3.31.2006

The Game of Kings



When I was a young lad, there weren't many kids in the Goodwin Ave. area. Charlie Janks and his sister Catherine were there for the early years, but not for long. They moved away pretty early in the life of Young James Sigman, but not before Catherine tore the corner off my Wade Boggs Topps rookie card. That used to bother me, but now that I've researched the current value of that card, I'm ready to forgive and forget. Or at least forgive.

Anyway, after Charlie and Catherine left, it was slim pickings on the block. There were lots of kindly old folk, a neighborhood asset that was good around Halloween but virtually useless the rest of the year. I could occasionally pester my dad into a game of catch, and sometimes my friend Donnie would come over and we'd have a time, but, for the most part, those post-homework afternoons required a little ingenuity.

So, if the weather was nice enough so that I wasn't bound indoors, doing play-by-play of the hotly contested Junkyard Dog-Iron Sheik battle among my LJN wrestling figures, I would grab that plastic bat and the nicked-up, once-white ball and head outside for a spirited game of Wiffle Ball.

Now, a lot of people think that a spirited game of Wiffle Ball requires at least two people. Completely untrue. It is, in fact, entirely possible to be the batter, pitcher, and play-by-play man (I was a very talented, multifaceted broadcaster) in a tense, action-packed game of Wiffle Ball.

Possible, yes. Sane, well, no, probably not.

In my childhood afternoon Wiffle Ball games, I would take my position at home plate (the middle of the passageway separating our house from our neighbors'), grab hold of the bat with my right hand, toss the ball in the air with my left, quickly bring the left hand back onto the bat, and swing for the fences (or, more accurately, the line of shrubs at the end of our other neighbor's house). Not content to just get a homer and call it a day, I would frequently trot around the bases, simulating the crowd noise, and, in my capacity as play-by-play man, set the scene for the folks at home. I can only imagine the joy I brought to the neighbors. One particular fan had to be Mrs. Anderson next door, whose roof and windows would occasionally be struck when I pulled a ball foul. I didn't realize what an important part she played in the games until she passed away and we got a new neighbor, one who insisted that I was responsible for the dents in his aluminum siding. Bastard.

I had a few yellow bats, but my preference was for the ones with the slightly wider barrels, though never those ridiculous fat-barrel red bats. Those were for losers. I didn't use them, and I've also never bowled with bumpers. I think I'm a better person for it. But I will cop to using the bats with the wider barrels, the ones that had plastic wrapping on them to make them look like aluminum bats. They gave you more pop than your standard yellow bat but yet weren't obscenely large. They'd just give that extra little oomph your home run swing needed.

Of course, you can't hit a homer every time. But I sure did try. If I missed a pitch, it was almost always called a foul tip by the umpire (a position ably filled by me). Sometimes it didn't really seem like the ball was tipped, but the ump always insisted. And, really, he's got the best vantage point, so who can argue?

And sometimes I'd just get a solid hit, maybe a double in the gap, which I'd occasionally be able to leg into a triple. I grounded out maybe a couple of times. Never flied out, though. I drilled the ball; outfielders never had a chance to get under it. Plus that tree in the middle of the yard made it difficult to get a proper read on the ball. I didn't envy them their assignment.

Lest you think my team never played in the field, that part of the inning was taken care of by grabbing a rubber ball and my beat-up Tom Seaver glove that I bought at the Christ Church fair, throwing the ball against the stairs (or, more frequently, the screen door) and "fielding" the ball as it came back, complete with a toss from the middle infielder (me) to the first baseman (also me). If the ball got past the infield or the first baseman dropped the throw, the opposing team got a baserunner. There were some tight games, but I'd like to think I won more than I lost.

Eventually, I came to the age where self-pitch Wiffle Ball became too pathetic. So I stuck to playing a whole game of Off the Stairs, where I was pitching both for my team and my opponent's team, while also hitting for both teams too. Makes you dizzy, doesn't it?

There was a Wiffle Ball revival on the block in my later years, as younger kids moved onto the block, and my friends and I (eighth-graders) would frequently challenge third-graders to games. We won a few too.

There wasn't much high school Wiffle Ball action (there should've at least been an intramural team), but things picked up again in college. I'm not sure whose idea it was to head out behind the Ithaca College softball field for a game of Wiffle Ball my sophomore year, but I can only guess that it was mine. In any case, a series of epic battles pitted the guys from our building against the guys from another, in what historians call "The Battle for the Visor" (the visor being something someone left behind the softball field and which we seized upon as the championship trophy). I would like to tell you that the Boys of Terrace 12 took home the Visor and triumphantly vanquished all comers, but I'd be lying. Despite the prodigious power hitting of Pat McCormick and my confounding sidearm pitching delivery, we just couldn't pull through. The late innings were always bad for us. We also had Dave, a spectacularly unathletic, rail-thin chap and one of my roommates, on our team for a few of those games. That held us back. We don't talk to him anymore.

In any case, those games have spawned a plethora of rematches throughout the eastern United States, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and, of course, Ithaca, New York, where the legend began. The Visor has been lost to time, but the battle rages on.

And there have also been many storied head-to-head battles on the Quads tennis courts in Windham, NY, between me and noted journalist/former greenskeeper Bryan Chambala. Using the net as the "automatic out" marker (i.e., if you hit the ball and it doesn't make it over the net, you're out), we've engaged in knock-down, drag-out nine-inning contests. By about the third inning, I've lost any control on my pitches (the inability to locate the fastball really kept me from getting into the pros), so these are contests requiring a great deal of patience. And they are occasionally contests I'm better off not winning. I swear there was one time after a loss that he didn't talk to me for, like, an hour. And we were well into our twenties at the time. Of course, he's now a husband/dad/homeowner, so I'm sure he's much more agreeable now. Well, reasonably sure.

Anyway, the point of all this is Wiffle Ball been berry berry good to me. And as the weather gets nicer and you get the extra hour of daylight, it's just about Opening Day of the Wiffle Ball season. So why not get some friends together for a game? And if you have no friends, there's always the self-pitch version. But be warned that people find that a lot less charming when you're in your twenties/thirties. Maybe you should just stick with this.

Play ball.

4 comments:

amanda said...

Plastic wrapping to make them look like aluminum bats? I've collected my fair share of yellow ones, but these that you talk of..I don't know. I don't ever remember seeings these, maybe they didn't make it up to Binghamton or Afton.

The Commissioner said...

They're usually black. I even had a nice red one at the farm, dulled and hardened by tractor oil and dirt. I can still recount to you some of the imaginary tournaments held at the farm and other places across the Great State.
I also developed in my youth a one-man football game that must have appeared to the neighbors to be a string of screaming, flopping seizures occuring in sets of three, or two, with the occasional punt in the mix.

Windham. The scene of my demise. I remember it well. Someday, I return.

B

Mr. Bad Example said...

One-man football....been there, done that. One -man hockey with a garbage can and using the sloped driveway across the street to feed breakaways...check. Never did any one-man curling, though. I should have. Could've been in the Olympics by now.

The bats made to look aluminum could often be found in the CVS pharmacies of America. The wrapping wouldn't last long, so, yeah, eventually you'd just be left with a black bat. Purists probably scoff at them, but I embrace innovation.

The Commissioner said...

Purists molest kids.

B