CITY GAMES

The games my friends and I played growing up – football, baseball, basketball, organized, pick-up, made-up, manhunt, chase

The Frisbee’s sweet story

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As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 19, 2019. Artwork by Emma Rose Walsh.

It’s unlikely a bachelor of arts in Frisbeeology will be conferred by any of the nearly 3,000 colleges holding commencements in the United States this month. But the degree is not without precedent.

In 1984, at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., Johnny Dwork was handed a diploma for his self-designed “Flying Disc Entertainment and Education” major, which combined courses in business, psychology, and dance with the countless hours Dwork spent hucking a Frisbee outside of Hampshire lecture halls. The one-of-a-kind graduate went on to become a world-champion flying disc athlete.

Dwork’s degree was a full-circle moment. The Frisbee got its start, at least in part, on picturesque college quadrangles, some of them possibly here in Rhode Island. More on that in a moment.

Whirling Frisbees are as much a sign of spring as cherry blossoms and Little League uniforms. As many as 300 million plastic platters have been sold since the original Frisbee design was patented in 1958. And Ultimate Frisbee, now known simply as Ultimate, is in the offing to become an Olympic team sport in 2028.

The Frisbee’s march to the marketplace was a team sport, too, involving players who were 3,000 miles apart and unknown to one another.

In Bridgeport, Conn. during the first half of the 20th century, the Frisbie Pie Company sold baked goods to schoolchildren and nearby college students who, after consuming the confections, discovered the pie tins were ideal for playing catch. At Yale, undergrads yelled “Frisbie!” as they tossed the empty tins, alerting fellow students to the spinning discs heading their way. The Frisbie bakery’s success in Bridgeport led to additional shops in Hartford, Poughkeepsie, and Providence, so shouts of the pie maker’s name may have been heard on the campuses of Brown University and Providence College, as well.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, Fred Morrison and his future wife, Lucile, were having fun flipping a popcorn can lid to each other at the beach one day when a passerby offered them 25 cents for their makeshift toy. According to Morrison, “That got the wheels turning, because you could buy a cake tin for five cents, and if people were willing to pay a quarter for it, well, there was a business.”

For the next decade, Morrison worked to perfect his disc, creating multiple prototypes before settling on a plastic model, which he called the Flyin-Saucer. It became the archetype of all flying discs today. The inventor would later refine his toy’s design and dub the new version the Pluto Platter.

Morrison, who was awarded a U.S. design patent, sold the rights for the Pluto Platter to Wham-O in 1957. Based in Carson, Cal., the up-and-coming toy company had recently introduced the Hula Hoop with great success and would go on to create several of the most popular toys of the 1960s, including the Super Ball, Slip ’N Slide, and Silly String.

Wham-O’s executives soon discovered that “Pluto Platter” wasn’t flying with college kids back in New England, where the Frisbie name had stuck. So, in a moment of marketing brilliance, the company changed the disc’s name to Frisbee, altering the spelling of the bakery name by one letter to avoid trademark issues.

A market research team could have spent thousands of hours developing and testing new names for the Pluto Platter, but I doubt any would have topped Frisbee. The fun-sounding word instantly conjures up visions of aerodynamic wonder and athletic ballets while possessing a baked-in acknowledgment of a humble pie company’s key role in the Frisbee story.

Fred Morrison, upon learning that Wham-O had tossed his Pluto Platter moniker in favor of Frisbee, thought it was “a terrible name.” But after royalties made him a millionaire, the inventor revised his evaluation: “I wouldn’t change the name of it for the world.”

Seven blocks of pure freedom

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As published in the Providence Journal, September 17, 2017.

Three brown-bag lunches sit on the kitchen counter, each one branded with my mother’s handwriting. My older brother, Rob, will take his to La Salle Academy where he is a freshman, while my younger brother, James, and I will carry ours to Robert F. Kennedy School. James is in first grade, I’m in sixth.

“Johhh-neee!”

It’s Chris, my best friend, calling from the driveway on the side of our house. James and I jump up from the kitchen table.

“Don’t forget your lunches!” my mother says, stubbing out a Tareyton cigarette. A talk-show host chatters on the radio atop the refrigerator, but it’s Mom’s voice that registers with me. “Keep an eye on your brother,” she says in a tone that guarantees compliance. “I’ll be back from work when you guys get home.”

James and I bound into the crisp September air and start up River Avenue with Chris. We love walking to school. There are no parents, no teachers – just seven blocks of freedom along the tree-lined streets of Elmhurst.

“Want a Starburst?” Chris asks. My friend is easygoing, and mischievous in ways I envy. He’s also nice to James. My brother and I grab the soft candy chews from him and, in seconds, eradicate any good we might have done with our toothbrushes earlier that morning.

At Moorland Avenue, sharp barks turn our heads. It’s Killer, our name for the menacing German shepherd safely penned in the backyard of the Cape on the corner of Moorland and Rankin Avenue. Even though we are almost a block away, Killer ­is on his hind legs, pawing the air and barking at us ferociously. The heavy chain that tethers him to a clothesline pole is taut.

“I have dreams about that dog,” Chris says. “Bad dreams.”

Killer’s barking fades behind traffic noise as we continue up River Avenue. We check the English yew in front of a shingled double-decker. The previous fall, Chris planted an orange Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup wrapper deep in its branches.

“Still there,” he says with satisfaction. All is right with our world.

We reach Smith Street and have to wait for the stoplight to change. It’s a tricky three-way intersection, with Wabun Avenue complicating the automobile-and-pedestrian ballet. Years earlier, as a second grader, my brother Rob had run into the side of a moving station wagon here. When I asked him what happened next, he said the car kept going and so did he.

“I was late for school,” he said. “And I didn’t want Mom to find out.”

Chris, James, and I, safely through the Smith Street piece of the intersection, pop into Haskins Pharmacy. I dig three pennies from my pocket and slide them into the red gumball machine.

Back outside, we have to wait for the stoplight to change again, this time to get across River Avenue. Charlie, an old, one-eyed beagle, joins us on the corner. He belongs to Mr. Siravo, the fruit peddler who lives near Haskins. Charlie comes and goes as he pleases; his ability to navigate city traffic is a marvel to us.

“Hi, Charlie,” James says, and the graying dog gives my brother a sweet, one-eyed look, his tail wagging.

The light changes and Chris, James, and I cross, with Charlie in step. At Nelson Street playground, half a block from school, the three of us jump on the swings and swoop and soar until we can go no higher.

Riiinnngg! The first bell sounds. We run from the playground to the schoolyard. There’s still time for a race or two – down to the chain link fence and back. Go!

Riinng-riinng! It’s the final bell. Teachers appear, lines form, shoulders slump. Chris and James fall in with their classmates, I with mine.

In Miss MacDonald’s classroom, I see the day’s schedule written on the blackboard. One word stands out, like a gold star on a spelling paper: dismissal. It can’t come fast enough.

Seven blocks of freedom await us on the walk home.

March Madness recalls local legends

IMG_0096As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, March 19, 2017.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship, better known as March Madness, kicked off last Tuesday, with 52 games scheduled through the weekend. Is your bracket busted yet?

“March Madness” entered the American sports lexicon in 1939, but in reference to the state high school basketball championship in Illinois, not the national collegiate tourney. The name only became associated with the NCAA in the 1980s, thanks to sportscaster Brent Musburger, who was familiar with it from his work in Chicago before joining CBS.

The 68-team tournament has given us other memorable terms, including Bracketology, which refers to the science of predicting the field and each round’s winners. In theory, every squad has a chance to run the table at the Big Dance, and I’m always rooting for a Cinderella or two to emerge.

According to the American Gaming Association, more than 40 million people filled out March Madness brackets this year. Beyond office-pool wagers, however, it’s easy to understand why college basketball’s annual extravaganza is so riveting.

While the NBA Finals have given us just 19 Game 7s in 70 years, the NCAA men’s tournament offers the drama of 67 such games – do or die for both teams – in three weeks. Having local quintets in the mix – the University of Rhode Island and Providence College both earned berths this year – makes the nationwide event even more compelling.

Brown University was the first Rhode Island school to receive an NCAA bid, in the tournament’s inaugural year. Brown was one of eight entrants, losing to Villanova 42-30 in the opening round.

The Bears returned to the tourney 47 years later, in 1986, and faced powerhouse Syracuse in its own Carrier Dome. Legend has it – or perhaps it was just my father’s whimsical musing as an alumnus – that Brown’s coach, Mike Cingiser, advised his players to grab the ball and run out of the Dome should they happen to score first. To their credit, the Ivy Leaguers were actually up by one midway through the first half before losing in a blowout.

URI has been to the tournament nine times, making a terrific run in 1998 that included knocking off top-seeded Kansas. The Rams came tantalizingly close to reaching the Final Four that year, but a late-game meltdown against Stanford resulted in a heartbreaking 79-77 loss in the quarterfinals.

Of all Rhode Island teams, Providence College has danced the most, with 19 tournament appearances and two thrilling advances to the Final Four. In 1987, a young Rick Pitino all but willed a group of overachievers, led by Billy Donovan, to the national semifinals, where they faced Syracuse – the same team that had obliterated Brown the previous year. The Friars’ three-point shooting, instrumental to their success all season long, finally betrayed them, and they lost to the Orange by 14. Meanwhile, Pitino and Donovan had been launched into basketball greatness.

Fourteen years earlier, in 1973, Providence made its first trip to the Final Four, squaring off against Memphis State in St. Louis. After Ernie DiGregorio whipped a did-you-see-that, 30-foot behind-the-back pass to Kevin Stacom for a lay-up on the game’s second play, PC seemed destined for the finals. Then Marvin Barnes, the team’s star center, twisted his right knee and March Madness turned into March Sadness for Friar fans. A 49-40 halftime lead evaporated as Memphis State exploited Barnes’s injury to win going away, 98-85.

Every March, I hear myself wistfully telling anyone who will listen – my kids, their friends, total strangers – that PC would have played undefeated UCLA for the national title in 1973 had Marvin not gone down. It’s as sure a marker of spring as chirping birds and blooming crocuses.

This year, the tournament’s famous nickname will become a misnomer by the last three games, with the semifinals and championship straddling the first weekend in April. Coincidentally, on the same day the NCAA men’s tourney wraps up in Phoenix, a different kind of madness will get underway in Boston.

Go Red Sox!

The reassuring plink of spring

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 17, 2015.

I live within earshot of a Little League field, and the sound of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball – plink! – brings me back to the days when I was the one swinging the bat, in Providence. Here are the highlights:

I’m at my Little League manager’s front door, having missed the practice when he gave out uniforms. To my disappointment, the white flannel jersey he hands me unfolds to reveal a red number 13 – far from my lucky number. That’s what I get for missing practice.

I put the uniform on at home and stand in front of my mother’s full-length mirror. The short sleeves reach my elbows, the ample waistband of the pants is scrunched under my belt, and the crotch falls to an inch above my knees. I could be running away to pedal a unicycle for Ringling Brothers. Superstition and supersizing notwithstanding, I am thrilled. I have my first official, head-to-toe sports uniform. Play ball!

Later that season, I’m standing in the on-deck circle at Nelson Street playground and notice my girlfriend watching from behind my team’s bench. She has brown eyes, short brown hair, and a self-assurance that sets her apart from the other girls in fifth grade. I shoot her a knowing look, which she acknowledges with a smile.

Earlier that day, we had walked home together down Jastram Street and ended up in her garage. The air smelled of gasoline and newly mown grass until she pulled me close. Her breath was bubblegum sweet, her lips soft. It was my first kiss, and almost certainly not hers. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything.

With her looking on, I step up to the plate. The pitch sails in and, for once, the ball looks as big as a honeydew melon. I drive it between center and right, and slide into second with a double. It’s my first extra-base hit … My girlfriend’s cheering … All on the heels of our moment in her garage. Standing at second and surveying the scene, I’m positive life will never be better.

Two years later, my CYO team gathers in right field at Davis Park to go over signals before a game. “Pay attention!” our manager barks. He motions us closer and lowers his voice: “When I say ‘Father Murray is here,’ I want you to bunt.”

Father Murray is a kindly, diminutive priest from our parish. He wears horn-rimmed glasses and speaks softly from the pulpit. Kids love him because he keeps his sermons short and his theology simple.

Walking back to our dugout, my friend Johnny is incredulous: “Father Murray is here?” he says, eyebrows arched. “What kind of sign is that?”

Sometime in the early innings, our team has a man on first with no outs. “Father Murray is here!” our manager shouts. Kevin, our batter, looks at him as if he’s speaking Swahili. The pitch comes in and Kevin swings away. Strike one!

Our manager repeats the signal: “Father – Murray – is – here!” But Kevin is too busy adjusting his batting helmet. A mom behind our bench says, “Father Murray is here?” Another adds, “Where is he? I need to talk to him about my niece’s baptism.” The pitcher winds up and throws. Again, Kevin swings away. Strike two!

Our manager stands apart from us, just inside the dugout’s chain-link fence, as rigid as a foul pole. Parents, the umpire, and players on the other team are all searching for Father Murray.

“Oh, right!” Kevin says at the plate, sheepishly. “Father Murray!” But his revelation comes too late. With two strikes, he has to hit away. He whiffs on the next pitch and slinks back to the bench, avoiding our manager’s gaze.

“Where the hell is Father Murray?” a dad asks no one in particular.

“Told you that signal was lame,” Johnny says to me.

These memories and so many others come back in a rush whenever I hear the plink, as I do on most evenings this time of year. The batter connects and so do I – to a world that is forever springtime new and bubblegum fragrant.

Play ball!

My thrill of victory and agony of defeat

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As published in the Providence Journal, January 18, 2015.

In January 1973, a month shy of my 13th birthday, I won the Providence Recreation Department’s free throw shooting contest. At Zuccolo Rec Center on Federal Hill, I made 13 of my 15 attempts.

I was thrilled — and astonished.

From youth basketball through high school, I was a pass-first, shoot-second point guard. When I did get to the foul line, my accuracy hovered at 50 percent. The 87 percent I shot at Zuccolo to win the contest was an aberration.

Had a high-tech gizmo called 94Fifty Smart Basketball been around back then, my free throw shooting might have been less like Wilt Chamberlain’s notoriously ugly attempts.

Introduced in 2013, the 94Fifty promises skill improvement via digital diagnostics. As you practice dribbling and shooting, sensors inside the ball send data to your smartphone, where an app translates the information into immediate feedback: “Bend those legs.” “Point your elbow.” “Flick your wrist.”

(For teenage players, I would add, “Get a summer job.” The 94Fifty retails for $179.)

The makers of the 94Fifty say it’s “like having the best coaches in the world with you every day of the year.” That may be true, but the smart basketball is a far cry, literally, from the coaches who barked from the sidelines when I played. For that, you’d need Old School 94Fifty, which I imagine might sound like this:

After I dribble the ball off my foot: “Ringling Brothers is coming to town — why don’t you join?”

After I travel — run without dribbling — on a layup attempt: “Take a bus next time!”

After I throw an errant behind-the-back pass on a two-on-one fast break: “Quit hotdogging, mustard king!”

After I go 3-for-10 from the foul line during practice: “Are you a mason, son? You’re throwing bricks up there!”

Political correctness wasn’t a priority for my old-school coaches; winning was. That’s why I loved playing for them — I wanted to win too.

My coaches would have welcomed the 94Fifty’s smart technology for the improved shooting and dribbling technique that it promotes. But they didn’t always equate smarts, or even thinking, with success on the court. They knew better.

Basketball rewards quickness and improvisation. Split-second actions and reactions, rooted in practice scrimmages and pickup games, deliver advantage. Deliberation usually spells doom.

I recall one coach’s plea during a frantic timeout in a close game: “Don’t start thinking on me now!” We got his point: trust your instincts and just go play. There’s a reason the word “unconscious” describes a shooter who can’t miss.

In “The City Game,” Pete Axthelm characterizes basketball as jazz to baseball’s chamber music and football’s symphony: “Basketball flows past like a river, like a song.”

Until a foul is committed — then the river freezes, the song stops.

During free throws, basketball shares baseball’s focus on the individual. Success or failure is a solitary act, and a player’s thoughts can become the greatest foe. A hush comes over the gym as I bounce, bounce, bounce the ball and look to the rim …

Of all the coaching chestnuts I heard growing up, one is imprinted in my memory like the Voit logo on a ball: “Free throws win games.” To which I make the following amendment: “Or not.”

I know firsthand.

As a senior at La Salle Academy, I was awarded two free throws with 10 seconds or so remaining in an epic overtime game against archrival Bishop Hendricken. The score was tied as I stepped to the line and tried to quiet my mind. La Salle’s tiny old gym was electric.

My first shot felt awful, yet the ball dropped through the net. The basketball gods were with me — but only for that moment. My second attempt clanged off the rim and bounced out of bounds.

With our team up by one, the game came down to a frenzied scramble at the other end of the court. The ball sailed into the hands of Hendricken’s point guard — a pass-first player like me. But there was no time to pass — or think, for that matter.

His shot from the top of the key was all reaction and — as the scoreboard horn blared and red lights flashed — all net. The Hendricken fans exploded. What a buzzer beater!

If only I had hit my second free throw — we would have played another overtime, at least.

I can hear the 94Fifty Smart Basketball correcting my form on the missed foul shot: “Increase the arc.”

Old School 94Fifty would have been less clinical, more empathetic: “Tough time to throw up a brick, kid.”

 

Play Ball! Wiffle Ball, That Is

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As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, June 1, 2014.

Baseballs and city neighborhoods don’t mix. Windows loom; shattered glass and lost allowances are just a line drive away. When I was a kid, we didn’t even think of playing hardball in my backyard on River Avenue in Providence. But we didn’t have to. We had Wiffle ball.

In 1953, in Fairfield, Conn., David Mullany came home to find his 12-year-old son trying to throw curves with a small plastic golf ball, to no avail. Mullany, a former semi-pro pitcher, knew that throwing breaking balls wasn’t good for adolescent arms. So he set out to design a ball that would let his son do so without harm.

Mullany found inspiration in an unlikely place: the hard plastic orbs that served as packaging for Coty perfume bottles. After cutting holes of various sizes and shapes in the re-purposed spheres, he arrived at an eight-slot design that made them curve and rise and sink when thrown.

While Mullany was the inventor, his son was the marketer. The 12-year-old came up with the name for the ball, a play on “whiff,” which is slang for “strike out.” (Whiffing batters was the whole point of throwing curves!) In an act of typographic economy — and branding brilliance — the Mullanys dropped the “h” in their spelling. Thus, the Wiffle ball was born.

In the early 1970s, Mullany’s plastic masterwork transformed our tiny Providence backyard into baseball heaven. We threw curves like Steve Carlton, with no fear of shredding elbow ligaments. We swung for the fences like Harmon Killebrew, with no worry of destruction.

Our playing field was quirkier than Fenway Park. The trunk of a maple tree and a clothesline post became our foul poles. An eight-foot concrete retaining wall, adorned top to bottom with a painted garden mural, provided a welcome backstop. We oriented home plate in front of one of the wall’s giant sunflowers. The span of its petals formed our strike zone.

And there were strikeouts — the curving, rising, sinking Wiffle ball lived up to its name. But there was plenty of contact, too. We rapped liners off den windows for doubles, dinged the dormer of my bedroom for triples, sent long balls over the roof for home runs. When a gutter swallowed the ball (ground-rule double), my little brother would climb out a second-floor window, creep down the crunching shingles, and pluck the ball from its aluminum holding pen. Don’t tell Mom!

The copy on the Wiffle ball package explained why the ball was a godsend to those of us playing in city backyards: “BAT IT! BOUNCE IT! SAFE ANYWHERE!”

Anywhere but our dog’s mouth, it turned out. A bouncing Wiffle ball turned Georgie into a canine Bert Campaneris. When she chased down a ball, we were one chomp away from disaster. We’d carefully pry the ball from her clench and then banish her to the house.

When a Wiffle ball did crack from all our mashing and Georgie’s gnawing, duct tape prolonged its life. And when a ball was beyond repair, we pooled our change and ran up to Wolcott’s five-and-dime on Chalkstone Avenue to get a new one. There is nothing better than pitching with a brand new Wiffle ball.

My brothers, friends and I all played Little League baseball, of course. I remember one Opening Day at Nelson Street playground: a blaze of sunshine and promise. Crisp uniforms bore the names of local sponsors: the Lawyers and the Medics, Quinn’s Funeral Home and Lions Cleansers, Fifth Ward Democrats, the Elms.

But as much as we liked organized baseball, it was Wiffle ball that we lived for. You could always get a game together — Wiffle ball accommodated various numbers of players. And best of all, like basketball, you could play one-on-one.

My best friend, Chris, and I squared off against each other for what must have been 60 Wiffle ball games in the summer of 1972. I know that the Yankees, my team, won the regular season and that the Orioles, Chris’s team, took the World Series. After the seventh game, we ran into the locker room (also known as the garage) to celebrate. I poured champagne (soda) over Chris’s head, and he took it as the honor it was intended to be.

A grainy Super 8mm film from 1967 plays in my mind: I see my father in Bermuda shorts, cigarette in one hand, Wiffle ball in the other. He pitches to me, and I hit a hard liner off his calf. “Ow!” he mouths, grabbing his leg. Then he grins at me in approval.

Cross-fade to a video from 1997: now it’s me as dad, throwing a pitch in the backyard to my 4-year-old son. I watch as the Wiffle ball, like the arc of my life, bends to his eager swing.

 

The Mystery and Magic of a Made-up Word

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I was thrilled to hear that the Providence Journal wanted to publish my piece about wishing for a snowy Super Bowl.

But there was one glitch.

“Muckle?” Ed Achorn asked me on the phone. Ed is the Editorial Pages Editor at the Journal. “It’s not in the dictionary,” he said.

I laughed. I knew “muckle” wasn’t in the dictionary. I had looked it up, too. But that didn’t stop me. In my description of how my friends and I loved to play football in the snow as kids, I had left “muckle” in:

“We would hike up to the fields at La Salle Academy or Mount Pleasant High School, mark the end zones with our coats, and muckle each other until our cheeks and fingers were numb.”

I explained to Ed that “muckle” was the word we used when we really wanted to hammer the guy with the ball. Muckling was tackling and then some. Muckling could land you in the ER.

I offered to re-write the sentence, but Ed had a better idea. He simply referenced in parentheses that “muckle” was a “kid verb denoting violent tackling.” I’m glad he did. The piece had 570 words, but none hit home more than “muckle.”

A retired Providence firefighter emailed me: “Muckle,” he wrote. “When I saw that word, my face broke into a broad smile.” He told me how he had played football in the snow at Neutaconkanut Park in the Silver Lake section of Providence.

Perhaps “muckle” was a local colloquialism, I thought. Then another emailed arrived: “I found myself transported back 45 years to Lindell Lot in St. Louis where there was plenty of mucklin’ going on in the early 70s.”

So muckling wasn’t regional. Turns out it wasn’t exclusive to football, either. A good friend told me how a girl muckled him behind a dumpster when he was in 4th grade. Sounded better than getting muckled on the gridiron.

If “muckle” were in the dictionary, what would its etymology be? Maybe a combination of muscle and tackle. Or mug and tackle. Or mud and knuckle. Or muck and kill. That seems about right, especially in bad weather.

I gave my son, Evan, the backstory on “muckle” before he read the column. He texted me later: “Had you not said that, I would still 100% understand the usage.”

High praise for a word, especially one you won’t find in the dictionary.

With thanks to Ed Achorn of The Providence Journal.

Take Me In To The Ball Game

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You know what’s wrong with sports video games? They weren’t around when I was growing up. No Madden NFL, no NBA Jam, no MLB The Show. Damn.

I would have loved those games. Because I loved sports. I loved to play sports, I loved to watch sports, and I loved games that simulated sports.

It all started with electric football. There was something so promising about the shiny metal field – it looked perfect as my brother and I lined up our plastic players for the kick-off. And then with a flick of the switch, everything went to hell. Players slid unpredictably to electric football’s relentless hum, or locked arms in a gridiron square dance. Every pass was a Hail Mary, and forget about attempting a field goal. No wonder we ended up cranking the vibration screw as high as it would go. That’s what electric football was good for: simulating earthquakes.

Bobby Orr Hockey was in a different league. The table-top game put control of all six players at your fingertips. The overhead scoreboard dropped pucks for center ice face-offs that rewarded good eye-hand coordination. Sure, the action could slow to the pace of a Fischer-Spassky match when one of us tried to line up a pass from flat-metal Johnny Bucyk to flat-metal Phil Esposito – very unlike real hockey, to be sure. But the game was fun to play. Lots of fun.

The only problem was, you needed two people. What about those mornings when my older brother was off working at the Y and my younger brother was still sleeping? I needed a game that I could play solitaire.

My cousin Steven took care of that. When he got a new Strat-O-Matic Baseball Game in the late 1960s, I was the recipient of his old one. Lucky me.

Strat-O-Matic calls itself “The ORIGINAL Fantasy Sports Games!” According to The New York Times, “For youngsters whose thoughts are turned more to spring and baseball than summer and camp, there’s an array of cerebral board games that keep the mind limber with batting averages, earned-run averages, and fielding percentages. The most ingenious is a card-and-dice game put out by Strat-O-Matic.”

I spent the summer rolling dice, consulting charts, keeping box scores, adjusting standings. My house league consisted of the Cardinals and the Yankees, the Red Sox and the Tigers. Even now, the line-ups are fresh in my mind: Brock, Flood, Maris, Cepeda…

Strat-O-Matic Baseball was my “video” game, with the action playing out in my head. But it didn’t keep me from going out to play. Nothing could do that – well, nothing but Mrs. Gordon. She was our next door neighbor on River Avenue in Providence. Mrs. Gordon’s husband had a heart condition. He needed to rest in the morning, she said. So Mrs. Gordon asked that we refrain from whacking Wiffle balls off the side of her house until 9:30. Mrs. Gordon was nice, but in a no-nonsense way. I wasn’t going to cross her – or my mother, who assured Mrs. Gordon that we would comply with her request.

*     *     *

In the early morning light, the Wiffle bat stands untouched in the back hallway. Inside, I sit on the den floor amid charts and dice and Pop-Tart crumbs. Through the magic of Strat-O-Matic Baseball, I keep company with Bob Gibson and Denny McClain and Mickey Mantle and Yaz… Periodically, I run into the kitchen to check the time on the stove clock. 8:30… 9:00… 9:25… YES!

Out I bound into the backyard.

“Good morning, Mrs. Gordon!”

My best friend Chris walks up the driveway, as I scribe the backyard dirt with the knob of the Wiffle bat: a perfect batter’s box and home plate.

Play ball!

With thanks to my cousin, Steven Paulson, for the hand-me-down Strat-O-Matic Baseball years ago and for recent research support.

Home Away From Home At Academy Field

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It’s after midnight, but I can’t sleep. I leave my house and head up Peirce Street to Church Street, and then up to Rector. That’s my usual route when I walk or run. Habit tells me to turn right at Rector and proceed to Division Street… But tonight, home plate trumps habit.

The night is fair, the neighborhood quiet. Mist floats through a streetlight’s glow. I see the silhouette of the bleachers at Academy Field. And then I am drawn to the baseball diamond.

Is it the memory of games past that tugs at me? A yearning for simpler times? Academy Field lies dormant on this cool, late-autumn night, but as I walk its base paths, ghosts come alive…

> I’m a catcher in Little League and there’s a bang-bang play at the plate, the ball and the runner hitting me at the same time. The ump yells “Yer out!” and he’s right: my head bounces off the rock-hard dirt behind the plate and the game floats away… Next thing I know, my manager’s splayed hand is in front of my face, and he asks me how many fingers I see. “Five,” I say. “Wrong,” he replies. “There are only four – this one’s a thumb.” Play ball!

> I’m in left field at George J. West Junior High in Providence and – CRACK! – a monster drive soars over my head. There’s no fence at West – it’s free-range baseball. The ball hops twice before disappearing into a thatch of tall grass, a rabbit’s tail gone. &%@#$! What if I can’t find it? I sprint to the thicket and thrust my hand in – got it! I throw to the cutoff man, grass blades and all. Whew!

> I’m in the dugout at Davis Park, my CYO team at bat, when our manager calls out, “Father Murray is here!” We all know what that means: it’s the signal to bunt. Well, everyone knows except Steve Ferri, who happens to be at the plate. The pitch comes in and Ferri swings for the fences. Strike one! Our manager stares at Ferri: “Father Murray is HERE!” A mom behind our bench says, “Have you seen Father Murray? That’s nice he comes to the games.” The pitcher winds up and throws: again, Ferri swings away. Strike two! Our manager is incredulous. “FERRI!” he screams. “FATHER MURRAY IS HERE!” Now everyone is looking for Father Murray – moms, the umpires, even Ferri. Our manager calls time, waves Ferri over, and asks, “Do you know what ‘Father Murray is here’ means?” Ferri doesn’t have a clue, but now the other team does. Next inning, our manager changes the bunt signal.

I stand in the infield at Academy Field. It’s 46 feet from the mound to home plate, 60 feet base to base – same as it ever was. My memories are equally fixed. On this still night, I recall with affection days when five fingers became four, when a baseball vanished and reappeared, and when everyone at Davis Park wondered, where the hell is Father Murray?

When My Dog Came To Church

City Games, Part 3

My best friend Chris and I were late, as usual. The man who handed out the bulletins was gone, and there wasn’t much holy water left. As we entered St. Pius Church, the marble floor announced our tardy arrival: our footsteps echoed as we sheepishly made our way to one of the back pews. The next forty-five minutes would be an eternity.

The second reading had just begun. I caught the eye of a child two pews in front of me, looking for a playmate. As I twisted my face and crossed my eyes to his delight, I heard a faint sound. A sign from heaven? No, this was too familiar – like scratching on a door. The bark that followed was even more familiar. I turned to Chris. He was already whispering.

“Is that Georgie?”

I thought of my dog, running out the back door of my house and following us to church. I smiled nervously. Chris laughed. More scratching. We tried to hide in the words of Corinthians, but a second bark found us. I closed my eyes and prayed.

As we stood for the Gospel, more latecomers arrived behind us. We heard their footsteps, plus something else… the click-click-click of nails on the marble floor. Georgie was in church! Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her pass our pew. She didn’t see us, thank God. And now she was headed toward the priest in the pulpit.

The woman next to us looked at Georgie in disbelief and then returned to her missalette. The priest kept reading, unaware of his newest convert. I started to rise to make the rescue, but Chris grabbed me by the arm.

“You can’t go get her!” he whispered in a panic. “You’ll look like an idiot!”

We didn’t move. Georgie was almost at the altar when an usher, in his Sunday best, retrieved her and carried her out. She was good about the whole thing. Didn’t even bark. She usually hated getting picked up.

Chris and I waited a minute before leaving, not wanting to be too obvious. When we got outside, Georgie greeted us with leaps and licks and wags of her tail. At last, we had a legitimate reason for leaving church early. Even our parents would agree.

In our book, that qualified as a miracle.

Pictured above: not Georgie (I didn’t have a photo handy from years ago), but kindred spirit Buddy, amazing woofie of the fabulous Fuller family in San Francisco.

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