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

Monday, March 8, 2010

Wiffle World, Part 4

It’s funny, I remember my father advising me to stop playing so much Wiffleball and start learning such “lifetime sports” as tennis and golf—activities that I’d likely be involved in as an adult. Guess what, Dad. Wiffleball IS a lifetime sport.

Let’s play Wiffleball, shall we? After all, life is good when you’re living in your own Wiffle World, isn’t it? Nothing to worry about except hitting home runs. However, there were a few interruptions to our Wiffle World in the summer of 1976, the main one being the crank phone call scandal, which resulted in our father threatening to make us throw our fireworks into the pond at the end of our street.

As detailed in Wiffle World, Part 3, when my dad told my brother Dan and I to follow him down to the pond one night when he was walking our dog, I suspected that he was going to point out the place where he wanted us to submerge our fireworks arsenal.

How wrong we were. He just wanted to show us a strikingly surreal scene: a fireworks show that was put on by Mother Nature. When we stepped over the guard rail and walked down the hill, we saw a swirling constellation of living sparks: hundreds of fireflies flickering and sparkling in the moonless night. Dan and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing, and neither could our dog, King, who simply sat there and joined us in taking in this bizarre but beautiful show. The insects' pageant at Putnam's Puddle struck us mute. I had seen fireflies here and there in my life, but I had never seen the woods here light up like this. Man, they were EVERYWHERE. I knew that fireflies did their glow thing to entice mates, so I thought about what a humongous twinkling friggin’ singles bar this was. Hundreds of luminous bugs trying their best to get it on during a hot summer night, with the musky smell of the pond providing quite an aroma for their horny glitter dance.

“I saw a few fireflies here last night,” said my father. “But this—when I saw this…spectacle tonight, I just had to come get you.”

“Wow,” I said.

“Wow,” said Dan. “Incredible.”

Dan and I just stood there in dumbfounded silence. Oh, by the way, I was also more than a little relieved that my dad brought me down here to see THIS—and not for something related to our well-deserved punishment.

Could it be that my father was finally getting over the shock of the crank phone calls—that he was finally ending the silent treatment and ready to resume a normal relationship with my brother and me? It was touch-and-go for a while. It seemed that he would never be able to forgive us—whenever he walked in the room, we KNEW what he was thinking about—but now his anger seemed to subsiding.

After what seemed like an eternity, my father said, “What you guys did—the prank phone calls—was stupid. But I’m not going to have you throw your fireworks in the pond. I just don’t want to ever hear that kind of language come out of your mouths again. Okay?”

“Okay,” we both echoed laconically.

In actuality, we didn’t have that many more fireworks to blow off anyway, since we had been lighting them off like madmen during the previous week. We reasoned that we might as well enjoy as many explosions as we could before we were forced to drown the rest. Few of our fireworks that remained, but that was okay. At least my father wasn’t pissed at us anymore. In retrospect, when you’re 46 years old, you know fully well in the year 2010 that your dad couldn’t possibly have stayed steamed at you forever over something as piddling as crank calls. But when you’re 13 in 1976, how could you know? That was the most furious I had ever seen him.

The stupendous firefly show continued. We took it in some more, and then we headed back up the hill. Well, I thought as I stepped over the guard rail, the downside to this whole thing is that Dan and I had squandered most of our fireworks the previous week. But so what? We were off the hook as far as the crank scandal was concerned, and I must say that this wild night dance of the fireflies was more impressive than any fireworks show we could have put on.

Yep. It sounds corny. “More impressive than any fireworks show we could have put on.” Ugh. I know. How Wonder Years can I get? Gag me with a spoon. But, I tell you, I’m not exaggerating. This was a watershed moment for my brother and I, because right after the cranks I was convinced that my father thought we were nothing more than a couple of shit-ass weasel Sixteen Acres punks (and we were), but he forgave us.

And then we went back to playing Wiffleball. Yes, what a banner idea. Let’s play Wiffleball, shall we?

Wiffleball was pretty much our religion in 1976, and it was time to go back to church. Some say that religion is the opiate of the masses, and Wiffleball certainly was our drug of choice—but it was doomed to be replaced by alcohol by the late Seventies.

Still, for the time being, Wiffleball kept us out of trouble. When we weren’t playing Wiffleball, we were constantly getting in some kind of ridiculous predicament. But when we WERE playing, although we used the worst language imaginable—and we argued until the neighbors told us to shut up—at least we weren’t breaking the law.

That would change for some of us. It was Steve and Al Hostetter who first strayed from Wiffleball. They continued playing in ’76 and ’77, and most of ’78. But then they moved onto other friends and activities, and at times they got into situations that were much more serious than the usual teenage mischief. My parents were always wary of the Hostetters—mostly because of their wild older brother Larry, whom they knew sold us our fireworks. But they tolerated us hanging around the younger Hostetters because they were our friends, and they even came with us to a couple of Red Sox games in our father’s Plymouth Aspen station wagon.

Then the Hostetters and our group we moved in different directions, and the brothers sometimes got into trouble with a capital T. They were involved in a couple of huge fracases that broke out on their lawn, when feuds between Larry and some of his enemies resulted in all-out brawls that everyone on Maebeth Street watched until the cops came. Steve and Al, of course, had jumped right into these fights to protect their older brother. My parents were more than a bit concerned when they found out that my brother was in the Hostetters’ house listening to records with Al when one of these donnybrooks erupted.

There would be more trouble for the Hostetters in the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. I remember picking up a Boston Globe in 2000 and reading an editorial praising Governor Paul Cellucci, in his final days in office, for issuing criminal record pardons to several people, including “Steve Hostetter, who was convicted of larceny and assault in the 1980s.” Way to go Globe, for pointing out how these people deserved a second chance. So why sew scarlet letters on them by putting their names and their crimes in your paper? Even so, at least Steve stayed on the straight and narrow after his rambunctious teens and twenties.

The same couldn’t be said for Al, who for some reason was destined to take after Larry. There were a few miscellaneous arrests in early- and mid-1980s, but then Al was involved in a memorable drug bust in the late ’80s and sentenced to 12-15 years at Cedar Junction State Prison in Walpole. The crime? Trying to sell a pound of cocaine to an undercover narc for $10,000. He was out on parole in the mid-’90s, but after another drug arrest he was sent to the Massachusetts Correctional Institute in Concord to finish his sentence. Back then, Stan Janek, the only one of our gang to really continue hanging out with the Hostetters, paid a visit to him at MCI-Concord and told me Al looked like he was finally getting his shit together behind bars. He was into weightlifting and off drugs. But that only lasted so long. I drove by Al on the street last year, but I didn’t stop to say hello. He wasn’t looking so good. Yes, I know, time flies, we all get older, and, I realize that I hadn’t seen him since Stan’s bachelor party in 1997. But Jesus, I barely recognized him. Now, in 2010, faces drug and weapons charges, which will certainly put Al in jail again.

What I’m getting at is this: the rest of us could have followed a similar path if we weren’t so busy playing Wiffleball. Think about it. Right now, Major League Baseball is on a crusade to bring the sport back to urban neighborhoods, where our national pastime has been largely abandoned by children in the past couple of decades. The big leagues’ national effort, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) is funding youth baseball programs to keep kids off the streets and out of gangs. This started in South Central L.A. and has spread to 200 cities in the U.S.

To be sure, they are on the right track. But I can think of an easier and cheaper solution: instead of putting all their energy into forming organized leagues, buying baseball equipment for inner-city kids, and drumming up community support for this initiative, all Major League Baseball officials have to do is team up with Wiffleball Inc. to distribute Wiffleball bats and balls to children. Hell, you don’t even need a field—just a yard, or a lot, or the street. And when you play Wiffleball morning, noon, and night, as we did, there’s no time to get involved in any monkey business.

Well, scratch that. We did get into mischief, but not the heavy shit the Hostetters were involved in. Not even close. Yes, I’ll admit that later in my teenage years there were instances in which I disappointed my dad again—the times I came home buzzed enough for him to say, “Go to bed before your mother sees you.” And there was the morning when he saw my stitched-up and swollen face after my brother, my friends, and I foolishly took on about 20 Forest Park kids and we got our asses kicked.

But at least I never broke my parents’ hearts by getting sent to prison. And I owe it all to Wiffleball. Remember, the seeds of juvenile delinquency are planted in pre-adolescence, when idle hands are the devil’s workshop. But if those same hands are constantly throwing and hitting a Wiffleball when you’re a kid, they won’t be used to commit evil deeds later in life. Here’s to Wiffleball. It saved me from a misspent youth, and, consequently, a corrupt adulthood.

Wiffleball: Our Savior

What would Jesus do? Play Wiffleball.

So let’s play Wiffleball, shall we? In fact, let’s play into our twenties, thirties, and beyond. The question is, at what age does a person begin to look ridiculous swinging a yellow plastic bat at a white perforated plastic ball? It’s hard to tell. My brother and I certainly didn’t feel like such morons when we were in our mid- and late- twenties and played Wiffleball with our housemates and friends in the yard of the boarded-up Randall G. Morris Elementary School in the West Roxbury section of Boston. The abandoned building was right next to our house on Boxford Terrace in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and its asphalt lot was the ultimate Wiffleball stadium.

I still insist Boxford Stadium was our greatest Wiffleball venue ever. Even better than Herman Stadium. True, we had to put up with diving into broken glass in order to make a circus catch in the outfield. And, when we ran out of Wiffleballs after a rooftop home run, one of us had to climb through a window and make our way through the dank and dark hallways and stairways of the spooky school all the way to the roof to fetch the numerous balls that had collected there.

Then they tore down the Morris School down to make way for six new houses. It was a damn shame.

The Randall G. Morris School in West Roxbury: there used to be a ballpark right here.

Our beloved center field wall in mid-tear-down mode.

We certainly had no love for those construction workers who destroyed our Wiffleball shrine, especially after they took something else from us: our beloved pot plant, which was growing right next to our driveway. Believe me—it was those school demolition dummies that did the dastardly deed. A catering truck pulled in front of our house every day that summer to feed these fat fucks, and one of them must have spotted the fast-growing weed, which I had lovingly named Robert Plant. They plucked Mr. Plant before we got the chance to.

At least we exacted some measure of revenge. The construction workers always left their backhoe (pictured below) in the lot overnight, and one evening Craig Stewart visited us from Springfield. After getting blitzed in Boston, we returned to the house and as we emerged from our car, we started muttering about the bastards who ripped down Boxford stadium and ripped off our plant. Before we knew it, Craig picked up a half a brick from the school and fired it toward the backhoe. I knew that Craig had played baseball in college, but I still didn’t think he could nail the behemoth vehicle from such a distance. But this throw was a thing of beauty. It found its target like a Dwight Evans throw to second base.


 The noise reverberated through the schoolyard. He nailed the sucker, but we didn’t know exactly where. We bolted into the house. It sure sounded like he had drilled a window instead of denting metal, but it was difficult to tell in the dark.

At the crack of noon the next day I woke up, opened my shade, and sure enough, the windshield was shattered, and there was a huge day-glo orange sticker on it. “What the hell does it say on that thing?” I asked as I grabbed a pair of binoculars and focused in. “Oh-oh.” In large capital letters it read “INOPERABLE VEHICLE” and under it “STATE POLICE CRIME SCENE SERVICES UNIT.” Meanwhile the workers were going about their business of tearing the rest of the school down. The beep-beep-beep of a backup backhoe backing up hammered my hungover head.

“Well, Craig, if they start interviewing neighbors, one of them might have seen us running into the house,” I said. “We were pretty loud when we got out of the car. And the brick—that was REALLY loud.”

“Aah, the cops have better things to do in Boston than go going on a wild goose chase for a broken window,” said Craig. “ I bet they never came. Those meatheads must put those stickers on vandalized equipment all the time to scare people away from doing it again.”

“No. I think you’re full of shit,” said Dan. “The cops are gonna ask US about it. But our silence can be bought, Craig. How about buying us breakfast at Alicia’s?”

“Fuck you,” said Craig after a yawn. “I gotta get going.”

“Don’t forget to give them the finger on your way to the car,” I said with a smirk.

An apparently dehydrated Craig swilled nearly a quart of orange juice in one gulp, burped, and then said with a smirk, “I will. No, wait, I’ll just point to the truck and then point to your house.”

“You do that,” laughed Dan.

We pretended to be unconcerned, but I was worried about a group of nuns in strange blue habits that had moved into a house across from the school. We weren’t sure if they were from a Catholic order or what. We just referred to them as the “blue nuns.” What if they saw the whole thing and told the cops? What would we say? “Those nuns are liars! And they aren’t even real Catholic nuns! They’re members of some kind of cult!” Yeah, that would get us off the hook. Thankfully, nothing ever came of it.

Do you see what happens when we stop playing Wiffleball? Growing marijuana! Drinking! Vandalism! When we’re Wiffle-deprived, we get depraved, graduating from tossing tomatoes at cars to throwing rocks at windshields.

Fortunately, Wiffleball will never leave our lives. We will always play—not as much as we want to, but if there’s a will, there’s a way. As the Lord said, “When two or more are gathered…”

Years later, I played Wiffleball when I got together with a bunch of guys every summer at the Cape Cod home of my brother’s college friend. They used to call this guy “Shit Stain,” so we referred to the “park” as “The Stain.” The field had one of the most bizarre ground rules in the history of Wiffleball: if someone hit the ball in the “crow’s nest” roof deck (pictured below), it would be an automatic grand slam. No, this has never been accomplished.

The “crow’s nest” at The Stain.

Unfortunately, I haven’t played at The Stain a couple of years, but I still manage to Wiff it up with some of the Maebeth crew at least once a year on Cape Cod: at our favorite Cape Cod destination, Cahoon Hollow Beach in Wellfleet. We call it Cahoon Hollow Stadium, and it has the ultimate Green Monster wall in the form of a mammoth National Seashore dune. We just toss rocks on the dune to mark single, double, triple, and home run lines, and use a boogie board stuck vertically in the sand as a strike zone.

It’s funny, I remember my father advising me to stop playing so much Wiffleball and start learning such “lifetime sports” as tennis and golf—activities that I’d likely be involved in as an adult.

Guess what, Dad. Wiffleball IS a lifetime sport. Either we haven’t grown up, or, judging by all these professional Wiffleball leagues, it’s now cool for grownups to play Wiffleball. On New England Sports Network the other day I was watching Yard Work, a documentary about these serious Wiffleball freaks playing in major league stadium replica parks and battling it out in the Wiffleball National Championship in Cedar Park, Texas. I mean, look at the speeds of some of these pitches: 97 miles and hour! The show also included an interview with Jenn Stroud Rossman (pictured below), an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Lafayette College, as she discussed her work, “An Experimental Study of Wiffle Ball Aerodynamics,” which was published in the December 2007 edition of the American Journal of Physics. Face it, Dad, Wiffleball is some serious shit.

Did David L. Millany, the patron saint of Wiffleball, have adults in mind when he designed the first Wiffleball in 1953? Absolutely not. He made it for his 12-year-old son, and the boy and his friends loved the fact that they could throw such a nasty a curve ball so easily with it. The Wiffleball, Inc. never had to advertise that much, because word spread like wildfire among children. They were hooked. You know, kids will be kids. And, five decades later, adults will be kids. Truth be told, the popularity of the sport among us old fogies is probably due to the fact that we’ve been stricken by the Gilligan Syndrome, a malady that attacks Baby Boomers from time to time and prevents us from completely growing up. The Gilligan Syndrom is kind of like malaria: it only flares up from time to time, but there is no complete cure. Put a Wiffleball in front of us and we Peter Pans are transported into our Never-Never land of childhood, marooned in a temporary adolescence until our wives tell us to put down the bat and mow the lawn.

“Bob,” implored my wife two years ago. “When is this game going to end?” It was the 13th inning of a tie game at The Stain, and she was sick of preventing my son from wandering onto the field. Sorry dear. I was in my own Wiffle World, when nothing matters except the next pitch. I was stuck in the Summer of 1976. Wiffleballs in flight—afternoon delight.

Come to think of it, now that my son is four—old enough to swing his Spiderman bat with authority— it’s time to thoroughly indoctrinate him into my Wiffle World.

Yes, my boy and I have been taking some batting practice—in the winter!

I’m already scouting out the dimensions for a decent Wiffleball field in my backyard for the spring. Hmm, the only problem is that tree. It's totally in the way. It's going to have to come down.

All right. The four-part Wiffle World saga is over. The story kind of took on a life of its own. Like a Rick Riccardi cheap home run, it didn't look like it would go that far off the bat, but then it kept going and going. Gone. Now it’s time to turn off your computer and go outside and pick up a bat.

Let's play Wiffleball, shall we?

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