walls; no broken bottles or beer cans in the gutters; no rotten odors; and no roaches. The main strip, Tulip Avenue, was right out of Norman Rockwell. The high school on Plainfield Avenue was a campus, not the factory-like school buildings I was used to, and from the window of my English class, I could look out across Plainfield Avenue and watch horses with their trainers on the warm-up track at Belmont Park.

My passion was baseball. At my former school, I had played on the varsity team as a freshman and had been the starting shortstop since my sophomore year. I had been looking forward to my final season in the city's Catholic High School League. But in a new school, in a different league where no one knew me, I was in baseball limbo. I considered my prospects: If I went out for the team, I would have to prove myself all over again in my last season; and if I made the team and earned a starting position, doubtless there would be some resentment resulting from my displacing some other known and deserving player. I was not in an enviable position. But as the spring of 1974 approached, I put my concerns aside. When the March 1 tryouts were called, I was among the candidates who assembled in the gym.

Meanwhile, the pretty girl in the school corridor continued to bewitch me, but we didn't share any classes or extracurricular activities, so there seemed no way of properly approaching her without appearing forward or presumptuous. I noticed that, increasingly, my glances at her were being returned, whether out of interest or annoyance I'll never know, but there seemed no way to formally connect. I was simply too shy or insecure to behave differently.

By April, I secured a starting position on the baseball team and the resentment I feared never materialized. On the contrary, I was welcomed like a brother. The team played well enough to earn a playoff spot, and at the end of May we squared off against Syosset. In what would be a losing effort, I came to bat late in the game and grounded out to third. As I trotted back to the bench, I had no idea I had just had my last at bat in organized ball. Graduation came soon after, and with respect to the girl, I consoled myself with the notion that, inevitably, I would encounter her alone somewhere, maybe in the village library or one of the shops on Tulip Avenue.

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It never happened.

I had been offered partial scholarships to a couple of colleges, but our financial circumstances made them impractical to pursue. Instead, I enrolled in Nassau Community College, and the summer months, once devoted to baseball leagues, were now spent working to acquire money for tuition, books and other related expenses. Once school started, it was necessary to continue working part-time and, gradually, I came to realize I was done with baseball.

"When I became a man," St. Paul admonished the Corinthians, "I put away the things of a child." My glove, bats, cleats and other equipment were put in a closet and forgotten.

In August '76, the apartment lease expired and so did my parents' marriage. They went their separate ways. My brother joined the Air Force. I swapped part-time work for a full-time job and leased a furnished room at the Flushing YMCA. My time in Floral Park was over, but something was preserved. I had seen how life could and should be lived. My sights were now set higher.

Eventually, I finished college and law school at night, and went on to practice law, raise a family and see and do what feels like a thousand things that didn't seem possible for me 40 years ago. But during that time, my connection to baseball was limited to shuttling my kids to their own games, backyard catch, and for one season, umpiring in my son's Little League (which I vow never to do again).

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Today, the kids are grown and gone, and one of them has sons of her own. The writer Roger Kahn has described life as "a constantly accelerating express train, the years passing ever more quickly beyond the windows of the train that will not stop." One day last fall, I drove to Floral Park and retraced the steps of 40 years before. I parked in front of the apartment on Adelaide Street for a few minutes; then to Tulip Avenue, which had changed little (many of the shops I remembered were still there); then south along Plainfield Avenue to the high school. I parked on Miller Avenue by the ballfield and looked out across the empty diamond. Forty years is a long time, but not long enough to purge from my memory the names and faces that now flashed ghostlike before me: Moreno, Horan, Gehring, Bendin, Naylor, Wurm, Wright, Desmond, Stetzer, Poutier, Ungaro, Litras, Huer. All good ballplayers and even better teammates -- fine young men, every one of them. Then there appeared other students who had befriended me during that awkward year. And, of course, there was the girl.

As the years pass, it is increasingly difficult to retrieve the things that were once within such easy grasp. But it's nice to beat the odds once in a while. The trip back to Floral Park stirred something inside me. A few minutes on the Internet revealed the existence of the Men's Senior Baseball League (no golf or softball for these guys). I began a regimen of treadmilling, weight lifting, hitting at a local indoor batting range, and throwing a rubber-coated baseball against a handball wall in a nearby schoolyard, which, as one may imagine, drew some pretty odd stares. And so this spring, 40 years after that last game in Syosset, I'll be taking the field on Long Island again, this time for the Sunday league Long Island Dodgers.

Somehow, something from that distant time has been recovered. As for the young lady in the school corridor, all I can do is hope that wherever she may be, my loss proved to be her everlasting gain.

John J. Cox,
Woodside

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