When I was a teenager in New York, I was unremarkable and full of doubt. I suffered from low self esteem, struggled with my weight, and had a bad temper and jealous heart. Like many young people, I was having a difficult time finding my place in the universe. This angst was softened some by having a girlfriend I adored, and my complete joy in playing baseball.
One variation to the game of baseball was something called stickball. There were two ways to play stickball. One version consisted of playing in the street and involved hitting a bounced pitch with a broom handle. This was not an easy thing to do as the bouncing ball came quickly and often had a weird spin to it. How far you hit the ball determined if it was a single, double, etc, and many of these games involved running bases. The ball was either a Pensy Pinkie, or a Spauldeen. Both were firm, pink hollow balls and could travel a great distance.
The other way stickball was played involved chalking a square box on the side of a school or building. This created the strike zone, and if a pitcher threw a strike, the ball would have chalk on it. This was my preferred way to play stickball as it allowed the pitcher to actually pitch, and was brilliant in its simplicity. The ball would hit the wall, and bounce right back to the pitcher. Again, the quality of hits was determined by distance and there was generally a fence which would determine a homerun. This form of the game also used a broom handle (or stickball bat you could buy) and could be played one on one, or with an outfielder. Here there was no running of bases and hits were determined purely by distance.
I took to the wall game very quickly and very hard. I played for years and became more than a little good. I could always play ball, and had a great stick, but those Pensy Pinkies were lethal weapons in my hand. I could throw from the side, throw overhand hard fast balls, and mixed speeds. I also had a curve that could make a hitter fall back sharply as the ball approached his head, and then would fall off a table and right into the plate. Kids would argue with me…”that couldn’t have been a strike”. And I’d show them the ball, covered with fresh yellow chalk. I froze batters, toyed with them, hardly ever walked anyone, and was dominate. As much fun as that was, hitting was even better.
Few kids could really pitch well. Most of them flat out sucked. I could hit from both sides of the plate, with equal ability, but from the right side I could do magic. A homerun was over the fence. That was a decent poke. Over the fence was a street, then someone’s yard, house, and backyard. I would load the bases batting left-handed and then switch to my power side. I would hit that ball as high as I did far. High into the sky and over the fence, street, and house. Many balls were never found and were no doubt on the next block. Then I would wait for the next fat pitch and hit bomb after bomb. I would also figure out the better pitchers and anticipate their next pitch. That would result in a rush of hits and runs, and at some point I would become tired from all the hitting and want to pitch again.
On that field, for those hours, I was really good at something. Sandy Koufax-like on the mound, I loved every moment, and found a transcendental place where I was something better than I could have ever imagined. It allowed me passage into an unknown world where I could pitch with almost magical powers, and assume control where it existed no where else.
Unfortunately I could not trade that skill in for something more useful. A gifted ball player, I had neither the confidence nor the motivation to play high school ball, and I largely stumbled through my teen years, finding respite in a simple game I loved and dominated, and the sweet promise of my girlfriend’s lips.
In my garage is a stickball bat I made 14 years ago, when, at the age of 50 I found some kids I could play with. The game is completely foreign in Colorado. I could just as soon find someone playing cricket (never have). I would play tomorrow, at age 64, and am willing to bet that I can still hit from both sides and could pitch with skill and confidence, albeit with less velocity.
To any and all older athletes out there, consider yourself challenged. Let’s get it on.
© 2013 Michael Fiveson