Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Back in the Day

by Bob Herpen
Phanatic Magazine

I'm Rasputin mad for hockey. Nobody disputes this. Anyone who's been reading here for the last four years gets the idea of the knowledge, passion and depth of feeling I have for Canada's first America's seventh-most-popular sport.

Believe it or not, though I saw three football games and three hockey games before setting foot twice into the Vet to see the Phillies, baseball will always be my first love. It's the first sport I remember watching on TV, and the first one I was able to play in an organized manner, both on the verdant fields and on the searing concrete of South Philadelphia.

It's hard to believe it was 25 years ago that I used to rush down 22 steps and sprint out the door at the crack of 9:45 AM every Saturday, heading a half-block down McKean Street to get to Richie Mitchell's father's house so we could plot that day's schoolyard game. It's even harder to believe that, given the nature of my profession which regularly permits the discovery of 3 AM more than it does 9 AM, I was ever that eager that early.

But that's what happens when you're told to stick to a regular bed time in second grade, you're spring-loaded for the weekends and down on the street the first chance you get. It didn't matter that it was 80 degrees and rising, on the way to serious record-breaking heat and humidity that pulled even the most ardent front-step smokers into the cool embrace of the wall-unit AC.

Because of yet another boiling city Summer, the two of us generally didn't longer than a half hour to discuss who would be what team, what the lineups were, and the ground rules for the game. This being 1986, we relied on our memories based on the batting orders when whatever team we chose last played the Phillies, or the Daily News boxscores, and good old baseball cards to get it right.

I was always the weirdo. Never chose to be the Phillies because I thought it was too obvious, you know, growing up here. I'd usually go for something more exotic: the Expos, or Padres or Cubs. It came in handy later on, as you'll read.

The set-up was simple. One rectangular strike box on the wall of Furness High School (right across the street from where I lived, and running 1/2 the length of McKean from 3rd to Moyamensing), just big enough to cover the actual strike zone of a child -- generally spray-painted silver with a huge capital "S" just in case you had no clue what was going on. The only tools were a wiffle bat (pristine, unloaded) and a tennis ball.

You stood 2/3 of the way between the wall and the 25-foot-high cyclone fencing as the pitcher, and let the rest take care of itself.

Three outs per frame, nine total innings (or however long it took before it got too hot, you got hungry for lunch or someone called for you to get back in the house). Three strikes and you're done. You only advanced as far as your next hit i.e. a single with a man on second put runners on the corners. Anything caught in the air was an out. Any foul caught after a deflection off the school behind the batter was also an out, due to the skill in reading the bounces off the architecture. Any ball caught on the rebound off the fence was an out.

The fair zone stretched over three whole sections of the fencing, with the metal tubes that each section was wrapped around served as the foul poles.

Singles were anything on the ground that got past the pitcher or anything on the fly that hit the lowest section of the fence. Doubles were flies that hit the second level. Triples hit the third level and home runs, obviously, cleared the top of the fence altogether. You had to either toss a strikeout or be quick with your hands to snag a grounder if you wanted to win. Leon Durham and Johnny Ray was invoked often if you didn't have fast fingers.

Man, were there some arguments -- most often about where a ball hit the "foul poles" and bounced out. Even at 8 years old, you could groove a tennis ball so fast you couldn't tell exactly where it was gonna hit, and most importantly, where it'll bounce back out. Does a ball that hits the pole and bounce foul mean it's foul? Does a ball that hits a link in the chain in foul territory but bounce back fair mean it's fair?

It was the best time to trot out all the new insults we heard in school over the past year, and a chance for us to wear our big boy pants and shout out words like "ricochet" and "carom" and all the stuff they forgot to add to our Clifford the Big Red Dog vocabulary primers. We both tried to sucker each other into believing the lies with a blizzard of pure bull.

Being impatient grade-schoolers, just playing against each other every Saturday from the time the real baseball season began got tired by the time the All-Star break rolled around, so a plot was hatched to expand our interests...the Furness Baseball League.

There was only five of us, but it was good enough. Me, Richie, and three other kids who will remain nameless. It was a real rogues gallery if you follow each person's life story. They could probably make a two-part episode of Cold Case out of it because I guarantee one of them is dead and one is in prison, one has a legacy of Mailroom union work with the Inquirer, one went to West Catholic and here I am writing about it.

Anywhoo...for reasons that I still can't figure out, I took the Cubs (who, by the way, finished a robust 70-90 in '86). Richie was the Expos. Of the Mets, Phillies and Reds, I can't remember who else took what team. It was a simple round-robin, everybody plays everyone else twice for an eight-game season. Games took place before and after lunch, Saturday and Sunday.

It all started out well on the first weekend after the All-Star Game, but it just died at the end. Maybe somebody lost the loose-leaf sheet of paper we used to work out the schedule. Between that, family vacations, and just plain old not giving a damn because it's hard for kids to keep focused at any age, we never finished.

We managed to reach mid-August before play was suspended. I know I didn't win. I think I was in third place. For the longest time, well after I moved out of the city, I kept the color-coded sheet with the standings.

Playing on the cracked and unforgiving surface on Furness taught me several valuable lessons that have nothing to do with baseball -- things that every kid growing up in South Philly knows to this day.

1) Never dive on asphalt or concrete.
2) Never slide on asphalt or concrete.
3) If you gotta fall, for the love of God and your own skin, don't stick your hands and arms out to stop it.
4) You park it, you find it.
5) Use your eyes and arms to look for balls stuck under cars. Position your body on the pavement so you don't ruin your clothes. (This one was especially important because 80's fashion was a lot of white shorts and bright pastel-colored/neon T-shirts and Polo shirts that dust, dirt and grime pretty much ruined)
6) If you have to climb a fence to retrieve a ball stuck in a link, make sure the front of your sneaker is firmly wedged in a link before you start your way up.

When we got sick of the short game, we used the entire length of the schoolyard to play something called "Long ball."

That meant we played all the way up the other end of the school, near the basketball courts. Home plate was 10 feet from the side walls of the houses at the end of the block, with first and third bases no more than 20 feet away and second base 30 feet out. The 25-foot high cyclone fence easily had to be 400 feet away, so nobody was hitting traditional home runs. Not even the older kids could hit the fence on the fly, even with a loaded bat.

Those rules were simpler. Five players a side. Two infielders, two middle outfielders and a deep man. No pitcher meant you threw it up yourself and hacked away. Any hit off the fencing on the right side was fair, unless it was caught, then it's an out. Any ball off the side of the school is foul, and three fouls off the building made one out. Three strikes per batter, and three outs per side.

Anything that made it into the "outfield," and we could run forever, because it took an eternity to chase down whatever was hit deep.

After writing what I assume to be well over 1,000 words based on childhood indulgence, I guess I can only say you had to be there. A sweltering upstairs corner apartment in Manayunk in the present recalls a two-floor living space in the 19148 that also lacked adequate cooling measures. The only difference is, I look out my window and see the "cancer towers" that hold up power lines for the train instead of a schoolyard packed with rambunctious kids -- not that I can't picture it in my mind whenever I go back to the second floor of 3rd Street.

I think this all works best if I could read this piece in the actual yard, acting everything out, steeped in the memory of the physical place. Such is the passion in remembrance.

So now we have the sport and social clubs running kickball games down at the place where I learned to shoot hoops and hit off a tee, but it's not the same as the power of being young and energetic and getting off our asses and doing it ourselves each week. This was my first attempt and it still stands as the best.

Maybe it's time I figure out how to load a hockey stick, and tell the tale of how a bunch of young adults couldn't put together a free pick-up game once a month in colder weather. That should be worth another thousand words in another 25 years.

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