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I-95 NORTH, SOMEWHERE IN SOUTH CAROLINA -- I'm searching for my mitt, my first Little League baseball glove. I'm midway through what would turn out to be a 2,334-mile, three-month, summerlong quest, and darkness flows through the open minivan window, smothering me, as I drive over the Coosawhatchie River bridge.
It's 11:20 p.m. In my rearview mirror, I see ghosts of huge, moss-strewed trees.
I am either coming up to, or just passed, the exit for the South of the Border tourist complex. I'm too tired to remember. The CD player is on repeat, volume on stay-awake high, my only passenger Peter Frampton's "Do You Feel Like We Do" -- long album version.
Must have been a dream, I don't believe where I've been.
Over and over, the lyrics stuck in my head. Here's where I've been.
Forty-five years later, in the 70-mph darkness, I can still taste the leather strings, smell the dirt and rawhide, and sometimes, in a blink, peer at the world through its split-finger curtain.
Do you have one?
Mine was a Mickey Mantle youth model, circa my "Leave it to Beaver" and "Lost in Space" days, late 1950s or early '60s, I'm not quite sure; who knew when you were a kid that dates would matter?
It had a drawing of the Mick in the pocket, and the word "Donnie" written down the side. I had to eat a lot of raisins to get it.
I still can't think of Mickey Mantle without the taste of Sun-Maid raisins coming back to me. My parents purchased the mitt through some sort of grocery-store promotion that said "Get your boy this Rawlings Quality Leather Fielders Glove with Mickey Mantle's Personal Signature on it."
The word facsimile must not have been invented then.
It cost $5.50 with any Sun-Maid premium seal.
Blasting through Rocky Mount, N.C., with the Sienna cruise control set way above the Toyota lease limit, I reach for my light gray Gargoyles wraparound sunglasses. Even though I don't know anybody here, I don't want strangers to see my eyes.
It was at mile marker 146, North Carolina I-95, driving from Florida back home to Connecticut, that it dawned on me that this quest wasn't just about finding the glove. It was about playing catch.
One last game of catch with my father.
But I had just left his ashes behind in a cemetery plot.
Do you ... you, feel like I do?
Spiders, Christmas bows, and a mint 1948 World Series program
I hate spiders, and a huge one is looking at me right now; and he doesn't look too fond of me.
If my sister, Cheryl, wasn't here I'd run ... but I have the man-up facade going on; it's the older brother thing.
We are digging around my parents' attic above the garage in Holiday, Fla. We are looking for our past, and hopefully some boxes to send back to our sister, Missy, in Virginia.
I'm also desperately looking for my mitt.
So far, this is what we have found: A dozen half-filled books of A&P green stamps; a box of old blue Regular Grind Maxwell House Coffee tins filled with old outdoor Christmas lights, most broken; a bunch of brightly colored aluminum drinking glasses that I remember used to get all wet on the outside when you put cold drinks on the inside; my old train set; and boxes and boxes of cheap red Christmas bows. We decided that the three of us would take 30 each, the rest sent to tag-sale heaven.
But no mitt yet.
And only two boxes left. And between them and me, a spider worthy of the Florida swamps. It's primordial insect vs. human stare-down, and the spider has no fear.
I'm here because in the last year or so both my mother and father, and my favorite uncle, died. I've had better years.
This attic is on top of the third house my parents downsized to, a 930-square-footer in Old People's Florida, encased in cinder block. Why anyone in Florida would put an attic on a house is beyond me, but in it I am, and it's hot and humid, I've just driven over a thousand miles on $3.25 gas, I'm not happy, and I need to get into the last two boxes. My mitt may be there.
PETA, now would be a good time to turn your head.
"Thanks, Cheryl, I really hate those things," I say as she puts her shoe back on and I carefully crawl around all the squished stuff.
Second-to-last box: more Christmas bows; these, we decide, are Missy's.
The last box is a long wooden box, 2 feet by 2 feet, maybe 3 feet long, and heavy. Cheryl pulls it over.
Inside are mom and dad's private papers and more green stamps. Unless the glove is completely flattened, I know I'm screwed. Cheryl digs through and hands me the PAID bill for my broken arm, dated 1962.
We sort through the papers -- looks like dad, um, borrowed everyone's "Kennedy Shot" Buffalo Evening News. I find Peppy's papers -- a long dead pet dog that hated me and made me sneeze all the time -- and a manila folder with my dad's handwriting that says "Sibby's Papers."
Sibby Sisti was the adult who said the first curse word I ever heard.
He said "damn" in front of me. Big stuff for an 8-year-old back in the days when saying that would make you nervous in church on Sunday.
My mother wasn't around, so he was safe. I was standing on Lincoln Park diamond #2, in Tonawanda, N.Y., somewhere around second base, had a base actually been there. His huge hands were on my tiny shoulders and he was "helping" me walk sideways to where the shortstop would play, had in fact there been a third base in sight.
I had no idea playing catch with an uncle would be so involved.
My dad was sitting on the green wooden bench drinking a pop (Buffalo-ese for soda), watching his best man and best friend, a former major league baseball player for the Braves of Boston and Milwaukee, teach me how to play the infield.
It was midway to that imaginary shortstop spot when I heard the second adult curse word I'd ever heard: "Dammit." Uncle Sib was holding my brand-new mitt when he said it.
In spite of himself, and my ears, he couldn't believe he was holding a mitt -- raisin-eatin' youth model -- that had a NEW YORK YANKEE in it. Guess the Yankees weren't his favorite team.
"You made the kid eat vegetables to get this damn thing," he shouted over to dad. Three swears in one day. I must be growing up. I was so proud.
"Raisins," dad corrected.
Taking the ever-present cigar out of his mouth, ashes falling on my brush cut, this massive mound of a man looked down on me and said, "They made you eat damn raisins for this mitt, kid?" And then looking back up at my father he yelled, "The kid don't like raisins."
I'm not sure how he knew that, but he was, indeed, correct.
Later that day, just to make another Yankee-loathing point, he went through my baseball card-holding Buster Brown shoe box and pulled out all the Yankees he could find. With the greatest of backyard bravado flair, he took the cards and stuck them in the spokes of my red and chrome Schwinn.
At a family reunion years later, Sib said, "Hey, kid [I was then 35], wasn't those cards the year of Mickey Mantle's rookie card?" Chomp, chomp on the cigar.
Now, sitting there in the attic, when I opened up the file that bore his name, this is what I said: "Damn." Props to Sib.
In the folder was a sparkling 1948 World Series program, Braves vs. Indians, the Series Uncle Sibby played in (two games, one at-bat). Falling out on my lap was one of his baseball cards, Christmas cards from the 1950s with his whole family dressed up in baseball uniforms, a 1966 team photo of the Buffalo Bisons when he was a coach (third from the left in the front row), and a Mickey Mantle comic book with a banner that read "Also a special extra feature in this issue, SIBBY SISTI, Super Sub."
But no mitt. I did find a couple little green army soldiers and rifle stocks, all chewed up and bent. Must be mine; Cheryl didn't want to touch them.
Now what? The estate, as such, was strewn about the garage and attic; for some reason my parents kept eight pairs of snow mittens, just in case Tampa has some freakish snowstorm, apparently, but there wasn't a single baseball mitt.
"Maybe they sold it at the tag sale," said Cheryl as she stuffed more red bows in Missy's shipment. "Could be someone from up at the flea market bought it to sell."
Tag sale ... flea market ... what???
"There's a huge flea market right up I-75, acres of stuff, just head north until you see the We Bare All billboards. It's right around there somewhere. When mom and dad came down here they had a tag sale. Maybe they sold the glove to a dealer then."
With memories of Uncle Sibby in one box, three dozen red bows in another, pictures of me with more hair and less stomach scattered about, I pointed the minivan due north. I was going to turn left at the Bare Ladies and by God I was going to buy my mitt back.
Except no dealers were to be found. Acres of tarp-covered empty booths and only one person was there, Judy Manning.
"Can I help you," she said to me in the voice of someone wishing they had hired a security guard.
"I'm looking for my mitt," I said as she expertly and very politely put a picnic table between me and her. "I was hoping it was here."
"Nobody's here. All the dealers done gone up north for the season."
Up the road a bit is the town of Waldo, and another huge flea market, both sides of the road -- lots of retiree downsizing going on around here.
A quick public-service message: In Waldo, where the speed-limit signs say 30 mph, you best be doing about 25 ... trust me.
After a brief conversation with one of Waldo's finest, who also had no idea where my mitt could be and didn't seem to care much about looking for it, I met a guy in a booth selling corroded farm equipment to farmers who must harvest rust.
"Just me," he said to a question I didn't ask. "Most everyone packed up and headed north to a place called Brimfield. Ever heard of it? Somewhere in Mass-ee-chew-sits."
All I could do was nod. And leave.
There are no We Bare All billboards in Massachusetts. So I had to call for directions.
"Brimfield Antique and Collectibles Show."
"I hear you have some flea market thing going on."
"Yes sir, we do, all over town."
"I'm trying to find my first baseball mitt that my parents might have, for some God unknown reason, THROWN OUT." At about mile 1,850 of this quest I started to get cranky.
"Well sir, if it's been thrown out, it's here."
She was right.
I found field upon field of thrown-away sports stuff. Three barrels of beat-up hockey sticks, a 4-foot high mound of used hockey skates nearby, a pyramid of old goalie pads just beyond. A huge green plastic garbage can filled to the top with old cue balls. A table of white fluffy marching hats, two tables of band trumpets and slide trombones. A table filled with trophies of winners who must not have cared. An old green football helmet with a huge yellowed plastic face mask. Dozens of old milk cartons filled with baseballs, hard and soft, and footballs, inflated and not. Hundreds of baseball bats, including one cracked "official Mickey Mantle model."
And mitts. Everywhere I looked, baseball mitts. Found a "Ducky" Joe Medwick, the Hall of Famer from the Gashouse Gang Cardinals of the 1930s. A lifetime .324 hitter, said to be one of the meanest players of his time; even the glove looked scary.
Under the bumper of a conversion van with Florida plates, a pile of gloves with an Albie Pearson model (1958 AL Rookie of the Year, 1963 All-Star) sitting on top of a Yogi Berra Spalding 42-7891 Deluxe Steerhide catcher's mitt.
I didn't find my mitt, though I did find other Little League lost gloves. Stephen Milam ... Beth Miranda ... the Warners ... if you too are looking for your mitts, I found them in one of Brimfield's back lots. On the dollar table.
Lincoln Park diamond #2
I haven't stepped on this field in 42 years.
I've come home to Tonawanda, and I brought my son, Jim. He's here for a Bills game, an 18th birthday present. I'm here for the game as well, but also for a last shot at finding my mitt.
I've never walked on this diamond without my dad, or Uncle Sib, nearby.
The park is still here, along with a tiny rocking horse I used to play on, the paint chips seemingly going back to my day.
The team I played for, Lincoln Park Pharmacy, has gone the way of the store's painted-over, blacked-out sign. In a corner, an old wooden Courier Express Newspaper box, the one my teammates and I sat on after the games drinking pop, is all that's left, the newspaper itself also just a memory.
The diamonds are turned around now and face away from the street -- we must not have had the power of today's Little Leaguers. The benches are now aluminum, as are the stands.
A parks worker on a mower told me, "We just added the new clay surface on the infield." When I played, it was just dirt. I used to spit on it and watch the spit dirt balls it made.
I drifted over to shortstop. "Come on, let me see what you got," says Jimmy, semi-crouched at home plate, glove in hand, "Just don't hurt yourself, dad, the Bills game is tomorrow. Come on, what are you waiting for, give it your best shot."
I was waiting for the movie to start, for Uncle Sibby to once again lean against the backstop, cigar in hand, yelling to me, "Show 'em what ya got kid." I waited for the sound of the glass bottle of pop being placed on a wooden bleacher, for a father's hands to clap.
And then I heard it, above the clang of the backstop, it rumbled through the clay, rose on the wind, the word echoing off the aluminum.
"DAMN, dad," said Jimmy as he walked back to pick up the ball that just banged off the backstop 10 feet above his head. Four decades of not picking them off at home can have a real effect on your arm.
And we played catch some, about three Advils worth.
Mostly we sat on the bench, at the end, my old spot. And we talked about how my dad and I used to play catch right here, and how cool it was that now we were doing it, too.
Jimmy asked if playing catch with my dad ("Gramps" to him) was why I threw thousands of balls to him and to my daughter, Ashley.
Pushing the dark Gargoyles tighter to my face, I didn't have to answer. We both knew it was.
As we left the field, Jimmy went back and left his ball and mitt on the end of the bench. "For Gramps and Uncle Sib," he said. Leaving the park and driving down a street called Decatur, past my childhood home, from the passenger seat, Jimmy said, "If I ever have kids, I'll play catch with them, too."
And I knew my quest for the mitt was complete.
RIP, mom, dad and Uncle Sib. Miss ya, and thanks for the throws.
Don Barone is a feature producer for ESPN. You can reach him at Don.Barone@espn.com.