“Fucking son of a bitch!” I screamed. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuuuuck!”
Rick Riccardi’s Wiffleball pitch was nice and slow and fat and just begging me to smack it 65 feet over that little chain-link fence in the Hermans’ yard. Oh, it was a lob to end all lobs. It loomed as large as a beach ball as it floated to the plate, and I took a Carl Yastrzemski cut it. But I hit a hard goddamn motherfucking grounder to Craig Stewart for a sure out. “Shit!” I added for good measure. Boy did I swear a lot when I was 13 years old—especially when I hit a piece of shit (Shit! Shit! Shiiiiiit!) instead of a home run.
Craig fielded the ball and threw it to Steve Hostetter’s younger brother Al, who was covering first base. But I threw my shoulder into Al, knocking the ball out of his hands and practically bowling him over. Who says Wiffleball is a non-contact sport?
“Safe!” I yelled as I overran the base. But my satisfaction was short lived. Bam! I was blindsided with a body slam, which sent me sprawling on my back and crashing on top of the metal bulkhead leading to the Hermans’ cellar. I got my bearings and looked up—it was Steve Hostetter who had nailed me, and I knew that I had deserved it for the cowardly hit on Al.
“Interference,” said Steve. “You were out.”
I was out. There was no argument. And there was certainly no need to take this dispute to the Rickman Fighting Strip in the front yard. Steve was a year older than I was and he was a bit bigger. And after all, I had careened into his little brother.
We kept playing. We forgot all about it. We certainly weren’t about to let anything get in the way of Wiffleball. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true. There were distractions that interrupted our perpetual Wiffleball lives in 1976, but we didn’t take them too seriously.
Although the summer of 1976 was remembered by most of the country as the celebration of the nation’s Bicentennial, it was Wiffle Summer for our crew on Maebeth Street. There is no other way to describe it. I have played a lot of Wiffleball, but never as much as in ’76, when I was 13 and Wiffleball was our religion. In the name of the plastic bat, the holey ball, and the home run, amen.
I have played the game since I was six—hell, I still do—and when I play, I am always in danger of taking Wiffleball a little too seriously. But I never took it as seriously as I did in 1976. Maybe it was because of the beginnings of my raging hormones, producing energy in me that had to be released in some way besides masturbation and vandalism.
Yes, we did play Wiffleball in the summer of ’77, and I remember a fair amount of Wiffleball even by the summers of ’78, and ’79, but by then we were obsessed with sex, not Wiffleball, and the sport understandably took a back seat to other activities. For example, in 1979, if a gaggle of girls were walking down the street, we certainly didn’t want to be seen throwing and hitting a plastic ball, for Christ’s sake. Playing basketball on the Hermans’ driveway “court” was okay, but Wiffleball was on its way out by then.
In ’76, though, we in our own Wiffle world. And we were in deep.
The funny thing about our Wiffleball obsession was that if we had played real baseball all those years, in the various pickup games that took place in Sixteen Acres all summer, instead of being caught up in our Wiffleball daze, we would have been incredibly good ballplayers. Most of us were on little league teams, but our time playing hardball was a small fraction of the hours upon hours we spent grinding out our backyard Wiffle marathons. So, if we had devoted all that time on a real baseball field, hitting real baseballs that were thrown fast instead of plastic balls that were lofted, we would have undoubtedly ended up being stars on our high school baseball teams, and getting all the chicks we wanted.
Oh well, we didn’t think it through. We were young. We were lazy. It was easier to hit a lobbed Wiffleball than a baseball thrown at a blazing velocity. And, on the positive side, we learned valuable life skills. We learned conflict resolution (how to argue about a small matter until both teams walked off the field in disgust). We learned about teamwork (There was no such thing. I didn’t care about my teammates—I just wanted to hit home runs). We learned how to handle winning and losing (I didn’t care whether we won or lost, as long as I hit home runs.)
In our Wiffle summer of ’76, as was the case in ’75, we played our games in a couple of locations, but the majority of our contests took place in Frank Herman’s backyard, because his parents, for some reason, could actually put up with our incessant bickering, taunting, and foul language. The games started in the morning, some time after the Leave it to Beaver reruns were over (10:00 a.m.?) and went on continuously until nightfall.
Though, as I mentioned, I use the term “continuously” very loosely here, because in truth our play was rife with such interruptions as lunch, dinner, blowing something up with an M-80, bike rides to the Fenway driving range and Pine Knoll Par 3 golf course, and bus rides to Eastfield Mall or downtown Springfield to hang out at Baystate West. And, when the days got too hot, our diversions included fishing in a polluted neighborhood pond known as Putnam’s Puddle, jumping in people’s pools in a sport known as the Splash and Dash, and drooling over the waitresses at Friendly’s in Sixteen Acres Center.
To be sure, there were other distractions that interrupted our Wiffle play. During a game, if an argument between two kids got too personal, the beef was moved to the front yard, and they settled their disputes with their fists (or, more likely, mother-ranking that evolved into pushing and wrestling). Here were the rules for fighting: the two combatants had to stay within the confines of the four-feet-wide grass strip dividing the Riccardis’ and the Hermans’ driveways—close confines that made it difficult to either party to chicken out. The arena was known as the Rickman Fighting Strip—Rick Riccardi coined the name, which was a combination of his last name and that of Frank Herman. In retrospect, we probably settled these donnybrooks in the front yard, close to the street, so some neighbor—usually Rick Riccardi’s mom—could see what was going on and put a stop to the fight before someone got hurt. It’s funny, the only fights I clearly remember on the Rickman Fighting Strip were Stan Janek vs. Craig Stewart, Stan Janek vs. Ron Williams, and Craig Stewart vs. either Ron Williams or Frank Herman.
And then there was our occasional vandalism that caused us to stray from our Wiffle world. It was seldom more serious than blowing up someone’s mailbox, but sometimes we did go beyond the pale. Yes, we had our share of shameful moments. To put our horseplay with fireworks into perspective, you have to understand that this was the summer of the country’s 200th birthday, so it was acceptable for each of us to have a sizable arsenal of illegally bought salutes, bottle rockets, M-80s, Roman Candles, red peonies, fountains, baby fountains, Thunderbomb firecrackers, ladyfingers, jumping jacks, Roman Candles, parachute rockets, whistling rockets, pinwheels, giant pinwheels, and buzz bombs (Remember buzz bombs? Fucking flying M-80s! Who could beat that for danger?)
“So, whaddaya say we shoot some bottle rockets at cars?” asked Al Hostetter when we finished a game.
“Sounds good to me,” said Craig Stewart as he walked off the pitcher’s “mound.” Craig was always up for mischief, and it was one of those incredibly hot days that sometimes made playing Wiffleball—dare I say it?—a chore. We were playing our umpteenth Wiffleball game that day, and it was about time to nail some cars with something: tomatoes, crab apples, eggs, fireworks—whatever. It had been about a week, and we were due.
Al pulled out some bottle rockets. The Hostetters had taught us a trick: if you put a bottle rocket on the street and lit it, the sucker would glide along with the asphalt for about 30 yards, leaving a cool little smoke trail, and then explode on Sunrise Terrace, sometimes in front of a speeding car. These reckless drivers really needed to slow down in such a residential area, and we were more than happy to help them. On rare occasions a rocket blew off right under a car, but we somehow didn’t think that was incredibly dangerous. An explosion right under the gas tank. No big deal, right?
“You kids just can’t…shoot…th-those at cars!” stammered some wide-eyed woman in her thirties. She stopped in terror and started losing it. I don’t what shocked her more, the rocket sliding right in front of her car—or us laughing at her after she rolled down the window and started lecturing us. So, lady, you’re going to try to reason with a bunch of guys shooting bottle rockets at cars. Okay…good luck. Are you done, yet? Now, hurry up and drive away, before another “errant” bottle rocket finds its way through your car window.
We knew full well that this kind of activity wasn’t without its risks. Earlier that summer, after my brother Dan and Rick shot a bottle rocket at a car driven by an older teenager in the neighborhood, the guy jumped out and slapped Dan around a little. But what the hell is wrong with a little mischief? We can’t play Wiffleball all day, can we? Especially with all those fireworks.
“Bottle rockets in flight,” sang Al as he prepared to light another one. “Afternoon Delight!” He was mimicking, of course the song Afternoon Delight by the Starland Vocal Band. That one-hit wonder was a catchy tune when it first came out, but it was starting to grate on our nerves.
“Hey, that Starland Vocal Band. Isn’t the guy from that group from Springfield?” I asked. A car was coming and Al lit the wick, but it was a slow burn, so the rocket whizzed and exploded long after the car had driven by.
“You should be listening to Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith and shit,” said Al. “What station you listen to? Fucking Wacky 102?”
“You’re the one who was singing it,” I countered. “Whadda you listen to? WHYN?” Ooh, that's got to hurt. The crappy AM station!
“Fuck you,” said Al.
“Fucking Starland Lame-ass Vocal Band. They sound like a bunch of hick country singers—like a bunch of country bumpkins on Hee Haw,” said Stan Janek.
“You know what ‘afternoon delight’ is?” asked Steve. “They’re talking about gettin’ down, man. A little afternoon delight.”
“God I’m sick of that song,” said Stan. “They played it three times in one hour yesterday. I mean, what the—how much is a radio station allowed to do that?”
No one answered. We were out of conversation. Were we going to continue to fire bottle rockets at cars, or get into some other mischief, or return to Herman Stadium and resume our Wiffle world.
“Well, I guess we can play another game of Wiffleball,” I said.
“Yep,” they responded.
So we played more Wiffleball...until it was time to buy some fireworks.
“Goddamn! Look at that!” yelled Stan Janek. The Hostetters’ oldest brother, Larry, had just opened the trunk of his car. It was filled to the top with fireworks—all for sale, and Stan’s eyes were popping out of his head.
“Jesus, will you keep it down?” chastised Larry. “Okay. What do you want to buy?”
Wow. If the cops ever saw what was in that trunk, I thought. And I could only imagine if someone had tossed a lit cigarette in there. People would hear the boom all the way from downtown.
Needless to say, thanks to Larry, we all had bricks and bricks of firecrackers and an assortment of flying missiles. Boy, were we all going to have a hell of a show on the fourth of July—especially if we were able to limit our fireworks activity in June and save up most them for the big day. But it was difficult to hold off, especially when we had so many of them, and so many good ones.
So we bought a few, blew off a few on Maebeth Street, and then we made our way down to the woods next to Putnam’s Puddle to light a couple of M-80s. Sometimes we lit M-80s in the street, but the neighbors had started hassling us about these stupendous explosions—the kind you could feel in your chest, the sonic booms that rattled windows and sent dogs quivering under tables. Yes, we had to move the heavy artillery into the woods. And after a few M-80s, it was time for Wiffleball again.
Truth be told, it didn’t take much of a swing to hit a 65-foot home run to left center—the power alley, where the majority of us whacked ’em, and it took even less of a drive to hit the ball 45 feet right down the left field line. And that’s where Rick Riccardi tallied the vast majority of his home runs.
Rick was a dead pull hitter, and with his black plastic bat he constantly squeaked his line drives and pop flies over that four-foot-high fence in left field. Since there was no “foul pole,” the question of one of his efforts being a foul or fair was the source of constant arguments. The hitter had the best vantage point, but we were sick of his cheap home runs, and we let him know it.
“Another cheap home run,” announced Steve. It had become our mantra. Another cheap home run.
“Fuck you,” replied Rick. “That’s a good shot down the line.”
“You and your cheap home runs,” I chimed in. “Rick’s cheesy little cheapo jobs. Fucking weasel.”
“If they’re so easy, why don’t you guys aim ’em down here?” he said as he hopped the fence to retrieve the ball. We always made him fetch his own home runs after he rounded the bases.
“Because I don’t hit cheap home runs, weasel,” said Steve.
“Whoop-dee-do,” replied Rick. “Well, these are still home runs, and that part of the yard’s uphill, so fuck you.”
I had forgotten to mention that the far left side of the field sloped upward—into a steep hill, in fact. This required the Rick’s home runs to have some height to them. Oh well, we weren’t about to let the truth get in the way of our tirades.
For quite some time, Rick had been threatened a protest—a sit-out of indefinite length, evidently—if he kept needling him, and of course, we said, “go ahead, weasel.”
It occurred to me that I stood the most to gain by Rick’s threatened protest, so I kept up the taunting: “You know, I think I might just check-swing a ball out there. Right over the fence, for a cheap-o.”
“Be my guest,” he said as he threw it back to my brother Dan, who was pitching. “You better do something, because that’s number 27,” said Rick.
Damn! He must be stopped! Fucking weasel with a capital wease!
To make matters worse for me in the home run race, on many days I insisted on watching the Gong Show at 12:30 after I had lunch, and by the time I came back the Herman Stadium, invariably another game had already begun, and I would have to wait until it was done. There were no inning limits to these games—Christ, I don’t think we even kept track of innings—so I would have to wait not-so-patiently until everyone got bored and decided they were playing the last inning.
“Come on, you guys,” I pleaded. “Start a new game.”
“We’re not through yet,” said Rick. “By the way, when you were watching the Gong Show, I hit number 28.”
“Son of a bitch!” I screamed. “And I bet—”
“Yep,” said Steve, “another cheap—”
“Fuck you,” Rick interrupted. “If you guys keep it up, I swear I’ll go on strike.”
“Go ahead,” said Steve. “We only want real home runs hit in this stadium.”
“Yeah, yeah. Home run number 28,” I scoffed. “Just make this the last inning. All right?”
“We’re not through yet,” said Rick.
“You wouldn’t be hitting home runs if I was pitching,” I said.
“Yeah, well, you’re gonna have to wait,” said Rick.
Fucking son of a bitch.
My TV watching was costing me dearly in terms of Wiffle Ball at-bats. Indeed, my addiction to Match Game ’76 set me back even further. I simply had to watch it every day at 3:30. I don’t know why. It was a ridiculously dumb game show. Blame it on the “so bad it was good” phenomenon. That was undoubtedly the attraction. Whatever the reason, when the Ding Dong cart came down the street at around 3:00, we suspended our game, swarmed the truck, bought ice cream, and then I wandered home to chow down some more snacks—come to think of it, I was getting kind of chunky when I was 13. And then I would inevitably grab a bag of Doritos out of the cabinet and watch Match Game ’76.
As soon as the show was over, when credits started rolling and the funk guitar theme song started playing, and just as fast as the announcer could say, “This is a Mark Goodson/Bill Todman production,” I ran my fat ass back to Herman Stadium, and time after time after time I would yet again find that everyone was in the middle of a game, and they were in no hurry to wrap it up.
“Come on! New game!” I would yell.
“Not ’til we’re finished,” said Rick, who was batting. He wielded his prized black bat that he had bought the previous summer, one that you couldn’t find at Parker Drug—or in any store any longer.
Rick’s precious black bat. It turns out that the Wiffleball Inc. made only black bats for a while in 1975 because of a plastic shortage in the mid 1970s—black was the only color available for bats during the Gulf oil crisis. Did the black bat have special powers? Was it better than the traditional yellow bat—the one with the smooth handle— that was made between 1964 and 1974? Was it better than the yellow bat with the pebble grip, which was manufactured for the first time in 1976? (Yes indeed, I did my research for this screed.) Probably not. But the black bat was never made by Wiffleball Inc. again, and now the 35-year-old “antique” is worth as much as $75 to Wiffleball aficionados.
I lit a firecracker and tossed it on the ground just as the pitch came to him.
“Cut the fucking shit, Bob!” Rick screamed. He was particularly sensitive to on-field pyrotechnics, especially after I almost burned down his garage the previous summer.
“Guess what, Bob,” said Steve. “I hit number 44 when you were watching Match Game.”
“Fantastic,” I said.
“Oh, and guess what,” added Steve. “While you were gone, Rick—”
“Yes way,” he answered. “Another cheap home run.”
“Number 29,” said Rick with a smirk.
Fucking son of a bitch bastard.
“Why do you watch that shit anyway?” asked Craig before he pitched to Rick, who swung and missed. Good. Strike one.
“I don’t know,” I said, shaking my head. “I don’t know. It’s funny.”
“Are there any babes on the show?” asked Craig.
“Um, I don’t know,” I stammered. “Usually there’s at least one babe.”
“Like, what the fuck’s her name? Loretta Swit. Chicks like that.”
“Who the hell is that?” asked Craig.
“You know, Hot Lips from M*A*S*H.”
“Aah, she’s losing it. She got a fat ass now,” said Steve.
“More cushion for pushin’” I said.
“And a fat face,” continued Steve.
“More cushion for pushin’ there too,” I countered.
“Man, she’s a dog,” said Steve.
“Yeah, like you wouldn’t fuck her,” I said.
“I’ve fucked hotter girls than that fat shit,” said Steve.
I was going to say, “Like who?” but I didn’t want to get into a debate that would end in my admitting that I was a virgin. For that matter, I knew that we all were, except possibly Steve. He was going into the ninth grade at Duggan, and it was possible he banged a slut or two at that school in eighth grade. Anyway, I wasn’t interested in talking about Hot Lips Houlihan. I was interested in them getting this game over with so I could hit some home runs. I tried to light another firecracker for the next pitch, but it was a dud. Damn!
Rick drove a ball that flew dangerously down the third base line, but thankfully hooked foul. Strike two.
“Seriously,” said Steve. “You are one Match Game-aholic. That Charles Nelson Reilly still on the show?”
“Yep,” I said.
“He still smoking that pipe like a fag?” Steve asked. “You know what he’d rather have in his mouth.”
Smack. The sound of a hollow plastic sphere hitting a hollow plastic tube shut both of us up. The ball hugged the third base line and went over the fence. Rick rounded the bases, hopped the fence, and retrieved the ball, and tossed it back to Steve.
“Number 30,” he announced.
“Yeah, 30 cheap, chintzy home runs,” I said.
“You know, maybe it’s time I sit a few games out,” he barked bitterly. “I don’t need this shit. You guys are fucking assholes.”
He was bluffing. There was no way he was going to sit, especially when he was so close to me in the home run race. Unless…we gave him a damn good reason. Steve and I had joked about blowing up his bat with an M-80, but we never had the balls to do it. Now I was reconsidering the prospect of sabotaging his rare bat. Or was I? Could I really do it? Taping an M-80 to the bat and lighting the sucker would surely blow it in half, or at least put a hole in it. And then, putting another M-80 in the hole…oh man. It would turn the fucker inside out.
Did I go through with this Machiavellian maneuver? It would be a truly dastardly deed, if indeed I had the nerve to go through with this Faustian bargain. This wasn’t just a matter of blowing up Craig Stewart’s GI Joe Jeep with an M-80, which we did the previous summer. I mean, this was Rick’s Wiffle bat. Would I jeopardize our friendship just to curb his home run total? Well, would you?
Stay tuned for Wiffle World, Part 2, same Wiffle bat time, same Wiffle bat channel.