MESA, Ariz. – There's a young man at Mesa Community College, a shortstop now, named Joe DiMaggio, who has eyes that sparkle and a step that quickens the closer he gets to a baseball field, this despite toiling for seven innings under a relentless mid-day sun and losing to a late string of hits he couldn't quite get a glove on.
But he's OK, happy even, because there'll be another ballgame in, oh, 15 minutes, just enough time to water down this dusty, choppy field, wolf down a foot-long sandwich and get in a dozen warm-up throws.
Yeah, his name is Joe DiMaggio, 20 years running. Earlier in the season he'd played the outfield, and a scout for the Seattle Mariners called me one afternoon and said, "You'll never guess who I'm watching play the outfield today. Joe DiMaggio. I gotta find out who's so good to push Joe DiMaggio to left field."
This Joe DiMaggio is in miniature, seven inches shorter than the willowy and elegant New York Yankee legend. He possesses, however, a nearly manic affection for the game, so pure that had the original DiMaggio loosened his tie 20 years ago, or undone two or three buttons of his pinstriped jersey 60 years ago, you could imagine this Joe leaping out, begging to play one more inning.
I always imagined Joe D. like this, young again, taking longer, less direct routes from the dugout to center field, just to expel some of the penned energy, adoring the game and his teammates, valuing the three-hour flight at least as much as the final score.
This had to be the kid beating in Joe D.'s heart, to play the game as he did, beneath the reserve and dignity.
This Joe was standing just off Mesa's field last week, beside a cinder-block dugout painted green and white, bouncing lightly from foot to foot in dirt-stained white cleats. Messages to himself, reminders, were scrawled in black beneath the bill of his red Thunderbirds cap. A gold chain flopped in and out of his gray jersey, and a batting glove dangled from his back pocket.
He's a ballplayer.
He also happens to be named Joe DiMaggio, just as his father is, and just as his grandfather, a fireman stationed at Engine Co. 78 outside Chicago's Wrigley Field, was. Family legend has it that the grandfather was a second or third cousin to Joe D., but no one seems to have taken the time to verify it.
"You'd think I would," Joe said, "wouldn't you?"
Joe smiled brightly when asked about carrying the name, if it were a burden, if it would have been enough just to be Tony DiMaggio or Jimmy DiMaggio or something, and played baseball that way.
"You know what?" he said. "Having this name, playing this game, I couldn't have more fun with it. The spotlight's always on me, man. And I love playing the game. I love the excitement. I love the energy about it. When I'm on an opposing field, and the announcer says, 'Joe DiMaggio,' the crowd goes, 'What?' I love it."
His father is Joseph Paul, like Giuseppe Paolo himself. Joe, the father, was raised in part in that firehouse on Waveland Avenue, grew fond of the game there and played it through college, and now helps coach hitters at Player's Choice Academy in Huntley, Ill.
He raised Joe to be a ballplayer, the one who never stops grinding. Young Joe played football, basketball and baseball at Prairie Ridge High in Crystal Lake, Ill., northwest of Chicago, but followed a baseball course to Mesa by way of Arizona State, and next year will play at UNLV. It had to be baseball.
"It wasn't as cool in basketball," he said, mimicking a PA announcer. "'Joe DiMaggio for three,' that doesn't sound right. You know what I mean? 'Joe DiMaggio catches a touchdown pass.' What? But when Joe DiMaggio hits a home run, that sounds right. I just realized, I'm 5-foot-7, I'm not going to make it in football, I'm not going to make it in basketball. Stick with baseball.
"Baseball is my game. It's my game and I respect the game. I can't live without it. I breathe baseball. I sleep baseball. I live baseball. With my name, you have to."
In 1985, Kim DiMaggio was pregnant with her and Joe's first child. The ultra-sound said boy.
Joe clapped his hands, he said.
"All right, Joe D.!" Joe, the father, recalled saying. "Another Joe D.!"
Instead, a girl was born. They named her Jodi. She became a pretty fair outfielder and left-handed pitcher in softball.
A year-and-a-half later, Joseph Peter arrived, third in the line, and he, too, is Joe D. He bats third in the Mesa lineup, and when he stands in the box his teammates honor the name, crying, "C'mon, Joe D.! Let's go, Joe D.!"
"I tell Joe," his father said, "you keep playing hard because that's how you play the game, whether your name is Joe DiMaggio or Bob Smith."
But, it's not Bob Smith, and for that Joe is genuinely honored and inspired. They announce his name to a ballpark full of strangers and he waits for the murmurs, the chuckles, the did-I-hear-that-rights? He comes to the plate and hears them dare him to be great, to be just a tenth of what Joe D., their hero, was. They scream, "Where's Marilyn?," and "Joe Who?"
"The thing is, if I play bad, they're kind of like, 'How is this kid named Joe DiMaggio?' " Joe said. "If I play well, it's a bonus for me. I use it to my advantage."
And then Joe, who plays the game with his chest out and his fists balled, 67 inches of want-to, gets after it the best he can. He does not lug the name around with him, as even Joe DiMaggio's own son might have, but pushes it out in front of him and then asks himself to live up to it. From the time he was in T-ball he even wore DiMaggio's No. 5, retired by the Yankees, enshrined in the Hall of Fame, currently, however, on the back of his head coach at Mesa, Tony Cirelli.
"His superstar, favorite player is Joe DiMaggio," Joe said of Cirelli. "He's been wearing that for 40-some years now."
Joe laughs and his eyes become playful.
"You'd think," he said, "you get Joe DiMaggio coming to your program, you might give him the number. I said, 'Skip, I'll pay you $200 for it. Gimme 5. I can't wear a different number.' I wore 5 all through high school, T-ball, you name it. And I've already locked up 5 at UNLV as well. But, he's proud his favorite player is Joe DiMaggio."
Joe's father lobbied as well, saying, "I had a hundred-dollar bill hanging out of my pocket."
Cirelli wouldn't budge.
"I told them, 'The reason I wear that is because there's another guy named DiMaggio,'" Cirelli said. "When I was a kid, my mom told me he was the best player ever. So, I took that number."
For two years Cirelli has played Joe wherever there was a need, in left and center and at shortstop. Joe has a big arm, some pop in a solid bat, a feel for the game.
"The enjoyment of the game, he brings that every day," Cirelli said.
The rest, well, Cirelli said, it's enough to wear the number. He couldn't imagine going through life in a baseball uniform, DiMAGGIO across the back, answering to "Joe."
"I would think it would be hard," he said. "It would be too much for me, I think."
It's stuck just fine for Joe, though. When he was younger and smaller and began to understand why the adults would hear his name and smile, his father sat him down for the family talk now three generations old.
"You know what, Joey?" his father said. "A lot of guys are going to give you [bull], but then a lot of guys are going to give you extra leeway because your name is Joe DiMaggio."
He'll take the leeway, forget the rest.
"I've learned just to smile and have fun with it," Joe said. "I play hard and it's paid off. It really has.
"And I'm going to go hard no matter what. Just like the real Joe DiMaggio said. His quote was, 'I go hard every day just in case there's one person in the stands who hasn't seen me play.' You know what, I'm taking that quote and I'm going to use it myself."
He stopped for a moment, stared at an infield darkened by water and raked to perfection. The game was close, he hadn't had a bite of his sandwich and already guys were finding their gloves, eager to play again. They were waiting on Joe.
"You know," he said, "if my grandfather could see how I get it now, it'd be awesome."
Then Joe DiMaggio took the field.