What Wiffleball Once Taught Us

Wiffleball is often a child’s first introduction to baseball. (via slgckgc)

Home plate was a grassy patch behind our house. From there, the fence in center field measured the same as the fence in left and right — about triple the length of our clothesline. That’s how it is, you see, when the outfield fence is a chain-link fence that separates the back yard from the alley. Behind the fence were our trash cans, the color of silver turned rust. They stood alongside the crumbled concrete where the noisy garbage truck would pass. Weeds would stand up to its wheels. Beyond the weeds were the neighbor’s trash cans, and chain-link, and back yard with the dogs.

In the middle of our yard was the mound, though “mound” is not the right word. It was a blank spot worn into the grass. It would grow more distinct, more the color of earth, as the summer wore on. The grass, too, would change, from green to brown.

On either side of the plate were the batters’ boxes, worn like the mound. The right-hand box was more worn than the left-hand box, but the left-hand did get some use. About 20 feet to the right-field side of the plate, sagging between rusted poles, was the clothesline. Sometimes the laundry hung there, and in the breeze it smelled like Tide. The detergent smell would mingle with the mowed-grass smell, especially in early summer. In midafternoon and into evening, the air would sound of cicadas.

In the early years, there were baselines, worn into the grass by Keds or bare feet. But over time, as we grew older, we stopped running the bases. The reasons were both practical and philosophical. First, the area near third base lay covered with burrs, what we called “stickers.” In spring they were soft and green, but by August they were brown and hard, and sometimes the spike would break off in your heel.

There was also the time when Wilbur, our strong and stocky dog, body-blocked me as I rounded third and headed for home. I did a flip and landed on my face. All these years later, my brother is still laughing about it.

Mostly, though, we just didn’t see a reason to run the bases. At some point, our wiffleball games were less about the game itself, less about sprinting dead ahead and giggling like mad while avoiding the tag, and more about the dual arts of pitching and hitting — throwing curveballs and hitting them.

I can say now, with conviction, that wiffleball is where I learned to hit the breaking pitch. My brother, older by some years, would stand on the mound and toss one wicked yakker after another, 12-to-6 or 11-to-5. He would add a screwball, a slider and a riser, a pitch that seemed to start at the knees and finish at the forehead — or, as often as not, in the trees between the plate and the house. He had quite an arsenal and used it on his kid brother. Were it not so helpful to my baseball prospects, it would’ve seemed a form of abuse.

What replaced baserunning, then, was a glorified form of batting practice. Being brothers, and ballplayers, we turned it into a game — a contest. In baseball, it would have been called over-the-line: A hard-hit line drive over the infield is a single, in the gap a double, off the wall a triple and over it a home run. A ground ball, even a screamer, is an out. And any fly ball is an out unless it hits the fence or goes over it.

The same principles applied at our home field on Rupley Lane: single, double, triple, homer. The system was easy as pie. Ghost runners were ghosts until they touched the plate, and then they were real. A “double-decker” — i.e., a homer that cleared the alley and landed in the yard of the neighbor behind us — didn’t yield extra runs but did yield extra respect, and quite a lot.

“Double-decker!” we’d cry, filling the air with awe.

Given the age gap, Scott would at times take it easy on me. He’d leave one over the middle of the plate, giving me a chance to whack it toward the trash. Or, on the mound, he’d announce the nature of the upcoming pitch.

“Curveball,” he’d say, moments before snapping one off.

“Screwball.”

That thing would break many inches, sometimes as much as two feet. But standing in the box with the bat above my shoulder, I learned to recognize the rotation and adjust my swing accordingly.

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In time, I learned to “look for the fastball, wait for the curve,” as they say in baseball. I learned to watch the spin as it left the pitcher’s hand, to keep my hands back, not to get “too far in front,” to keep my weight balanced and hips ready to uncoil. I learned to take the pitch to the opposite field, which, in this case, lay defined by a clothesline pole and the yard of the neighbors on the right. I forget their names. To me, they were the Ground-Rule Doubles.

I also learned to hit from the left side. And even into adulthood, my left-handed swing remained prettier than my right, more fluid, like that of Ted Williams, I want to believe. My right-handed swing was more a lumberjack’s.

As time went on, as time does, we began putting tape on the ball — either duct tape or, more often, electrical tape. This had the effect of making the ball more baseball-like. In short, it weighted the ball and so made fastballs faster and breaking balls sharper but less erratic, less susceptible to summer wind. It also had the effect of making the ball fly farther off the bat. Perhaps it was an early instance of “juicing the ball,” of liberating the game from its dead-ball era and pushing it into the future.

Cries of “double-decker!” became more common, as did consequent encounters with the dogs. The danger of rabies, however, seemed a small price for pounding the ball into the next dimension. And so, in a way, I learned to hit for power in that yard. I learned the feel of power and the joy of it, but, more importantly, the reason that it happened: a good swing along a good plane and with contact as close to the sweet spot as possible. Simple.

And so, summer after summer and spring upon spring, we kept playing in the yard. The grass would go from green to brown to green again, and then to brown once more. Even in the time between our baseball games — those periods between stagings of that more important sport — we’d play wiffleball.

We’d play until it was time to go inside again, the day edging into darkness and with no more light to see by. I still remember the joy it produced. I remember the laughs and shouts. And I remember the excitement of looking forward to the game we played. I’d see the swing in my sleep and then wake to the knowledge that a ball would soon come to me.

Late one afternoon, after we’d played wiffleball across the sunny hours, my brother grabbed the ball and said it’s time to go in. I looked up and said, “Why?”

“Because it is,” he said, suddenly grown up.

“But why?” I asked again. “Why can’t we just have fun all the time?”

“Because that’s not life,” he replied. “You can’t just have fun all the time.”

***

Some months ago, my wife and I moved to a new house. I had undergone back surgery only a few weeks earlier, and so the move wasn’t easy. Heavy boxes can take a toll on a disk. While unpacking, I came across a wifflebat. It wasn’t the bat we had used so long ago in our yard on Rupley Lane, but it was identical. It was familiar: long and narrow and bright yellow in color. I picked it up and gripped it, first with a right-hand grip and then with a left. And in an instant it took me back…back in space, to the old yard, and back in time, to the childhood I was forced to outgrow.

Suddenly reminiscent, I sat down to write. In time — flexible but forward-moving time — I wrote the opening section of this piece, those 24 paragraphs you might have just read. They’re still there, if you need them.

***

Now, with time having passed again, I write again.

I pick up where I left off, as it were.

I pick up the bat and grip it. I take my stance. I am in the back yard.

I watch the spin as it leaves the pitcher’s fingers. I keep my hands back. I don’t get too far out in front. I look for the fastball, wait for the curve. And I get it — a 12-to-6 yakker over the grassy-patch plate. Hands back, shoulders level, I uncoil the hips and initiate the swing. I stay balanced through my pass at the ball. I hear the hollow thwack! — hollow but so full of feeling. It launches the ball toward the chain-link fence, the alley, the neighbor’s fence, the yard with the dogs. I swing for the fences without swinging for the fences. And I do reach the fences, both. Double-decker!

I see myself again. I am in the garage.

The scene is set apart from the first scene by a span of decades and a span of moments. I pick up the bat and grip it. In the physical realm, the bat feels the same, truly identical. Along the handle are those rough little bumps that serve as the grip. The bat is solid, and the barrel smooth.

In the psychical realm, however, the bat is not identical. Drawn into disuse, it is an artifact, a relic, a symbol of some other time, like a museum piece that has no relevance but for its heady evocations.

I remain in my stance. I level my gaze at the pitcher — a stack of cardboard boxes. But this time there is no pitch. There will be no thwack, so hollow. I can’t take a swing. I won’t take a swing. There hasn’t been time for the back.

***

Now, with time gone by again, I look back through the plastic ages. For the moment, my gaze is less an agent of nostalgia than a means of curiosity, a way to satisfy an inquiry that recollection has made important.

Here, I try to recall the last time I swung a wifflebat, at a ball or through the air.

It is a valid reflection, less trivial than one might imagine. Every two or three seasons, we are audience to the retirement speech of an aging star. At some point, he broaches his childhood, that time of Little League and backyard dreams. At some other point, fighting tears, he acknowledges the dream — made real in the space of a long career — is over. He knows his final at-bat is now in the books.

If we love the guy, or even like him, we get misty-eyed ourselves. We chuckle and say, “Hey, it’s getting dusty in here.” But yeah, we feel it, too.

We feel it, selfishly, because we’ll miss him. We’ll miss his performance, his style, his contributions to the team we root for. We feel it more unselfishly because we hurt on his behalf. We see the pain on the face of a onetime rookie now suddenly grown up, grown old. Childhood has finally reached its end.

This man knows it.

Just as disheartening, though, is that we in the audience — at least some of us — never got to acknowledge our own last at-bat. We weren’t aware it had happened. Life came along and took the bat out of our hands. Time was called. The sun went down. Somebody snapped up the ball and took it inside. Still, we thought there would be one more.

But slowly, then suddenly, there was not one more. No ceremony was there to mark the transition, no cameras or going-away gifts. And so we now wonder: When did that last one pass by?

In college, after my baseball career had met its abrupt end, a buddy and I would grab a plastic bat and ball and head to a parking lot or field. There we’d snap off curveballs while summoning the spirit of Koufax or Clemens. We’d launch massive drives toward the trees or parked cars, summoning the strength of Mantle or McGwire. And whenever appropriate, we’d make crowd noises. It was often appropriate. The pitches were wicked, the blasts epic.

After graduation, I’d gather with pals in an empty lot and we’d play some wiffle. For me it fed a need. It satisfied some congenital compulsion to swing a bat at a moving ball and, further, to crush it. But for those other guys it was just a time passer. They had never played baseball. It didn’t matter much to them. Dude, beer me. One guy swung the bat one-handed.

Years later, following a period of wiffle-free life, I found myself with bat in hand again. Some friends and I had rented a rural cabin for a holiday weekend. It turned out to be less a cabin than a double-wide trailer in a grassy field. Silver lining: In a closet were the ball and bat.

I stood at the plate, such as it was, and wagged the bat above my left shoulder. I had opted to hit lefty not so much because the pitcher was a righty but because my left-handed swing is prettier and there were girls there, good-looking girls. I took the first pitch for a strike, just to get a sense of speed and spin. One friend, playing catcher, caught the ball and tossed it back. A fourth pal had positioned himself as outfielder. He stood to the left of the satellite dish and in front of the sagging clothesline.

Poised, I watched the second pitch spin off the fingertips. Hands back and shoulders level, I took my stride and unleashed a swing. It hit with a thwack — hollow but so full of feeling. I watched, in follow-through, as the ball soared above the clothesline.

We called it a ground-rule homer.

***

Now, at this moment, I look back to that time in the field. I remember the swing, one in a million, born in history to launch a plastic ball into memory.

It wasn’t my last at-bat. It was my first — the first of the afternoon. We would play for hours in that green grass, each minute an effort to recapture whatever it was that had delivered us to this game. We played and played, throwing and hitting, until dusk came to claim its casualties.

At some point in that dim sundown, with the red light slanted across the green, I had my final at-bat of the day — and of my time thus far. Nobody said a word. I didn’t announce my retirement.

We just walked away.

Life came next — the work, the responsibilities, the cross-country moves. Yes, the growing up is what soon followed, the getting older, and all the truths that come with it. One such truth: You can’t have fun all the time. That’s not life.

But at times you can. My back is better now. Time takes away, but it also heals.

There will be one more swing. I can see it.


John Paschal is a regular contributor to The Hardball Times and The Hardball Times Baseball Annual.
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crew87
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crew87

Among many great pieces I’ve read on THT, this might be my favorite of all time. Didn’t want it to end, and bookmarking for future reads. Great job.

tramps like us
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tramps like us

Thanks you for this. Because MY older brother and I were estranged for many years and only now on uneasy speaking terms, this means a lot to think of times like these, when we were just brothers, having fun and playing with no anger or rage or mental illness involved. Just kids being kids. And your article means more than you’ll ever know.

brentdaily
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brentdaily

Thank you, John. This is both beautiful and familiar. I would, however, encourage you to find more than ‘one more swing.’ The joy is still there. It’s the one thing that beats time. And it will wait for as long as it takes you to find it. Nostalgia shouldn’t preclude us from experiencing the same feelings again. It’s our choice as to whether we want to extend our memories or box up the old ones. It will be different. But different is just different, not worse. I, too, made the unconscious choice not to play in my mid-20s and through… Read more »

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

Sometimes time comes around and you get to be the pitcher. Yeah.

Russ
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Russ

Beautiful.

hopbitters
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hopbitters

Pure gold, John.

channelclemente
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Joy.

tramps like us
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tramps like us

Incidentally…on a kinda-sorta related note, I’m playing in an over-60 slow pitch softball league which is just a BLAST. We use only wood bats to slow the ball down a bit, except for…get this….the guys 80+ get to use an aluminum bat, and they can’t be doubled up either. There’s probably 10 guys over 80 in the league and just to watch the JOY they play with is worth going out to see. Anyway….I’d encourage anyone who’s an old fart like me (I’m 62, a youngster in this league) to re-discover some of their youth. It is just seriously fun.… Read more »

brentdaily
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brentdaily

Love this. Invite your brother out there with you!

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

John, I always enjoy your work. Keep it coming. The combination of baseball and the recollection of the magic of childhood (even though I was lousy at sports as a kid) is wonderful.

eely225
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eely225

This is an all-timer