NEW YORK -- This is the story of a baseball hero, a 9-year-old kid and a glove.
It was a dark-leathered, three-fingered Duke Snider glove with a fat thumb, small pocket and thick padding.
The kid played with the glove his first two seasons of Little League, roaming center field like the Duke, trying to charge balls like him or make stabbing catches, arm outstretched, back to the plate.
In truth, the kid wasn't a very good fielder, nothing like his hero. Too often, the kid would weave his way under a pop fly, stick out his glove hopefully but uncertainly, and watch in embarrassment as the ball clunked off the mitt and rolled away.
So now, 45 years later, the Duke was back in Brooklyn for a tribute to him Wednesday night at the magical little ballpark that sprang up in Coney Island last year for the Brooklyn Cyclones of the New York-Penn League. The Hall of Famer hadn't been to a baseball game in Brooklyn since 1957, the last season before the evil Walter O'Malley spirited the Dodgers out to Los Angeles and made that 9-year-old and a lot of other Brooklyn fans cry.
Instead of Ebbets Field, long ago replaced by apartment buildings, the Duke was in KeySpan Park. Beyond the right field fence loomed the old parachute jump, an orange and yellow steel tower that's Coney Island's answer to Paris. Farther away, beyond the left-field fence, was the Cyclone, the most famous roller-coaster in the country, still clattering over its tortuous tracks while riders scream. The flags in center field were flapping, the wind blowing in, as the Duke noticed when he arrived, and seagulls swooped above the boardwalk and long strip of beach.
Ralph Branca, who gave up the pennant-clinching "shot heard 'round the world" to Bobby Thomson in 1951, was there to mark the occasion. So were former Dodgers Johnny Podres, who won the seventh game of the 1955 World Series, and Al Gionfriddo, whose catch in left robbed Joe DiMaggio of a game-tying homer in Game 6 of the 1947 World Series.
To all of them, and to all the fans crowded into the gallery, the Duke of Flatbush was the king.
He is 75, with a crown of white hair and Dodger blue eyes, and the kid who idolized him had grown into a middle-aged graybeard. Meeting his hero for the first time, on an evening of syrupy nostalgia at the ballpark's new Brooklyn Baseball Gallery, the "kid" couldn't help but blurt out, "I used to wear your three-fingered glove!"
"Rawlings sold it with my name, but I never used it," the Duke said. "I couldn't use a glove with all that padding in it. I tried it, but I had trouble catching the ball with it."
The truth was deflating and, at the same time, liberating.
The glove was a phony, a marketing ploy. All those memories of slipping on the glove, seeing Duke Snider's signature and feeling that we shared something, were flattened. I was a sucker for believing it then and for so many years afterward.
Then again ... if even the Duke couldn't catch a ball with that glove, maybe I wasn't such a lousy fielder, after all. Maybe it was just the stupid glove.
Duke Snider has met many middle-aged men who have approached him with starry eyes and eager stories, telling him how much he meant to them when they were kids. There are those who still argue he was a better center fielder than Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle, pointing out that he hit more homers and drove in more runs than them over the four years that they starred simultaneously in New York from 1954-57.
"I'm flattered that people even remember me," he said.
Snider is the last surviving regular player from the "Boys of Summer" Dodgers in the 1950s, and he recalls those 11 years in Brooklyn as the most wonderful of his life. He's not stuck in a time warp. He stays current with the game, but he's not always thrilled by what he sees.
The All-Star game tie, he said, was "ridiculous."
"When we played the All-Star game, we were there to beat the other team at any cost," he said.
On the labor negotiations between the players and owners, he said, "both sides are wrong."
"Somebody's got to think about baseball rather than their selfish needs," he said.
On contraction, Snider said it's overdue.
"Baseball has been watered down so much by the expansions," he said. "Just because you put a major league uniform on a guy, that doesn't make him a major league player."
It was the same with a glove. Just because Duke Snider's name was on it, that didn't mean a kid could play the outfield like him.
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