Thirty years ago, when we were kids, free time was just that: free. If you weren’t at school and you weren’t home eating, sleeping, or watching Road Runner cartoons, you were outside with your friends, playing freely. It was what sociologists would eventually call the “pickup game” (as opposed to the “organized game” of team sports today). You know things have gotten pretty bad when the scientific community has come up with an anthropological term for the way we used to play.
Pickup game; that’s what we did. Just you and your friends. No schedules. Without structure. Not adults. How the hell do we survive our childhoods without futsal practice in the off-season? It’s a miracle, it is what it is. And what kind of cruel hardship was it for our generation never to have known Fall Ball, or private batting lessons, or preseason clinics? Shame on our parents for their negligence.
In defense though, my grandfather Tony would occasionally load me and my friends into his big Plymouth pickup and drive two cities to the only batting cages in Suffolk County, Long Island. He would hand us a nickel bag and sit with his Italian ice while we made it. It didn’t qualify as a batting lesson, of course. There were no instructions. We just looked like a group of children trying to get out of a swarm of bees. However, Helluva is a lot of fun.
In my long-standing wish and prayer for a return to the game in the modern age, all I can say is thank God for the von Heland family. Who the heck is the von Heland family, one might reasonably ask, assuming one doesn’t lock the tongue when asking? Well the von Helands are a Swedish family that restored my faith in the idea that children can still get together and play a game … outdoors … involving a ball … without any structured organization or participation of adults. . I know, today is a new and surprising concept, right?
The von Helands invented the simplest recreational toy called a Waboba ball. It’s one of those inventions that makes you bang your head in ridiculous modesty and angrily demand an answer to the question, “Why the hell didn’t I think of that?!?” The Waboba ball is about the size of a tennis ball. Made from a polyurethane center and covered with a lycra material, its unique claim to fame is that it has an astonishing ability to skim the surface of the water without end when launched with a side arm. It’s that easy.
And here is the real magic of the Waboba ball. Every year for the past eight years, I packed up the family van for summer vacation and headed to a small island off the coast of North Carolina. It is a primitive place. No cars (golf carts only), boardwalks, game rooms, miniature golf, or go-karts are allowed. In fact, there is practically no commercialism whatsoever. It’s basically just you, the kids, and the beach. We loved it for that. But I must admit that I have always had the typical American fear that we could get bored without the usual overstimulation of video games, movie theaters, computers, and the maddening array of other entertainment that gushes from every pore in our society. And as a result, each year I pack more of my bags, bringing all the recreational aids known to mankind that could be used on a beach house vacation. With one rack attached to the roof and another plugged into the trailer hitch, our Ford Expedition is so overloaded that the Beverly Hillbillies would be embarrassed to ride with us. And this year was no different, with one exception. This year, my wife stuffed a Waboba ball in her beach bag.
“Pick-Up Play” is still alive
From day one and for the full two weeks of our stay, soccer, frisbee, surfboard, and all four surfboards, which took up so much space on the Beverly Hillbillies expedition, never saw action on the Beach. The Waboba ball was all we needed. My three teenage children were joined by two of their friends on the trip, and the “W ball” dominated these teens’ day. After a few incredible first jumps along the surf, the allure of the Waboba ball was instantly established. He seemed to unleash a primitive inner childlike instinct for anyone in his presence, the playful instinct that had been nearly masked and rendered inoperable by the debilitating effect of years of organized sports. The children’s natural, youthful spontaneity was automatically activated, and as passersby watched in curiosity and admiration, the children quickly began to make games and form teams. Even the old man (that’s me, duh) was called to jump and even climb the sides (well, more or less). Rules were created and then constantly recreated as the games progressed, just like the old days. Three against three. Slide the ball towards your opponents. If it happens, you score. If they block it, you don’t. If they catch it, they score. When everyone gets tired, or if one of you brings a Waboba to the nuts, the game is over. It was that simple.
These were boys between the ages of 13 and 18, all of whom had played competitive youth travel sports and high school sports for years, entertaining themselves for hours a day with a simple impromptu “sport” and a singular rubber ball. My faith was restored in the prospect of an impromptu game. My nostalgic heart was hot as toast, even though my throwing arm seemed to be crying out for emergency Tommy John surgery. However, I didn’t mind the pain. I was reliving my youth on the beaches of Coney Island in the 1960s, when my grandmother Mac would send 13 grandchildren to the ocean from her beach bungalow, throwing a ball at us from her porch as we left. It was, of course, the incomparable pink Spalding “Spaldeen” rubber ball. And along with the waves, it was all we needed to entertain us all day on the beach.
So this summer, as I stood knee-deep in the waves with my teenage boys, using my best posture to set the goal and preparing for my famous 1960 Ted Abernathy classic submarine launch, I couldn’t help but think of the phrase ” pickup game “. Thanks to the Waboba ball, he’s still alive.