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  • For 3 straight summers, ages 9-11, I couldn’t swim for various reasons. The first of these, I’d suffered from a terrible ear infection just as my 4th grade school year-ended. It turned out to be a huge boil right beside my ear drum, that burst on its own before they could lance it. The Ear Doctor said that the chances were a million to one that I didn’t lose my hearing in that ear completely. While I knew that I should feel good about that, I was completely bummed out that I couldn’t swim all summer. I was strictly forbidden to go anywhere near the water. I had just gotten over my fear of the water the previous summer, and learned to love swimming.

    I wound up having a lot of time to myself, as most of my friends went off to swim and play in the water. That’s when I discovered the wonderful language of baseball statistics – batting averages, earned run averages, fielding percentages, slugging percentages, winning percentages - they all meant something, and I learned how to compute them, and got good at doing them in my head. Each day I read the sports page while I delivered the Post Gazette to my 65 customer route, and memorized all the latest updates of player’s averages. I became legendary as the 9 year old kid who knew all the players’ stats.

    My friends Pete and Jake down the street had a great board and dice game, Strat-O-Matic Baseball, that was based on the players’ actual stats and would re-create whole seasons. I’d spend hours playing that with them, and even borrowed their older, 1962 season’s players cards, so I could re-play that season on my own at home. I’d forgotten all about not being able to swim as I embraced my newfound love of baseball.

    That was also the year that I started going to Pittsburgh Pirates games on my own, out at old Forbes Field on the completely other end of town, in Oakland, near the University of Pittsburgh. It was about 12 miles away. I’d get the trolley car a block away on Brookline Boulevard, take it into downtown Pittsburgh, where I’d transfer to another trolley that took me out to Oakland. I always kept score and got players’ autographs after the game. I knew where they came out, and would patiently wait for them to show up. I’d talk to them about their Stats, which always impressed them. I knew their career stats, season by season. Some of them didn’t even have their own stats memorized like I did. Yeah, I was a real nerd in that way.

    I figured out where the announcers’ booth was, and staked it out, watching the patterns of the security guard who guarded the stairs and metal catwalk that led up to it. It was the best view of the playing field in the park. When the moment was right, I snuck in the back door of the booth, and sat there until discovered and thrown out. But, I was persistent, and always wound up back there. I learned to make myself valuable. There was a ticker-tape machine that provided the announcers regular updates on games from around the league. I learned how to read it, and would summarize the updates for them, making their job a lot easier. They started to let me hang around for whole games, sometimes. I also picked up on their score-keeping method, and would spell one of them when they needed a break. I was right in the heart of the action. This was a 9-year old’s dream-come-true.

    This was also the summer that Mom got sober. She really came to life, and while I always thought she was a pretty good Mom up to that point, I suddenly felt her love for the first time. She really engaged with me, and we started to tackle my bed-wetting problem. I was sent to a shrink, who also happened to be a Catholic priest. I never really understood three-quarters of what he said to me. He’d talk to me about news programs and everything under the sun, things I didn’t have the least bit of interest in, but never really talked about my bed-wetting. I did appreciate the fact that we were trying something to beat this shameful habit I had, but I just didn’t get this guy.

    Finally, in one session, the topic turned to something that interested me, baseball. I started rattling off statistics – I knew all the players’ stats, in both leagues – speaking in the language that I knew so well, and he came up with the only bright idea I remember him coming up with during those sessions. But, it was a real winner. I began to track my statistics on the bed-wetting. My winning percentage. I was shooting for a perfect season. It really helped to take the shame out of it. Put a positive spin on the effort to get over it, instead of the utter shame each time I awoke with my sheets soaked and the awful smell of urine. By summer’s end, I had well over an .800 winning percentage and was on my way to putting that one behind me.

    All in all, despite the no-swimming restriction, 1964 turned out to be a pretty damn good summer. I was finally cleared to swim right before labor day, when we went to the ocean for the first time, Atlantic City, New Jersey. My first taste of body-surfing in huge waves, in the shade of the famous A.C. Boardwalk, the year the song “Under the Boardwalk” came out.

    A perfect end to a great summer, one I still remember fondly, despite not being able to swim until the very end of it.
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