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One Hit, No Muffs

Over on the sidelines, I chat with Bill Staskel, a Mets fan from nearby Central Islip, N.Y. Staskel, who has been coming every Sunday for six years, explains how the modern game still retains many of the old-time expressions. For example, "hit out of the box" refers to the original 12-by-4-foot chalk "box" within which the pitcher had to stand, and home plate is so named because it was frequently marked by a tin dinner plate.

A mighty blast to deep left field draws our attention back to the game. We turn to watch the ball bounce through the split-rail fence in front of one the village's historic houses and into a briar patch. A gaggle of Excelsiors quickly descends on the spot to help look as the ball is still in play.

Down 19 aces (runs) to nothing in the top of the fifth, someone on the bench exhorts the Brooklynites "to show some ginger" (hustle). The Excelsiors rally for three aces but still fall pitiably short -- not that anyone takes this game too seriously. Afterward the two squads line up again along their respective foul lines, where each captain lauds the other team before leading his own in three spirited "hip, hip, huzzahs."

Afterward I take in as many of the historical buildings (there are more than 50, many with costumed interpreters) as I can before the roar of the significantly larger afternoon crowd announces that it's time again to play ball.

The afternoon contest pits the Glen Head Zig Zags, clad in crimson and gray, against the Sea Cliff Idlewilds, in black and white. Eventually I recognize some of the players as holdovers from the earlier game, but it doesn't take me long to realize that much has happened in the intervening 23 years of baseball history.

For starters, the ball is pitched overhand and with as much velocity as the pitcher can manage without a windup. In addition, every pitch is now being called by a second umpire, positioned behind the pitcher, and each batter is allowed four strikes and five balls.

Despite having an extra strike (foul balls don't count), only a handful of batters are able to make solid contact, so the pace of the game slows down to a more modern speed. To keep things moving with the spectators, Umpire Tommy "Kid Speed" Heinlein, a tool and die maker from Selden, N.Y, comes over between innings to explain any of the unusual things we have just witnessed and to field any questions we may have.

During one such break I catch up with "Big Bat" Fesolowich, a high school teacher from Farmingdale, N.Y., who informs me that since its reintroduction at Old Bethpage Village, vintage baseball has not only become a regular feature at other period properties -- such as Greenfield Village outside Detroit and Ohio Village in Columbus -- but a popular league sport as well, particularly in the Midwest.

"But nowhere has it been more successful than here," he hastens to add, a success he readily attributes to the village's 19th-century ambiance. With the game knotted up in the sixth inning, a dispute erupts between the Sea Cliff captain and the umpire -- not over a close call of course, but about what rule was actually in effect in 1887. They agree to look it up later. Even the costumed staff are on their way home as Sea Cliff comes to bat in the top of the ninth trailing 6-5. A combination of well-struck balls and Zig Zag muffs -- one of which earns the third baseman a 25-cent fine for "cursing on a Sunday" -- allows the Idlewilds to score six aces and take a commanding, and ultimately unassailable, lead.

Six more "hip, hip, huzzahs" later, players and spectators alike make their way down the unpaved country lane that leads to Old Bethpage Village's 21st-century parking lot. As they always have, the players either take pride in or exception to the final score. But for those of us who came just to watch, it truly wasn't who won or lost but how they all played the really old ball game.

Marshall S. Berdan last wrote for Travel on the Lizzie Borden Bed & Breakfast in Fall River, Mass.

Details: Base Ball in Bethpage, N.Y.

GETTING THERE: Old Bethpage Village Restoration is off of Round Swamp Road in Bethpage, N.Y. From New York City (about 30 miles east), take Exit 48 of the Long Island Expressway and go one mile south, or Exit 39 of the Grand Central Parkway east/Northern State Parkway and proceed two miles south, then left at the light.

THE GAMES: Two Old Time Base Ball games are played every Sunday (weather permitting) from late April though mid-October, with a few additional games on holiday Saturdays and Mondays. The seventh-annual Old Time Base Ball Festival -- in which 12 teams from throughout the Northeast compete in six games a day -- takes place Aug. 7-8. The playoffs are held during the Long Island Fair on Oct. 9-10 and Oct. 16-17 .

Admission costs $7 and includes the restored buildings and all the Old Time Base Ball you can watch.

WHERE TO STAY: There are only two motels in Bethpage -- the Bethpage Motel (4107 Hempstead Turnpike, 516-731-7000; rooms from $69 a night) and Extended StayAmerica (905 S. Oyster Bay Rd., 516-349-8759, www.extendedstay.com; from $149). Other options are available in nearby New York towns, such as Hicksville, Jericho and Plainview.

INFORMATION: Old Bethpage Village Restoration, 516-572-8400, www.oldbethpage.org. Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau, 877-386-6654, www.licvb.com.

-- Marshall S. Berdan


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