[Web Special] Street Ball and Pennants

Thursday, October 01, 2009 - 12:52 PM

October has arrived. A chill is in the air and crisp playoff baseball is about to begin. In the American League, The Boston Red Sox are hobbling to the finish as the wildcard. The Red Sox will face the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who are the champions of the AL West. As for the Central division, the race has been filled with drama as the surging Minnesota Twins chase the Detroit Tigers.

In the National League the picture is less dramatic. The Philadelphia Phillies are in the driver's seat as the defending World Series Champions. In the west, the L.A. Dodgers are in and the St. Louis Cardinals have wrapped up their NL Central spot. All that's left is for the Colorado Rockies to close the deal — which it appears will, in fact, happen — because the Atlanta Braves and the Florida Marlins have lost too many key games down the stretch.

Baseball is on my mind. And sometimes when you focus on something it comes to you even when you least expect it. (... continue reading)

Yesterday, I was walking through Harlem near sunset and happened to come across a game of street baseball. It could very well have been the 1970's, but the game was an updated version of streetball. The players were not kids; they were folks about my age or maybe a little younger. Their equipment was simple: an aluminum bat, some baseball gloves and a rubber ball.

The backstop was a shuttered metal door with a strikezone painted as a white box with an X. The pitcher's “mound” was set up in the middle of the intersection. If a car came by from either direction the pitcher did not move: The cars were forced to avoid the pitcher in his wind up. In order to score with no bases, you were awarded base hits based on how far you hit the ball. And the outfield was stocked with players in borrowed baseball gloves posted up to make sure the rubber ball did not go down a drain, under a car, or into an alleyway through an impregnable gate.

I joined in the game with my cap and backpack on. I wanted to get a hit in but they directed me towards the outfield. I was thrown a glove, avoided an oncoming car, and posted up in my spot. No balls came in my direction, but I was ready. The guy at the plate wore jeans, a hoodie, and a Detroit Lions baseball cap backwards.

Wearing my Yankees' cap, I was aware of the coincidence: the Yankees have secured the best record in the league, which includes home field advantage and an AL East championship — not a bad start to the first year in the new Yankee stadium. The Yankees will likely face Detroit, as the Tigers have finally come within one game of securing that top spot in the AL Central — they could do it this afternoon with a win over the Minnesota Twins — winning their division for the first time since I was 10, in 1987.

The guy at bat with the Detroit cap on belted a few sharp liners: foul. I was ready. Then he swung hard and whiffed as his side turned 3 outs. Then, as street ball goes, some guys lost steam and had to walk away. The game was essentially over until one guy offered to hit if I would pitch — then we would switch. I agreed and wound up a pretty effective series of strikes, doing my best impersonation of Bob Gibson, the hall of fame former pitcher. The batter went down swinging. When it came time for me to be at bat, I hit a liner up the middle that landed ... well, it landed down a stairwell with a gate that prevented us from going to get it. Game over.

Still, it is October, and on a corner in Harlem no one took the bat to walk away; they just left the bat where it was, against the backstop, a metal gate with a strike zone painted white. The gloves were leaned against the bat and we gave one another pleasantries, talked briefly about the Yankees' team and their chances against Detroit, and then, in a flash, we were gone.

As I looked back I saw a group of younger kids going for the bat and the gloves. They had their own rubber ball. A new game had begun. You've gotta love October.

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