Yard Work, a documentary about Wiffle ball, premieres on NESN at 9 p.m. on Thursday.
Anyone who’s ever picked up a skinny yellow plastic bat and thrown a hollow white plastic ball — making it defy physics and dance through the air — understands the joy of Wiffle ball.
Just the other night, I was telling my wife about my Wiffle ball skills and detailing the finer points of the game.
When I was younger, I used to stand in the front yard of my parents’ house and imitate the swings of great ballplayers while playing Wiffle ball. Babe Ruth. Hank Aaron. Rickey Henderson. Ken Griffey Jr. Right-handed. Left-handed. You name the player, I knew the swing. I had studied each one with the zeal of a mathematician seeking the true nature of pi. Anyone with a distinctive hitting style made the cut. Players like Bill Bergen and Rey Ordonez did not.
As I reminisced, my wife seemed a bit puzzled.
“Ken Griffey Jr.?” she asked. “How old is he?”
“Thirty-nine,” I replied. “Three years older than me.”
“So how old were you when you started swinging like him?” she continued.
“Around 23,” I stated with the confidence of a man unashamed she suspected I would say 8. “Still chasing the dream.”
Scouts never showed up to watch me take hacks in my parents’ front yard. But they would have been in for a treat. I had every swing down to a science, could replicate every tic and nuance, from batting stance to follow-through.
Sometimes, the ball traveled as high as it did far, making its way over the big tree that towered 100 feet over the fence, separating our house from the neighbor’s yard.
Other times, the ball was a line drive, a laser, shot out from a canon, hit so hard it could break through a brick wall or at least leave a mark on a cheek.
The best hit was a combination of the two, starting off on a line, then rising as if it were on a stairway to heaven, before clearing the tree and touching down on the other side of the fence. More often than not, the ball landed on the other side of the fence, in the neighbor’s bushes or on a circular patch of grass about 125 feet from the imaginary home plate.
This would go on for hours.
My parents’ front yard wasn’t Dodger Stadium, Wrigley Field or Fenway Park (the dimensions are roughly 35 feet down the left-field line, 100 feet to straightaway center and 45 feet to the right-field wall, or my sister’s old room). But any time I played Wiffle ball, the front yard was the Taj Mahal of major league ballparks, and I was competing in Game 7 of the World Series.
It’s been a while since I swung a Wiffle ball bat. But it feels like yesterday.
That’s the beauty of sports. Even if you don’t make it to the Show, you still can have glory days. It doesn’t matter whether it’s playing Wiffle ball in the front yard, shooting hoops in the backyard or tossing around the football at the park. The feeling is the same as it was at 10 years old. Nothing changes except the body might need a little bit more Icy Hot or Tiger Balm afterward.
Sports have the power to transport us back to a time of innocence, when the only thing that mattered was the love of the game and having a good time.
Nowadays, some athletes on the biggest stages can make playing a game seem like as much fun as having your fingernails removed with pliers. And some fans take the games so seriously that you’d think the fate of the human race rests on whether their team wins or loses.
There’s no denying that sports are big business, but they’re still just games. When the pressure reaches a level that games are no longer fun to play or watch, it might be time to find a new profession or diversion.
Or maybe it’s just time to dig out the Wiffle ball and bat, head for the yard and remember the reason we love sports in the first place. They bring out the kid in all of us.