Kids should discover joys of curb ball

July 19, 2001|By Michael Olesker

AT THIS moment, I have to question the values of an entire generation. As I drive around the various neighborhoods, and take note of the school yards and the ballfields and, never to be minimized, the front steps and street corners, I do not see a ball in flight.

A summer day, a clear sky -- and not a baseball, a sponge ball, an old-time pinkie or a tennis ball heaved toward someone holding a bat in hand. Where are all the kids? Hiding inside the house? Not a baseball game, not a stickball game, not a stepball game, not a curb ball game. Though, for the last, we have at least an echo: Dave Steibe's voice, not quite creaky with age, calling his gang together for their annual romp.

Steibe, who signs his letters "Yours in Curb," now brings together the East Baltimore guys who once played curb ball each day down at Robinson and Pratt streets, in the very shadow of Highlandtown Middle School. They gather every year around this time, eight or 10 of them from the old neighborhood, partly to play ball, partly for the laughs and partly, as they enter their 40s, just to hold on to glad yesterdays standing at the curb.

Remember curb ball? The simplest of games, squeezed into any available space, squeezed between houses, squeezed onto narrow streets, squeezed between cars plodding 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.

Ah, the summer days spent on such simple joys. Generations of Baltimore kids can still remember the curb ball games, the laughter in the streets, the mindless summer relaxation -- unfortunately, though, it's not this generation of kids, who must be perched in front of the TV, in front of an air-conditioning unit, so difficult to find them playing street ball games.

"I don't know where today's kids are," says Steibe. "I guess it's air conditioning and TV and video games. They'd rather stay inside today. We used to have a game in the morning, go home and eat lunch, and then come back and play again. I don't know, maybe it's the neighborhood. We were there year after year. People move around so much now.

"Plus," he said, "we were all packed in together. I live in Harford County now. If the kids want to play ball, the parents have to drive them somewhere. To tennis lessons, to swimming pools. My parents didn't drive us anywhere. You walked out your front door, and somebody was getting a ballgame together."

Forty years of families moving to air-conditioned suburbs have given us the new condition: empty streets, empty school yards, everything too far away for immediate pickup games. And nobody familiar with the old curb ball games.

"Nobody passed on the game to this generation," Steibe says. "My older brothers learned it from older guys, and they passed it on to me. But nobody passed it on to these kids. When we go back to the old neighborhood to play, they don't know what to make of us."

Even the modern police don't seem to understand. Patterson Park's just a few blocks from the curb ball site. Police have said, "Why don't you go play over at the park?" The police are told, "There's no curbs there."

Steibe's gang has been gathering once a summer for the past decade now. In fact, they'll gather tomorrow evening, down at the old East Baltimore curb at Robinson and Pratt, for the annual competition. About half the guys still live in the old neighborhood -- and about half have moved to suburbia.

Steibe, who works as a computer operator for T. Rowe Price but saves his passion (and his sense of humor) for the old games, and the old gang, points out in his annual Report on the USCBL (United States Curb Ball League, which consists entirely of this annual game):

"Last year's game was another classic. Just when you think the game has reached its highest level, a new chapter is written. For the first time, during play, beer was taken into the field. ... All the games were competitive and each game was delayed by the locals -- braking bikes in the middle of the field, lighting firecrackers, and shouting obscenities about the pink shirt being worn by Wally Piccinnini."

The corner house behind home plate used to be home to the Preller family -- thus, the little curb ball area has been dubbed Preller Memorial Field. The first time the neighborhood guys came back to play, they found an old neighborhood street sweeper and had him toss out a ceremonial first pitch.

"I guess it's a little bit about holding onto childhood," Steibe says. "We tell the same stories every year, but the laughs are bigger. It's reliving good times. And, the last few years, we go into the bar on the corner, Bob Cummings' Place, after the games are over.

"And every year, we pay a price with sore muscles. Monday mornings, when we have to go back to work, I'll get calls from guys saying they phoned in sick. Curb Ball Flu, we call it."

The aching muscles are worth it. The games, and the laughs, connect everyone to glad yesterdays. Today's kids should try it -- if somebody can pry them away from the TV and the air conditioning.

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