1986 was the last year for Wiffle Ball. If you’re looking for that seminal moment, when growing up in your neighborhood ends and the rest of the world begins, that was probably it.
1986 was the last year for Wiffle Ball. If you’re looking for that seminal moment, when growing up in your neighborhood ends and the rest of the world begins, that was probably it. After that it was jobs and preparing for college and envisioning the world in a way someone can only do if they haven’t yet experienced it. 1986 was a bunch of boy snakes shedding their skins of innocence, waiting for life to call.
Wiffle Ball, of course, is a lot like baseball. The same rules basically apply, sometimes tweaked to avoid a game filled with one million strikeouts. The Wiffle Ball, if you’ve never played, has holes in one side of the ball that cause the air to catch the ball and dive like only the dirtiest knuckleballer could hope to do in a regular game of baseball. The balls are brittle and crack and make the trajectory even stranger, but when you connected with a ball, like a pint-sized Dale Murphy or Mike Schmidt, it flew with the majesty of a Rawlings tight-seamed baseball, and made you round the bases with authority.
It was an egalitarian game, with only the cheapest purchase of ball and bat. Back then, though, the money wasn’t an issue. Most everyone’s parents were closely bunched together monetarily, with jobs that didn’t make you rich, but did make you comfortable, often union jobs that are now gone, money in the town that would soon escape and never come back. No one was ever excluded from my group of friends for economic reasons; the only reason for exclusion or prejudice was for being a whiny bitch.
We lived close to each other, and that, more than anything was the source of our friendship. Our town was one big hill, and we couldn’t rely on our parents to take us anywhere we wanted. We were stuck with each other, and luckily that wasn’t so bad.
Wherever we needed to go, we had to Get There Ourselves, our moms reminded us. That generally meant walking, although sometimes it meant a bike ride that was half-easy, half-impossible. Little brothers and sisters wanted to tag along, and some of the girls were among the best athletes. Our ranks had already been raided by the boys who liked jobs more than sports, and girls and cars would soon take the rest. But 1986 still felt authentic and complete. We were obviously going to do this for the rest of our lives, come back with our spouses, always be there for each other and the sport we loved.
There were certain friends who had lived in the same places for long enough that it felt like forever. Matthew lived just down the street from me, Kelly a couple of blocks up the hill, near Aaron. Russ and Bryan lived a few blocks further. Shannon and Matt lived over closer to the pool, and Mark and Jodie lived closer to the highway. Those two were more industrious than all the rest of us put together. There were others that came and went, sometimes Rick, sometimes Angie. Sometimes there were kids who left nothing but a funny story: Eric, who was so annoying that I beat the snot out of him in his front yard, and, most notably in the story department, Greg. Greg’s mother married a Korean strong man named Ho, who delighted my mother the year they lived in the neighborhood by being the best help she ever had. Greg will forever be remembered as the kid whose mother cried when she saw the blood in his wrestling magazine (probably featuring Rick Flair and Bruno Sanmartino or Sergeant Slaughter or somebody) and cut the bloody pictures out and put them in a paper sack and buried them in the front yard. Even as kids we knew that was exceedingly weird.
Kids came and went, but that was the core. We had imaginations and fun. We ran detective agencies and magazines and football leagues and wrestling federations. We stumbled on abandoned tree houses and forgot to tell our parents where we were. We walked into town with no fear of being abducted and got candy cigarettes and Big League Chew. We once set up a roadside stand where we hoped to catch the killer of a highway patrolman by writing down license plates. We collected baseball cards and baseball sticker books and listened to everything from The Beach Boys to Blondie in my basement. By 1986, we were into Quiet Riot and Van Halen and Def Leppard. We wore the Union Jack just like Joe Elliott and we rocked our Jams.
We went to the pool and caught crawdads in the very cold creek. But more than anything else, we were wild about baseball. Michael Jordan was just in the NBA and would soon steal hearts away. Football was coming, but wasn’t there yet in the way that it is today. I loved hockey, but everyone always looked at me funny anyway. No, then it was baseball, especially in the summer. And to avoid black eyes and broken windows, when school wasn’t in session that meant Wiffle Ball. That summer, it meant trying to block out all the competing future interests to have one more great season.