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Work of Art: ‘Over the tracks’ is out

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By Art Trujillo

The rules for Railroad Avenue baseball in the ‘50s were simple: Shorty Bustos’ abandoned car was first base; unless he awakens, that sleeping dog, “Sweetums,” is second base; third base is . . . well, you see that pile of rocks over there? And home is that other pile of rocks. And depending on who’s batting, “over the tracks” was either a homerun or an out. Simple.

Much ink was already been devoted to the guy who customarily murdered the horsehide and didn’t seem to care whether that 98-cent baseball was brand new or a relic of last season, held together with strings and friction tape.

We played our games in an empty lot that ended at the tracks on Columbia Avenue, and we had a host of spontaneous rules that demonstrated how politically correct we were — long before the word “gender” became associated with male or female instead of a grammatical term that encompasses words like he and she.

A unanimous impromptu rule was that if even one girl joined the game, she played right field. Another rule — and I don’t know how this one ever got passed — specified that if even one girl joined the game, we boys had to bat left-handed. Few of us ever gave it that much thought, and I benefitted by being a left-hander to begin with. And some guys batted just as well as switch-hitters.

We had the added benefit of an extremely rocky surface on that unpaved lot. I swear that some of the better players — those who’d been exposed to Little League and Babe Ruth — knew exactly which rocks to aim for when batting, causing the ball to ricochet right toward our temples. And I’m not referring to Mormonism here.

We all had chores to perform as kids, but yet I remember tanning in that field on days we played from sunup to sundown. For many, our parents seldom saw us, except for meals and bedtime. And in those days, it seemed any extra poundage we put on through over-consumption of treats came off in the summer.

I often drive past my childhood haunts, remembering life more than six decades ago. The neighborhoods teemed with kids — we knew them all by first names and could set our watches (if we had one) on the basis of who was playing which summertime game and where.

Don’t look for much activity nowadays, as the crowds simply aren’t there. I used to boast that as both a street seller of the Daily Optic, and later as a carrier with my Grand-Railroad-Pecos-Commerce route, I had been inside every house along the route. We’d spend Saturday mornings collecting the 30 cents subscription rate, and I learned that too many people believed that failing to pay for the paper each week meant they’d put one over on the Optic. No, it didn’t work that way: We carriers are the ones who got cheated. (But that’s a topic for another column.)

A neighborhood feature that my siblings swear never existed was a concrete tunnel under Railroad Avenue, close to houses on the south side of Columbia. A friend, Ralph, visiting from California, invited me to enter that tunnel from the west side, while he entered from the east; we were to meet in the middle, slip past each other, and exit at the other end. The going was fine for a while, but we both discovered after traveling some 25 feet how perfectly dark the tunnel had become.

Worse, when we met and needed to wriggle ourselves past the other person, we heard a clap of thunder. That frightened us, as we had seen how even a light sprinkle of rain created torrents that could easily drown anyone stuck there.

On days guaranteed dry, we played in around that tunnel. Once we even evaded some neighborhood toughs. Because the devil made us do it, we called the gang some unflattering names and immediately disappeared into the tunnel. We completely evaded them but hadn’t planned for their “strategy session,” whereupon the toughs — oblivious to where we were — hung around one of the openings of the tunnel, lit up cigarettes and had a parley.

Naturally, Ralph and I assumed the plan was to smoke us out by lighting the tunnel on fire. Possibly through boredom, the boys left. So did we — but only after making sure they were out of sight. And to our benefit, none of the boys whom we christened with cruel names ever recalled that for a few minutes, we were the enemy. People got over things in a hurry, and we often walked to school with them.

• • •

Judges officiate. One such person, Gerald Baca, also officiates games. I’ve watched him referee basketball games, but never a baseball game. Regardless, I asked Baca a trivia question posed to me years ago:

• Identify seven ways a batter can get on first base. Obviously, two easy answers are by getting a hit or drawing a base on balls. The others get trickier, and the “seven ways” really could be a dozen.

Baca came up with a few others, but you won’t be privy to them — yet. Can anyone come up with more?

Baca and I discussed the notion of a person hitting the ball, running past first, toward second and being tagged out. That doesn’t qualify as “getting on base,” as the batter/runner must be able to remain at first.

I welcome input from readers, even those who never had the privilege of tagging Shorty Bustos’ abandoned car or dodging “Sweetums” at second base, back when kids entertained themselves through vigorous physical activity and didn’t sit indoors texting on their cell phones.

Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to atrujillo@lasvegasoptic.com or art@rezio.net.