Wiffle to the People—Right On

Posted in The sporting life on July 22nd, 2002 by bill
I’m composing this week’s column in a bit of a daze because I just returned from my annual pilgrimage to Fight Club. What is Fight Club, you ask? Well, I can’t tell you that, because the first rule is that you don’t talk about Fight Club. But I can tell you what it’s not: It’s not a half-brilliant, half-moronic movie with Brad Pitt and Ed Norton. It’s not a cult, a gang, or a club. It’s not a drum circle. It’s not the Bohemian Grove (although there are bohemians and there is a grove). It’s not organized crime or organized religion (though it is organized—and very well—by a certain local businessman). And’s it certainly not just an excuse to drink, smoke, and eat meat for a couple days. No, Fight Club isn’t easily understood, but I can tell you one thing: Every man who walks away from Fight Club thinks of himself as the winner. But enough about that. I’m here today to honor one of America’s great underappreciated games. I’m talking about a game that is played in backyards and corner parks across the USA, a game of the people, a game that is the humble cousin of our national pastime. The game I’m talking about is wiffle ball. I came under fire in some quarters for ragging on baseball in my last column, so I would now like to sing the praises of this scaled-down, user-friendly version. Baseball is, to be truthful, a fun game to play, but it’s awfully hard, in more ways than one. First off, it’s hard to get organized, because you need 18 players and a nice grass field. And of course the ball itself is hard and travels at a high rate of speed, so you need a lot of protective equipment like gloves (expensive), helmets (unwieldy), and possibly cups (uncomfortable). And finally the game is just plain hard—you know, difficult—and filled with opportunities to make game-changing mistakes that will not be soon forgotten by one’s teammates (at least one local columnist has a tragic high-school baseball experience of which he still will not speak). So not many people actually play it. In wiffle ball, on the other hand, the only equipment you need is the ball, the bat, a little three-dimensional space, and some number of human beings. You can set up the field however you like. You can pick and choose which rules to use. You can take out your aggressions by hitting people with the ball. You can use “ghost runners” to occupy bases. You can swagger, spit, style, and profile just like you would in a “real” baseball game. You can play with a beer in one hand, if that’s something you enjoy doing. And you can participate whether you’re young, middle-aged, over the hill, out-of-shape, or just plain uncoordinated. This makes it an excellent choice for picnics, camping trips, and other family-style activities. And best of all, because the name of the game is “wiffle ball,” you can’t take it too seriously. Nobody’s life is going to be ruined by a mistake they made in wiffle ball. So when baseball goes away later this summer in yet another dispute over owners’ megaprofits versus players’ enormous salaries, let’s all play wiffle ball instead. In the immortal words of Allen Toussaint, it will make this land a better land than the world in which we live.

Baseball, Think Baseball

Posted in The sporting life on July 8th, 2002 by bill
Both of you who follow this space have noticed that there isn’t much baseball coverage. There’s a reason for this: It’s because I can’t watch, discuss, or think about baseball without falling into a powerful slumber. Baseball is so slow, so profoundly unsexy, that some men use thoughts of it to delay orgasm. But at the moment it’s the only game in town. The Raiders are just starting to think about getting revved up; the Warriors are in the middle of the most successful part of their year, which is the offseason; and the World Cup is gone, not to return till 2006. So baseball will be today’s topic. I have just downed a large cup of Peet’s finest and will valiantly strive to fill my allotted space before being overcome by unconsciousness. Apparently, while I was staying up till the middle of the night to watch the World Cup, the A’s went on a tremendous tear. Who knew? Last I remember, they were in a baffling tailspin. Now they’re only 5 games out of first place, with a very reasonable chance of making the playoffs. In the name of investigating this phenomenon, I sat down Friday night to watch my first inning of baseball in more than a month. This turned out to be the ideal baseball experience. As I kicked off my shoes and settled onto the couch, the game was entering the ninth inning with the A’s and Kansas City Royals tied 1–1. In the top of the inning, we had what appeared to be tragedy: A’s left fielder Adam Piatt gruesomely misplayed a fly ball, allowing it to roll under his glove and all the way to the wall. One runner scored and the batter went to third, where he was quickly brought home by a sacrifice fly. So the home team was down 3-1 as it entered its last at-bat in the shadow of Mount Davis. The 53,000 fans lured by the promise of post-game fireworks were apprehensive, but were brought to life by Miguel Tejada, who beat out an infield single and advanced to second base on an error. After David Justice walked, a single by Jermaine Dye brought in Tejada. That made it 3-2 with one out and two on as John Mabry came to the plate. And then came a moment of real baseball poetry. Mabry, a left-handed hitter, sliced the ball off the end of his bat down the left-field line. Tejada scored easily to tie the game, but it appeared that the Royals’ Michael Tucker would reach the ball in time to hold Eric Byrnes, who was running for Justice, at third. This was when something truly odd happened: The ball got hung up behind an electric heater that had been placed in the foul area where the A’s pitchers were warming up. Time slowed down as Tucker attempted to circumnavigate the heater to retrieve the ball. Meanwhile, the security guard and the A’s pitchers scattered to avoid touching the ball or obstructing Tucker; had they done so, the umpire would have stopped Byrnes at third. After a very long moment Tucker got to the ball, but by then it was too late—Byrnes had crossed the plate with the winning run. The game was over, Mabry was mobbed by his teammates, and the crowd went wild. And then there were fireworks. Every baseball game should be like this: 20 minutes long, loaded with drama, and decided by a bizarre force majeure. But it ain’t gonna happen, so that concludes our baseball coverage for the time being. That ought to hold us for a couple weeks, anyway.