It was the night after Christmas, and Birmingham was quiet. I was on a walk through a neighborhood, watching street lights wink on at dusk.
The sunset was neon pink. There were sirens in the far-off. A distant train sounded its horn; two long, one short.
There were people walking dogs, old ladies watering ferns, and children riding scooters. And there were six kids playing a game of Wiffle ball in their backyard.
“Heybatterbatterbatter…!” shouted the sweaty kids in the infield, punching their little hands.
The boy at the plate golfed one into right with his plastic bat.
“Throw him out!” shouted someone’s mom.
The throw was good.
“YOU’RE OUT!” shouted six kids in ecstatic unison.
The runner made the long walk of shame back to his mom’s lap and cried tears of sportsmanship.
Funny thing about Wiffle balls. Not long ago, the State of New York declared that Wiffle ball, along with kickball and freeze tag, posed a “significant risk of injury” to kids. The New York Legislature decreed that any summer camp that included these activities would be subject to government regulation.
Meanwhile, back at Wiffle Ball Inc. headquarters in Shelton, Conn., Wiffle employees probably thought this legislation was a prank.
Wiffle ball dangerous? Wiffle Ball Inc. has been around for over half a century and has never – not once – been sued over safety issues. They have doled out over 60 million plastic balls since they opened their doors. There are Wiffle balls on nearly every continent.
So people across the U.S. were ticked off about New York’s decision. They were vocal about it, too. They made a big stink, and they won. The New York Legislature finally removed Wiffle ball from its list of regulated high-risk activities along with other allegedly dangerous sports like dodgeball, knitting, and algebra II.
Anyway, as I walked past the kids playing Wiffle ball, a stray plastic ball rolled onto the sidewalk and stopped only inches from my shoe.
I looked at the ball for a moment and my entire childhood came back to me.
I remembered winter evenings spent with my old man in our backyard, learning to throw velvet hammers with the Wiffle ball I got for Christmas. I can even remember the way the world smelled that day.
I was jolted from the past when the redheaded kid with the bat shouted to me.
“Can you throw it back to us?!”
So I picked up the ball.
Let me make it clear before I go on that I am no athlete. In fact, I am the opposite of an athlete. I grew up as a chubby boy. I was a book nerd with a crippling addiction to carbohydrates. Incoordination was my middle name.
I was pretty good with a Wiffle ball.
Something the casual observer might not know about Wiffle balls is that you can throw ridiculous curveballs with them. In fact, that’s why these balls were invented.
In 1953, David Mullany came up with an idea for a ball that would enable his 12-year-old son to throw wicked curves, heart-shattering sliders, and trick risers. The design worked like a charm.
His son and his pals referred to these strikeouts as “whiffs.”
I held the ball. There were six children standing around me, and a few parents on the porch.
I decided to pitch it from where I stood. So I leaned forward and dangled my arm behind my back. I found the grip my old man showed me. Then I hurled the ball and it curved like a freak of physics.
The kids were impressed. And I was 11 feet tall.
“Do it again!” they shouted.
So I did. I threw a yellow-hammer curve right across the plate. The ball moved through space like it had been dipped in Jim Beam and lit with an acetylene torch.
I was met with howling applause.
“Show us how you do that!” the kids roared.
So I knelt in the grass like a minor celebrity and showed a few very interested kids how to grip a hollow, lightweight, perforated plastic ball.
And it made my heart hurt inside momentarily. Because I was suddenly reminded of all the things I miss out on each Christmas. I miss out on family because I have so little.
I come from a broken home. I have no kids. I am just an average middle-aged guy that nobody will ever call Daddy.
Furthermore, my own father has been dead for a long time now. He’s been gone so long that sometimes I wonder if I made him up. Sometimes I even find it hard to recall the way his body moved, his gait, his mannerisms, his smile.
Sometimes I forget that he was once, briefly, a pitcher. But then, I forget a lot of things.
I suppose someday I’ll eventually forget my whole childhood, and my old man will become about as fictional to me as King Arthur, Wyatt Earp, or Walter Johnson.
But tonight, just for tonight, he was with me in Birmingham. And I have Wiffle Ball Inc. to thank for that.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, novelist, and podcast host, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines, he has authored 13 books, and he is creator of the Sean of the South Podcast.