THE PLATE, FIFTEEN ROWS UP
GREG VEIS - I set out to find Frankie
decided to watch the first inning of the game by myself. I sneaked
down to the picnic area of the ballpark that sits on field level
about ten feet from the third base line in left field and right
behind the visitors bullpen. Some local business people had
rented out this part of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and the
signs that stood above the stairs that led down to it clearly read
"RESERVED." Frankly, I didnt too much care, and
I didnt think the renters would either. The scene was simply
too idyllic79 degrees for a 7 PM start time with a cozy spring
breeze blowing out to left fieldfor anyone to raise a fuss.
Munching away at a bag of peanuts that I snagged from the complimentary
(for me at least) buffet, I realized I had not attended an April
ball game for a couple of years now, a reality that seemed a cause
April used to be
my baseball month. Every year from my seventh to seventeenth birthdays,
my dad and I would play hooky during the first week of the month to
make our annual Opening Day pilgrimage to Dodger Stadium. The two of
us have always been thicker than thieves, but out of so many fantastic
times with him, some of my most cherished have taken place on this day.
There is something special about baseball in April that can tighten
any bond: the official end of a long winter, the taste of the first
Dodger Dog of the season, the hope for a run deep into October. At this
point the game simply beams with youth and hopefulness. Also, baseball
just looks better at the beginning of spring. Dad and I always marveled
at how magnificently the organization prepared the stadium every new
year with the trimmed and patterned outfield grass, the freshly-swept
infield dirt, and
Then, all of a sudden one of the Bulls snapped a line drive between
the bag and the third basemans non-glove hand. I looked up from
my peanuts to the cheers of the rather small crowd, and had the ball
taken a bigger bounce, I would have found a baseball right between my
eyes. Unfortunately for my local plastic surgeon, the ball hit softly
in the bullpen and caromed off a three-foot wall right in front of me
into leftfield. Nevertheless, what turned into a double had awoken me
from my nostalgic daydream, and I quickly realized that I had not come
to the park for a teary glimpse into my times passed, but rather to
meet a man who has turned into a type of cult hero in this part of North
When the inning ended and I finished working on my bag of nuts, I set
out to find Frankie Parrot. You dont necessarily need a search
party to find this man because, as the Bulls sweet-hearted receptionist
Darlene flippantly points out, "Oh, everybody knows Frankie. Hes
famous around here." In fact, he has maintained such unheard of
loyalty to the Bulls that the team now has him on the payroll, picking
up the tab for his season tickets, located in the high-rent district
right behind home plate.
I tap him on the shoulder. "Hey Frankieeeee." (Of course,
I have to say it like DeNiro in Goodfellasthe name just lends
itself to that accent.)
"Hey pal! There you are," he responds rather enthusiastically,
given that I had hardly spoken to him during our correspondences. Then,
slapping the seat directly to his left, he declares, "Sit down
here. Well talk."
I observe my subject as he stares straight ahead at the game unfolding
before him. He stands at around six feet tall and has a larger than
average build. His beard has not been attended to for several days,
and his Bulls cap covers his short, spiky hair. He wears headphones
above his hat so that he can listen to Steve Barnes call the game over
the radio. ("This thing even has a tape player!") Under the
bill his face appears worn from fifty-two years of life. Not decrepit,
mind you. Just lived in.
We start by talking about his being a fixture at Bulls games for
twenty-one years now. Since the beginning of the Reagan administration,
Parrot has missed a grand total of one game. Well, "two at most,"
he later admits. He has seen hundreds of Bulls players come and go,
some to the Bigs and others to the check out counter of a Wal-Mart in
Topeka. He has seen winning teams and losing ones, and he has seen the
Bulls through two stadiums.
"I like the new park myself," he thinks out loud in his heavy,
yet uncharacteristically swift Southern drawl. "It is a lot more
convenient, and the seats are better." Keeping in line with his
somewhat staggered speech pattern, he stops for a second in between
his thoughts, then starts again: "I dont know. I just like
that its more modern. I cant really describe it. The field
toothey say thats a whole lot better."
His lack of description of the many amenities of the new park does not
stem from a failure of words, but rather from one of sight. Frankie
is blind. Always has been and probably always will be.
As debilitating as his handicap may seem, he still gets along quite
well, thank you very much. His average game day runs a bit like this:
he leaves the room that he rents from a lady in town to go to his job
running off folders from a machine upstairs in the paper department
of the Lions Club Industries for the Blind. Three hours before
the first pitch, he then jets to the park by taxi or with the help of
one member in his extensive network of friends. At the clubhouse he
fraternizes with all the employees, and upon their seeing him, every
single one of their faces lights up as they ask, "Hows it
going, Franka?"they say it decidedly more Carolinian than
Sicilian. After a while of conversation about ball and work, in a move
of the utmost importance, he heads upstairs to snatch some of the daily
spread. Having swallowed some sliced-meat products, he finally parks
himself behind home plate to take in the view for the next three hours
before going home to start all over again.
As he champed away before the game and I drove to the stadium, I had
a very fixed set of expectations. I found myself hoping that he would
wax philosophic about his adoration for the game, and how he can still
see it played on a self-constructed field in his mind. I yearned for
the carefully crafted musings that could only come from a man who understood
the game solely through the eye of his imagination. I dreamt of his
talking like Crash Davis did in Bull Durham:
"Well [Greg], I believe in the soul... the cock...the pussy...
the small of a woman's back... the hangin' curveball... high fiber...
good scotch... that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent overrated
crap... I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought
to be a Constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated
hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft core pornography, opening
your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve, and I believe
in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days. Goodnight."
However, I should have known better that Frankie Parrot would not be
that brand of individual. He grew up in rural-squared Nightdale, North
Carolina, several miles east of Raleigh, as the son of a plumber for
the Wake County school system. His brother worked for thirty years at
the canteen of Central Prison, and his one cousin who lives in Durham
has a steady job with GTE. Frankie comes from honest, hard-working stock
that values consistency and dedication over fancy words and useless
Indeed, such ramblings would seem way too extravagant for a man who
has only known Central North Carolina. Ill even go so far as to
say that Frankie will not earn any free dinners at the Detroit Hyatt
courtesy of a frequent flyer program any time soon. When they realized
something screwy happened in the nerve endings behind his eyes back
before he can even remember, he made the trip up to New York to see
an optometrist. Since then though, the farthest that he has ever traveled
away from the friendly confines of the Triangle Area was a mere ninety
miles up Interstate 40. For a well-traveled city slicker like myself,
I wondered if that sort of isolated existence wore on him, if he ever
sought to explore the world.
"Im not the traveling kind who wants to go from place to
place," he explained, as if travel were an intolerable burden.
"Ive lived in this area alls my life. Im more comfortable
here. Im used to it, and I work here ya know."
Trying to translate his love for the region into a tool for enhancing
my four-year collegiate vacation here, I wondered what about Durham
mystified him to the point of complete comfort. What makes it so special?
("I dont know. Its where Ive always lived.")
How has it changed? ("Id say its got a couple more
people in it, a little more crime.") What has the scaling down
of the tobacco industry done to the community? ("Couldnt
tell yas. I havent thoughta that too much.")
The two tangible aspects of his life that he has the most intimate knowledge
ofbaseball and Durhamsimply do not spark him on to greater
queries. He just knows that he loves them, like a second baseman just
knows how to flip the ball to the charging shortstop to instigate a
double play. However, three items, more of the practical rather than
the philosophical variety, are of more pressing concern to him tonight.
First, the possibility looms that he may not attend Wednesdays
game because of its noon start time. As much as he loves the game, Frankie
remains a realist. "I need to get off work to go to that one. I
dont like these games cause I need to do my work before
headin to the park." With an air of relief, he adds, "Luckily,
there are only three this year."
Secondly, and of genuine annoyance to him now, the Bulls can do little
right against the Triple A Yankee affiliate Columbus Clippers. After
putting up three in their half of the first, the Bulls, well, more specifically
starting pitcher Matt White, dont do much in the way of making
outs. Five innings and seven runs later, the squad finds itself well
on the way to a lackluster 7-3 defeat. This isnt sitting so well
Watching a game with him on a good night is tough enough between his
ceasing all conversation when Barnes voice raises in his headphones,
and his absolute feeling of obligation to yell some type of comment
("Good play, Toby." "Let me pitch!") at every possible
opportunity. Fugghedaboudit if the Bulls are losing.
However, four innings in tonight, after a botched fielding play by White,
he humbly accepts defeat, as he comforts his players, "I believe
yall should go home and start over tonight."
At this point he refocuses his attention on to his friends, who are
perhaps his greatest passionwork, Durham, and even baseball, be
damned. About once an inning, one of his seemingly millions of friends
taps him on the shoulder to yak about one issue or another. The topic
of discussion never really matters to Frankie, just the fact that he
has the opportunity to bring life to somebody elses does.
In fact he sees this type of selfless devotion to his friends to be
of the utmost urgency. Here sits a man not given a fair hand from birth
who feels his duty lies in helping others rather than the reverse.
"Im just popular," he boasts, with all the untarnished
pride of a Homecoming King. "I try to make friends everywhere I
go. People get to know me, and Im just a likable person. I cant
really explain it."
This desire to maintain his likeability quotient though feeds into the
last issue that seems to give him some slight discomfort tonight. Though
he has partaken in similar meetings in the past, including three or
four television appearances ("Ive been on the television
a few times. I dont make nuttin of it, though."), he
still fears that he has not sufficiently fulfilled the role of the worthy
subject. Every half hour, almost on the dot, he self-consciously asks,
"Am I answering your questions OK, Greg? You have some good stuff
on me, right?"
"Frankie, things are going great. Dont worry."
His subsequent unprovoked and certainly rehearsed response: "I
live with being blind. The sun is going to shine tomorra. Ive
lived with it alls my life and am used to it, so hell, you know, you
cant feel sorry for yourself because life goes on. I try to live
that way and have a positive attitude."
"Thats great Frankie."
The voice in his headphones relays the news of a Bulls single.
"Oh what a swing, Greg!"
Finally, with the Bulls down four heading into the bottom of the fifth,
Frankie receives another tap on the shoulder.
"Frankie, Im leavin now," a pretty-faced older
woman announced. "You can try to get a ride home later with someone
else though if ya like."
"Nah, its all right. Plus, I gotsta take a shower anyway.
Is that OK, Greg?"
Far be it for me to get in the way of proper hygiene, I bid adieu to
my partner in spectation. Alone again on this April night, I decide
to sneak back into the picnic area that all of the business people have
already shuffled out of to find better seating. By this time the temperature
cooled to the low 70's, the peach sky succumbed to the blackness, and
the wind picked up a bit.
I cracked open another bag of peanuts.
As the players flutter across the field and the fresh air rushes into
my eyes, I realize that I did not in fact come to the park to hear Frankie
talk about the universality of baseball and the changing face of Durham.
Instead, I longed for the simple pleasures of taking in a ball game.
I came so that I could exercise my own pains for not having been able
to go to the Dodgers Opening Day this year. I merely wanted somebody
to share a bag of peanuts with. Somebody to appreciate the infield fly
rule with. Somebody to replace my dad for nine innings.
This April night, I came to find someone to remind me of the effortless
beauty of the true American game, and I found him, with my own two eyes,
in the form of Frankie Parrot.
© Greg Veis 2001
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