Bafongool Day

Some holidays invent themselves. One example is September 17th, which is the birthday of John Franco, the former Houston Astros, Cincinnati Reds, and New York Mets All-Star Closer. Although I was never a Francophile, I have celebrated his birthday every year since 1985, when I met him at Shea Stadium: the Big Shea. I do so by eating a big pretzel, shotgunning a bottle of Miller Lite, and toasting him with four words: “Ba fongool, John Franco,” which roughly translates into, “Up your ass, John Franco.” Since that time, September 17th has come to be known as “Bafongool Day” in my house.

My interaction with Franco has led me to believe that T.S. Eliot had a point when he wrote, “April is the cruelest month.” I was at Shea Stadium, the Big Shea, watching the Mets play the Cincinnati Reds, which is to say that I was there to see the legendary Reds’ player-manger Pete Rose inch closer to surpassing Ty Cobb as Major League Baseball’s all-time hits leader. I was chomping at the bit to see Rose do it, as he had long been one of my favorite ballplayers, and I wanted to witness a watershed moment in the game’s history.

A die-hard New York Yankees fan, my father surprised me with a pair of tickets a
few days before the game, which had been sold out for weeks. I was hella amped, going so far as to buy a Reds cap and a baseball for Rose to sign. Our seats were in the right field upper deck, or “Nosebleed East,” as my father called them, where we had a better view of Big Shea’s parking lot behind the outfield fence than the playing field. Once my father started chatting up the people sitting beside us, I grabbed my ball and got up to leave. It was go time, as in time to go meet Rose, Major League Baseball’s soon-to-be career hits king.

“Don’t take any shit off that Commie bastard,” my father said. “And get me some
peanuts while you’re at it. Two bags.”

I inched my way down the network of escalators, through the crowd at the
concession and souvenir stands, to the gate that accessed the visitor’s dugout. There was no usher, so I ran down the field level tunnel.

Then a bony finger tapped my shoulder. “Ticket, please.”

The finger belonged to a short, stocky usher, whose name “Al” seemed to shout
from his name tag. With his olive-skin and dashing moustache, he reminded me of my
Grandfather Joe.

“Your ticket, please,” Al said.

I reached for my stub and handed it to him. It was wrapped in a twenty-dollar bill.

“Please may I go down to the dugout?”

“Okay, little man. Be my guest,” Al said. “For ten more dollars.”

“Ten more?”

“That’s right. Unless you want me to call security.”

To my pubescent mind, the chance to see Rose play in person occurred with
Halley’s Comet-like frequency. Plus, I had no interest in dealing with any variety of the PoPo or my father’s reaction to such a turn of events, which would not be pleasant. I gave him the ten.

“Okay, little man,” Al said, pressing buttons on his wristwatch. “You got 10
minutes. My colleagues and I will come and get you if you don’t leave on your own.
Capisce?”

He led me to the front row seats adjacent to the visitor’s dugout. I joined a group
of 50 or so people. I was at the left end of the row, watching the sea of players, the umpiring crew, newspaper reporters and broadcast journalists. I wondered about how many benjamins Al had scored.

Then Rose emerged from the dugout. He grinned as he walked over to the fence,
where a forest of hands holding out baseballs, photographs, yearbooks, and pens awaited him. My heart was beating on the roof of my mouth, but I summoned the courage to speak. This was my chance to put my money where my aorta was.

“Hello, Mr. Rose. I know that you’re busy at the moment, but please may I have
your autograph? I hope you get closer to breaking Ty Cobb’s record today.”

“So, ya want my autograph, do ya?” Rose asked.

He fixed his glare on my Reds cap. He seemed to be scrutinizing it, as if it was
evidence—exhibit C, so to speak—at a murder trial.

Then he rolled his eyes. My knees knocked. “Get lost.”

My heart slid down my throat. I watched in disbelief as Rose sauntered back into
the dugout.

Al poked my shoulder blade. “Y’know,” he said, “I’ll give you five more minutes
to hang here, if you want.” It felt like a stick-up.

I reached for my wallet. “Fuggedaboutit. On the house,” he said. “Lookit. Maybe
he changed his mind.”

Rose re-emerged, and walked to first base. He turned his attention toward the
batting cage, where the Reds players were taking pre-game swings. John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band’s “On the Dark Side” crackled from Big Shea’s PA system.

By the time Michael Antunes’ rollicking saxophone solo sprayed the infield dirt, I
became alerted to presence of the Reds pitchers Jay Tibbs and John Franco. They stood about two feet behind Rose and faced the crowd, which struck me as unusual. Most ballplayers I had seen in person would barely acknowledge the fans before a game, save a quick wave or greeting. Their arms were akimbo, and the looks in their eyes suggested that they meant business, even though people in the crowd were clamoring for their attention. With their red satin warm-up jackets and careful, steady gaits and stillness, Tibbs and Franco reminded me of a big league baseball version of the Emperor’s Royal Guard in Return of the Jedi, and their message was implicit: Palpatine Rose was not to be disturbed or harassed.

“Lookit, there’s John Franco,” Al said. “If Rose won’t give you an autograph,
maybe John will.”

Franco swaggered towards the fence. “Hey, John,” Al shouted. “Come stai? How
you doin?”

The crowd went insane. Arms reached out like weeds as Franco reached the
stands. He might have been on an opposing team, but having been born and raised in
Bensonhurst, Brooklyn and a star ballplayer at Lafayette High School and St. John’s
University, he was a local product who had succeeded in his chosen profession. Franco’s success gave fans like Al and other New York baseball fans of Italian lineage sense of hope, that talent and persistence could enable people to rise above their working-class roots and leave their old neighborhoods; their ghetti permanently and live la dolce vita, rather than spend the rest of their days relegated to a life of work and responsibility.

Franco smiled and slapped some of the fans’ hands. Then it occurred to me that
my father just might like having a baseball autographed by Franco. I thought that it would be a way of reciprocating his kindness; of expressing my gratitude for him getting tickets to the game and spending the day at Big Shea with me, especially given his Yankees fandom. I resolved to ask Franco for his John Hancock as soon as he came to where I was standing.

“Hello, Mr. Franco. Welcome back to the city. Please may I have your
autograph?”

Franco’s smile curled into a smirk. Then he snickered, and looked me straight in
the eyes.

“Go fuck yourself, kid,” he said.

My jaw dropped. I understood that signing autographs was Franco’s—or any
ballplayer’s prerogative, but his sui generis combination of nonchalance and
douchebaggery flabbergasted and saddened me.

Then I felt something graze the back of my neck. I looked around: it was an
enormous gold crucifix, which dangled like a legless puppet from the chain worn by a fan standing directly behind me.

“You’ll never be the man yo momma is, Franco,” Legless Puppet said with
blaringly nasal, leather-lunged disdain. “Bafongool!”

Franco’s smirk curled into a sneer. He looked straight at Legless Puppet and I saw
his left hand, his pitching hand, curl into a fist. Tibbs motioned to Rose, who in turn motioned to the police officers gathered by the Mets dugout, and then preceded to walk Franco back into the visitor’s dugout, slowly and calmly.

“Sorry it didn’t work out, little man,” Al said. “Enjoy the game.”

“Thanks.”

“Prego.”

My stomach gurgled. I walked up the steps, and then stopped when I got to the
exit of the tunnel. I watched Al work. A bald-headed man, a silver-haired woman and a little girl walked up to him. He inspected their tickets. Then he shook the little girl’s hand and led the group to their seats, where the adults shared a laugh as they blended into the rest of the crowd seated in the field level section.

I made my way to the nearest concession stand and purchased two bags of
peanuts and a big pretzel. People rushed by, arms full of sepia-colored paper trays filled with cheeseburgers and hot dogs; large and small cups of Pepsi-Cola, knishes, and french-fries. I chewed my pretzel and stared at the escalators, teeming with men, women, children, and orange foam fingers, the sun glinting off of aviator sunglass lenses, Swatches, and plastic blue Mets batting helmets, the sour smell of Miller Lite melting the cartilage in my nose as tiny hail-stones of salt dissolved on my tongue.

I handed the bags of peanuts to my father and showed him the baseball upon my
return. He looked at me with a furrowed brow, but asked no questions. All of my
subsequent recollections of the game are a list of curiosities: pain darting through my abdomen; the American flag, flaccid on the pole behind the centerfield wall; the moan of airplanes coming and going above Big Shea; the right field corner of the upper deck bathed in shadow.

***

Joey Nicoletti’s most recent books are Thundersnow (Grandma Moses Press, 2017) and Reverse Graffiti (Bordighera, 2015). He holds degrees from the University of Iowa, New Mexico State University, and Sarah Lawrence College. A former Poetry Editor of Sou’wester,Joey lives in Grand Island, New York, where he runs around with his cat, dogs, and watches copious amounts of baseball.

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