It is no surprise that during the same summer I became a baseball junkie, a game was born bearing my name. I was 13. Where I lacked in athletic ability, I made up for in creativity, leading to what alliteratively and affectionately became known as “Bobby Ball”. It is a name synonymous with both losing. And hope.
On the surface, Bobby Ball is much akin to Wiffle Ball. For starters, it uses a Wiffle Ball bat. However, instead of a Wiffle Ball, Bobby Ball uses a deflated rubber ball, halfway between the size of a baseball and a softball. It makes use of ghost runners and bean-outs. Its purest form is one-on-one, however, multi-player Bobby Ball certainly has its advantages. At its core, it’s the baseball equivalent of one-on-one basketball. First one to 21 runs wins – or, when age or brevity is part the equation – 11.
From a cardiovascular perspective, Bobby Ball is a fantastic workout, consisting of virtually non-stop sprinting. At the expense of sounding like a weakling, I’ve never endured more soreness in any athletic endeavor than I have in the game that bears my name. Even my most athletic opponents over the years would agree, ranging from friends who have come and gone, to extended family members. Bobby Ball is not for the faint of heart. Getting beaned by a ball can make a pretty impressive welt. Or, in the case of my friend Steve, legging out a single to first can lead to a ruptured Achilles heel. Bobby Ball beanings also had a negative impact on my ability to run to first base without ducking and/or throwing my arms over my head out of fear of getting plunked in the noggin.
In the early days of the sport, it was played in the backyard of my childhood home – adjacent to my basketball court. It was my own personal sports complex. Launching the ball over the roof was a home run. However, if the ball simply landed on the roof, the ball was still in play and could be caught on its way down as though it were a routine fly ball. However, after breaking a neighbor’s window, it was time to seek greener pastures, which turned out to be in a small clearing in the woods across the street.
Home runs now had to clear a fence into someone’s yard, forcing us to constantly trespass (“we,” more often than not translated into “me” forced to retrieve my opponent’s home runs). Before long, however, home runs were constantly clearing the house itself. We had outgrown that field just like the previous one and had to find a new home, eventually located on the grounds of my elementary school – where I could battle my old elementary school demons with every whiff of the bat and subsequent loss. This location is also symbolic of the game’s glory days, where the majority of Bobby Ball games have been played.
The layout of this particular field was just about perfect in every sense of the word, emulating a real baseball field, complete with a fence that ran at an angle from left to right (giving right-handed hitters a huge advantage). On the other side of the fence was not only home run territory, but a daycare center playground. If daycare recess was in session, we would have to either find a temporary location, or postpone our game and find something else to do.
The infield was a black top used for elementary school kickball games (so sliding was out of the question). The grassy outfield featured a giant tree in centerfield, dubbed the “Green Monster.” Unless one cleared the tree, the branches would gobble up the ball like…a monster. The ball remained in play until it landed on the ground, so we would have to wait beneath its limbs, as the ball bounced around like a pinball, hoping that when the tree was through with it, we’d be in a good enough position to catch it. Sometimes, it never came down at all, at which point the batter was out and the game paused momentarily in order to first locate, and then retrieve the ball by throwing a shoe – or even the bat – at it until he came back to earth. On occasion, the ball was either never located, or was too lodged between branches to get down, destined to spend eternity above the field, which meant heading to Toys ‘R Us to find a new ball. It also meant the person responsible for hitting it into the tree automatically lost. Same if a home run landed on the roof of the school, or if a bat were to somehow defy physics and break in half (this happened once).
Due to the quirky nature of Bobby Ball (and the unique obstacles that come with each field), rules sometimes had to be made up on the fly. This led to the occasional argument and accusations of cheating. However, all I had to do was play the “the-game-is-named-after-me-and-I-make-up-all-the-rules” card to end any disagreement. Though I wasn’t a winner at my own game, it was the one area of sports where I had some authority. It was as simple as adding a new amendment to the ever-evolving Bobby Ball rulebook. Once it was in the rulebook, it was pretty much set in stone – at least, until I decided to brandish my chisel to change a rule if I later deemed it necessary.
For example, a rule adopted early on was that any ball hit up in the air in the infield had to be caught in the air. However, anything in the outfield could be caught on one bounce for an out. Due to my inability to judge traditional fly balls, the one-bounce rule actually increased my fielding percentage exponentially.
Another quirk located in shallow left field was a Funnel Ball chute. If a ball landed in there, the batter would get as many runs as indicated by the hole that the ball eventually dropped out of. Nobody ever accomplished this feat. But it made the rulebook, nonetheless.
Despite the losing, it eventually gave me the confidence I needed to give real baseball a chance. It was during my junior year when I finally mustered up the courage to try out for my school’s JV team. As expected, it ended in failure.
But at least I tried.
Despite this setback, I took comfort in the fact that here was always Bobby Ball. As much as I wanted to make the baseball team, I knew deep down that nothing compared to Bobby Ball.
As the years went by, one thing has been constant: my losing record in all things sports. At least I was consistent, as a fan, player, and coach. Consistency is normally an asset in sports last time I checked. So even though the losing was consistent between Bobby Ball and organized ball … it was losing on a smaller scale, paradoxically making the losing both easier to swallow, and all the more difficult.
Although I stopped keeping track of Bobby Ball statistics years ago, it would be generous to suggest that I have a lifetime .200 winning percentage (this could very well be an overestimate). If anything, that number might more fairly represent my lifetime batting average, or, even more pathetically, my slugging percentage (though I could certainly knock one out of the park from time to time).
As the years have passed, opponents and fields have come and gone, much like relationships. Bobby Ball has outlasted my childhood, college, career changes, layoffs, marriage, and divorce. Though I play much less now than I did in the glory days of my youth, as long as I continue playing, youth will never fully escape me.
I look forward to one day teaching my children how to play my namesake game (“Daddy Ball”, anyone?). Their training has certainly begun. And my son will not only have inherited my name, but my game. My legacy will live on.
Despite the endless losing, however, Bobby Ball has been one of the few constants in my life. It has been a steady force through all the ups and downs in life – the real wins and losses and the ones that matter the most. I’ll never forget the first game I played the day after I returned from Ukraine, newly engaged to my overseas pen pal. I remember feeling so emboldened, actually thinking that my engagement would somehow give me the fuel I needed to finally win against my main rival and best friend, Tzu.
It did not.
I continued to lose through the course of my eight-year marriage. I remember playing my first game following my divorce, serving as a reminder that not everything in life has to change.
I continued to play as I entered a new relationship – emboldened more than ever … but still losing.
Though it has been years since I moved away from the fields of my youth – I continually seek out new fields of dreams. Till this day, whenever I pass a clearing or a park, it is my instinct to naturally envision how the dimensions of a particular space would potentially lend itself to the game of Bobby Ball – a potential, personal field of dreams, where over time, the universe will balance things out so that I will someday have a winning record to call my own.
I’ve always harbored a dream of one day patenting Bobby Ball and its abundance of intricate rules. Once the Bobby Ball craze sweeps across the nation like wildfire, I will build little Bobby Ball ballparks all over the country. The ballparks will be miniature replicas of actual major league stadiums. And outside each ballpark will be a miniature replica of me that will serve as a reminder to losers everywhere: never give up.