Childhood whiffles back to me

Dad hasn't lost his touch as he introduces his son to Wiffle ball.

Mike Greenlar/The Syracuse Newspapers/AP/File
Roger Dery pitches a whiffle ball to his 2-year-old grandson, Justin, in Syracuse, N.Y.

I am not an impulse buyer, but confronted with the special display in an aisle of the supermarket recently, I quickly relented. There they were, neatly stacked: plastic yellow pinnacles to heavenward, each topped with a white plastic sphere – Wiffle balls and bats!

One of my very earliest memories is of my father taking me to a local park – I must have been 5 – and pitching Wiffle balls to me. The joy of connecting, hearing the dull crack!, and watching the perforated ball fly off into the ether, or, more frequently, bounce along the ground, was pleasure unbridled. And, once airborne, the sound that the ball made? Well, it whiffled, of course. Was there ever a more onomatopoeic name for a sport?

There is an official Wiffle ball website, called – what else? – "The Wiffle Ball." It confirms that the sport originated in the United States, the equipment has always been made here, and the family that invented the Wiffle phenomenon is still in charge of the business.

Wiffle ball appeared at precisely the right moment – in the 1950s, at the apex of the baby boom, when city streets were swarming with kids looking for fun in those restricted confines. Stickball was an option, but its price was the occasional broken window and angry neighbor. Wiffle ball, by contrast, fit nicely in the narrow urban strip from curb to curb, the ball's range limited by its eight long perforations, which created ample drag.

So what did I do with my newly acquired Wiffle set?

In a bid to reawaken the dwindling childhood and sense of play of my 17-year-old son, I called to him to come down to the backyard for a game. Anton was communing with his computer at the time, hunting zombies, and wasn't about to abandon such important business. But I was desperate, so I inserted the bat between him and the computer and pried him away.

Reluctantly, he accompanied me to the backyard, where I explained the rules (yes, there are Wiffle rules). Basically, the distance you hit the ball determines whether you are awarded a single, double, triple, or home run. "That's easy!" said Anton, warming to the challenge.

Easy? The thing is, a Wiffle ball is a thing of wonder, and it's possible to throw curves and sliders by changing one's grip on the ball. Anton took the bat and struck a stance of weary compliance. "Get ready to run!" he threatened.

I threw a fast curve, he swung, and he missed. "I felt the breeze!" I taunted, knowing exactly which of his buttons to push. I pitched another one, a neat slider this time, and he missed again. He connected on a straight pitch, but I caught the ball. I also caught his two successive drives. Then it was my turn at bat.

Anton pitched it cleanly into the zone, and I connected, the ball arcing high over his head. "I heard the whiffling," he said, and I smiled, because I not only heard the whiffling, but the cheers of my long-ago teammates, the encouragement of my dad, and some nameless neighbor screaming, "You kids get out of there or I'll call the cops!"

I watched as my son ran after the ball, and I couldn't help thinking that if he kept running he would eventually catch up with my memories and this wouldn't be the last of our Wiffle ball games.

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