The ball game's lessons extend beyond the bases

SATURDAY'S HERO

April 09, 1994|By ROB KASPER

The workbench was piled with things that needed fixing, but I had a more pressing duty. I had to go out in the alley and teach the kids the fine points of the game some call base runners.

It is a simple game. Two players stand at bases about 60 feet apart and toss a ball back and forth. A third player, the runner, waits for the opportune moment to race from one base to the other without being tagged out by the player catching the ball. Our crew used a tennis ball instead of a baseball because the ball has been known to land on a runner, or the family car, instead of a baseball glove.

It is a game that can teach kids some of life's big lessons. Namely, you have to take some risks. You have to perform under pressure. And, you must remember that older guys will cheat.

We older guys wouldn't call it that, of course. We would call it artful deception. Or lulling whippersnappers into a false sense of superiority.

The other night it worked like this. Pretending I was holding the ball in my glove, I walked down the alley, away from the base runner. The speedy runner, one of my sons, was convinced that this was yet another chance to demonstrate the weak throwing arm of his father. He streaked toward the distant base which was guarded by my co-conspirator, my other son. The co-conspirator had the ball hidden in his glove, and tagged out the surprised runner.

I had learned about this hidden ball trick the hard way. Years ago, my older brother and his buddy had lured me off the safety of one base with a similar promise of ill-gotten gain. As I sprinted to the "free" base I was delighted at the prospect of besting the worst person in the world, my big brother.

When I learned that I had been duped, my delight turned to humiliation and then rage.

My protests were loud. I called the big kids cheaters and threatened to tell the entire neighborhood of their shady tactics. But this, like so many other bouts of moral righteousness, was fleeting. I soon used the hidden ball trick on one of our younger brothers and thought it was hilarious.

There are some small differences in the game I once played with my brothers but now play with my sons. My brothers and I called it "hot box," a baseball expression referring to the "hot" situation a runner gets in when he is trapped between the two bases. My kids call the game "base runners." My brothers and I used to play in the gravel driveway next to our house, making bases by clearing the gravel off two spots in the driveway. The resulting dirt spots were the bases. This was St. Joseph, Mo, the Midwest, and soil was our friend.

My kids play in a city alley and use manhole covers for bases. But lately the potholes surrounding the manholes covers have made the footing slippery. So new bases were found. A cereal box pulled from a recycling bag was converted into bases.

The game can still draw a crowd on a warm night. The other night in the alley, a man walking his dog felt compelled to stop and toss a few throws. A gray-haired neighbor returning from a day of windsurfing stopped and watched for a few minutes, cheering for the older guy. A few nights later, a couple of 10-year-olds were roaming around the neighborhood, looking for mischief, when they came upon the game in the alley. They decided that playing base runners looked like more fun than their previous activity, trying to throw themselves over a six-foot-high chain-link fence. The two newcomers stayed around long enough to learn about the hidden ball trick. They also learned a key to the game, and maybe to life. If you are patient, somebody will drop the ball.

Despite offering the possibility of worldly wisdom, base runners is primarily a chance to have some fun with your kids, to get away, if only temporarily, from domestic responsibilities.

As I picked up the gloves and headed inside, I caught sight of broken glass in a window of a building that overlooked the alley. I questioned my younger son about the broken window and he gave me a sheepish grin. He said that a few days earlier, one of his practice throws had taken flight and shattered the window. He had meant to tell me about it, he said, but it had slipped his mind.

As someone who has broken a few windows in my career, the tale sounded familiar. It also sounded like fixing the window was my next weekend project.

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