Playing With Balls: Hall of Fame

Thursday, October 06, 2005

A new Here’s the Thing… is up. All about controlling your inner fan.

There is a correction to yesterday’s story after I got schooled by the talented Miriam Libicki in the comments section. I said that the game of Suicide was played by the tribe of Judea. It was supposed to be the tribe of Judah. Judea was the province formed in Persia after the Babylonian exile. My boy Guam (the religion major) is going to kill me when he sees that. Miriam, by the way, produces a little comic that I need to pick up called “jobnick”. I’ve heard great things about it; it’s an autobiographical comic about an American girl (Miriam, obviously) doing a two-year stint in the Israeli army. You don’t see that much, you know, autobiographical comics in which the writer actually has an interesting life story to tell. Usually it’s “I hate my mommy and I hate God. I feel alone. Obligatory masturbation reference.” I’m not saying jobnick doesn’t have that since I didn’t read it yet but just the potential behind this book seems worth the price of admission.

___________________

If there was a Blue Ball Hall of Fame I can guarantee you that several of the kids I grew up with would be inducted. Amongst us there were gods – the Michael Jordan of handball, the Joe Montana of suicide, the Mohammed Ali of stoopball. When these guys walked onto the playing field the atmosphere instantly changed to reflect our tension. It was silent – cold; Goosebumps popping up on our icy flesh as we think of excuses to get off the court without being a pussy. It’s dinner time. I have to go to church. I need to finish my language arts homework. If we were capable of talking we would all give an erroneous reason as to why we needed to leave – but our jaws were locked with fear.

Ezra was a monster on the handball court. The kid was fast. He would dart around that court like a cockroach, diving on the concrete for balls none of us would even consider going for. Slicing it so hard the ball would come of the wall at impossible angles – dropping down or coming back towards him – angles that seemingly broke all laws of physics.

He had the type of backhand that never missed – as long as he got so much as a finger on the ball he would rocket it towards the wall. He would go between his legs and behind his back on shots you would have a hard time handling just to break down your confidence. He would sometimes use his leg to kick the ball towards the wall, sometimes head-butt it and every time it was a flawless shot.

You’d play games to fifteen against the kid, two-against-one, and he would shut you out every time. I’ve never seen him lose, never seen him even be challenged. Before he hit ten he was playing with teenagers, by the time he became a teenager he was scouting out other neighborhoods for worthy opponents. He’d show up at a handball court in the early morning and rule the court until late in the evening, no-one was ever able to take him down.

Bobby was the most feared at Suicide. His aim wasn’t outstanding nor was his speed but he was the most ruthless mother-fucker to ever play the game. He never tossed the ball at an opponent – he would wind up and throw with all his might every time, no mater how close somebody was to him. I’ve seen him bean little kids in the temple from four feet away. Everyone would yell, “Bobby! He’s fucking six!” and Bobby would just tell us, “He wanted to play.”

There was no compassion, no room for mercy. If Bobby was on the court he stalked people – he’d never try to catch the ball but he’d always run over to the person that was most likely to catch it. If they dropped it he’d be there, ready to pick it up and drive it into somebody’s throat before they even started running towards the wall. He was like the wild rebound man – Dennis Rodman but ten times crazier. He lived to hurt people in Suicide, he was not satisfied with his game play unless he injured everyone who played. Every back needed a welt on it or else he failed.

Steven was the man at all things baseball but he really excelled at stoopball. Every time he was up it was a guaranteed homerun. The stoop could be cracked and falling apart, filled with ridges and gaps that would cause the ball to launch at horrible angles and yet Steven would launch it straight back, across the street, and into homerun territory. He was a robot – fucking automatic.

His fielding was extraordinary as well. Diving on top of cars, saving homeruns. When Joe DiMaggio used to play baseball he would run to where the ball was going to land the second the batter made contact. Based on the pitch and the angle of the bat he would know exactly where the ball would end up – that’s what made him the greatest center fielder of all time. Steven was the Joe DiMaggio of stoop ball. As soon as that ball made contact with the stoop he’d start running. He knew exactly where the ball was going to end up and he’d be there, waiting for it.

It was almost impossible to get a hit when you’re playing against Steven, your only hope was to blast it and make the ball uncatchable. But he’d out hit you and outfield you – the kid was unbeatable.

These were our heroes, the legends of our youth. When my friends and I get together we still talk about these kids – almost twenty years later. We all had our moments. Mine came when I hit a softball over the Power House. But that was just a moment. Sure we all talk about it but there was no consistency there. It was luck, the stars were aligned. Kids like Ezra, Bobby and Steven were consistent.

Kids from my neighborhood can’t think about them without a certain feeling of pride. Ezra played here. I watched him. I saw him do a diving backhand and hit the spot where the wall meets the floor, causing the ball to just roll away from the wall, impossible to hit.

You see this scar? That was from Bobby. He rocked me in the ear when we were playing suicide, disorienting me and causing me to fall face first onto the curb. While I laid there, unconscious, he kept picking up the ball and pegging me. When Louie took the ball away he started throwing rocks at me.

Steven got a blue ball over that roof. I saw it. He just wound up, pegged the ball at the stoop and it launched like a rocket. We just stood there and stared as the ball soared effortlessly onto that roof. I’ve never seen something get roofed like that. I’ve never felt more proud to lose a blue ball.

And that’s how we talk about these kids. Kids you never met and never heard of. These guys are now married or were married. They work in post offices and bagel stores. They just scrape enough money to get by and take care of their families. And people like me, we still idolize them. They supplied some of the best memories of our childhood.

And all it took was a blue ball and a skill that didn’t translate outside of the playground.

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