NEW YORK — Drenching rain had fallen the night before, and a huge puddle covered half the infield as the players climbed through a hole in the wire fence into the schoolyard in mid-Manhattan.
The star home run hitter, a lawyer, was absent because he was stuck in the office with a temporary restraining order. But Jeb, half Labrador retriever, served as substitute fielder, frolicking in the water as the warm-up for the big game began.
Steven Beer reared back on the pitcher's mound, an uneven box he had drawn in chalk between two old chewing gum spots on the asphalt. He fired his first pitch to David Pliskin, who waited, thin bat cocked, in front of the strike zone painted on the school wall.
Plastic Palm Trees
"In August, we bring out some plastic palm trees. You see the Sangria des Townhouse Mountains back there," said Pliskin, a real estate manager, pointing to a row of multicolored townhouses beyond the center field fence. "This is the Chavez Ravine of the East."
"Quotable! quotable!" kibitzed Beer, a lawyer.
Welcome to the return of stickball in New York City. The game of choice of generations of youngsters, stickball--a cheap version of baseball--had fallen on hard times, a victim of suburban flight, urban blight, unremitting traffic, general overcrowding and cultural change. Now the game is staging a comeback.
The Police Athletic League, which sponsors recreational activities in poor neighborhoods, is planning a three-sewer stickball derby this summer, to see if strong kids can still belt a ball the distance of three sewers (three manhole covers, or about 300 feet). For the last six years, Budweiser beer has sponsored an old-timers' stickball day in Manhattan, when a street is closed and the game is played as it used to be. The company also hosts a world series of stickball on another block.
Grownups can remember playing stickball after school and standing, broomstick cocked, on the street behind a manhole cover that served as home plate, trying to smash into infinity a small, pink rubber ball nicknamed Spaldeen. Car fenders and other manhole covers served as bases. For a brief, shining moment, ordinary kids were Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle or Duke Snider.
Part of Growing Up
Stickball was more than a game; it was a way station on the road to self-identity.
"It meant camaraderie, acceptance, proving something to one's self," said Dr. David Brook, a Manhattan psychiatrist who grew up playing stickball in the Bronx--and who fantasized about hitting five sewers.
These days, young professionals are taking up stickball as an antidote to urban tension. Some old-time purists scoff at the idea of playing stickball in schoolyards, but discretion in the face of New York's fierce traffic is the better part of valor.
Thus, on a recent Saturday, Beer, Pliskin and Mark Thomas, a soft- drink distributor, all 29-year-olds, warmed up with a tennis ball for their encounter. (The Spalding Co. stopped manufacturing the pink ball several years ago.) They were joined by Jane Jacobs, a benefits consultant with a bright smile and a level swing who grew up playing softball in Solomon, Kan.
"Jane saw us playing and she asked if she could get up at bat," said Beer. "She started hitting them against the fence. She is really good."
Just as the game was about to begin, Bill Sullivan, 30, arrived fresh from wrestling with the restraining order.
He and Pliskin took on the others. (As few as two can play very basic stickball--a pitcher and a batter.)
The contest was close. Jacobs hit a home run, as did Pliskin. The score was 3 to 3 in the final inning. On the sideline, Cy Beer, a jeans manufacturer, cheered for his son and reminisced about playing the game on the streets of Brooklyn.
"It was great. It was a way to relieve the tension of growing up in a crowded house," he said. "We were able to get out in the fresh air and develop relationships. Some of the friends I am still friends with today. We did not have time to get involved in bad things. We were busy playing ball."
For just a moment, Beer's memory spanned the stickball generation gap as he imagined himself back at the plate. He said: "I look in the mirror and I see this man staring back at me. He looks familiar, but he isn't me."
In the last inning Thomas came to bat. He took a pitch, then another, then smashed a long home run--the winning run--over the schoolyard fence. As he crossed home plate his teammates gave him the high five.
New York Tradition
To a large extent, street stickball was a New York City sport. Jonas Halpern, a business consultant, played on streets near Coney Island in Brooklyn.
"It was a great game. You could play it for hours," he said. "We would always name ourselves after baseball teams. You were either the Giants or the Dodgers or the Yankees. The only problem was some kids would take their moms' brooms and chop them up, and their moms would scream."
Later, Halpern moved West.
"I never saw another stickball game when I went to Southern California," he said. "Most of the homes of the kids I knew had vacuum cleaners. You couldn't hit with a vacuum cleaner."