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Thursday, November 04, 2010

Nerf Footballs, Spitballs and Great Memories

Boy (9-11) holding football, grimacing, portrait
The football spiraled past my office window yesterday afternoon. I had to get up and take a look. Three boys were tossing the ball around in the street – in the exact same spot that I used to play catch with friends 30 years ago. I live in the house I grew up in and my neighborhood has changed since I was a boy.

There aren't a lot of kids around. And I certainly haven't seen any playing catch on the street in which I spent so many hours working on my own spiral as a kid. But seeing it happen yesterday reminded me of two incidents I haven't thought about in years.

The first one occurred when I was probably 15. We were playing two on two touch football in the street in front of my house. My best friend and I were matched up against a couple of other friends from my neighborhood. I was always the quarterback for my team – not because I had a great arm, but because I had a big body and that doesn't make for receiver material. My best friend was always the receiver.

Nerf Turbo Football Jr.I don't remember the score. I just remember my friend running a post pattern. He ran track in high school, so he was fast, but we'd played together often enough that I could judge his speed well and I knew how to lead him. I launched the Nerf football high in the air, envisioning him running under it and snagging it for a touchdown – just like we'd done so many times in the past.

I took a couple of steps back after throwing the pass and then I glanced at the place where I thought he might snag the pass. I didn't like what I saw – a parked van. About a second later, my friend ran into it, injuring one of his knees. He shook it off, because that's what kids do. And after we realized he wasn't hurt, we laughed. How could we not? Although, I wonder if he still feels the effects of that play? I hope not.

Me & The Spitter The candid Confessions of Baseball's Greatest Spitball Artist (or How I Got Away With It)Around that same time period, I played baseball in the street in front of my house with a friend who was a few years younger than me. I'd been reading a book called Me & The Spitter by Gaylord Perry, in which he confessed to throwing a spitball when he pitched in the major leagues. He even went so far so to explain how he got away with it. If he got away with it in front of all those suspecting eyes, then surely I could too, especially in a friendly neighborhood game.

I donned my hard plastic Kansas City Royals' batting helmet the next day, but not before dabbing a little Vaseline on the corner of the bill. As I tugged on my hat, Vaseline rubbed off on my thumb and I worked it into the ball before delivering the first pitch. We used a soft rubber ball, so it wouldn't take much to make it slippery, which would make it difficult to hit.

My friend fouled one pitch back, he swung and missed another one. Around the third or fourth pitch, with Vaseline beginning to accumulate on the ball so much so that it began to shine, my friend went to toss the ball back to me and that's when he got suspicious.

"Hey, what's on the ball?" he said.

I shrugged.

"It's all sticky."

"I don't know," I said. "Toss it back."

"There's junk sticking to it."

"Just toss it back."

I "adjusted" my cap again and added yet another layer of Vaseline to the ball. He popped the ball up, rather weakly, and I caught it.

"Alright," he said. "What's going on?"

I didn't think I could hold my laughter in much longer. I was right. I eventually let the cat out of the bag and again, we both laughed.

The old street holds so many memories. There was a large, tar-like defect in the cement in the shape of the pink ribbon you see for breast cancer awareness. We used that as home plate. We used the tree in my yard for first base (we simply touched it).We used a little twig of a tree in a neighbor's yard for third base. It didn't exactly line up with the first base tree, but nobody cared. We only needed to supply second base. Sometimes it was somebody's shirt or unused baseball glove. Whatever we had, we just tossed it in the middle of the street – somewhere close to where second base should be. We just made due.

I don't know if we had the time of our lives or not. I hate to over-romanticize the past. I do know we had fun. And we laughed. And we made great memories. I just hope the three kids I saw tossing the football around on that same street yesterday had as much fun as my friends and I did.


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