Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Way We Were, When We Wiffled (Part I)

(This is in today's Times and News-Star. Lord willing, I will be back in a few days...And will post Part II, the Finale, next Sunday...)

The way wiffle as we know it ended was with, appropriately enough, a foul ball.

The official term is “criminal mischief.”

The event of that long-ago summer marks the only time we ever got thrown out of our own game, all called “Out!” at the same time.

As most law-abiding citizens know, wiffle is played with a plastic ball and bat. It’s time-honored, a summer staple. The rules are much the same as baseball, but special ground rules are adopted according to where you play, as in whose yard or “park.” Ours was called TreeCom Park at UnFair Grounds Field. Its ground rules evolved into the following:

Ground rule double if into street/right field, to keep us from running into the street;

Home run if over double-yellow line in street/right field;

Home run to center if past second crack at end of Mr. Larry’s driveway;

Home run if over Mr. Larry’s driveway in left field;

Mr. Sweet Gum Tree limbs and all wires in play.

We threw down bases for first, second and home; third was the tree. They were fine rules and it was a fine park.

Our giant sweet gum, hard by the third base line, played a major role in thwarting smacks by right-handed hitters; once it even swallowed a ball in the summer, as the whale did Jonah, and didn’t spit it out until the cold of winter. While wiffling in fleece hoodies, we saw it again one day, naked and trapped in leafless branches. We knocked it out with a football.

From the mid-’90s until the Summer of 2002 – hard to believe it’s been nine years – we played just about every day in the summers, twice or so a week in the winters. We played in Sudan heat, in the crisp air of autumn, and in driving rains when we had to outrace water-kidnapped wiffles heading toward storm drains. We played in nothing but shorts, in sweats, in jackets. Once we pushed back snow with gloved hands to outline the base paths.

Usually I was full-time pitcher with defensive responsibilities, and four little boys alternated teams. Water breaks. Hose down. Finish the tournament. Switch teams. Play again.

No one paid us any mind.

That all changed on June 24, 2002. It was Death Valley hot, just like we liked it. The game had miraculously been tied with a tater past the crack in Ockley Drive on the other side of Mr. Larry’s driveway. Clear homer. We were in the late innings.

The situation was tense.

A “pea,” as we call it in wiffle circles, was hit into the No Man’s Land of Ockley. Line drive homer. Bottom of the next inning. Man on first. Imaginary guy on second. Guy at bat. Me on the mound, 10 or so wiffles at my feet. (To speed play, we let homers and fouls alone until I ran out of balls to throw, then quickly gathered the wayward wiffles.)

It was during this high-drama moment that the batter, his T-shirt stuck to his chest with sweat, calmly nodded to right field with his bat on his shoulder and said, “Dad, I think that man wants you.”
A police cruiser was stopped in right center, or, as you call it, “Ockley Drive.” An officer was stepping out. It was 4. It was hot. And it was over.

I’ll finish next week; it will end with me and a ticket in city court.

In extra innings.