Cardella: Salvi and Me

In the movies, growing up is always sunny days, blueberry pie and fishing holes. Kids don’t grow up in urban movies. They get shot. And maybe the movies are closer to the truth than reality for too many kids, but not in my case. Not too many guys have been friends longer than Salvi and me. It must be at least 75 years, then we stopped counting. Everybody should have a friend like Salvi in their lives.

I enjoy reminding Salvi that he is 2 months older than me. It annoys him. We enjoy annoying one another. We’re competitive. Always have been. Come to think of it, our entire friendship is built upon trying to beat one another. Whether it be Monopoly when we were kids playing on the living room floor. Now as old geezers at the kitchen table playing at something called APBA Baseball. Salvi has been there as long as I can remember trying to beat my brains out.

I met Salvi in grade school. He was a natural childhood villain. Loved to play the part. My earliest memories are of being part of a gang of kids chasing after Salvi once school let out. Don’t know why. We never bullied anybody, but we went after Salvi like he was the bad guy in a western that we would see in a movie at the Colonial Theater at a Saturday matinee. I don’t know what we would’ve done if we ever caught Salvi. We never hurt any kid. It was like something clicked in our brain when chasing after him. But Salvi was too fast for us. And hours later, we’d be playing Monopoly like the best of friends, which we were.

He lived one house over from my grandfather with his two wonderful aunts. Antoinette had old-world charm and could run a five-star kitchen. Mary was one of the guys who you wished wasn’t a girl so she could play sports with you. Salvi and I spent a lot of time in the old schoolyard at 8th and Wolf. Organized sports wasn’t part of our lives back then. The tools of city kids were broomsticks and “pimple balls.” You sliced them with a razor and got all the juice out for a good half-ball. Kept them whole for stickball — until they got a bubble on top and had to be cut into half balls or they burst. Our entire world was the schoolyard. We loved every rock of that place. The schoolyard is still there, but no no one plays stickball anymore. I don’t know whether to mourn that fact. The kids are from other countries with other traditions. But I can’t help thinking that we lost something when we lost stickball.

Salvi and I weren’t great athletes. Neither of us ever would’ve thought about playing on real fields with real bats and balls. We were schoolyard athletes competing within scant blocks of both of my grandfathers’ homes and less than a block from Salvi’s. We didn’t realize it, but it was the last time America’s kids would live and play in a safe cocoon surrounded by love and community. Maybe I only feel that way.

In May of 1978, I joined a handful of my friends to visit the Hall of Fame and purchased APBA, the baseball board game. Five of them, including Salvi, began playing a board game — APBA Baseball. We formed a league. Each guy “managed” a past champion. Really just a set of cards. With a shaker and a pair of dice, we transported ourselves to big-league cities. The winner of the 40-game schedule was treated to a neighborhood dinner. We lived for Thursday night at 8 p.m. And the most fun was surviving Salvi’s trash talk.

It seemed so unfair when it happened. Ronnie died. Within two weeks after we noticed him coughing, he was gone. The gentlest and kindest of us all. Never won a title in 10 years. Uncomplaining into that good night.

When Ben passed, I thought I couldn’t play anymore, but I did. Though it was never the same after that. Frank, not one of the original group, died of ALS a couple of years ago. And it came down to Salvi and me. We who’ve fought so hard to beat one another all these years. To make it easier on me and my various ailments, we’ve moved all the games to the afternoon, once a week to my place. Salvi brings shrimp rolls on the odd and I buy the faux hoagies on the even weeks (hoagies with low-salt turkey and cheese, no tomatoes to help my potassium count).

We still trash talk, but Salvi is winning more regularly. The bitterest pill was right after I suffered an attack of COVID. I blew a 3-0 lead in the series and lost 4-3.

Pull back the camera on two old guys at a kitchen table. They shout and pound the table and curse their fate. On the table are what appears to be playing cards and a big piece of cardboard shaped like a baseball field. Both guys face one another. Diet sodas and half-eaten shrimp rolls nearby.

I look at Salvi. Salvi looks at me. Fade to black.