Over the years Steve Marcus would experience a wide range of emotions engendered by his kid brother. First came curiosity about the arrival who disrupted the dynamic in the house. Next irritation, with the realization that Donny, unlike a visiting great-aunt or neighbor, was there to stay. Then anger, since the center of the universe had shifted to someone not yet capable of walking, talking, or playing catch.
As weeks turned to months, then months to years, other sentiments surged. There was exasperation, not that Stevie, as he was then known, yet knew the word. Rage when Donny tore up Stevie’s Ken Griffey Jr rookie card, or broke his favorite Star Wars toy. But once in a while a more positive feeling emerged: amusement, empathy, even stirrings of brotherly love.
By the time of the newest member’s fifth birthday party, something else entirely came into play: pride. Donny was so bright, gregarious, and adorable, with blue eyes and wavy locks of blond hair, that people started referring to him as “The Golden Child.” That allowed Steve to bask in reflected glory as mentor to someone for whom greatness was foreseen by friends, family members, and even strangers.
As Steve, then Donny, moved into teenage years, the two of them seemed almost to have come not just from different gene pools, but indeed from different species. Steve was shy, serious, and according to his own term “a grinder,” obligated to work hard for everything he hoped to achieve. That was why, to earn a spot on the high school baseball team, he switched from shortstop to catcher, quickly earning the affectionate but apt nickname “Dirtbag.” For Donny, in contrast, everything came easily: pals, girlfriends, sports, school. He was Mr. Cool, charisma personified, captain of the soccer team, Prom King, and, not surprisingly, “Most Likely To Succeed.”
Yet in observing his kid brother, occasionally Steve saw behavior that was troubling. Because success seemed to come effortlessly, Donny developed precious little work ethic, showing scant patience when the slightest bit of persistence was required. Worse, in Steve’s eyes, was a cruel streak that surfaced occasionally when Donny was young, but with greater frequency as he got older.
“Leave her alone!” Steve demanded one evening when Donny, for no valid reason, started humiliating a waitress at their local pizzeria. “Who the fuck asked you?” Donny shot back. “Like you’re so goddamn important, right?”
Instead of allowing the argument to escalate, Steve simply got up to leave.
“Wait!” Donny protested, watching his brother, who had driven them there, head for the door. “How in hell am I suppose to get home?”
“If you’re so important,” Steve stated in those pre-Uber days, “figure it out.”
Whereas Donny started receiving attention from soccer coaches at Princeton, Yale, and Amherst early in his sophomore year, Steve, with less luster academically and athletically, had little choice after graduation but to enroll at a local commuter college. Forced to live at home his freshman year, he made the baseball team as a walk-on, then joined a fraternity, which meant that family time was limited.
Still, it was to Steve that Donny turned when busted for possession of what was supposed to be mescaline, but turned out to be horse tranquilizers. And when nailed for driving under the influence. And when charged with sucker-punching an opponent after a club team soccer game.
Any sense of importance generated by coming to the rescue was overridden by Steve’s ever-increasing dread that his kid brother was on a sure-fire path toward self-destruction.
“This can’t go on,” Steve stated once he was able to get the assault charge dropped with a promise of an apology from Donny plus sixty hours of community service. “One of these days it’ll be too much. Or too late.”
“You’re right,” Donny replied with a show of contrition that Steve hoped was real. “You’re always there for me, and I keep letting you down.”
“Forget me. It’s you I’m worried about. You’ve got everything in the world going for you, but it never seems enough.”
“You’re the best!” Donny said, flashing the charm that seemed so irresistible to others, but that never entirely rang true to Steve.
Despite flourishing in college baseball, becoming a starter midway through his first season, earning a scholarship his second, then leading the team in hitting as a junior, Steve was largely invisible to scouts. “A good college player,” was their dismissive appraisal. Donny, in contrast, continued to grow in stature both figuratively and literally, to the point where in addition to the elite academic schools, the sports powerhouses came courting by the time he was a senior.
Though urged to choose either a topflight academic institution or an athletic powerhouse, Donny instead accepted a soccer scholarship at a party school, where from his first day his major seemed to be hedonism.
Then came the unthinkable. While Steve, undrafted by professional baseball, signed with no bonus as what scouts called “college filler” – cheap labor to fill the lowest rungs of the minor leagues – then defied the odds by moving up thanks to hard work, Donny spiraled downward. Torn between the rigors of long practices and a club scene that proved irresistible, “the kid who couldn’t miss” stunned family and friends by saying goodbye to soccer. Shortly thereafter, he said adios, au revoir, ciao to school.
At the urging of his distraught parents, Steve made an attempt to intervene. “Any idea what you’re throwing away?” he asked his brother when he reached him by phone.
“It’s covered,” Donny assured him.
“I’ll be doing what I want.”
“Not drugs. I’m moving to Vegas to deal cards.”
“Donny, please. You’re somebody who could do anything at all in this world.”
“And what if I don’t want to be a brain surgeon, a hedge fund king, or a politician?”
“I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
“I do, just the way I know you’re always there for me.”
“Except we’re not kids anymore.”
“Speak for yourself,” teased Donny.
Between baseball, an off-season job giving hitting lessons, and an ever more serious relationship with a woman who was doing her practice teaching, Steve spent less time than ever ruminating about his brother. But on those moments when Donny came to mind, a strange thought at times asserted itself. No longer was the so-called “Golden Child,” who had finished a prep course and had found a casino job dealing blackjack, the one with the burden of expectations. Whatever spotlight existed had shifted to the erstwhile “grinder,” with the question becoming not if but when Steve would make it to the big leagues.
Those dreams, however, were dealt a blow when, after a collision at the plate with a baserunner who tried to bowl him over, Steve’s shoulder began to ache. Determined to play through the pain without letting on how much he was suffering, he used the baseball underground to find a Dr. Feelgood, who prescribed Vicodin and Toradol, while also administering cortisone shots.
Only when it was clear that his performance was suffering did Steve acknowledge that more serious steps needed to be taken. To his chagrin, a team orthopedist confirmed his worst fears. He had a torn labrum, which meant that surgery was in order rather than mere off-season rest.
During the rehab period that folowed the operation, it was Steve’s girlfriend Chloe who expressed what until then had remained unsaid. “Heard from your brother?” she asked one night after serving a dinner of lasagna and salad for Steve and herself.
“I’m sure he’s real busy.”
“Saving starving children? Bringing peace to the Middle East?”
“C’mon, yourself. It’s just plain wrong.”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“To me it is.”
Despite what he expressed to Chloe, Steve was all too aware of the sound of the phone not ringing. Yet when at last he heard from Donny, his heart sunk.
“I need a favor,” Donny began without inquiring about Steve’s progress.
“The kind with dead presidents.”
“Promise you won’t hang up?”
“20 G’s. More if you can handle it.”
“Do I sound like I’m kidding? You in?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’m a minor leaguer, not a guy playing at Yankee Stadium or for the Dodgers. Even if I were willing, where in hell would I find that kind of money?”
“You’ve got friends in the Big Leagues. C’mon, it’s not like I’ve leaned on you that much.”
“At least think about it. Okay?”
“I don’t know.”
Thanks to baseball contacts in Las Vegas, Steve was able to weave together the events that precipitated Donny’s call. A mobster, he learned, had taken a liking to Donny, frequenting his blackjack table each and every afternoon. After several weeks of extravagant tips, Brooklyn born Tony “The Cannon” Cannone took to asking for favors whenever it was time for Donny to take a break. “Go get sausage and pepper sandwiches for both of us,” Cannone would say every so often. Or, “Go buy UNLV sweatshirts for my grandson and you.” Or, “Pete Rose is signing baseball, so go get one for each of us.” Each time Donny would be handed a crisp $100 bill, then told to keep the change.
Next came tasks of another sort. Tony would give Donny the name of a horse, then hand him anywhere from $200 to $1,000 to place a bet. Recognizing that the mobster’s picks seemed to be cursed – several came up lame, a couple broke legs, and one went so far as to drop dead from a heart attack while still in the starting gate – Donny took to pocketing the money rather than placing the bets. His gambit worked for days, then weeks, then even months, increasing his net worth substantially. Then came a sunny Tuesday when, instead of keeling over, throwing its jockey, or lying down on the track, a 50-1 shot named Brown-Eyed Girl did the unthinkable and won.
Having pocketed Cannone’s $1,000 bet, Donny promptly bolted.
Which meant that the $20,000 he begged for from Steve would be no more than a down payment on the fortune he owed.
Vividly aware that his fears about his brother’s path toward self-destruction had finally come true, Steve tried to reach Donny by phone. Not surprisingly, his cell was no longer operative. Nor was email any more successful.
Before managing to find a means to connect with his brother, Steve received an unexpected visit. Two large specimens whose names he never learned, but whom he later took to referring to as Sal and Vito, came with a simple message.
“Tell your brother,” said the larger one, who weighed in somewhere north of 300 pounds, “we know where your parents live.”
“He’s got three days to show up,” announced the other. “Or we pay them a visit.”
“Any update on the bucks?” Donny asked when he called the next day on what Steve assumed was a burner.
“Forget the money and go see that guy Cannone.”
“You don’t understand –”
“No, you don’t understand. Two of his goons came by.”
“Do I sound like I’m joking? If you don’t show up, next stop is to see Mom and Dad.”
“And not to deliver pizza. I want you to listen to me and listen carefully. You go see him and you do whatever the hell you need to do –”
“Or it won’t just be his hitters looking for you. I’ll be coming, too, with a goddamn Louisville Slugger!”
While certainly not pleased that his brother was pressed into what amounted to indentured servitude, serving as a combination house boy and go-fer for the mobster he burned, Steve was comforted that his parents were safe.
His own future took a detour when the surgery, though technically successful, resulted in nagging pain that put an end his pro career. Going back to school for a teaching credential, he got a job teaching math and coaching baseball at his old high school, first at the JV level, then a year later for the varsity.
Marriage to Chloe, who got a teaching job and a nearby middle school, followed shortly. During the pregnancy that ensued, they got news that was sad and unfortunate, but far from unexpected. Donnie, they learned, had died in a fall from a rooftop in Las Vegas. Though no determination was ever made as to whether it was suicide or murder, two things were certain. First, Steve and Chloe would be ever vigilant in not imposing the burden of unfair expectations. And, if the baby proved to be a boy, no way would they be naming him Donny.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, and boxing. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.