Curb ball returns old gang to Baltimore neighborhood

July 15, 1999|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Y ESTERDAY'S street ball heroes: Look at 'em all, down there at Robinson and Pratt streets in East Baltimore, in the very shadows of Highlandtown Middle School in their T-shirts and sneakers, with middle age just around the corner but youth still fresh inside their heads.

Half of them have moved out to suburbia now, the way people sometimes do. But they make their way back here, once a year for the last 10 years, back to the old neighborhood, and the old corner, in a kind of pilgrimage to the past, to play the game that carried them through summers of old.

Curb ball: one of the old city games, squeezed into any available open space, squeezed between houses, squeezed onto narrow streets, squeezed between cars driving through. One guy throws a ball at a street curb, and tries to hit the point at the top to make it fly over the heads of fielders positioned in the street, and over parked cars, and runs to each of four street corners, each one a base.

"These are our roots," Dave Steibe was saying last Friday, as the old gang gathered in muggy twilight a few blocks east of Patterson Park. He sends out reminder letters each year, signed "Yours in Curb."

"Some of the old neighbors are still here," Steibe said. "They used to come out of their homes and holler at us because the ball would bang up against their windows. Now they come out and say, 'You boys are still out here?'"

Yup, still here, once every spring, after a brief interlude of maybe a dozen years. High school graduations arrived, and then adulthood. With jobs and families and responsibilities, the games of youth vanished. But a few of the guys would get together occasionally, and somebody finally said: What about a reunion? What about a ballgame?

"Curb ball was a natural," Norm Herdegan said. "It's what we played all the time. But, you know, the kids don't play it any more. They come out of their houses when they see us, and they say, 'What's going on here?' The police see us and say, 'Why don't you go play in the park? We tell 'em, 'There's no curbs there.'"

So they still gather on the old corner, with the middle school on one side providing an outfield wall, and row houses stretching along the other three sides. Herdegan drives down from Manchester, and Charlie Kowalewski comes in from Eldersburg. Wally Piccinini comes in from Perry Hall and Steibe drives down from Abingdon. And they join up with the guys who still live around the old neighborhood, Glenn Zientak and Joe Powers, Ron Hiltz and Rick Patti.

And they play their games over an evening's hours, the way they always did -- only, in slightly slower motion; and with tennis balls, since the old Pennsy pinkies are no longer made. And now, instead of heading home when darkness halts play, they might stroll up to one of their old neighborhood's corner bars and hoist a few, toasting yesterdays' connections to today.

"All those years, you lived to play it," Rick Patti was saying the other night, catching his breath after hitting a double and stopping at second base by wrapping his arms around the light pole there.

"You'd spend eight hours a day playing it. The police would chase you away, because they didn't like the ball hitting the walls of houses. So you'd go play in an alley for a while, but then you'd come back. You could do a documentary on all the places everybody played. Like church steps. But this corner was the spot for these guys."

But the spot was almost removed. A few years back, the city was set to turn their home-plate curb, at the southeast corner of Robinson and Pratt, into a handicapped ramp. Some of the guys called City Councilman Nick D'Adamo to stop the destruction.

"We told him, 'They want to take away our field,'" Steibe remembered. "Without the curb, it's all gone. So he brought some Public Works guys down here and they all looked at it, and D'Adamo said, 'Nah, can't put a ramp in there. There's two sewer holes there. Against the rules.' And that's what saved our field."

And so, as they enter their 40s, the old curb ball gang holds onto a piece of their history, and the city's. In their youth, the corner row house behind home plate was owned by the Preller family; today, the guys have dubbed their little curb ball area Preller Memorial Field.

"These are our roots," Steibe said. "The first time we came back, we found an old neighborhood street sweeper and had him throw out the ceremonial first ball."

As they played last Friday, handfuls of neighborhood kids followed the action from rowhouse steps, and then Charles Schmidt, a longtime resident, walked down Robinson Street and stopped to watch for a while.

"I haven't seen a game of curb ball around here in so long," he said wistfully. He stayed for several minutes, then turned up Pratt, but hollered over his shoulder, "Thanks for the memory, guys."

For the record: In last Friday's meeting, the first two curb-ball games were split, and in a deciding championship game, Rick Patti and Glenn Zientak hit home runs in a 5-0 victory.

Or maybe it was victory enough just getting old friends together one more time.

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