It doesn’t matter whether the sun is out or there’s a light drizzle—by 7:20 a.m., you can usually find a dozen or more kids out on the town common in front of my elementary school. They’re choosing up sides for the first of several daily whiffle ball games. As players arrive by car they add themselves to the roster. At morning break there will be another game; at lunchtime yet another; and the neighborhood kids will even stay after school to get their ups. Spring feels like a perennial whiffle ball game.
It started because you can buy a yellow plastic bat and little white ball with holes in it for $4.99 in the checkout line at our local grocery store.
Who knew it could preoccupy—day in and day out—such a large number of students at our small school? Partly it’s because spring is about hitting round objects with sticks; partly it’s because that round object is such a challenge to hit.
The visual effect is right out of a Winslow Homer painting: baseball on a town common, pure Americana. The aural effect is like the racket of morning birds: “Swing batter!” “Foul ball!” “Fair ball!” “Safe!” “We get first ups!”
First base is an elm tree; a milk carton is second, and a couple of sticks make do for third. Home plate is a scuffed patch at the top of a slope. We don’t mind the fact that our sandlot isn’t flat or clearly lined. In fact, it slopes down toward the flagpole and Civil War monument. We don’t call strikes; everyone gets as many pitches as he or she needs in order to connect with that confounding “little pill.” Fielding positions are mostly ad-libbed.
Even whiffle ball embodies the great, sublime elements of America’s game: The defense has the ball; the boundary lines go on forever; the ball could land at the variety store downtown and still be in play; and a game can continue indefinitely (or until Mrs. Thomas rings the bell).
The field of play is, to a child, a perfectly balanced geometric shape, with only the one right angle at home plate. And the arguments are worthy of former Yankees coach Billy Martin and, therefore, are an integral part of play.
Best of all, the game blends magic and science every time that ball leaves the pitcher’s hand destined for the batter’s box where Truman, Ben, Kyle, Jasper, Dustin, Tess, or Courtney await, ready to knock it down to the granite Civil War soldier in deep center field – or into the hands of J.C., Alex, Evan, Gabe, Jacob, or Paul.
Yes, Bernoulli’s principle explains the science behind why a pitched ball curves. But to the player with the yellow plastic “Wonderboy” bat, magic is a more natural explanation.
Surely there is magic in the fact that a batter on a sunny town common in April can swing at precisely the right moment – not too soon, not too late; not too slow, not too fast – to block the path of the curving “junk” thrown by “Nuke” Nelson, “Steamer” Sweeny, or “Lightning” Lameyer (all teachers), and bring in the go-ahead run.
Baseball—and school—always inspires such lore.