September 19, 1970Nick cruised down I-405 heading for Los Angeles, the windows of the classic Ford coupe rolled down, the radio cranked up. Diana Ross added to the beautiful fall day, singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” Nick singing along in his flat, out-of-tune tenor. This was his first trip to L.A., a last minute, down-on-Saturday, back-on-Sunday whirlwind.
He had to see Donna.
Nick exited the freeway and headed east on Wilshire Boulevard. He followed the directions Donna provided and found a parking structure on the edge of the UCLA campus. The plan was to meet at the Bruin statue, easy for Nick to find.
Donna had proposed a long list of things to see and do. She walked toward him with a beautiful smile and his heart leapt to his throat. God how he’d missed her. They embraced and he held her till it began to attract attention. They kissed quickly, hugged again, then Donna took his hand a led him on a tour of the campus.
“How was the drive? Was the traffic bad on the Grapevine? Did you eat on the way down? No? Good, we’ll get some lunch…” Donna had an endless list of questions between pointing out major landmarks. “…And this is Pauley Pavilion. You know we’re NCAA Champions again this year. John Wooden, our coach, is a legend. But you know that…”
The Student Union. The Library. Bruin Walk. The original campus buildings with their iconic architecture, featured in an endless list of movies. Nick wanted to see Jackie Robinson Field, but that would have to wait. They ended the tour at Donna’s dorm building and the Spartan room she shared, barely space for two beds and two desks. It was clear she’d fallen in love with the place. Nick had to admit the campus was beautiful, modern, crowded, exciting. He was happy for her.
They left the campus and headed for Westwood Village, Donna once again pointing out the landmarks. They settled on a sandwich shop for lunch, then retrieved Nick’s car for a drive to Santa Monica and the beach. He put the top down and they donned sunglasses, pretending to be celebrities while the radio blared Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecelia.”
The Santa Monica Pier was crowded, interesting, odd, an eclectic mix of people from every strata of society. For Nick, some of the area was stunning and beautiful, but much of it seemed broken down, grubby. Looking into the distance, the air was brown and the buildings seemed to shimmer in the smog. He’d take Northern California over L.A., hands down.
Later that evening, they found a café on Beverly Drive for dinner. They ordered wine, showed their fake IDs, and kept straight faces as the waiter stared at them in disbelief. From there it was on to the movies to see Five Easy Pieces, a new release generating a lot of buzz. They weren’t disappointed.
It had been a full day, with more to follow on Sunday. Nick was exhausted when they arrived at the room he’d rented at a Travelodge on Santa Monica Boulevard. Still, he was glad to finally be alone with Donna. He pulled her close and kissed her.
“We can’t make love, Nick. I stopped taking the pill.”
“I can go to a drug store…”
“No. I don’t trust those things.” She snuggled her head against his chest. “Just hold me, okay?”
Nick wasn’t surprised. He’d sensed something all day, in spite of the fun—a distance, a pulling away. Donna was moving on, exploring her independence. He wondered how long it would be before she gave him the speech.
This long-distance thing just doesn’t work, Nick. I really think we should see other people. I’ll always care for you. God, you were my first, but blah blah blah... It was just a matter of time.
It was the first and only time they would spend an entire night together. Donna slept soundly.
September 20, 1970Nick left Sunday afternoon, bracing for the long drive home. He’d done his best to stay upbeat and not pout, to avoid playing the disappointed lover. He wasn’t sure, heading up the Grapevine, that he’d pulled it off.
Just before he reached Gorman, steam began to pour from under the hood of the car. Nick exited the freeway and rolled into a service station. It was a blown radiator hose, an easy fix, but the repair bays were full, only one mechanic on duty, other cars and their angry drivers ahead of him. Nothing to do but wait. He found a payphone and called home to let his mom know he’d be delayed. She would call Gus, let him know Nick might not be in on Monday.
Sleeping in a 1946 Ford coupe is not easy for a guy who stands six two. Nick did his best, a jacket rolled up to act as a pillow. He jolted awake several times during the night, aware of a sharp pain in his neck.
It was the cherry on this weekend sundae. Or rather, another turd in the punchbowl.
October 5, 1970The paving crew assembled at the side of Glen Cove Road, waiting for the truck that hauled the compressor to arrive. They talked, laughed, smoked, drank coffee from red thermos cups, and enjoyed the early morning sunlight.
Nick looked to the east, the sun in his eyes, toward the old Victorian mansion, set well back from the main road. The well-maintained two-story was the home of the Glen Cove brothel, an institution in the Vallejo area. It had been in business for as long as Nick could remember, out in the rolling hills surrounded by grazing land.
“Is this place even in the city limits?” He posed the question to Joe Jacoby, their veteran foreman.
“Hell, I don’t know. If it’s not—technically—then it’s an honorary annex.” The men surrounding Joe had a good laugh.
The assignment this Monday morning was to repair the long access drive that led from Glen Cove Road to the parking lot that fronted the mansion. Joe had sprayed white paint to mark several sections that required repair. They would break out the old asphalt with a jackhammer, haul the debris away, and do their expert job of preparing the base, spreading the new paving material, raking and rolling.
Joe had a story to share. “So, this Irishman walks into his local pub. He’s got this great big lump and a bruise on his forehead. Bartender says, ‘Saints presarve us, Paddy. Wot happened to you?’ Paddy says, ‘Aye, Michael me friend, I had a fight wit me girl. I called her a two-bit whore.’ Michael sez, ‘Aye lad, what then?’ Paddy sez, ‘She hit me wit a bag of quarters.’”
The men threw back their heads and laughed. One spit coffee through his nose. They’d heard it before, but nobody told a joke like their Joe. For his part, Joe was thinking ahead to his next story when a white panel truck crested the hill from the north, heading their way. As it grew near, they saw the blue lettering on the side: Vallejo Steam Laundry, a respected business that had been around since the war years, a legendary sponsor of youth sports in town. Behind the wheel of the truck, Nick recognized his friend and former teammate, Jim Coolidge. Jim stopped where the crew was gathered and rolled down the window.
“Hi, guys. Hey, Nick! What are you doin’ here?” Jim smiled and set the brake on the old truck.
“Hi, Jimmy. I should ask you the same question.” Nick approached the truck and clapped a hand on Jim’s shoulder. “I’m working for the Street Department. We’re gonna patch the driveway here.”
“You’re paving the whorehouse? Damn, that’s some job.” He looked down the long access road where Joe’s spray paint was in evidence.
“How ’bout you, Jim?”
“I deliver clean sheets and towels, pick up the dirty laundry, twice a week.”
“You’re kidding!” Nick stared at his friend. Was this a put-on?
“Nope, dead serious. They’re a good account. Pay their bills right on time. The places I used to deliver to—down on Lower Georgia—it was cash only.”
Nick couldn’t believe it. “Wait a minute. You used to deliver on Lower Georgia, too?”
“Oh yeah. Down there, it was ‘no cash, no laundry.’ Know what I mean?”
Nick nodded toward the old mansion. “What’s it like in there?” He couldn’t help but smile. What a great job—delivering laundry to Glen Cove.
“Oh, I go to the back door, into the kitchen. Looks like any other kitchen.”
Nick was dying to ask. “Ever meet any of the girls?”
“Yeah, a few. They’re in the kitchen sometimes, having coffee, fixing breakfast.”
“No shit. What are they like?”
“Hate to disappoint you, Nick. Just sittin’ around—jeans and sweatshirts, no makeup, no fancy dresses—they’re just people. Some prettier than others. Just people.” Jim was serious now, quiet, reflective.
Nick had one last question. “You ever get an offer in there?”
Jim released the brake and threw the truck into gear as Nick stepped back. “Ha! What do you think?” He waved, let out the clutch and rolled away, turning onto the long, rutted, about-to-be-patched drive. “See ya later, buddy.”
Jim had arrived just in time to make his delivery and pickup. Nick turned to see the compressor rig approaching from north. It was time to go to work. He went to the truck and found the overshoes with the steel toes. Nick’s job would be to man the jackhammer.
It’s funny the things you remember, the days you can never forget. Years later, Nick would recall clearly the day they paved the cathouse drive.
October 29, 1970“I don’t know, Sis. I’m not sure this makes sense.”
Nick’s sister Ella didn’t want to hear it. “Why? What doesn’t make sense? Virginia is a great university. You’ve got the grades, you’ve got the SAT’s, you’ve submitted your transcript and they’ll accept your J.C. credits. What’s the problem?”
“Money, Ella. Dollars and cents. Out-of-state tuition is high, baseball scholarships are partial, may not even cover tuition. Not to mention fees, books, room and board.”
“Hey, you’ll never know until you go see for yourself, see the campus, meet some of the guys, see what they are offering. Just go and enjoy the journey. And remember, Dad left a small insurance policy with specific instructions. It’s for your education.”
They sat at the table in Ella’s kitchen in Daly City, a cool wind blowing up the breezeway and through the open window. Ella would drop Nick off at San Francisco International on Friday morning for the non-stop jet to Washington D.C. There he’d connect with a local carrier for the short flight into Charlottesville. Nick would spend the weekend on the University of Virginia campus and return to San Francisco on Sunday, hopefully with a scholarship offer in hand.
“What about Mom?” Again, Nick worried about money.
“Mom will be fine.” Ella reached across the table to squeeze his hand. “She has Dad’s pension. She has healthcare through his Navy benefits. And Les and I can help if she needs it.” She tightened her grip. “Look, baby brother, you have a chance to be the first in our family to graduate from college. Now go and do it. Okay?”
Nick looked out the kitchen window as the sun dipped below the hills to the west, the sky a deep shade of orange. Virginia seemed a world away.
October 30, 1970Assistant Coach Charles “Chip” Murphy met Nick at the Charlottesville airport. They retrieved Nick’s bag, found Chip’s car in the parking lot, and headed for the University campus. Coach Murphy sketched out the plan for the weekend.
“We’ll take a quick ride around the campus, then stop off at the office so you can meet Coach West. Good man, you’ll like him. Then I’ll take you over, show you the ballyard and our training facilities.”
Murphy’s accent was from south of the Mason-Dixon line, like honey on a Georgia peach. The tension in Nick’s shoulders began to ease. “How ya feelin’, son? I know it’s a long flight. You okay?”
“I’m fine, Coach. Thanks.”
“Later, I’ll drop you off where you’ll be stayin’. It’s a house over on 14th Street where several of the guys rent. I think there are about four of ’em in there. We call it the Baseball House.” Chip laughed. “Anyway, they’re gonna take you in for the weekend.”
They drove on, turning onto University Drive, Coach Murphy pointing out the landmarks as they passed. Nick was fascinated. History was his favorite subject and Thomas Jefferson had always been a person of great interest. And here was Nicholas Shane Jr., touring Mr. Jefferson’s University. He couldn’t wait to see the classic Rotunda and what Jefferson referred to as his Academic Village—residence units that flank The Lawn, a terraced expanse of grass where graduating classes assemble every spring to receive their diplomas.
For Nick, only Washington, Lincoln, and FDR stood out in the history of the country like Jefferson. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” God, what a revolutionary idea! A phrase that sparked movements and wound up in constitutions all around the world, yet written by a man who owned slaves until the day he died. It was the power of the words, the genie let out of the bottle, the bullet that could never be unfired.
Nick wondered if there would be time to travel out to Monticello, Jefferson’s home, where he and Capt. Merriweather Lewis planned the Corps of Discovery Expedition, sending Lewis and Lt. William Clark off to explore the Louisiana Purchase.
They approached the Rotunda, the architectural icon of the campus. There, at the top of the steps rising from the avenue, the statue of Jefferson stood gazing off into the distance. What an enigma, this man who designed his home to keep the household slaves out of sight, and yet fathered children with Sally Hemmings, one of the slaves he sought to hide. Nick was engulfed by the sense of history.
“Coach, aren’t the Serpentine Walls around here, in this area?
Chip Murphy laughed. “Well, I’ll be damned. You’ve done your homework, son. Let me find a place to park. Well take a walk around.”
Coach Murphy dropped Nick off at the Baseball House and introduced him to the young men who would be his hosts for the weekend. The old home was an odd structure. A covered porch ran the length of the front of the house and from the street, it looked like a single story. But the lot sloped down in the back to a gully choked with wild vines and overgrown shrubs. From the back of the lot, the lower level of the structure was visible. There were three bedrooms on the main floor, along with a large living room, a full bath, and spacious kitchen. The lower floor had two rooms, one large and one very small, plus a jerry-rigged toilet and shower.
Chip Murphy left Nick with a word of caution. “Watch out for these guys. I hope you like to party.” They all laughed, except for Coach Murphy.
Nick did his best to remember names as his four hosts introduced themselves. There was Dan, short and stocky with bulging forearms, who seemed to take charge right away. Matt, tall and lean with a shock of unruly black hair. Paul, with a great smile and a firm handshake. And Tyler, his cap spun around backwards, a mischievous grin on his handsome face. Nick guessed their positions: catcher, pitcher, outfield, second base. It turned out he was right.
“Hey, you picked a great weekend, man.” Nick liked the way Dan held eye contact. “Tomorrow night is Halloween. We’re having a party here. We’ll have to get you some kind of costume.”
Nick laughed. “I came prepared…like a good Boy Scout.”
“What? You brought a costume?”
“Yeah. I figured there’d be something going on…for Halloween.”
This news was met with high-fives and slaps on the shoulder. Nick was glad he’d planned ahead.
“So, what’s your costume, man?” They looked at Nick in anticipation.
“I’ve got a Mets’ cap and jersey with “McGraw” on the back. And a left-handed glove. Oh, and some eye-black, too.” Nick smiled and waited for it to sink in.
“Ah, cool, man! You’re going as Tug McGraw. Where’d you get that idea?”
“Tug’s from my hometown. Vallejo, California. He played at the same junior college as me, only about six years ago, 1963 – 64.” Nick was pleased. His costume plan went over well.
Dan took charge again. “Come on, I’ll give you a tour of the house…This is the kitchen. I’m gonna grab a beer. You want one?” Nick accepted the cold can and followed Dan into the living room. “We’ll probably go out tonight, meet some of the guys at a joint up on The Corner—that’s over on University, just a couple of blocks. You okay with that?”
“Sure. I brought my ID. Says I’m twenty-five. Do I look it?” Nick laughed.
“Damn! You are prepared. Hey, this is gonna be great.”
Nick followed Dan through the upper floor, then down to the lower level. I like these guys. Decent house, too. Close to the campus. I wonder if they have an empty room here? Whoa…slow down, buddy boy. Cart before the horse.
October 31, 1970The house was filling up with guys and dolls in various costumes. To Nick, they were all strangers in disguise. Pumpkins lined the walk that led to the porch, carved in grotesque expressions, candles flickering inside to cast a strange orange glow. Two washtubs were prominent in the kitchen, filled with aluminum cans of beer floating in a sea of ice. Furniture in the front room had been pushed aside to clear the ancient hardwood floor for dancing. A Beatles’ album—Nick couldn’t remember the title—was playing as several couples moved to the music. This would be a fine Halloween party if the police stayed away.
Dan took Nick through the crowd, introducing him to members of the baseball team who would be returning for the coming season. To a man they seemed fascinated by a visitor from California—the Golden State, land of fruits, nuts, and movie stars. They laughed at his costume, though a few had to be reminded. Who, exactly, is McGraw? Oh yeah, Tug and Miracle Mets. Ha!
There was a girl, wearing a Wonder Woman costume. He couldn’t stop glancing her way. Or was he staring? Long black hair. Very dark eyes. Amazing cheek bones. Gleaming white teeth. Tall and lean, like a distance runner. She caught him looking—again—and walked toward him with a beautiful smile.
“Hi. I’m Kellen.”
The noise was deafening. “Ellen?”
She leaned close to his ear. “Kellen.”
“Oh, hi. I’m Nick.”
“Are you the recruit from California?”
“Yeah. How could you tell?” Nick laughed.
“You don’t look like you’re from around here. Most guys don’t wear shorts and flip-flops this time of year. Why UVA? How did that happen?”
“I know a guy who knows a guy.” Dante Benedetti’s face flashed in Nick’s mind.
“What?” Her smile was dazzling. Nick didn’t know teeth could be that white.
“Just kidding. I need a place to play baseball. In exchange for a degree. Did I come to the right place?”
Kellen motioned toward the front porch. “Let’s go out front, get some air.”
Out on the porch, the noise level dropped several decibels and the conversation continued. Kellen was from Norfolk, a Navy brat who’d lived on both coasts. She was entering her third year, majoring in Political Science, thinking about law school. Nick talked about his goal of becoming a teacher, a focus on history, maybe coaching on the side. He liked what he’d seen in Charlottesville—beautiful campus, great guys. He was hoping to leave with a scholarship offer.
“Dan tells me you’re a good guy. I’m sure that’s what he’ll tell the coaches.”
“You think so? I’m meeting with Coach Murphy and Coach West tomorrow for breakfast, before I go to the airport. I should find out then.” Nick couldn’t hide the doubt in his voice.
“Hey, just relax and have fun. They don’t bring guys across the country if they’re not serious.”
Nick looked away. “Even if I get an offer, it’s gonna be tough. I’ll be lucky if it covers tuition. I’ll need to find a job, doing something.”
“Ever tend bar, Nick?”
“What? No. But I’m a quick study.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty now. I’ll be twenty-one in May. Why?” Nick was curious. Where was this leading?
“I tend bar part time. At O’Neil’s. It’s a dive up on The Corner. I could introduce you to my boss.” The brilliant smile was back. Nick couldn’t believe his luck.
He was aware of a commotion behind him. He turned to see a very large, angry young man moving toward him. Dan had a hand on the man’s arm, trying to restrain him.
“Are you having fun here, Hollywood?” He moved within inches of Nick’s face.
“Yeah, pretty much.” Nick tried to smile. “Hi, I’m Nick. Don’t think we’ve met.”
“Oh, so fuckin’ polite! Well, Nick, this girl you’re chattin’ up is my girl. Capiche?”
“Hey, sorry, man. I didn’t know.” Nick raised his hands, a hands-off gesture.
Kellen stepped forward and pushed hard on the man’s chest, knocking him back several feet. “Shut the fuck up, Billy! I’ll talk to anyone I want. You do not own me!”
Several guys surrounded Billy and led him away, mumbling and cursing. Kellen turned back to Nick.
“Ignore him, Nick. He can be such a dick sometimes. Hey, good luck tomorrow. And if you want that introduction, let me know. Dan has my number.” She turned and walked away into the crowd.
Nick stayed on the porch for a while, till his heart stopped racing.
November 1, 1970The Waffle House was crowded, a typical Sunday morning. They waited for a booth in the non-smoking section, though the entire restaurant was under a cloud of smoke. Without doubt, Virginia was tobacco country.
Nick took a seat across from the two coaches. The conversation consisted of small talk regarding Nick’s weekend. How did he like the campus? Did the guys show him the field? And the training facility and lockers over at University Hall? Did he get to see much of Charlottesville? Their waitress came to clear away the breakfast dishes and pour more coffee. Coach Jim West, a stocky man with a round, friendly face, wire-rimmed glasses, and curly brown hair, took control.
“Nick, we’ve heard good things from the guys at the Baseball House. Sounds like you fit right in.”
“They’re great guys, sir. I had a lot of fun.”
“Ya know, we’ve talked to Coach McWilliams at Vallejo J.C. And to Dante Benedetti in San Francisco. They have good things to say about you. We have great respect for both of those men.”
Nick nodded in agreement. His pulse thumped at his temples. Coach West continued.
“They both agree on one thing. You seem to play every game with a smile on your face. Tell us about that, son. What’s that all about?”
Nick felt the heat rising on his neck. He looked at the men across the table, from one to the other. How could he answer that question? How do you explain the feeling when you run onto a baseball diamond and believe you can fly? Or how it feels when you time your dive perfectly and the ball sticks in your glove for the out? Or what it’s like when you rip a line drive, on the absolute sweet spot of the bat, and it’s so perfect you don’t even feel it in your hands? Or being part of a real team, competing against the best, winning or losing, celebrating or crying, just a bunch of guys who become one, forever. He couldn’t find the words, not if he sat there for a week. But he had to say something.
“It’s just…I mean, the game…it’s a blessing, Coach. You have to smile.” Nick was embarrassed now. Had he blown it? Made a fool of himself?
The two men across from Nick were quiet. The silence stretched to the point of being awkward. Coach West, looked at his assistant, seated next to him, and nodded. He cleared his throat and turned back to Nick.
“Son, we want you to play for us, to be a Cavalier, bring some of that love to Virginia.” West opened a manila folder. “Here is an offer sheet. You’d enter as a third year, fall semester ’71. I wish it could be more, but it should cover your tuition. Take this home, talk to your family. If you decide to accept, we’ll need your letter of intent by November 11.” He moved the folder across the table toward Nick, then smiled and extended his hand. Nick shook it firmly.
They chatted for a while longer, the coaches sketching out their plans for the coming season, their hopes of making the NCAA post-season tournament for the first time in the history of the program. Looking ahead, they made no promises, only that Nick would have a chance to compete for a position in the outfield. If he accepted.
Nick’s head was spinning as they left the Waffle House.