Monday, April 12, 2010

132 days to Bar Mitzvah: a shot of Jack

When I was a little kid, we lived across the street from John J. (Jack) Stroney. Jack Stroney was a neighborhood character, known both for the iron hand by which he ruled his wife and four children and his annual ritual of falling off the roof while working on his TV antenna.

Jack Stroney and my dad had this thing where they’d yell each other’s names from the front porch of their respective homes. My dad would boom out “JACK STRONEY!’ and Jack Stroney would return in kind. Sometimes, Stroney would sneeze, and my dad would yell, “GESUNDHEIT, JACK!” from our front porch.

Jack Stroney was also known for the hyper-competitive basketball games he’d hold in his driveway. The neighborhood dads would play for hours while we kids – who would never be invited to play, not even in our teens, though I think Steve Broydrick got a little run when he hit his 20s – sat on the Stroneys’ lawn and watched.

Jack Stroney had a good job, a large, loving family, was a member of the Rotary Club and had a good deal of status in our tiny Pennsylvania town. The Scranton Tribune once even ran a caricature of him in the paper. A few years ago, when he died, the paper gave him a long, warm obituary.

But there was one thing Stroney wanted that he could not have. The father of three boys and one girl, he wanted more than anything for his sons to follow in his sporting footsteps. Unfortunately, none of them were interested, though his daughter, Karen, went on to play college basketball. University of Deleware, I think.

We were a pretty big sports neighborhood, spending just about every summer day playing baseball. Every fall and winter, we played football, sneaking into the nearby high school football stadium and playing until our hands just about froze off.

The Stroney boys participated in that. Everyone did. Even my older sister and Marianne Dettorre, who we called, cruelly, “Neosinephrene” because she talked through her nose. She could kick a football, though.

Jack wanted his boys to also play organized sports, which led to this weird, indelible memory I have of Scott Stroney running into their house in a rainstorm, wearing his little league baseball uniform, as miserable as a kid can be.

He didn’t want to play baseball. He wanted to hang out and play army men, or create a very sophisticated banking system while playing Monopoly. But his dad wanted him to play baseball, so he played baseball.

I was one of the worst athletes on our block, but I was the one who kept playing until they told me I couldn’t anymore. I was the one who ended up with a malformed left elbow and chronic tendonitis in my left shoulder, the one who left his baseball dreams on a far-off bullpen mound at Santa Clara University, elbow throbbing, shoulder dead, with Coach McLain telling him, “You just don’t have anything on the ball.”

I was the one who then coached high school baseball for several years, switching to girls’ volleyball when I picked up that sport in my late 20s.

My reward for this? I am now Jack Stroney.

I love sports in that weird, literate way that made John Updike write “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” made David Halberstam hang out with Michael Jordan and makes you cheer for guys you’d probably cross the street to avoid, were you to run into them at night somewhere. I’ll watch any high school sporting event, as happy as Scrooge McDuck in a vault full of money. I can break down your pitching motion and tell you how to throw at least 10 miles per hour faster.

This year, finally, I think I came to terms with the Jawa’s utter disinterest in all sports. It wasn’t easy. But seeing him try to look interested in a Mariners game just to make me happy was harder to live with than knowing we’ll never throw the mitts on and have a catch.

Fact: no sporting team made up of boys from the Brandeis Hillel Day School class of 2011 has ever won a game. Not a basketball game, not a baseball game, not a soccer match, not volleyball. Sandra Bullock and I coached them from kindergarten until fourth grade. Despite her well-documented high-decibel style and our emphasis on defense and good passing, our boys never got better. In fact, they seemed to regress.

I’m not talking nail-biters here; this is season after season of blowouts, humiliations like having the opposing coach force his players to pass five times before they shoot or play defense with their hands behind their backs. I know sports can be character-building, but it’s tough to work on sportsmanship when you’re getting crushed week after week. And encouraging them to get angry and not take this sitting down? Definitely frowned upon by our school community, where we had to change the Bookfair Poster Contest to a simple “poster-making exercise” became because if you have a winner, that means you also have a loser.

In the face of this, my Jawa retreated. There will be no trophy case, no poster of Stephan Curry on his wall. In their places are very intricate robots made of Legos and framed posters of Godzilla. Which is pretty cool and indicates a child likely to spend his life ignoring peer pressure and marching to his own (probably electronic and synthesized) drum.

So I’ve got a Yu-Gi-Oh master instead of a shortstop. As if I’d want anyone else.

The only sad part is that there’s this big chunk of my life that stays mine alone. I watch the Golden State Warriors downstairs, alone. Sunday afternoon 49er games? A solo act. Though there are two major league baseball teams where I live, I seldom go to games because no one else in my family wants to go.

Now that you mention it, my dad wasn’t a sports guy, so I guess they’ve always been mine alone. Nothing changes except the size of my TV and vertical leap. One gets bigger while the other shrinks down to nothing.

We’ve all got a little Jack Stroney in us, not because we want to force our kids to follow us but because we start out with an idea of what it’s going to be like to be a parent, only to see that initial untouched image change almost immediately in ways we could never have imagined.

By the time we’ve adjusted to that new reality, another one's come along to take its place. I’ve heard horror stories from people forced as kids to take piano lessons, go to church, play chess.

There’s more than one kind of Jack Stroney. I don’t know if you watch the news or not, but there’s plenty of worse things to be.

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