A dead leaf scuttles across the black-topped playground as Carlos leans in at me from 50-odd feet away. Hiding his right hand behind his back, he rocks onto his heels and starts the pitching motion that will send a bright yellow tennis ball whipping in toward the stick I hold in my hands.
His previous pitch, a fastball, I had clubbed three stories high off of the opposing office building. Now I'm looking for a slow, side-arm curve. It's his best pitch if he keeps it inside, but a good one to hop on if he brings it over.
He comes with the curve. It's hanging shoulder-high when I crush into it with the thickest part of the bat. It buzzes off in a high, slicing arc and peaks as it pops off of a window five stories up.
Stickball fever. What moment in any sport can compare with the feeling one gets from launching a tape-measure home run, and being able to stand there, Reggie-like, and watch it soar? Or, moments later, marching out to the mound and baffling the hitter with a vast array of sliders, curves and screwballs?
Stickball, for those of you who had the misfortune to grow up on a farm, is an urban-suburban form of baseball invented anew by any kid for whom a brick wall is easier to find than an open field. It's played with a tennis ball, a sawed-off broom handle, (or, better yet, a pickax handle) for a bat, and a strike zone drawn on a wall. Hits are determined by where they land. For instance, a ground ball past the pitcher is a single; if caught, an out. There's no base-running or bunting, and with only one or two players per side, over-managing is unheard of. We play two outs per half-inning and seven innings to a game, but basically all baseball rules apply.
Like other great games of childhood (remember kickball, anyone?), stickball seems to have few adult enthusiasts. I don't know of any organized leagues or magazines devoted to its promotion. You're not likely to see any celebrity stickball matches on television pairing, say, Cheryl Tiegs vs. Buddy Ebsen. sEven in California, you'd probably have a tough time getting academic credit for playing it.
According to Barry Tarshis in The Asphalt Athlete, it's still played in New York City, but a recent Saturday-afternoon tour of basketball-crazy D.C. found no evidence of stickball activity. As my friend Carlos and I approach 30, we wonder if we're not only the oldest players around, but maybe the only players.
Both of us have played stickball (or fastball, as Carlos, from Boston, calls it) since we were kids. I used to play in the Jersey suburbs against a wall that had a sign on it that read, "No Ball Playing Against Wall." Great sign. If it had only been three feet lower, it would have made a perfect box. Many a game was broken up by Charlie the janitor before the top of the second.
The name stickball has come to cover a wide variety of baseball-like games. True stickball, though, should be distinguished from whiffleball, a backyard diversion played with a plastic ball with holes in it. Or sewerball, a street game in which you bounce a spongy ball, hit it and run the bases (first being the '62 Chevy, third the fire hydrant, etc.). These games are really as close to baseball as tiddledywinks is to golf.
Stickball as it should be played is the refined essence of baseball, with the added dimension of psychological strategy that is important in any one-on-one game. I wonder, for instance, why Carlos is smiling when he retrieves the ball after I've hit home runs on consecutive swings. I get my answer quickly. He unleashes a high, hard fastball that whistles under my chin. After a few more particularly nasty pitches, he whiffs me on the same slow curve I'd hit for a homer. He's extra mad and determined, it seems, as he comes to bat in the bottom of the seventh, behind by five runs.
I can usually push my fastball by him, and I start off with a hummer. It hums right back, past my ear, for a double. I waste two sliders outside, then try my underhand curve, a la Kent Tekulve, usually a real toughie. Single to right. Overcautious, I walk two men, and all the sudden he's got the tying run at bat, and nobody out.
Going with my best pitches -- hard curves and harder fastballs -- I work him to a full count. I crack off a curve that has more RPMs to it as it heads toward the plate than a two-stroke dirt bike heading onto the Beltway. Carlos flails helplessly as it breaks a foot off the box. One down, one to go.
Three errant fastballs later, though, and in danger in walking in another run, I decide to groove one and hope for a pop-up, Carlos has other ideas, and I wince as he drives it to deep center. We're both watching closely to see if it hits over the third row of windows (home run) or under (triple).I sigh in relief as it hits just below the third row.
Carlos now has the tying run on third, and I'm beginning to wonder if he's been sneaking off to a batting cage for extra practice. Stickball fever or not, I'd rather do anything than throw the next pitch. I check the sky for signs of rain.I stare at a woman over by the fence that serves as our foul line. She's watching us play. And waiting for me to pitch.
With two bases open, I decide to concentrate on the toughest part of the strike zone -- the high, inside corner. cA curve ball will cross a foot in front of Carlos' forehead, yet still catch the corner of the box for a strike.
A fastball low and away sets him up. I throw the curve and it does its job, as Carlos takes it for a strike. Once more, same spot. Carlos swings, tips it foul, and grumbles about the box being too high for him (he's four inches shorter than I). I have him now. A hard slider up and in ends the game as he goes down swinging.
The fever is back.