Stealing Home

There I was, facing a penalty shot for the first time in my life.  For a second I thought, “I have no business being here.”  I had replaced the goalie earlier in the game when he got hurt going for a ball during a corner kick.  This was the first time I had been called to play goalie.

I looked around at my teammates and I could see the disappointment in some of them knowing that the other team was about to score.  The starting goalie sitting on the sidelines refused to watch, got up and limped as far away from the pitch as possible.   The coach crossed himself and looked to the heavens.  He was praying for a miracle.  The chances of any goalie stopping a penalty kick are minuscule, no matter what level.

My mind wondered for a second to last April when I begged Dad to buy me goalie gloves.

“But Jim, you don’t play goalie,” he said.

“Dad, I want to try out and I have to look the part,” I answered.

He resisted for a few minutes but gave up.  He made the same face when I told him I did not want a catcher’s mitt earlier that day.  He wanted me to follow his footsteps and play baseball.  He had been a college star and even played in the minors for two years until he realized that he would never make it to The Bigs.

Instead, I wanted to be like my grandpa.  He had played with the Greek national team back in the early 60s and had been a star for Panathinaikos.  Dad felt that playing “soccer” was admitting that we were immigrants and not full-blooded Americans.  He had not given up on me.  He kept taking me to Camden Yards to watch the Os play.  I enjoyed going to games, but not for the baseball.  I found the sport too slow and boring.  I loved it for the time we spent together.  I loved hearing Dad’s stories about playing in the minors; the crazy characters that played with him, some who had made it to the majors.  A few times some still visited us while they were in town.

I looked at the striker getting ready to kick the ball.  He was looking to my right very intently.  I wondered if he was trying to fool me.  “Should I dive right towards the spot he is looking at, or should I dive to the left because he is trying to fool me?” I thought.

I slapped my hands together, clapping to distract the striker.  I tried to stare him down.  He was a much bigger kid.  He was the goal leader in the league.  Surely, he knew that this was my first time on goal.  He looked at me briefly.  He seemed confident, but I saw him flinch.  He may have been nervous.  I understood what he might be thinking.  “What if I miss?  Everyone thinks I am good but what will they think if I miss a gimme and let this little goalie get the ball.”

He stood just outside the 18 and kicked the ground softly with the toes of his favorite right foot, waiting for the signal from the referee.  The referee seemed oblivious to the many eyes looking at him waiting expectantly for him to blow the whistle.

The opposing players stood behind the ball, getting ready in the off-chance that I was able to stop the ball or the ball would hit the post and there would be a rebound.  I was looking at ten rabid opponents all waiting to come at me as soon as that ball was struck.

The referee seemed to be ready to blow the whistle so the kick could be taken when Gary said something to the referee.  Gary was the teammate who had caused the penalty call when he fouled an opponent near the goal mouth.  The referee stopped and turned around and spoke to him.  I could not hear anything but the sound of my heart beating.  Gary was still disputing the call and had come up with some “brilliant” point that had not been made in the past five minutes when most of my team and my coach had surrounded the referee.  I had not gotten caught up in the discussion.  No referee would ever change his mind.  I had positioned myself square between the posts my heels just on the line, where I would have to stand anyway; but not because I had to, but because I was frozen with fear.  I had played a few dozen games with this team and this was only the third penalty kick we had faced.  “Why now?” I thought.

The referee reached to his back pocket and pulled out the yellow card and showed it to Gary.  This was his second yellow in less than five minutes.  He then showed him the red card signifying that he was kicked off the pitch. Gary was furious.  The coach ran to Gary’s side and pulled him off towards the side lines.  If for some miracle they did not score here, I would be toast anyway.  Gary was the best defender in the team and now we had only ten men. As he was walking away with his arm around Gary, he looked back and winked at me.

“Thanks, Coach!” I muttered under my breath.

Attention turned again to the pending strike and pending goal.  The referee got back to his spot.  The striker had been pacing and now he had to get back to his spot as well.  He walked forward, bent down and with his hand moved the ball just a bit.  He took several steps back and then three steps to the left.  It reminded me of a football kicker just before a field goal try.

I clapped again trying to get him to look at me.  He looked up and looked at the spot just to the right again.  He seemed to catch himself and looked to the left.  “Why did he glance to the left?”  I thought.  “He is going to the right.  I know he is going to that spot,” I made myself smile.  I clapped again and he looked up.  He looked at me straight in the eye.  I stood straight and glared at him.

My heart must have stopped.  I did not hear any more heart beats.  Instead, I heard the roar of the crowd, although there could not have been more than thirty people watching the match.  I was no longer in Columbia,Maryland.  I was in Athens at the Olympic stadium.  White and blue flags waived in the Aegean breeze.  The striker was wearing the yellow, blue and green of Brazil.  I was in white and blue, just like my grandpa had worn before me.  The crowd chanted “De-me-tri-ous,” not Jim as everyone called me.

“I am the son of Zeus.  My ancestors are sitting onmountOlympus, looking down and giving me their power.  I am the son of Greece.  We are the center of sport.  You have no power over me.  I amDemetriousKalogeropoulos,” I thought as I looked at him trying to burn a hole between his eyes with my glare.

The Brazil striker began to run forward.  I continued to look at his eyes.  He kept staring to the right.  “He is going right” I thought, “He must be going right!”  He kept advancing on the ball.  I saw him plant his left foot and his right leg swing forward.  The foot connected with the ball.  For an instant I realized that the ball had an Olympics design on it.  “That is a good sign!” I may have thought.

As the ball was struck, I dove to the right, to the spot where the striker had been looking.  I was airborne with my arms stretched out as far as I could.  I felt like Hermes with winged sandals as I flew through the air.  To my surprise the ball was kicked to the right.  A penalty kick is a guess at best.  I had kicked a few penalty kicks myself and I had always tried to play games with the goalie.  My best guess was to the right, but it could have just as easily gone left.

The ball sailed towards the spot my hands were trying to reach.  I felt that I was still rising when the tips of my gloved fingers pushed the ball up and away from the goal mouth.  I was elated.  I had done what a small few ever do.  I faced a more experienced opponent and on my first try I beat the odds.  I saw the Olympic rings change trajectory as gravity finally affected me and pulled me down.   I fell hard to the ground with a big grin on my face.  My job was not over.  I looked around for the ball

Several of the opposing players were bearing down on me.  The ball had gone almost straight up and it was starting to come down.  I pictured Ramon Hernandez, the Os’ catcher, going for a pop-up that would end the inning with a runner bearing down on him from third.  I wondered if Dad was thinking the same thing.  I was about to get the last out, the way Dad used to do it when he played catcher for the Bowie Baysox.

Some of the opponents and my teammates were now alongside me all trying to go for a header that would either get the ball into the goal or out of danger.  There was pushing and shoving.  My eyes were fixed on the ball.  While I was shorter than most of the players, I had the advantage that I could reach up with my hand to get the ball.  Everyone else had to wait to reach it with their heads.  Five of us jumped up at the same time.

I closed my fists and put them together, like I had seen Kasey Keller do with the National team and with Fulham.  I shoved a couple of the other jumping bodies out of the way and punched through the ball.  The ball sailed away safely to a waiting teammate who ran with it towards the opposing goal.  I landed in a heap with three or four other bodies around me.  We all got up in a hurry.  I stayed near my goal as everyone re-joined the flow of the match.  A few of my teammates patted me on the back as they ran back towards the action.  The coach smiled at me and turned to look at our counter attack.  I was in shock.  I could not believe that I had been lucky enough to stop the original kick and quick enough to deal with the rebound.

I looked over at Dad on the side.  He was smiling proudly.  He started to make different signals at me, while laughing.  We had worked out signals when we used to play baseball in the backyard.  He was telling me to steal home.  I realized that the infield end of the field was at my goal.  Home was at the penalty spot.  I looked at the action now at the other end.  I looked back at Dad and ran to the penalty spot completing the run with a hook slide to avoid an imaginary throw to home.  No one was looking at me except for Dad.  He jumped up and signaled “safe.”

That was the day I stopped a penalty kick, but Dad remembers it as the day I stole home.

A Train Ride

Today is World AIDS Day.  When I heard that this morning, I was transported back to the 80s.  This happens nearly every year when this day comes around.  Someone tells me about it, and I’m right back there on a train making my way to Baltimore from New York City.

I was in my early twenties just out of college, and on my way to visit a friend that had just moved to Maryland.  I was sitting on the window seat.  Next to me was a very well dressed man in his 50s.  He introduced himself to me, right as the train began to pull away from Grand Station.  I have forgotten his name, but in the years since I’ve always wished that I could remember it.

He said that he was on his way home to visit his parents.  He hadn’t visited them in a long time.  The way that he said it made me think that he wished they were close, but something had driven them apart.  I remember asking how long he had lived in New York.  “A lifetime,” was his response.

He asked me about my trip, about my friend, about what I was doing with my life.  The conversation flowed, unlike any conversation I have ever had with a stranger.  When I was younger I was very shy.  The idea of just sitting around and chatting with a stranger would have filled me with dread.  Yet, this man was very engaging.  He made me feel at ease.  I told him about my disappointment of having just graduated with a degree in engineering, and yet there were no jobs for engineers.  I told him I was thinking of taking a job in an insurance company.  I was afraid of getting stuck in career I never wanted.

He listened intently wanting to understand what was behind my words.  He asked me about my expectations, “what do you want to do?”  I talked about working for a great innovative company, or even better work for NASA.  He agreed, that certainly an insurance company was not NASA, on the other hand how long was I going to sit around waiting for NASA to come knock on my door?  I wasn’t sure how I could answer that.  I hadn’t expected to have a problem getting my foot in the door are at least a defense contractor, which of course could be a great path to my goal.

I remember seeing him shake his head.  “So you want to work for a company that makes weapons that kill people?”  He didn’t say it in an accusatory way, just still trying to understand me.  I became a bit defensive, having just spent a few days struggling with an application for a job at Aberdeen Proving Grounds.  I told him that I loved math and science, and unfortunately this was the only real option for a Mechanical Engineer, at that time.

He stared at the back of the head of the person in front of him for a while, quietly.  Softly, he said “you know Alex, you need to ask yourself a question, what will you do to get to your goal?” still staring ahead.  I knew my answer to that.  I didn’t want to be working at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds on ordinance, or biochemical weapons.  I didn’t want to be designing ladders for jet fighters at Grumman, like one of my former classmates that had miraculously landed a precious new job.  None of those things would be worth getting to NASA.  I told him so.

“I’m guessing NASA is not where you are going to be, then.”  Those words stung for a while, and just as that conversation ended another one began about something else.  I’m sure it was something less important to me at the moment.  Soon we were arriving to Philadelphia.  Some people left the train and others got on.  We continued our conversation.

A few miles outside of Philly, he began to tell me about moving to New York in the early 60s, when he was in his twenties.  He didn’t get along with his family, and had no friends to speak of.  New York was a new start.  It was a place where he could be himself, or at least that is what he thought.  It took a while but by the early 70s he was surrounded by a large group of friends, which became his real family.  He spoke of a great group of people that scraped by in Manhattan, but always managed to save for great getaways to the Berkshires, Fire Island, or maybe Provincetown.

He knew that to get that wonderful life he had to give away his biological family.  When they found out about what he “was doing in New York city,” they told him that he was going to hell.  They told him that he was no longer their child, brother, or cousin.  From time to time the ice would thaw a little and he would visit Baltimore.  The freeze would come back quickly usually within a day or so, when someone decided to confront him about his terrible lifestyle that was “against God’s wishes.”  He would leave quickly and go back to his New York family, where consolation was available easily.

I asked him if this trip was one of these thaws.  He said that it was, but this time it was different.  “I know that this is the last time I will be going back to Bal’more.”  He said this very wistfully.  He leaned over and softly said “I’m going home to say goodbye.”  I wasn’t sure I understood.  I asked what he meant.

“I have AIDS,” he said moving away from me.  I thought I saw him wince.  Maybe he waited for the face of panic, or confusion, or perhaps hate.  I wasn’t sure how to respond.  This was the first time I had knowingly been next to someone with AIDS.  “I’m sorry,” I muttered.  He smiled and moved closer again.  I asked him about his prognosis.  He said he had maybe months.  I asked him if he was scared.  He was only tired, he said.  He had already lost his partner, and many of his New York family were also sick.

I grabbed his hand and held it.  I wasn’t sure what if anything that would mean to him or me.  It felt like the right thing to do.  Just as quickly as we had moved from one subject to another we left this topic and moved on.  I let go of his hand, and we continued being fast friends for a while.

As the conductor called for Baltimore, we began to gather out things.  The train stopped and people got up at the same time, trying to get out.  We waited a little bit for the train to clear out.  We said goodbye to each other, clumsily.  He opened his arms and offered me a hug.  We hugged for a moment.  He told me to stay out of trouble.  I told him to take care.

I never interviewed with Aberdeen Proving Grounds, nor worked for a defense contractor.  I found my dream career, but it was not in NASA, and it did start in insurance.  I never forgot my few hours with this man.  I don’t remember his name, but I will never forget him.