Friday, May 20, 2005

Wiffle Balls and the Meaning of Life

Rich delivers a pitch in the Valley Bureau while Pierce conducts an interview.

Visitors to the Bridgeport Post’s Valley Bureau probably thought the "Romeo and Juliet" poster looked like it was hanging a little too low on the back wall.

But the guys in the office knew the poster had a more important purpose than advertising some community playhouse production. It was our strike zone.

Yes, we played Wiffle Ball in the office when the coast was clear.

As you probably know, Wiffle balls are plastic baseballs with eight oblong holes on one side that allow even a Little Leaguer to break off curve balls like Bert Blyleven.

It was our civic duty to play. We were supporting a local business. On one of my first days heading to work in the bureau, I nearly pulled off the road when I saw the small factory on Bridgeport Ave. with the Wiffle Ball sign in front. The epicenter of all things Wiffle was right there in Shelton, Conn. And just down the street from our office.

And it existed in relative secrecy, too. I could never understand why signs at the city limits didn’t read, "Welcome to Shelton, home of the Wiffle Ball." That area of Connecticut is home to Sikorsky helicopters — in Stratford — and Bic pens and razors and even Subway sandwich shops — both in Milford — all of which have a higher profile, and all of which pale in importance to the Wiffle ball.

The plastic spheres were an essential part of my youth. There aren’t too many places to do more than play catch with a real baseball in suburban New York. But we could take full hacks at a Wiffle ball anywhere in our small yards without fear of injury to person or property. We played Wiffle Ball everywhere.

Since I covered Shelton planning and zoning, I immediately started plotting for any excuse to write about the factory. I eventually came up with something flimsy, placed the call and secured my invitation.

I was greeted by David Mullany, grandson of the inventor, who gave me a quick tour of the machines that pump white plastic into molds. The yellow bats and cardboard packaging were made somewhere else and shipped to Shelton.

I then dropped the burning question: What makes the balls curve?

And I couldn’t believe the answer: "We have no idea."

It was time for the creation story. Every culture has one.

David told me how his father, also named David, and his brother would play baseball with plastic practice golf balls and broomsticks in their backyard. The boys were trying to break off deuces all day, and the grandfather — he, too, was named David — was once a semi-pro pitcher and worried the boys would hurt their young arms.

So he bought a bunch of the plastic golf balls, sat down at the kitchen table with a steak knife and started cutting patterns into the balls.

For some reason, and the family doesn’t know why, the version with the eight ovals on one side easily curved. Hold a ball so the ovals are on the right, ball curves right. Ovals on the left, and you can guess what happens.

The company made a baseball-sized Wiffle ball, and if you look hard you can find softball and mini-sized balls, too.

Then it was time for some inside information. We took our office Wiffle Ball games seriously, especially when the weather warmed up and we took our competitions to the driveway across the street. I needed a strikeout pitch, and I had an audience with a master.

At that point, he bestowed upon me a private lesson on the Wiffle knuckler. And gentle reader, I pass this knowledge on to you. Hold the ball so the ovals face your palm instead of right or left. Place two of your fingertips at the base of the holes, and push off with those fingers as you release the ball. The ball should float in without spinning, and the batter will either be mesmerized by the beauty of the whole thing or flail hopelessly when he realizes too late that no curve is coming.

We got a little out of hand when our lunch-hour games started stretching well into the afternoon, and then when we started challenging the Stratford Bureau.

I think about the story of the Wiffle Ball when I ponder some of life’s big mysteries. We can’t explain why some things happen. They just do. We must remember that God is in control, not us. Accept that curves in life are coming for reasons we can’t — or aren’t meant to — understand.

And once in a while, expect a knuckleball.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Help! There's a Dead Cubs Fan in My Lap

My assignment was to check out a charter school in Chicago that was run by a company setting up a similar school in Flint.

It was just a coincidence that the Cubs were in town on the day we were scheduled to be there.

It also was just a coincidence that I wrapped up the last interview in time to make it to Wrigley before the first pitch.

These things happen. What also happened that day was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen at a ballpark.

Since I was buying just one ticket, the Cubs were able to sell me a seat about five rows right behind home plate — among the best seats I’ve ever scored. Chris Berman of ESPN was in the next section.

It was a beautiful May day, and Jon Leiber was throwing against the Braves and future Hall-of-Famer Tom Glavine. Glavine was not at his best that day, giving up five runs including a blast from Sammy before being chased in the fifth.

But the real story took place in the seat in front of mine.

Early in the game, a guy wandered to his seat with a beer in each hand. He looked a lot like the Jim Belushi character in "...About Last Night," wearing a red satin Bulls jacket and sweat pants.

He didn’t spend much time in his seat, disappearing for an inning at a time to buy more beer and smoke in the concourse — which was fine with me. I was enjoying the unobstructed view of Chipper Jones taking a collar with two strikeouts.

Later in the game, the guy came back and slumped down in his seat to take a nap. I remember thinking "What a waste of one of the best seats in Wrigley."

As this guy slept, he apparently tried to get more comfortable, stretching out instead of slumping. His arms went out over the seats on either side of him. Keep in mind, Wrigley is an old ballpark with small seats and narrow rows. His head now stretched back so far into my personal space that I had a hard time keeping score in my program.

This went on for an inning or so, with people sitting around me making jokes.

Suddenly the guy’s arms started shaking and bubbly spittle was forming on his lips. I knew this wasn’t good.

Then we heard something spilling and saw a puddle forming under his seat. Did he knock over his beer? No. He was wetting himself.

Now, one of the things I remember best from Mr. Ousteckey’s eighth-grade science class is that the first thing you do after dying is wet your pants — the body just releases everything.

I remember thinking, "This guy is dead. There is a dead Cub fan practically in my lap."

The guy in the seat next to me started freaking out, waving frantically for an usher. One came over and radioed for the paramedic on duty. A lot of people in the section were trying to move away. I was scared, but apparently had the presence of mind to continue keeping score, as my program would indicate.

The paramedic was pretty calm. He leaned over the guy, poked him a little and said. "Hey, chief. I work for the Cubs. Let’s go for a walk."

The guy -- apparently not dead -- woke up, groggily stood up and started walking with the paramedic. Then he stopped, turned around and went back for the half a cup of beer in the cup holder. He walked off, oblivious to what had transpired. Someone came by with a cup of water to pour under his seat and dilute the puddle.

Apparently these guys have some experience with drunken Cub fans.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Cool lyrics collection

People who know me know that I collect way too many things.

Some of my collections, like my jerseys and caps, take up a lot of space and are confined to a display in the baseball room. Others, such as my Statues of Liberty, my wife has allowed me to show off on a shelf in the family room – for now.

But some things I just kind of carry around mentally, which I suppose explains why I keep forgetting the important things I’m supposed to remember.

Cool lyrics are one of those mental collections. Some are snippets of songs, others just a refrain. Some I find inspirational. Some are silly but I like the word play. I've kept them confined to my inner-iPod -- until today.

Here are some that jump to mind. I’d love to hear some of your favorites.

When you lift me up with tender care
When you wash me clean in the palms of your hands
Lord hold me close so I can thrive
When you touch me, that’s when I know I’m alive

I want to be your hands
I want to be your feet
I’ll go where you send me
I’ll go where you send me
And I’ll try, yes I’ll try
To touch the world
Like you’ve touched my heart

“Hands and Feet,”
Audio Adrenaline

I used “Hands and Feet” as part of one of my first lessons as a middle school youth group leader, and it kind of set the tone for everything we did later. It’s popped up a couple other important times in my life, too.

Lord I don’t know where all this is going
Or how it all works out
Lead me to peace that is past all understanding
A peace beyond all doubt
“Lord (I don’t Know)”

I carry this Newsboys song around in my PDA. During frustrating church council meetings I’d slip it out as a prayer for patience and guidance.

Jesus walked out on the water
Said take courage it is me
Peter trusted and he wanted to go farther
So he stepped out on the sea

If I keep my eyes on Jesus
I can walk on water
If I keep my eyes on Jesus
I can walk on water

Just like Peter I want to go farther
Tread on the sea and walk on the water
Step where he steps and go where he goes
Side by side when the sea billows roll
I’ll be all right when the wind comes
I’ll be all right when the waves come crashing
I’m not afraid for this is my father’s world

“Walk on Water”
Audio Adrenaline

I pray to have Peter's blind faith. I spend so much time worrying about things and I know I'm supposed to let go and place them in the Lord's hands. What's crazy is that I can do that with the big things, yet I sweat the small things.

There’s a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I’m falling, flying
I say “Oh, so this is what she means.”
She means we’re bouncing into Graceland
And I can see losing love
Is like a window in your heart
Everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody sees the wind blow
Paul Simon

No I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me.
“Small Town”
John Mellencamp

OK, so I use this to justify having the New York shrine on my desk at work.

“This highway is long but I know some that are longer
By sunup tomorrow I guess I’ll be home”
Through the hills of Kentucky ‘cross the Ohio River
The man kept talking about his life and his times
He fell asleep with his head against the window
He said an honest man’s pillow is his peace of mind
“Minutes to Memories”
John Mellencamp

I let my past go too fast
No time to pause –
If I could slow it all down
Like some captain
Whose ship runs aground
I can wait until the tide
Comes around

Time stand still
I’m not looking back
But I want to look around me now
Time stand still
See more of the people
And the places that surround me now

Freeze this moment
Just a little bit longer
Make each sensation
A little bit stronger
Experience slips away

Summer’s going fast
Nights growing colder
Children growing up
Old friends growing older
Experience slips away
“Time Stand Still”

I could fill this with Rush lyrics. But this is one of Neal Peart’s most brilliant. Life goes by so quickly. And I don’t want to turn back time, but just slow down enough to appreciate every sight and sound and person while they are here.

Now I guess I’ll have to tell ‘em
That I got no cerebellum
Gonna get my Ph. D.
I’m a teenage lobotomy, yeah!
“Teenage Lobotomy”

You were licking your lips
And your lipstick’s shining
I was dying just to ask for a taste
“You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth”
Meat Loaf

Just a couple silly ones. I love the simplicity of the Ramones, but there’s a complexity, too. They were either a bunch of dopes sitting around a Queens basement sniffing glue or a bunch of intelluctuals -- sitting around a Queens basement sniffing glue. Well, I guess we answered that one. But I can’t think of any other songs that can drop cerebellum in there.