Chapter 5 — MAKING UP THE RULES
Ed threw another lob across the plate and again Rat was all over it. He smacked it over Randolf’s garage, one of those detached kinds, this one acting as the right field wall. I ran home from second while Rat jogged around the bases, raising his cap in the air like Babe Ruth. The score was 11-0 in the top of the first and there was only one out. The garage was taking the place of the blackberry bushes at my place. Over the garage homers were as easy as singles. Even I moved from my usual spot as a right-handed batter over to the opposite side of the plate to take advantage of the short porch in right.
“OK, something’s gotta be done about that garage,” complained Ed. I think his neck was getting sore from spending so much time looking over his shoulder.
“I think we need a better pitcher!” yelled Robert from center field.
“You think so. You want to give this a try? Huh, smart guy?” said Ed.
“Sure,” said Robert.
“Ah, stay in the field,” said Ed waving him off. “I’m the captain of this team and I make the decisions.”
“I think Robert might have a point,” I shouted toward Ed.
“Great, take the side of a third-grader. Abandon your life-long friend.”
“Actually, I’m a fourth-grader,” Robert said.
“You’re a third-grader until you take that first step into your fourth grade classroom. In my eyes you’re a third-grader, and a rather puny one at that.” Ed was letting the situation get the better of him.
“I only mean that maybe we need to think about the way we pitch,” I said trying to put an end to their argument. “Maybe we need to pitch the ball faster.”
Ed was quiet for a minute. “Nah, I don’t think so.” He put his head down and took a few steps around the pitching area. “You do remember those graceful moments during fast pitch baseball, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But I was thinking maybe the reason you and I were so terrible at hitting a fast pitch baseball was because we were afraid of the ball. Have you ever thought about that?”
“Maybe you were afraid of the ball. I wasn’t,” said Ed.
“I agree with Will,” said Rat. “Let’s give it a try.”
I could see that the conversation was troubling Ed. He considered himself the commissioner of this game, the brains behind the sport. He didn’t like anyone else tinkering with aspects of the game he thought were sacred.
“I’ll try it,” he said. “Under protest. And Rat, don’t think this has anything to do with your ringing endorsement. I’m doing this for Will, as a personal favor to a guy I like and admire. Will’s been known to come up with a logical idea in his time. I’ll try it for a few innings, how’s that?”
“Sure!” Rat, Robert, and I said in unison.
After reestablishing his place in the pitching area, Ed reared back, kicked his left leg high into the air, flung both hands above his head and let the ball fly. The ball, traveling a hundred miles a minute, flew directly toward my head. I crouched down just in time to avoid a direct hit. I crouched. I didn’t fall forward. I didn’t end up on my butt. I just crouched.
I got back in the box and prepared myself for another pitch. Ed went into his crazy motion and let another one go. This pitch would have also hit my head, if I was 12 feet tall, that is. I stood my ground and watched the ball sail high above me. Rat scurried back to retrieve the wild pitch. Staying in the box for these pitches wasn’t scaring me a bit.
Ed threw a third, then a fourth wild pitch, the last one getting lodged in a branch of the maple tree behind home plate. Rat had to grab a stepladder from Randolf’s garage to reach it.
“Should I go to first base?” I asked.
“I suppose,” said Ed, looking a bit confused about why he was unable to throw a pitch across the plate.
I ran to first but didn’t feel particularly happy about my position. “This isn’t going to work,” yelled Robert from the field. “What happens now if he walks Rat too?”
“The little guy has a point,” Ed answered catching the ball thrown back to him. “I think we better go back to slow pitch.”
“Hold on,” I said taking a few steps off the bag. “Ed, we can make this work. We can figure it out. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.”
“What?” said Rat with an open mouth.
“It means…,” said Ed. “Oh, never mind. So what then do you propose we do Mr. Smarty Pants?”
“Let’s put our heads together and come up with something,” I responded. We never had to deal with a situation like this in the old days of Wiffle Ball. Nobody ever walked. We usually swung at the first pitch and, if not that, always at the second one. And we almost always made contact. Strikeouts were rare, but walks were nonexistent.
“I say no walks,” said Rat.
“Okay,” I said. “That might work.”
“I don’t know if it’s that easy,” said Ed.
“Ed’s right,” said Robert. “If we just say no walks that means a pitcher could be up there for days, firing his fastest pitches until he gets a strikeout. There would be no incentive for him to avoid bad pitches.”
“Very well put little man,” said Ed. Ed was in no hurry to help with this decision. I’m sure he hoped we would argue for awhile then return to slow pitch.
I drummed my fingers on my pant leg. “I’ve got an idea,” I said raising a finger in the air. “Let’s give the batter the option. If he wants the walk, he can have it. If he doesn’t, he can stay in the box and keep trying for a hit.”
Ed twisted his mouth and closed an eye. He was in deep thought. He paused. “That’s all good, but what if someone’s already on base,” he said. “The batter can’t take the walk if his teammate is on base. That would be an automatic out.” Our games were played without ghost runners. A player on base needed to make it all the way home when his teammate hit the ball. Otherwise he was out. Taking a walk with a runner on would mean an automatic out. “Keep thinking boys,” replied a smug Ed.
“Here we go. I’ve got it!” I said. “I love it when those little light bulbs go off. If the batter doesn’t want the walk he gets a new pitch count. That way if the batter already has two strikes against him, the count goes back to nothing nothing. He gets to start over.”
“And,” said Robert. “If someone’s on base that person gets to advance to the next base.”
“There’s your incentive, right Robert?” Rat said. Robert gave him a high five.
“I say let’s do it,” said Robert. “I think we’ve got it all figured out.”
Ed was defeated. He lumbered back to the pitching areawhile the rest of us raced to our positions. I took my place back in the batter’s box confident I could hit one of Ed’s pitches if he’d finally get one over the plate. After about nine or ten more wild ones, Ed got one over and sure enough I made contact. It didn’t clear the garage. It really didn’t even clear the infield, but at least I hit it. I ran down the base line and ironically ended up at first base where I could have been a long time ago. But I got there all on my own with a true, bonnified hit.
The game basically progressed like that. Ed threw about six or eight wild pitches to every strike he threw. Rat and I had better luck. We weren’t obsessed with throwing the ball as hard as we could, so most of our pitches crossed the plate.
We discovered a lot that day. We discovered with the right technique it was pretty simple to throw curve balls, sliders, and even sinkers with a Wiffle Ball. And because of our newfound pitching abilities we discovered that hitting became much more challenging. We cheered singles and were astounded by extra-base hits. Rat and I lost just 2-1 and the game took only 38 minutes. It would have taken half that time if Ed had called it quits with his Roger Clemens impersonation. Ed never did give up the mound to Robert and he never stopped trying to throw the ball a hundred miles-per-hour.
Chapter 6 – Willgarball
“Why do you think hot water dissolves powdery things better than cold water?”
“I don’t know. It just does,” I said responding to Ed’s bizarre question while we pedaled our bikes past the city golf course.
“That’s your answer? It just does. This coming from the champ of the fifth-grade science fair?”
“I don’t know. I guess hot water has properties about it that cold water doesn’t. Why?”
“You know those packages of powdered hot chocolate where you just add them to hot water?”
“Well, we were out of chocolate syrup at home and I had a hankering for some chocolate milk. I figured what worked for hot chocolate would work for a glass of cold chocolate milk.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing. That’s my point. The powder sat on top for awhile then after I forced all of it into the water it just sank straight to the bottom. It was gross. It looked like my little cousin’s dirty bath water.” We rounded the corner of the 4th green where the road turns to gravel and heads south toward the city sewer lagoon. The wind was blowing east today keeping the fumes to a minimum.
“Maybe hot water actually burns or cooks the powder causing it to break down,” I said. “I don’t know. I’ll look it up sometime.”
“You do that because the question’s on my brain and it’s bugging the heck out of me. I almost called Mr. Anderson last night to ask him.”
“You almost called one of our teachers in the middle of the night to ask him how to make chocolate milk with powdered hot cocoa mix and water?” I laughed but was not all that surprised. When Ed focused on a challenge it was difficult to get him to think of anything else.
“Speaking of problems on my brain, we need to talk about the game,” said Ed changing the subject. It had been a few days since our first Wiffle Ball game at the Randolfs.
“What’s to talk about? I think things are going pretty well. Except for your pitching, that is.” A grasshopper landed on my leg. I nearly cruised into the ditch in an attempt to rub it off against my bike.
“Very funny. But, you’re right and you’re wrong,” said Ed. I couldn’t believe he agreed with me. “Pitching is a problem. I need to write into the rules that the speed of pitches is governed by a gentlemen’s agreement. A batter is allowed to tell a pitcher that he or she is pitching too fast. If the rest of the players are in agreement, the pitcher is obligated to slow down his pitches to the speed in which the batter can successfully hit the ball.”
“Sounds all right to me.” That’s basically what the rest of us were already doing, I thought, but didn’t say it out loud.
“My good friend, pitch speed is trivial, however, compared to the problem that has been keeping me up at night,” said Ed. I could only imagine. It didn’t take much to keep Ed up at night.
“We need to change the name of our game,” Ed said taking both hands off his handlebars. “We’re not playing Wiffle Ball.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We’re not playing Wiffle Ball. In fact, the game we have been playing is nothing close to Wiffle Ball. Haven’t you checked out the USPPBA web site yet?” He grabbed his handlebars.
“The what?” I asked.
“The United States Perforated Plastic Ball Association web site.”
“There is such a thing? Come on.”
“Of course. Everything exists on the web. It’s worldwide, remember? I can’t believe you haven’t looked at the site.”
“Okay, so then what’s the problem? We’re breaking all sorts of rules, big deal.”
“I felt the same way,” said Ed. “At first. But then I got to thinking. All along I’ve been trying to model our game after the official game of Wiffle Ball. But all along we’ve been doing all sorts of things wrong. Did you know that in Wiffle Ball players don’t even run the bases? Hits are just based on where the ball goes when you hit it. What fun is that?”
“So what are you saying?” I asked. “Are we quitting already?”
“On the contrary, Mr. Assistant to the Commissioner. The true games are just about to begin. We are in the dawn of a new era. The era of Edgarball.”
“The era of what?”
“Edgarball. It’s the new game you’re going to help me invent. We’re going to be rich and famous, just like Abner Doubleday. We’re going to start a new tradition that will live on in the hearts of Americans forever, Will. This is going to be a great game. A great game.”
“For starters, Ed, I doubt Abner Doubleday ever became rich by inventing baseball and he was probably only famous after he died.”
“Immortality, then, that’s what we’ll achieve,” Ed said. “They will dedicate buildings and ball fields in our names. Children years from now will visit Grantsville just to see our boyhood homes and to see the site where Edgarball began.”
“Hold on.” I stopped my bike. Ed slammed on his brakes. “We, as in you and I, are going to invent this new game, right?” I asked.
“And we, as in you and I, will be immortalized in history, right?”
“So then we, as in you and I, should be mentioned in the name, right?”
“Yeah,” said Ed. “Uh, I mean no. Not necessarily. The name is everything. People remember things because of a name. The name needs to be solid. Edgarball is it.”
“Not so fast, Edgar,” I said sarcastically. Ed never went by the name Edgar. He hated that name. “I can just see it now. In fifty years a 10-year-old boy enters his school library planning to do a report on Edgarball. He strolls to the reference section and plucks the E encyclopedia off the shelf. He flips through the pages and comes to rest on the lengthy Edgarball article. Under the section marked history, he learns that this grand game was created by and named for one of the greatest Americans of the 21st century, Edgar Rooter. While continuing to glance down the page, the young boy’s eyes slide right over the tiny little asterisk that appears after that sentence. Flipping to the next page, the child’s eyes never quite reach the bottom of that original page. If they had, the boy would have read the footnote that states, ‘William Jensen is also credited with a small role in the invention of Edgarball.’
“If I’m going to do half the work to invent this supposed grand game, then I’m going to get half the credit,” I said. “There are going to be no footnotes in my future.”
“Point made. You’ve convinced me, Will. I give. But the name has to remain sharp. What do you suggest?” He paused. “No wait, I’ve got it. How about Ediamball? Ya know Ed and William?”
“It’s good. It’s good. Let’s keep thinking.” I wasn’t totally happy with using the part of my name I also avoided like the plague. My dad’s name is William and I’ve always thought that name sounded so formal, like an old man. Will suited me much better. We continued pedaling.
By this point we had wound our way back onto a paved highway and were heading back north into town, past a run-down carpet outlet store and past the only lumberyard in Grantsville. Several new names for our new game were spit out. Names like Backyardball, Grantsvilleball, and Perfball were discarded almost immediately. After much pedaling and much thinking, we came across the name that would live forever. The name schoolchildren the world over would look up in their library encyclopedias for years to come. The name was Willgarball. It had a nice ring to it.
Chapter 7 — Brad
The losses were beginning to mount. Since moving our games to the Randolfs’ backyard a week ago the newly-named Willgarball gang had played about eight games or so. I had lost them all. Each game we played involved a mixing of different players on different teams. For this reason I suspected Rat and Robert didn’t have a clue about my streak. Ed was another story. Ed was a stats freak. There was a good chance he had every game memorized. Thankfully, so far, he had kept his big mouth shut.
There was someone else, too, who I suspected might be on to my little secret. That someone was Brad Randolf. Ever since our first game he had begun hanging around the field. At first he just stepped out on his second floor deck for a few seconds to see where the noise was coming from. But after awhile, he began to linger. Sometimes he even made a snack to eat while watching us. It seemed strange. I figured a 7th-grade jock had better things to do than watch a bunch of pseudo athletes run around a made-up field playing a made-up game.
“All right, pitch me fat one,” yelled Ed. I threw one right down the heart of the plate. Ed whiffed. The ball sailed through the batter’s box and rolled into the Randolf’s front yard. Ed ran back to retrieve it.
“Nice swing Ed!” yelled Robert from left field. “Two more like that and you can grab some bench.”
“Shut it, little one,” said Ed. Ed lofted the ball back to me.
“Get me home Ed,” said Rat from second base.
I threw another pitch to Ed and again he swung and missed. The ball scooted past the plate twenty feet or so. Ed slumped his shoulders and hobbled back toward the ball.
“You need a backstop!” The voice came from over my shoulder. It was Brad. He was sitting on his deck in one of those aluminum and mesh patio reclining chairs. We all stopped, stunned to hear his voice. We really didn’t think he was paying attention. “You need a backstop,” he said between swigs of Gatorade. “Ya know, to stop pitches from rolling so far.” We all just stared at him. “Why don’t you flip the picnic table on its side and use that.”
Ed and I looked at each other then looked around for a table. We couldn’t see one. “It’s in the garage,” yelled Brad. I guess none of us must have made a very quick move toward the garage because suddenly Brad was up from his chair and heading down the deck stairs. “Here, I’ll show you.”
Brad jogged across the field. Ed and I followed. The three of us grabbed the wooden table and hoisted it out the main garage door. We dropped the table behind home plate then pushed it over so the flat side was facing the pitching area. “Let’s try that,” said Brad. “Will, let me give it a try.” Brad nodded toward the ball and I flipped it to him. “Ed, get back in the box.” I liked that Brad called us Will and Ed. Most of the other older kids, if they noticed us at all, always called us by our last names.
Brad lobbed a pitch toward Ed. Ed swung and missed. The ball rolled a few feet and hit the table. “Hey, it works!” yelled Ed as though he was truly amazed that a huge wooden picnic table actually stopped a slow-rolling, plastic ball.
Brad continued to pitch strike after strike across the plate and Ed continued to whiff. Ed seemed to be trying extra hard with Brad on the hill. “Lift your right elbow up in the air and follow the ball with your eyes all the way until it hits your bat,” shouted Brad.
“That’s assuming it hits his bat,” said Rat.
“Pipe down, rodent boy,” said Ed. “You mean like this?” Ed stuck his elbow straight out like a chicken wing.
“Even higher. And this time when you swing the bat I don’t want to see your face. Your head should stay down through your entire swing.”
Ed readied himself. The ball entered the batter’s box and was immediately scorched back to the infield. It didn’t go far but it did go straight. “All right,” said Brad, “that’s more like it.” Ed was beaming. “Here’s one with a little more speed.” Ed lined that one into the outfield. Brad kept increasing the speed of his pitches and every time Ed managed to get a solid hit.
“Okay, this is the home run ball. Envision yourself hitting a home run.” Brad wound up and fired a pitch that wasn’t too fast but was fast enough to be hit hard. Ed smacked it high into the air toward left field. I drifted back toward the shrubs knowing I had a chance to catch it. I looked back to check out the amount of room between me and the bushes all the while thinking how sweet it would be to rob Ed of a homer. After watching Ed gain some confidence at the plate, I wanted to show him that I was still the better ball player. I kept my eye on the ball and loped back and back and back. Crash! The ball flew over my head as I fell into the lilac bushes. My legs went sailing into the air as I heard the tearing sound of my t-shirt caught on a razor-sharp branch. I slowly pulled myself out from the shrubs in time to see Brad and Ed sharing a few high fives.
“All right, my turn,” said Brad picking up the bat. Brad lined Ed’s first pitch over the shrubbery in left field. It was hit so hard I didn’t even move. His second rip caused Ed’s hair to flutter as it flew over his head. On his third attempt, Brad moved to the other side of the plate and batted lefty. His hit cruised over the garage for another home run.
“All right, let’s do it. Let’s play one,” yelled Brad. “It’s you and me, Ed. We’ll take ‘em on.”
“Cool,” said Ed. “Everybody, let’s play ball!”
Chapter 8 — Serious Ball
“You can do it, Ed. Knock me in!” shouted Brad from first base. Ed stood in the batter’s box, Rat and Robert were in the field, and I was pitching. Normally I would have given up my position as pitcher to Rat or Robert long ago, but Ed was beginning to bug me. He was getting good and I needed to show him who was boss.
Ed smoked a liner toward center. Rat was there and did a good job of keeping the ball in front of him. I darted home to await his throw. I caught the ball and easily beat Brad to the plate, ending an inning where Brad and Ed scored three more runs.
The score was 12-11 in the top of the fifth. We were down. Our games normally went five innings. We played a few nine-inning games from time to time but most of them took way too long. It was far more fun squeezing in two shorter games than playing one longer one.
Brad was pitching for their team. I started the inning off with a pop fly to Ed. Rat was next. Since Rat batted from the left side, his hits usually resulted in one of two things. Either the ball would go over the garage in right field or it would carom off of it. Balls that went over the garage were automatic homers, balls that bounced off the wall were almost always singles.
Rat launched the first pitch from Brad high over the garage roof to tie the game up at 12. We needed one more run to put the pressure on.
Robert batted in front of me. Brad’s first pitch went right through the strike zone and past his swinging bat. His second pitch was outside but Robert swung anyway. It was his third pitch that stunned us all. He went into his biggest wind up yet, cocked his arm back and began to throw what looked to be a 90-mile-an-hour pitch. I think Robert just closed his eyes and swung. If he had kept them opened he would have witnessed what would later become known as the ROC, or the Randolf Outstanding Changeup. The ball, rather than traveling at top speed, left Brad’s hand and simply floated through the air. It was probably his slowest pitch yet. It fooled Robert for strike three. Ed snickered in center field. Brad kept his game face on.
I swung at the first pitch I saw. I felt my best strategy was to swing early in the count to avoid a ROC. I hit the ball hard past Ed that left me at third base. Up came Rat with a chance to put us out front. “Let’s do it Rat! Rip one outta here!” I yelled from third base.
Suddenly Brad motioned to Ed. Ed trotted in from his fielding position. The two stood just inches apart while Brad disguised their conversation behind the baseball cap he had removed from his head. After a couple gestures from Brad in the direction of first base, he handed Ed the ball and back-pedaled toward the garage. He came to a stop between first and second base. I couldn’t decide what baffled me more. The fact that Brad wanted Ed to pitch or that Brad was standing where he was, leaving the entire left and center field areas wide open.
Then it dawned on me. Brad was no dummy. In all of Rat’s at bats today, had he ever hit a ball that didn’t go toward right field? Of course he hadn’t. And Brad knew that. Brad was playing the odds. He was doing what major league managers sometimes tell their shortstops to do when a left-handed dead pull hitter steps up to the plate. Managers play the odds and put three fielders between first and second base to flag down a liner that is likely coming in that direction. They call it the shift. Managers leave the left side of the field in the hands of only one fielder, the third baseman. After all, the batter never hits balls that way anyway. Brad was thinking like a manager. He was playing the odds.
“Hit it where they ain’t!” I yelled to Rat when I knew what was happening. Rat seemed to dig in deeper at the plate. I took that to mean he understood what was going on, but to be on the safe side I added, “Hit it to left. It’s wide open.” Rat nodded. We were on the same page.
Ed bore down, pulled his ball cap tight on his forehead, and glared toward home plate. He wound up and let one go. Then everything stopped. In an instant it seemed as though the entire world had gone into slow motion. The ball stopped in midair. Suddenly I knew their plan. Brad had told Ed to give Rat the slowest, fattest pitch he could. Brad knew that if Ed made it easy for him, Rat would never resist the temptation to send the pitch for a ride. Rat would do what he always did and go for the homer over the garage. Brad was playing the odds again. Challenge Rat to hit a homer and hope he smacks one off the garage wall.
As quickly as the world had gone into slow motion, suddenly things went back to normal speed. The ball fluttered into the batter’s box and sure enough, Rat took the biggest, most powerful swing he could muster. In a bang-bang play the ball slammed into the garage wall, was scooped up at Brad’s feet, and was fired toward first. It landed in the waiting hands of Ed covering the bag as gracefully as a Gold Glove pitcher on a sacrifice bunt attempt.
Rat was out by a mile. I stood stunned at third realizing that in all the drama I hadn’t moved even an inch off third base. I couldn’t believe it. Brad and Ed high fived and shouted their way off the field.
Robert, Rat and I looked around not exactly sure what to do next. Brad, by joining our game, had clearly raised the bar up a level or two. Willgarball was no longer a few kids goofing around in someone’s backyard. This was serious business. This was good ball. Ed wanted to create a new sport and, with Brad’s help, he was getting his wish.
Ed and Brad’s enthusiasm from the previous inning carried over to the bottom of the fifth. In no time at all Brad scored the winning run with a homer over the lilac bushes.
“Same time tomorrow guys?” Brad asked while hopping on his bike. Brad played catcher for the local 14 and under traveling team. I think he was late for a game. “I don’t have a game tomorrow. Maybe we could play some more. Swing on by.”
“Take it easy, Brad,” said Ed. “Have a great game today. Maybe I’ll come and watch you.” Brad nodded back in our direction as he pedaled away like a maniac on his undersized BMX bike.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Will,” Ed said as he, too, got on his bike.
“You will? What are we doing?”
“Didn’t you hear Brad? We’re playing Willgarball.” Clearly, according to Ed, if Brad wanted to play more Willgarball, we were going to play more Willgarball. Case closed. “Hang on. Actually, do you think you could stop by my place tonight after supper? I’ve got something to show you.”
“Yeah, I think so. What is it?”
“Top secret Willgarball stuff of course,” he said pedaling away. “What else? See ya!”