From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

A Childhood Memory

Baseball, to me, is still the national pastime because it is a summer game. I feel that almost all Americans are summer people, that summer is what they think of their childhood. I think it stirs up an incredible emotion within people.

Steve Busby

When I write a story, I’m rarely thinking of the reader. It’s not that I don’t care what they reader thinks. I do. But first and foremost, I’m concerned with telling a good story. In the process, I oftentimes forget, or rather don’t realize, what impact my words have on a reader.

That point hit home at the 2000 All-Star Game in Atlanta.

Major League Baseball sponsored a Wiffle ball tournament, and it prompted me to write a story on the seemingly forgotten game.

I talked to a childhood friend, who had joined me in countless Wiffle Ball games in my backyard. I talked to a coworker, the baseball editor at USATODAY.com. And finally, at the All-Star Game, I went from player to player asking if he ever played Wiffle ball and if he would mind sharing some of those memories.

The article generated a lot of feedback, more than I imagined. The e-mails reached my in box from places around the world. Obviously, I helped stir a whirlwind of emotions that I had no idea existed.

Wiffle ball, a primitive form of baseball, is a game for everyone. All you need is two people, the long skinny plastic yellow bat and the hole-filled white plastic ball.

You could play most anywhere, in the strangest of field dimensions. The peculiarities of a Wiffle ball diamond enhanced the affection you had for the game. I wilted away several summer days playing Wiffle ball, mostly with my friend Steve Boudrie.

We used to play in my backyard. We had standings, a schedule and eventually play-offs and a World Series. You were Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson and George Brett all in the same afternoon.

A three-section lawn chair determined balls and strikes, the middle section being the strike zone. A hit past the pitcher was a single. A hit past the tree in the backyard was a double. Off the fence in the air was a triple and over the fence was a homer. Anything not hit past the pitcher was an out, and anything you caught in the air was an out.

Nothing was better than hitting an opposite-handed homer or striking out a batter. Nothing was worse than striking out with two outs and ghost runners on second and third, or having the tree block the ball from sailing over the fence, or watching a third strike barely tick the lawn chair.

Boy, did my mom get upset when foul balls regularly tinked off the house’s siding. Boy, did old man Orick get peeved when we had to go trudging through his garden to get a foul ball. I remember this quote from him: “I’ll beat you with a hoe handle until you piss your pants if you don’t get outta that garden.” I hopped back over the fence into my yard in record speed, laughing so hard I nearly wet myself.

“Wiffle ball was great because we could play with just two people,” Boudrie told me in an e-mail. “It involved our imagination. The games allowed us to use our creativity, imagining we were certain players, following the line-ups, utilizing the dimensions of the ‘diamonds’ that we played on, such as a short right-field porch.”

Steve Gardner, the baseball editor at USATODAY.com, was no stranger to the game.

“First of all, it was a great neighborhood game for all ages, but it was even better one-on-one,” he said. “My brother and I used to assume the identities of our favorite major-league teams and stage a World Series game—usually complete with the requisite down-to-the-wire drama.

“To maximize the pitcher-batter concentration we had my mom’s ’74 Ford Pinto parked right on the street behind home plate. It was great for blocking just about every pitch the batter let pass. As an added bonus the door panel was just about equivalent to a batter’s strike zone. The batter watches it go by, and it hits the door— called strike. Hits the window—ball high. Goes under the car or bounces—ball low.”

San Francisco Giants second baseman Jeff Kent busted out in laughter when asked about Wiffle ball memories.

“We used to put duct tape on the ball so we could throw it faster,” Kent said. “Someone once threw a sinker or slider and it was coming down the middle of the plate. The next thing I know the ball breaks and drills me in the face. I didn’t like playing much after that.”

Boston Red Sox reliever Derek Lowe recalled his Wiffle ball days with a fondness he carries with him when he pitches today.

“We played in an alley behind my buddy’s house,” he said. “The fence wasn’t even a hundred feet. There was a garage in left field that we had to hit it over for a home run. That’s when the game was fun. I apply that attitude to baseball today. It hurt me when I was younger in the minors because people thought I was lackadaisical. But I was just having fun. It’s helped me in the big leagues. As a reliever, you’re in some pretty intense situations, and those days have helped me find a way to settle down.”

The article ran, and the e-mails flooded my inbox.

Then there was an e-mail from David J. Girman, and he made me realize how important Wiffle ball was to someone else. This is what he wrote:

“I just wanted to thank you for bringing me back to my backyard, probably twenty years. My brother and I used to play every day. We also had the lawn chair as the strike zone, with an old fence post as first base, the center pole of a swing set as second, and a cherry tree as third (all for ghost runners, of course). . . . You see, my brother died from brain cancer in 1987 (at the age of twenty). I am starting my own family now with a new wife, I adopted her daughter, and we are pregnant with our first. I think we are having a boy and naturally I will name him after my best friend, who just happened to be my brother. There are a lot of things I wish for, a lot of things I wish that he could have seen, and many of those things are sports-related. Things like the talent that K. Griffey Jr. has, or just how B. Sanders could see behind him, or how fast Michael Johnson can run so easily and how M. Jordan ascended into superhuman on the court. There are times still when I see something and I look over to share it with him (just last night when Sosa hit his second five-hundred-footer) and they are some of the saddest moments that I spend alone. At the same time they are bringing me back to my favorite days when my brother and I would play ball all day long until we heard our mother yelling for Joey and David to come home.”

Baseball is not life and death. But in life and in death, we remember the game, and we remember those who shared the game with us.

Wiffle ball might not be traditional nine-on-nine baseball with hard ball, wood bat, spikes, gloves and umpires. But we invoked the images of real players and expanded the boundaries of imagination in the name of sport, creating memories and friendships that are tied to baseball. Those are days I’ll never forget.

When I was at the grocery store the other day, I saw two guys buying a Wiffle ball and bat. I should probably do the same sometime soon.

Jeff Zillgitt

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