Ninety-nine cents, or two dollars?
That was the biggest financial decision that that the nine and 10-year-old boys from our neighborhood faced on a weekly, sometimes daily, basis in the summer of 1979.
Which rubber coated baseball to buy?
Option A: The 99-cent K-Mart special … which, candidly, possessed few redeeming qualities beyond its price tag. Had a cork center that, when you bounced it, made a harsh sound that pretty much expressed aloud its lack of interest in returning to your hand. Had maybe had three or four good swats in it before it would go completely lopsided.
Option B: The $2 Wilson Comet … the Cadillac of Rubber Coated baseballs … consistently produced the truest, juiciest, hops in the universe, of which Areford playground was indisputably the center of, in that magical summer of ‘79. You could mash a Comet forever and it never lost its shape. I can still remember the sensation of this one time I met the Comet with the sweet spot of my trusty, 28” aluminum bat just right … barreling it back through the box for a ground rule double before the centerfielder even had time to turn and give chase. That feeling still lives in my wrists … and, not only that, still jockeys for position in my top 10 all-time physical sensations.
So, on the surface, the choice might seem like a no-brainer … pay the extra buck and call it a long afternoon. But on the surface of Areford playground, which was pure, unadulterated asphalt, it was a surprisingly nuanced decision.
Really, the choice between the indestructible Wilson and the very combustible K-Mart special came down to who was going to be playing that day.
If the lineups were going to be full, the K-Mart special was the rational choice.
A fuller lineup meant more of the older boys, and by older I mean older than my nine-year-old self. More of my elders meant more home runs, meaning a greater probability that the ball would get lost. See, a lot of bad things could happen to a ball once it cleared the straight chain link fence that bordered the outfield.
In right, it could roll under the locked fence of the football field. And though a fence was far from a deterrent to any upstanding citizen of our neighborhood, we’d proved that point often enough at Areford for the township to emphasize its preference by stringing barbed wire across the fence top.
In center, it could get lost in the tall weeds in front of the old gym. And Jeff Hughes said he once saw a snake over there, and once was enough to dampen our curiosity in disproving his theory.
Down the line in left, we’d have to root through the neighbor’s yard. And our having plunked a few off their house rendered the adult inhabitants slightly less hospitable than, say, the bleacher bums in Wrigley field who graciously tossed home runs back onto the field.
Conversely, if the lineups were going to be thin, thin enough where we’d have to play pitcher’s hand, or opposite field out (translation: if we couldn’t fill out the right side of the infield and outfield), we’d be inclined to spring for the Wilson. Thinner lineups meant fewer older boys, which meant fewer home runs, increasing the likelihood that a $2 ball might survive until we’d have to head home for supper.
But the $2 for a Wilson got you more than just the ball. See, you couldn’t get the Comets at K-Mart. For the Cadillac, you had to make a pilgrimage to the baseball room in the back of Dice’s Sporting Goods store on the corner of Main and Morgantown in downtown Uniontown. Dice’s was as close to heaven for a nine year old as Kevin Costner’s cornfield was to his character in Field of Dreams.
After tingling the bell on the front door, and subsequently unsuccessfully petitioning one’s Dad for a cold glass bottle of soda from the pop machine just to the right of the entrance, one matriculated through the front of the store, past the apparel and paraphernalia of all the other incidental sports (you know, like football) to the back room — The Inner Sanctum. Where one was greeted with the leathery smell of gloves stacked higher than cornstalks all along the right side. While my dad chatted with the owners, I’d fish out all the left handed models and try ‘em on, pound my fist into the Reggie Jackson or Steve Carlton autograph in the palm of it, and draw a deep intoxicating whiff.
The whole left side of the room was nothing but bats — real wooden bats – laid horizontally in boxes on shelves, their length in inches numbered on the handles that peeked out from their cardboard box containers. I can remember the summer when I graduated from 27” … to where a 28” felt just right in my hands … you’d slide one out, sometimes just to hear that glorious sound of wood sliding against wood, just like a big leaguer pulling one out of their personal shelf. And the first thing you’d do is check to see whose name was scrawled into the top … as if the name testified to the quality of the lumber. For the record, I still have my 28” Pete Rose.
Ninety-nine per-cent of the time, I’d be lucky if I had the $2 for the ball, so would invariably have to put the gloves and bats back. But on the rare occasion where I might have enough loose change from that week’s lemonade sale, I’d open up the magical un-marked drawer that contained a compliment of resin bags.
Didn’t matter that we played slow pitch with a rubber-coated baseball on an asphalt playground. The chance to procure a powdery plumb of powder bouncing a resin bag on your hand before breaking into the windup of whatever pitcher you happened to be that day … just added to the fantasy.
Because we didn’t play as ourselves.
This was ’79.
Are you kidding me? One through nine, we were The Antelope. Tim Foli. The Cobra. Captain Willie. Mad Dog. The Hammer. Scrap Iron. Ed Ott, and The Candy Man. And wherever we were in the lineup or on the field, we considered it our solemn duty to faithfully recreate their every tick and mannerism.
From Stargell’s signature windup, Parker’s threatening coil, or Milner’s stoic, stone-faced, presentation to the pitcher… to their defensive equivalencies — the way Moreno glided under a pop-fly to squeeze it textbook with two hands, or how Parker defiantly, non-chalanted his putouts one-handed, sometimes with a snap that left our fathers cussing his show-boating while secretly revering his athletic brilliance.
We even took the opposing teams seriously. Between the hundred of packs of baseball cards we procured from the Dairy Mart, and WWOR Channel 12, which carried the Mets (and, more importantly, Saturday morning WWF Wrestling), we knew opposing teams lineups almost as well. We’d meet on Mullen Street and walk the two blocks up to the playground, which gave us just enough time to carve up the opposing team’s lineup. I remember one summer weekday walking past a neighbor’s house while choosing from the Mets roster. Since I was a mere fourth grader, most of the good players were picked by the time I got to choose. So on that day I announced I’d be Joel Youngblood, the Mets catcher. Old Jack Simenna, who lived a few houses down from us, heard me, and from that day forward, even into my adulthood, called me Youngblood every time he saw me. I don’t think he ever knew my real name. It was always, “Heyyyyyy Youngblood.”
But when my team got to be the Pirates, I was always Omar Moreno, mostly because the older kids picked Stargell, Parker and Madlock … and I had zero power. For the record, I didn’t hit a single home run over the home-team-friendly fence that year, but I did hit 13 inside-the-parkers and batted a robust .625 out of Omar’s crouch. I know this because after returning home, but before washing my hands for dinner, I’d write down my statistics from every game we played in a spiral notebook. While cleaning out my old room at my parents’ house earlier this year, I found my stat sheet. As Casey Stengel might say, you could look it up.
An although very few K-Mart specials or Comets were harmed in the pursuit of my batting average, my teammates were not as kind with our investments.
See, there were a shitload lot of home runs hit in the summer of 79. The home run chase, the only officially recognized statistic on the asphalt, was really a four-horse race between the fifth grade regulars: Kevin, Jeff, Brian, Scott. I watched with awe and reverence as their totals climbed in excess of 200 apiece, or so they claimed. It was a self-reporting system that technically relied on, though didn’t expect too terribly much from, the honor system. And as history records, the 1970’s were far from immune to inflation. As home run totals skyrocketed and the race tightened the deeper we got into summer, the fuller the rosters became. This was due in no small part to the desire to keep your competitors from claiming they hit 12-home runs the day you weren’t there. As the race got more serious, we found ourselves procuring, and, therefore losing, a lot more Wilson Comets. And subsequently bumming from our parents in $2 increments with greater frequency, knowing we’d need at least two or three balls to get us through an afternoon. As I recall, Kevin and Jeff distanced themselves from the rest, benefitting from the fact that their families didn’t go on extended summer vacations, while Brian’s and Scott’s did.
For the record, in the days when one could count on a field full of buddies and an ample supply of Comets, one really didn’t care that one’s family never went on summer vacation.
The summer of 1979 was not only the last time the Pirates won the World Series, but it was also our last glorious summer on the asphalt.
As fate would have it, the following season the community baseball league widened its geography to pull from our township, and so we were all swept into Little League.
Uniforms. Baseballs with seams. Fields with dirt and grass. Umpires. Parents. Coaches.
The first thing that Mr. Meadows did was break me from my Omar Moreno crouch.
For the record, I never hit .625 again.
But I’ll bet you two dollars and whatever lemonade stand change still jingling in my piggy bank that if we met on a summer afternoon on Mullen Street … I could still carve up two 1979 rosters in the time it would take us to climb the two hills to the asphalt of Areford playground.
Memories like that bounce back as true and reliable as a Wilson Comet.