Many of the names and some of the descriptions in this blog have been changed to protect the guilty.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Wiffle World, Part 2

My millions of readers (How many do I have now? Eight million? Nine million?) are just dying to know one thing: did I really go ahead and pull off the truly malevolent, malicious act of blowing up Rick Riccardi’s Wiffleball bat in the summer of 1976?

No. I didn’t. In retrospect, I don’t think I seriously considered it, despite what I wrote in Wiffle World, Part 1. Maybe I thought about hiding it for a while. But blowing up someone’s Wiffleball bat? Would you? Why not just castrate the guy while you’re at it?

No, there would be no explosion involving Rick’s bat.

But that’s not to say it wasn’t…um…damaged a little.

“Hey Bob, check this out,” said Steve Hostetter excitedly in the Hermans’ yard. He was displaying Rick’s bat. Al, his brother, was smiling as well. They pulled me behind the Hermans’ garage. Oh, oh. Did he carve a hole in it for an M-80 insertion? He held the bat out horizontally at arm’s length, one hand on the handle and one on the top. No hole. Nothing was wrong with it. Intact. But not for much longer: in one swift motion he brought it down on his knee.

Holy shit! He bent the bat in half! There it was, Rick’s prized black bat, now a perfect right angle. A big black letter L. Al, Steve, and my brother Dan roared with laughter. I started cracking up.

“Oh my God! What the hell did you--? Whoa!” I exclaimed. “He’s gonna freak! Really freak!” Rick loved that bat, and it wasn’t available in stores any more. This, I concluded, could end up as a fight on the Rickman Fighting Strip. I glanced around the corner at the Riccardis’ house. Nope—Rick wasn’t out yet. But he would be soon.

“No, check it out,” said Steve. He proceeded to bend it back to its original straight condition. Snap. Just like that. Good as new.

“Wow. Look at that,” I said. “That’s…incredible. I didn’t know a bat could do that.” I inspected the bat. I could barely see two tiny dents where the bat had folded, but otherwise its structural integrity was fine. Weird. You’d think it would fucked be up forever. “It’s perfectly good,” I said. “Rick won’t even notice.”

“Oh, he’ll notice—’cause I’m gonna do it right to his face,” said Steve.

“Really? Oh, man, I don’t know,” I said.

“Come on,” he said. “It doesn’t wreck the bat. Look. It’s fine. Yeah, he’ll be pissed. But then I’ll bend it right back.”

“Yeah, like he ain’t gonna do nothin,’” I said.

“What’s he gonna do?” asked Steve. “Boycott Wiffleball? Good. Aren’t you sick of his cheap home runs?”

“Yep,” I said. And I started laughing. I probably could have convinced Steve not to do it. I likely could have prevented the unfortunate scene ahead, but at the time it seemed like the stunt had so much momentum behind it, and I didn’t have the “energy” to stop it. I was afraid that Rick would surge ahead in the home run race, and so was Steve. And I was curious to see how Rick would react to this “magic trick.”

I heard the Riccardis’ porch door slam. Here he comes. Here we go. My heart started pounding.

Snickering, I stepped away from the crowd, and I prepared to take batting practice by stepping into the “batter’s box,” wiping my hands in the dirt, and grabbing my own yellow bat. In case you missed that oh-so–subtle symbolism, I was washing my hands of the affair, like Pontius Pilate, giving the scheme tacit approval with not only my inaction, but also with my laughter.

“Hey Rick, check it out,” said Steve. Rick stared at his bat. Rick brought the bat down on his knee. Jesus. Bent to shit… again. Rick’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. But instead of grabbing the bent bat or going after Steve, he frowned, pouted, and walked back to his house empty-handed.

“Rick, look, the bat’s okay,” said Steve as he snapped it back into straightness. “See? Rick! Don’t be a fucking baby.” But Rick didn’t look back. Did he flip us the bird? Probably. I have an outstanding memory, but not a photographic one. But what I do recall clearly about the moment was that this was when his boycott of Wiffleball had officially begun. Taunting him and calling him a weasel because of his cheap home runs was one thing, but bending his bat was the straw that broke the weasel’s back.


This was the headline I wrote the next day in the Maebeth Enquirer, a scandal sheet I penned every day in the summers of 1975 and 1976 about our exploits on and off the field. In the beginning of the summer, our gang on Maebeth Street had patiently waited for me to finish the daily issue before the morning’s Wiffleball games commenced, but by late June they began playing without me while I worked on the “newspaper,” which had set me back even further in the home run race.

Funny, though, on the day after the bent bat incident, the game was delayed until the Maebeth Enquirer was hot off the press. This stuff was just too good to miss.

In part one, I wrote that Wiffleball was our religion. Our daily bread. And we forgave each other our trespasses—the taunting, the insults, the arguments—even the bent bat incident was finally put in the past. Rick’s faith was too strong to let this prank keep him away from the game for too long. He soon ended his boycott and returned to the fold.

To be sure, his protest certainly was an amusing affair: when were playing Wiffleball, we could see him in his yard, throwing up his ball and hitting it. Once in a while someone yelled something like, “Rick, quit playing with yourself. You’re gonna go blind,” and “Hitting any cheap home runs over there?” Such taunts were inevitable, but in a way we missed his cheap home runs. What the hell else were we going to bitch about? What the hell else was I going to write about in the Maebeth Enquirer?

I couldn’t recall how long the protest lasted, so I recently enlisted Rick’s help in establishing exactly what led to boycott and the length of its duration. I also wanted to give him a chance to defend his cheap home runs, since I was in essence questioning his integrity—and downright sabotaging him with my blog. In the interest of being as objective as possible (yeah, right), I emailed Rick and warned him of my impending cyberattack on his cheap home runs in the 1970s and informed him of the plot that triggered his strike.

“Plot?!? What plot?” he wrote. “Who put a bomb in my bunker?”

Nobody, dumb-ass. But as you’re undoubtedly discovering now, Rick, there was a plot to put a bomb in your bat. But the bombing ended up being a bending. Nonetheless, the bent bat was the swizzle stick that stirred a toxic cocktail: its ingredients consisted of the cheapness of Rick’s home runs and the bitterness of our complaints. The volatile mixture needed a catalyst, and we had provided one: the bent bat.

The question remained: how would Rick justify his cheap home runs? “I will give Mr. Riccardi a chance to defend these Bucky Dent boinks as bona fide homers, and his spirited defense might just be published, so he better choose his words carefully,” I wrote to Rick. “What would Mr. Riccardi say about the legitimacy of these chip shots into the Foleys’ yard vs. the real home runs in the power alleys?”

Rick thought about it for a while, and then launched into an email tirade about the “false cries of ‘cheap home run’ and ‘Rick Riccardi home run’ ranking among the biggest “injustices of the 20th Century.” He gloated about how he “rounded the bases, leaving his peers screaming these phrases in a tone of bitter defeat.”

He then continued his response, referring to himself in the third person—weasel propaganda was obviously meant to “blend” into my narrative. Fair enough. This is what he wrote:

“In Herman Stadium, the whiffle (sic) ball field was a backyard that had a 7 foot hill that the third base line climbed up. Third base itself well up the hill as was all of left and left-center field. Home runs down the line to left were considered ‘cheap’ home runs by those who couldn’t pull the ball well, usually big lumbering types (think Dave Kingman). Anywho, being that the 3rd base line ran up a seven foot hill and that the whole yard was surrounded by a four foot fence, the ball needed to clear a fence that was eleven feet higher than home plate—a green monster if you will. Many of Rick’s homers not only cleared the fence, but also sailed high over the fence and were knocked to the ground by a tree in the neighbor’s yard, preventing them from traveling even farther. These scientific matters of fact seemed to be lost on all the other children except Rick. Home runs from center field to the right field line were never considered cheap, although trees made such shots difficult. Center field and to the right need only clear a fence that was only 4 feet higher than home plate, a FACT (Rick’s emphasis, not mine) whose lack of recognition led to the Whiffle (sic) Ball Strike by Rick.”

But wait. There’s more. Reader: beware. You might need a barf bag for this part. He gleefully writes about his strike upsetting the “delicate balance” of our three-on-three games:

“Rick Riccardi staged a mid-summer strike that lasted over a week. He picketed the games from his own property, which happened to be adjacent to Herman Stadium. This action would force games to contain an odd number of participants. The league, instead of calling for a general strike, wrongfully adopted a policy of two-on-two with an automatic pitcher (one player pitched for both sides and was neutral). Furious, Rick picketed the games for over a week and the strike ended as both sides became bored. The league was bored with the reduced format and Rick was bored with not playing. A half-hearted apology was issued, accepted and play resumed. Rick wanted all the home runs during the strike to not be counted, but was refuted—too bad we didn't know about asterisks back then!”

Asterisks shmasterisks.

A seven-foot hill? GMAFB. How about four feet at the very most?

As for his sheer temerity in comparing his home runs to others, I submit the satellite photo below of the now-defunct Herman Stadium that shows just how dinky his home runs down the line were.

An aerial view of Herman Stadium (click to enlarge).

Also, I don’t recall a half-hearted apology. I don’t remember a lot of things, such as how many homers I hit during his absence, or, for that matter, who finished second to Steve in home runs that summer.

What has become more vivid in my memory, however, was the collection of our misadventures that accumulated when we weren’t playing Wiffleball.

Wanderings from Our Wiffle Worship: Our Wayward Ways

With the greatest game on earth beckoning us to Frank Herman’s yard every day, how could we not play Wiffleball? I mean, aside from our fireworks shenanigans and bike rides to Sixteen Acres Center and beyond, what could pull us astray from the holy confines of Herman Stadium? What led us into temptation? Why would we stop playing Wiffleball on a sunny summer day and start hanging out in Craig Stewart’s house?

The answer isn’t complicated. It can be summed up in two words: “latchkey kids,” a term that came into vogue during the late 1970s describing the rapidly rising phenomenon of children being left unsupervised in a home in which both parents worked. Indeed, while Craig Stewart’s mother and father were at their full-time jobs, they were under the mistaken assumption that their son was playing Wiffleball all day, and for a while they were right. But soon the food in Craig’s fridge and cabinets—as well as the allure of watching Hollywood Squares, and, yes, Match Game ’76 while feeding our faces—was just to much to ignore.

And this cornucopia of food wasn’t just for eating. No sir. Some of it was perfect for throwing at cars on Sunrise Terrace. An egg here, a tomato there—splat! What could be more fun than Wiffleball? Well, how about nailing a car with a tomato from the woods that surrounded the pond known as Putnam’s Puddle? You tell me what’s more exhilarating: hitting a home run, or firing an egg at a car and then disappearing into the safety of the woods? We had it down to a science: nail a car, escape into the woods, and when the coast was clear, sneak back to Craig’s house to reload with another food item.

Fastball grip on a Wiffleball.

Fastball grip on a tomato.


In case you’ve never the sound of a tomato hitting a car, that’s what it sounds like—just the way you’d thunk it sounds like. Thunk! We all laughed our asses off when Stan Janek threw it, and when the car didn’t stop or turn around, we walked out of Craig’s house and called Stan out of the woods. The tomato was deflated, flattened, and its insides were leaking out, but it was still throwable. It was decided that Stan should make good use of the remains and chuck it at another car, so we returned to Craig’s house and Stan slipped behind the trees for another go at it.

Another car whizzed down Sunrise Terrace, and Stan stepped out from his forest cover and whipped the tomato right at the windshield. It was more of a shot-put motion than a baseball throw, since the tomato was falling apart, but it was right on target. A different sound: “fwap!” Yes! Direct hit! This one didn’t bounce, but stuck right to the glass.

Perfect. Except for one thing. A familiar car was coming from the other direction. The victim that he had hit a few minutes earlier had returned to the scene of the crime just as Stan let loose with the tomato scraps. Our laughter turned to silence as an older teenager jumped from the car and went after Stan, who disappeared into the woods. Oh-oh. The chase was on. A woman, who was evidently the teen’s mother, inched the car along Sunrise Terrace and peered into the woods while we debated Stan’s fate.

“He knows those woods like the back of his hand,” said my brother Dan. “That lard-ass’ll never catch him.”

Or so we hoped. We were also counting on the probability that Stan would eventually snake his way through yards back to Craig’s house without being followed. Surely, he wouldn’t inadvertently lead his pursuer back here, right?


Stan came back, and while we were laughing our asses off, the doorbell rang. I peeked out the window to see a middle-aged woman. No, it wasn’t the Avon lady. It was the driver the first tomatoed car, and she was standing there with her son.

Ding dong!

We ignored it.

Ding dong!

We tried to pretend there was nobody home, despite Monty Hall and Let’s Make a Deal blaring from the television.

Ding dong!

Shit. They weren’t about to go away.

Stay tuned for Wiffle World, Part 3.

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