Happy Opening Day.
I was a hell of a hitter, as long as I was swinging with a plastic bat. I batted as a lefty, threw and fielded with my right, and base-ran intelligently if not quickly. We didn’t wear gloves. These were plastic balls, after all, and the mild sting and grass-perfumed smears left on the palm felt good. We played for bragging rights, convenience-store-candy money, and little else.
Wiffle ball, if not a sport, exactly, is a game for the ages. It was baseball with hollow, skinny, yellow plastic bats that whistled when you swung. The airy white balls were as large as softballs but weren’t as sturdy—they split open if you hit them too hard, and changed direction abruptly if the breeze was strong. They took strange hops and deadened in thick grass or small leaf clusters. Because they had holes in them, they got caught on tree branches. Pitching with them made me gnash my teeth. You had to throw a fastball, no matter what else your grip was doing, because a knuckleball or breaking ball might turn out completely wrong if even a slight breeze picked up. Sliders were okay but, again, they had to be quick.
No matter how fast I threw, though, air would seep in between my extended hand and the batter’s swing, and those wiffle balls would look like homemade cherry pie to the batter. And that’s where the damn thing would fool you. A contact hitter, like master Tony Gwynn, would look foolish at the plate against the wiffle ball, trying to finesse it through pockets. Because the ball was so fragile and light, most attempts to navigate it with the bat were thwarted by environmental factors beyond a batter’s control—a single flower that the ball hits down the third-base line, can-hardly-feel-it wind, a small pebble.
Instead, the best bet was just to wallop the sucker. I swung for the fences every time. Make contact, but hard, and hope for the best. Sure, I played around with bunting or opposite-field hits, but you just never knew where the ball would end up. Hit hard, zinging through the air, I at least knew it would be difficult to catch. I hit it over our backyard fence so often, into our across-the-alley neighbor’s herbs and hops for homebrew beer, that my stepfather haphazardly erected chicken wire, just to make the homer harder. Consider it the ghetto version of the Green Monster. Balls would bounce off it—easy home runs turned into difficult doubles, because the outfield was wider than it was deep—or get stuck in it. The wall occasionally collapsed.
Other obstacles included the two trees that loomed over right and left fields. A friend, watching the sky for a pop-up, smacked into the right-field “widowmaker.” He blacked out for a second but was otherwise unhurt. In left field, you also had to contend with our semi-large compost pile, which my brother and I had to turn daily with shovels. Balls gravitated towards it. A single turned into a double as the unlucky fielder worked up the nerve to stick his hand in the glop—grapefruit rinds, tomato seeds, recycled paper towels stained with who knew what, slimy apple cores—and pull out the ball. Hovering above the backyard, and the wiffle ball field was my childhood backyard, were phone lines and electrical wires. A fly ball often hit these and confounded the fielder by doing an about-face. Beyond the compost pile, there were small bumps, ant hills, the odd fallen tree limb, and the neighbor’s cat. (If she pounced on the ball after it had been ruled fair, well, you just had to work with it.)
We—my stepfather, mom, brother, myself, the neighborhood kids, and whatever friend had spent the night—made our own rules. There are, apparently, official Wiffle Ball rules. Who gives a shit, honestly? I’m pretty sure our backyard rules differed from those three blocks down, and that those differed again slightly from a group playing in Oak Cliff. Hell, the rules changed from game to game. The basics were that it was basically a three-on-three contest; a pitcher, and two fielders. You could bunt as often as you liked; you would not be ruled out for bunting foul on a two-strike count. If you hit the ball more than once (during a single at-bat), however, into Mrs. Bea’s backyard to the right, you not only were called out but had to retrieve the ball yourself. We didn’t like Mrs. Bea, and climbing the fence that split our yard from hers meant contending with her yappy dog. As a lefty hitter, I improved my opposite field just so I wouldn’t pull it into her backyard.
Of course, my tendency to pull the ball under all circumstances didn’t serve me well during my one year on the high school baseball team. I had great bat handling skills, so I always made contact—I rarely struck out, in wiffle ball or “real” baseball, but I rarely did much good otherwise. My throwing arm was erratic. My fielding, trained on a ramshackle with a non-threatening ball, was lackluster when faced with hard leather that could break the fingers if handled without gloves. Hitting with an aluminum bat left blisters on my hands. I never had to wear a cup during wiffle ball but learned, painfully, why they’re necessary when grounders take bad hops. I began to associate baseball with pain, and with being a terrible player. I was sixteen, and didn’t need more reasons to feel lackluster. I gave up on the team after sophomore year. I don’t regret it.
From then on, my baseball has been limited to spectatorship. I don’t live in an MLB city so the closest I get is the Mississippi Braves (double-A squad for the Atlanta Braves), and whatever streaming broadcast of my beloved, beleaguered Texas Rangers I can find. I mind this less than I thought I would.
Still, if I ever discover some underground network of adult wiffle-ball enthusiasts, I’ll be there, cheap yellow bat in hand. No fans are necessary—just a lumpy backyard and the infuriating shifts of the Mississippi summer breeze.