By Mark Carpenter
As I have often said in these columns, I find the inspiration for writing in the oddest of places. This time it was my garage. On a warm Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks ago, the assigned task at home was cleaning out what had become an unmanageable mess in our garage. In the process of doing so, I came across an old bin of sports equipment and my mind was jolted back by the sight of a perfectly exquisite yellow wiffle ball bat, a treasure of youth.
The sight of that treasure sent my mind racing back a long, long time to the days when that piece of equipment may have been the most important item in our neighborhood, at least the one that got the most use, maybe other than our bicycles. I began to think about how every day of the summer was spent the same way-finding an open yard or field to put together a neighborhood game of baseball. I simply call it “growing up the right way.”
There were all kinds of tricks to the trade when we put our daily games together. First of course was our version of “corking the ball and bat”, which meant finding some electrical tape and wrapping up the wiffle ball to make it much heavier and more resembling a real baseball. We were way too serious to just use a plain old wiffle ball with all those holes in it and to even the playing field, we also taped up the barrel of the wiffle ball bat for more power. Growing up the right way.
The next step was to find something to use as bases and a lot of old shorts and pieces of cardboard were sacrificed to serve as the bases that we trod on constantly. Then it was time to set down the rules, which were determined by the number of available players. Hit it so far for a single, a double, or a triple, ghost runner, and pitcher’s mound out. Of course, the single most important requirement was the boundaries for the home run. If the field for the day had a fence. all was good. If not, other arrangements had to be made, usually involving a roof or perhaps a line of trees, and then everyone had a glove. Even though it was just wiffle ball, it was not baseball without a glove. Growing up the right way.
On one particular field that we used often, we ditched the wiffle balls for the rubber balls that were designed to look like baseballs. Those babies could fly and we lost a number of them to the field on the other side of the fence ( much like “The Sandlot”) or to the windows of the factory if we hit the other way. When all the rubber balls were lost, that meant a trip either by bike or by parent to Richey’s in downtown Ripley to purchase a new three-pack and the games commenced again. Growing up the right way.
One of the other requirements of any game was the ability to imitate many of the professional players of the day, usually with the batting stance and swing. I knew then and can probably still remember all of the stances and swings of the Big Red Machine and one of the cries heard before every game might be “We’re the Reds!” At that time, they had stands outside of Riverfront Stadium where you could buy the plastic batting helmets of every team in the majors, and I had collected them all so I could literally be any team that I wanted by just putting a helmet on my head. Growing up the right way.
When we got really adventurous and since it was only a couple of minutes away by bike, we would take our game down to the baseball field at the old Ripley High School. There we got quite creative, because remember, a home run fence was an absolute necessity, so what did we do? We flipped the field, moving home plate to second base and hitting toward the dugout fences and back stop. Instant home run fence and just high enough that you could leap at the fence to rob your buddy of a dinger. Growing up the right way.
You may be wondering how we handled rainy days when we couldn’t play outside. Not a problem for me. A rainy day meant spreading out all of my baseball cards across my bed and sorting them in as many different ways as possible, reading the backs, and scouring the stats. Then it was to the table in our basement to lose myself in a game of APBA or Strat-O-Matic Baseball. If you’ve never had the joy of playing those board games, it’s your loss. Make out the lineups, fill out the scorecards, get your player cards in order, set up the game board, and start rolling those dice. I even spent the entire night after my junior prom with my buddies playing Strat-O-Matic. Growing up the nerd way.
As the sunlight began to dwindle, the games did not end as the neighborhood kids gathered under the light of the street lights for hide and seek or perhaps “kick the can.” I myself spent many an evening with bat in hand, sharpening my swing by blasting lightning bugs out of the air. Waiting for that bug to light up and then enter the strike zone, and BAM! Learned to swing from both sides of the plate that way. Growing up the right way.
Before I drove to work on Monday morning, I took a little trip around Ripley to check out what had become of all of our old homemade “diamonds.” Most of them have gone the way of a Polo Grounds, an Ebbets Field, or a Crosley Field, lost to progress and now full of houses or trailers. As Francis Albert Sinatra sang it so well, “There used to be a ballpark right here.”
It was sort of a sad trip really as I remembered the times when life was so simple and so much fun. Todd, Randy, Jeff, and all the many others who were part of our “hood,” I miss those times, but one thought kept running through my mind as I drove by our old “shrines.” Growing up the right way.