Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Invisible Runner, and the End of Whiffle Ball. (I Dreamt Of Pole-Vaulting, 2)


I Dreamt Of Pole Vaulting is essays about my own personal experiences with sports, whether as a fan or participant.  We'll see if it lasts.  Don't get too attached -- like avocadoes and fate, I can be fickle.)

Part One: "I Decided To Try Out For The Track Team" is here.

When I was younger, so much younger than today, the first organized sport I ever tried was "T-Ball."  But there were sports we played before we were organized into playing sports.

Back then, when I was younger, sports wasn't really such a big deal.  They were largely unorganized, unprofessional, things, with "sports" being divided into "games we played amongst ourselves" like Whiffle Ball, and "games we played with parents as coaches," like T-Ball.  These games were played with, largely, the same level of talent and organization, the chief difference between them being that in the former, we had "Invisible Runners."

I wonder if kids still use the "Invisible Runner" and the Geneva-Convention-like rules that went along with the Invisible Runner, rules that were necessary because in games like Whiffle Ball, the fields were necessarily ad hoc -- a tree for second base, varying distances between the outs-of-bounds on football fields because fences do not always run in straight lines -- and the teams were never even. 

Baseball, especially, is an endlessly malleable game, playable with a variety of equipment, a severely-limited number of people, and rules that are made up on the spot and argued about because of course the Invisible Runner cannot go more bases than the Actual Runner.

Before we played T-Ball, we played Whiffle Ball in our yard and in the Barquists' yard next door -- a home-and-road series that didn't involve jet lag.  Each yard had its plusses and minuses.  The Barquists' yard had fewer trees and a clearer shot for the fence that separated our yards from the back-side neighbors', the Herros and Schroeders living their mysterious lives in the cul-de-sac around the corner, Hartwood Lane turning left onto Oxford Drive and then left again onto the three houses that made up the dead end of Penbrook Way, houses that stood only 100 feet from our own but which were in another world as far as we were concerned, our playing areas extending south from Hartwood Lane, never north.

In the Barquists' yard, home plate was a stone taken from the wall of their little rock garden.  First base was, too, while second base was the edge of the rock wall itself.  Third base was usually right around the lot line between our yards, a lot line that as of that point, when we were little, wasn't yet obscured by the row of bushes my family would later plant between the yards, separating us not from the Barquists (who had by then divorced, moved, and left our neighborhood) but from the Riedis, whose young son, Lucas, would come over to watch He-Man with my sister, Katie, in the afternoons.

In our yard, meanwhile, home was usually a Frisbee, placed near that same lot line.  We were not allowed to take stones from the rock walls in our yard.  First base went uphill, stopping short of the pine trees, while second was the birch tree, surrounded by a base of chunk bark, and third was the corner of the patio.

In Whiffle Ball, the teams were made up of two or at the most three people, a pitcher and an outfielder, who usually played left, or left-center, because that was where 99.9% of all hits went when they didn't go over the fence.  This lack of people led to two of the greatest innovations in rules, innovations that would, if carried over to the higher levels of the sport, revolutionize the game.  Those rules were, as I said, the Invisible Runner and "Pitcher's Hand Out," the latter with its own corollary, that you could be hit with the ball and be tagged out.

In real baseball, of course, you are out if the ball is thrown to the first (or other) baseman before you get there, a "force out," but that rule requires that there be a baseman, and while a two-person Whiffle Ball team could theoretically field a man on first base, doing that would leave a critical gap in left field, where the ball is going to be hit.  To make up for that, we played Pitcher's Hand Out.

This is where I'm a little mystified, the origin of that rule.  I am 1000% certain that we did not make up "Pitcher's Hand Out."  I'm sure that around the country, kids playing baseball have played a version of Pitcher's Hand Out, kids in California and Alabama and Brooklyn (which never seems like a real place to me, but only a place that exists in Neil Simon plays) making the runner be out when the pitcher touches the ball, because that was how it worked: In Pitcher's Hand Out baseball, when the ball is hit and the runner is heading to first, that runner is out if the pitcher gets the ball before the runner reaches first, a force-out that has the benefit of being easy to play with only two people and the detriment of being almost impossible to judge who wins on a close call, because you're not looking at the same area of the ball field, so what happens on close calls is that the fielding team inevitably determines that the pitcher had the ball before the runner touched first, while the batting team always determines just the opposite, and the game devolves into a satisfying grudge match that eventually will result in someone throwing the ball directly at someone else.

Which brings up the Invisible Runner and hitting people with the ball as part of the game. 

The Invisible Runner, like Pitcher's Hand Out, is another rule that just existed, the way gravity existed: I have no more recollection of someone suggesting we have an Invisible Runner than I do of someone telling me that things get held to the ground.  It just has always been that way, and so I wonder if the Invisible Runner is (as I imagine) a universal rule that all kids develop on their own independently, or if we are all learning the rule from older kids or adults but forgetting that we did so.

(That would be an easy question to solve if I had ever seen our own kids play baseball in an unorganized setting, or had played baseball with them, but I haven't.  So far as I know, our kids never played Whiffle Ball at all, possibly owing at least in part to the fact that our yard is terminally unsuited to baseball at all, being filled with trees and hickory nut shells and being an ever-steeper slope towards the lake that sits a couple hundred yards away.  Our yard has been eroding in the direction of the lake more and more obviously in the last few years since we removed the old shed that served as a breeding ground for raccoons, and I have proof that the erosion is occurring because the Sorta Great Wall is being gradually covered by dirt that, glacier-like, is marching inexorably away from my yard and towards the neighbors', and the lake, the result being that each day I own a little less of this world than I did the day before.)

What happened with the Invisible Runner was this:  A team would be up to bat, say, me and Paul.  Paul would get a hit, and get to first base, and we would argue for 20 minutes about whether my brother Bill had the ball before Paul got to first and eventually Paul would stay on first base and I would get to bat, and the process would repeat, but then Paul would be on second or maybe third, and I would be on first base, and our team would have no batters to hit again.

So Paul would have to get up to bat, which meant that we had to preserve our runner on third, and to do that we used the Invisible Runner.  As the action settled down and we all observed the situation, Paul would say "Invisible Runner on second base" and go back to Home Plate to bat again.

The Invisible Runner was not a very aggressive ball player: he never stole a base or even took a lead, but instead usually advanced only as fast as the runner behind him advanced, so if Paul hit the ball and I started running and made it to second and Paul made it to first, the Invisible Runner, if he started on second, would advance to third, and I would then announce that there were Invisible Runners on second and third, and go bat.

The real problem occurred when the Invisible Runner was a base ahead of me, on third when I was on first and Paul was batting; we could never agree on what happened then.  Would the Invisible Runner use his common sense, heading for home while I sprinted for second?  Or would he only move when forced to, a cowardly, timid base-runner who would never have lasted in this league except that we needed to fill that (invisible) roster spot?  That was the subject, too, of endless debates.

The third innovation was the one that was the most fun, and the least likely ever to be adopted into the world of "organized" sports: tagging the runner out by throwing the ball at him.  The rule needs no explanation; it works exactly the way you'd think it would work, and like all other rules of Whiffle Ball, was adopted because of the expediency of it.  It's easy to imagine tagging a runner out to avoid an extra-bases hit if you have basemen, a second-baseman or shortstop to throw the ball to and get the tag, but when the only people you have are a pitcher and an outfielder, the runners would have a field day unless there was something to keep Paul or Marty or someone from trying to stretch that bloop-flyball into a double or triple, and so we determined that in Whiffle Ball you could be tagged out if you were hit by the ball: try to round second and into third, and you ran the risk that the outfielder was in range of pegging you with a well-aimed shot.

That worked well enough, until we graduated from Whiffle Balls, the hard-plastic, white balls with the cutout holes that made them behave unpredictably, hard to throw far and harder to hit far, and moved on to tennis balls.

The adoption of tennis balls in the Whiffle Ball game changed the complexion of the sport just as much as aluminum bats would the majors.  We played Whiffle Ball with one of two bats available at the time: the thin, yellow plastic bats that had a sort of faux wood-grain on them,

or the more-popular Giant Pink Bat:

Which the Internet says is red but which I remember as being pink, so I'm going with that.

Either bat was unsatisfying in Whiffle Ball, as in most cases it was impossible to hit the ball much out of the infield, especially if there were weather conditions that adversely affected the flight of the Whiffle Ball, and every weather condition adversely affected the flight of the Whiffle Ball.  The slightest breeze meant the ball would be whipped off course or, if the breeze was coming in from the outfield, would cause even the strongest hit to drop short of the pitcher's mound.  But Whiffle Balls seemed to be affected by humidity, the presence of clouds, and even sunlight; it's not impossible, I suppose, that the photons which sunlight crams at us had an outsized effect on the Whiffle Ball.

I don't remember at what point the tennis ball was adopted as the official ball for Whiffle Ball; I just remember that it was, at one point, selected.  We always, all of us kids, had tennis balls laying around our houses.  Our own house was a shelter for tennis balls, filled with dozens of them and three or four old wooden rackets, as well, even though I don't recall my parents ever playing tennis.  It's possible, I suppose, that my parents before we were old enough to tear around the yard chasing Invisible Runners, had played tennis, because my parents did things before we were born, as evidenced by slides of them on vacation that would show a younger, thinner version of my dad standing in front of a motorboat next to my mom and my Uncle Joe and Aunt Ann, all of them getting ready to waterski and swim, things they no longer did by the time we were old enough to know what they were doing.

The adoption of the tennis ball led to many more home runs, the ball flying over the backyard fences much more easily, reducing the roll of the Invisible Runner, and increasing the likelihood that the game would fall apart faster, because nobody wanted to run all the way around the fence to go get the ball, over and over, but we were forbidden from climbing over the fence, which meant we had to do it quickly and quietly and hope that Mrs. Schroeder or Mrs. Herro was not out in their yard.  (Mrs. Herro would eventually become quite well-known for sunbathing in her backyard, but we were too little to have cared about that at that point.)

(She wore a bikini.  She wasn't nude.  This was the late 1970s, when sunbathing in a bikini was scandalous enough that my parents would talk about it quietly over dinner and remind us never to repeat what they were saying.)

The adoption of the tennis ball also meant that you could more accurately, and from farther away, hit the runner trying to advance to the next base, and cause a great deal more pain, too, which was half the point. 

The effect on the game was dramatic: from a small-ball game of managing runners and eking out dribbler-singles that sent Invisible Runner invisibly streaking across the Frisbee Home Plate, to a Home Run Derby battle that saw runners scrambling to get to first base and then not daring to move further because even Jim Hug could get you in the head from center field with a tennis ball, and Whiffle Ball became much more gladiatorial, a face-off between muscle batters and wiry throwers, leaving behind kids like me, fat unathletic kids who wore glasses and were constantly misjudging pitches and throwing errantly, letting runners get two, three extra bases while our pitchers tried to get the ball we'd thrown into a window well. 

The tennis ball spelled the end of my Whiffle Ball career, and presaged how I'd do in other sports:  The actual Whiffle Ball was a great equalizer, its uselessness making it impervious to the greater athletic abilities of the other kids and thus helping hide my own inadequacies; the tennis ball, on the other hand, lent itself to the better kids' sports abilities and demonstrated just how terrible I was (and how much I feared getting hit with it, causing me to be a less effective runner than the Invisible Runner.)  The game of Whiffle Ball moved from innocent childhood past-time to a sport that required coordination and muscle and the ability to withstand pain at least to some degree; but I hadn't yet (and never really would) get much past the level of Whiffle Athlete.


Next time: Superball Baseball.  

(Not sure what The Sorta Great Wall is? The story behind that is here.)


Andrew Leon said...

We never played wiffle or any variation of baseball. Well, anything that required the use of a bat. We played kickball. Yes, kickball is in essence a variation of baseball. I loved kickball and was actually really good at it. Using a bat was never my thing, though.
Our ghost runners must have been a step up from your invisible runner, because if there was one on 3rd and an actual runner on 1st that went on to 2nd, the ghost runner went home.
Throwing the ball at a runner was always a way to get a runner out for us in kickball. It was even legal in school games. Not games at school but games during PE at school. I suppose the teachers figured if we could throw the ball at each other during dodge ball, we could do it during kickball, too. Head shots, though, were not allowed and getting hit in the head was an automatic "safe."

We also played a lot of 2 or 4 player football but that was mostly at Cory's house who had older brothers that would always play. (When I say older, I don't mean a couple of years older. Cory was the youngest, but his next older sibling, a girl, was, like, 6 years older than him.

Briane P said...

Never any baseball, EVER? The HUAC and Tailgunner Joe would like a word with you.

Andrew Leon said...

-Maybe- once or twice but not enough to count for anything.
I did play some softball when I was in high school, but it was under duress.
I did at one point when I was around 8 like the idea of baseball and would play catch with myself in the front yard. This was accomplished by throwing the ball as far up as I could and catching it. That lasted until one day when I missed. Missed with my glove, that is. My nose thought it could fill in just fine as a glove right up until contact.
Amazingly enough, this did not result in a bloody nose.

Briane P said...

Perhaps because you have super powers? Out with it: You're the infamous Iron Nose, aren't you? I KNEW IT.

Andrew Leon said...

Well, you know, for a long time I thought something like that must be true. I was in my 30s before I had anything even resembling a nose bleed.