Sunday, November 27, 2011

Play With Them

Note: This story first appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Elysian Fields Quarterly, a baseball magazine.

Summer has fallen, and with it the frequency of our games.

The game is wiffle ball and we play it in the street, the neighborhood kids and me. Usually we start after dinner and often go until it is past dark, so dark we cannot see the ball to hit or catch. Yet the games are seldom called on account of darkness. Rather some kid’s mom or dad calls him in. Sometimes my wife calls me in.

One of the kids is mine – sometimes two, if Marshall and the other boys allow Dana to play. Although I am a middle-aged man I think these kids, some of them, look at me almost as another neighborhood kid. An overgrown one, to be sure, but another neighborhood kid.

“Wiffle ball” should probably be written with a registered trademark symbol (®), because that’s what it is. Corporate headquarters are in Shelton, Connecticut. According to company lore, wiffle ball originated in the early 1950s when a couple of kids, short on players and space, developed a scaled-down version of baseball using a plastic golf ball. Holes in the ball made it easy to throw a curve and the curve was hard to hit, resulting in many strikeouts, or “wiffs” – hence, wiffle ball.

Judging by an official website, true wiffle ball is remarkably codified. Our neighborhood games are not. They are essentially sandlot baseball, though we play in the street – a cul-de-sac, actually, so there is no through-traffic to worry about. We have two outs per half-inning to keep the game moving. A fly ball hit beyond a brown patch of lawn in a distant yard is an automatic home run. First base is a manhole, second and third are rubber slabs, and home plate is a piece of corrugated cardboard.

Of course, the kids know perfectly well that I am not an overgrown neighborhood kid. In fact as an adult, with adult things to do, I sometimes wonder why I play with them so often. It is due largely to my wife. Play with them, she says. Play while you still can. Sometimes I don’t think I can – tendonitis in my right heel bothered me all summer, and some evenings my legs still ache from playing the night before. But, play with them, she says. It is hard to counter such a simple statement. And so I play.

We have played our evening games on and off for several summers. Sometimes we play kickball, but wiffle ball is the more popular choice. This year the games began in earnest in mid-July, the hottest part of the season. For weeks we played almost every night. The days being at their longest, we could play until nearly nine o’clock. But with the end of summer and the start of a new school year we must stop earlier; one by one the kids must go inside to finish homework or eat dinner or take a bath.

A few other parents joined in the games over the summer. But this only happened a few times; usually I am the sole adult present. As such I am accorded an awesome power. The kids trust me to be the umpire, to be impartial, to make the proper call on close plays. They never argue when I say safe or out, fair or foul, ball four or strike three.

These games transport me back in time – from overgrown kid to actual kid. From the ages of about ten to thirteen, baseball and its variants, like wiffle ball, absolutely consumed me. It was all I cared about. I would play anytime anyplace, hot weather or cold, day or night, sunshine or rain. If I couldn’t play, if I couldn’t find a game on TV, then I was content to read about it. Biographies of major leaguers, godlike figures from the game’s hallowed past, were my first choice. But baseball trivia, facts and figures, even rule books satisfied me. My head was crammed with baseball, and almost nothing but.

As I play now with a new generation of kids, I see clearly how little the game has changed. It is a cliché that baseball doesn’t change, that it is essentially the same game now as a century ago – strike three yer out, ball four take yer base. What takes me back, though, is not so much the game, but the way children play it. Some of these wiffle ball kids are interchangeable with the guys I played with long ago. Is this Evan, or my old pal Chuck? Adam, or Joe? It was Chuck who, at bat with no one playing catcher, would never toss the ball back to the pitcher. No, he would use the bat to golf it back. And of course the ball seldom went straight; usually it bounced ten feet wide of the pitcher and kept going. The whole game was delayed while someone retrieved it and another kid would say “goddammit Chuck” – we were all learning to swear, as is this new batch of kids – “will you please just throw it?” Next pitch too high – and Chuck would golf it again. Joe loved to pitch but usually threw as fast as he could. “Don’t throw so fast!” one of us would demand. “No one can hit it!” Joe would get a self-righteous look and hold out his arms: “That’s the whole point!” Now, decades later, these patterns repeat.

Sometimes these wiffle kids get into terrible arguments among themselves. Nothing new there, either. They have never come to blows, but one day they might. The arguments usually start over nothing, like after the night Sam found his swing. That first night, he connected for a long fly ball that sailed over the outfielder’s head, almost every time he came to the plate. But the next night his swing eluded him: he struck out, popped out, and bounced out, over and over. Such is the nature of baseball.

His brother Alex took perverse delight in Sam’s performance. They were on opposing teams this night, although no amount of mixing up these kids can pre-empt trouble. When an inning ended after Sam made yet another easy out, Alex teased, “Still no hits tonight, Sam.”

“Shut up, Alex.”

“Come on, guys,” I said. “Everyone’s doing their best.” The score was tied but it was getting dark. “Maybe we should call it a night.”

But they all wanted one last inning – they all wanted to win – so I agreed to stay out a little longer. By this time we could hardly see, so we invoked a special time saving rule: each side would get just one out.

We were up first in this extra inning. Luck was on our side: we got two runs in quick succession before making our one out. Sam and Adam were sniping at each other as they prepared to bat: both were sure they were about to lose.

Marshall batted before either of them, and he hit a fly ball that no one could see because it was so dark. The ball went bouncing down the street and he made it all the way around the bases for a home run. They began to get excited then: maybe they could pull this thing out. Sam was up next and got on the same way: no one could see the ball he hit.

Then Adam came to the plate. He slapped the ball sharply right at Alex, who tried to field it on one hop. But it was so dark out that he missed it; it caromed up and over his shoulder and went bouncing far behind him.

Sam represented the tying run. He went sprinting around the bases with Adam not far behind him. If they both scored the game would be over. Alex ran back for the ball but it was really too late: there was no way to stop either runner.

But Sam stopped himself. He looked back at his brother and sang out, “Al-ex...!” while lifting one foot high over the plate and holding it there.

And it was flashback time: Mike Saroyan pulled this same stunt in a Little League game when I was about twelve. Saroyan was the winning run, he was about to score, but just to torture the other team he deliberately stopped inches from home plate and watched with a devilish grin as a fielder ran toward him hoping to tag him out. Just before the fielder reached him, Saroyan delicately tapped his toe on home plate.

And now Sam was stopped just before the plate. But he had miscalculated. Adam was just behind him, but before Sam actually touched the plate, Adam whizzed past him to score, before leaping into the air. “We win!” he shouted.

But Alex came running toward home, holding the ball. “No! No! No!” he yelled. “You’re out, Adam! You ran past Sam!”

Sam’s jaw dropped. He still hadn’t touched the plate, so Alex tagged him. “You’re out too, Sam!” he cried triumphantly.

“No I’m not!” Sam shrieked.

“I’m not out!” Adam protested.

“You’re both out!” Alex yelled back.

They were all screaming then, before Alex finally, breathlessly, turned to me. “Adam’s out, right? Because he ran in front of Sam?”

“I’m sorry, guys,” I said to Sam and Adam, “but he’s right. You’re both out. You only had one out, anyway.”

Alex burst into laughter. “We win!”

“I’m not out!” Adam and Sam shouted, in unison.

“Sorry, guys,” I said. “Adam, you’re out for passing Sam. Sam, you never touched the plate.”

Yippee!” Alex cried out. “We win!”

“You’re an asshole!” Sam yelped. He dove toward Alex and brought him down with a flying tackle. They began rolling around on the lawn but I quickly pulled them apart. Sam was in tears – not from fighting but from losing the game. Alex was still triumphant. Suddenly Sam turned and ran into his house.

“Oh no,” Alex said. “He’s going to lock me out again.”

“Again?”

“That’s what he does when he’s mad.”

I told Marshall and Dana to pick up all the bats and balls and go into our house. “Game’s over, you guys! It’s almost bathtime!” Adam was furious; he said he was never playing with any of us again.

But he was back the next night, and we all played. My legs were killing me and when the kids first asked me to play, I declined. Then they begged me. I said we had just finished dinner and had to clean up. But my wife intervened. Play with them, she said. I’ll do the dishes. Play while you still can. Another year, maybe two, and my presence will be an embarrassment, a liability, and none of these kids will want me around. So I limped out the door, an overgrown kid perhaps, hoping maybe a few of the years would melt away. And I played.







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