virtual children by Scott Warnock

Wiffleball for life

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So the 28th Ralston Cup Invitational Wiffleball Tournament took place this weekend. For 28 years, we have held a wiffleball tournament down in my old stomping grounds in Berlin, NJ. It’s a silly day filled with silly people doing silly things. It’s just wiffleball.

But when something goes on for 28 years, it stops being just anything. This knocking around of a little plastic ball has helped glue a disparate bunch of people together for almost three decades.

The tournament was the genius of Paul Ralston, who continues as a primary influence in my life. Paul is the dad of one of my oldest childhood pals, Pete. In 1987, after Pete and I graduated from high school, Paul decided (and like all Ralston Cup history, the exact story is a little muddy) to have some event to reunite our group. He chose a summer wiffleball tournament.

For nearly three decades, a core group has arrived in a backyard (the Yards) in Berlin to play wiffleball for a day, normally the first Saturday in August (with a few notable exceptions). A third generation is now involved. Sons of sons are playing. Some of these folks are close friends who I see all year. Some are friends I see once in a while. A few are friends I see once a year: At the Ralston Cup.

I’ve been lucky with my friendships. I have many people I value. Why? It’s certainly not because I’m an inherently great guy (just ask my wiffleball opponents). When I talk to my kids about this or that person I know, I continue to tell them that if I have any wisdom about friendship, it’s that you must find little things, however trivial, to bring you together. You must create some events or structures to link your friends. Or you’ll lose them.

Sitting in a bar is a fine pastime. But if that’s your connection to someone, I think you will have trouble, unless you both plunge into alcoholism, keeping it up. I also think if your conversations are solely about funny crap you did 20 years ago, that too will wear itself out. You need something else. Maybe you’ll find some high-level intellectual salon in which you discuss the future of the American novel (apparently, it may be bleak). But perhaps it will be simpler things. So find your book clubs, Oscar parties, card games, and fishing trips. Do something that will help you solidify and occasionally revive the connections you have with people you value. Find something renewable to talk about.

You must sustain those little things with some effort. I may not be the best at calling people back, but I try to do my part to sustain a variety of “reindeer game” (my wife’s term)-type pursuits that convene people I like. Even in small ways, you have to work for your relationships.

We don’t have to think much about friendship when we’re young. Friendships just kind of happen as you’re pushed into other kids at school, activities, and camps. It takes little effort — watch children buddy up on the playground.

But these friendships disappear, sometimes in mass die-offs, as we get older. Friendship certainly takes more work when you get older and the responsibilities pile up. You have to want to connect with people and then, and here’s the hard part, make an effort to keep those connections going. As Tim Kreider says in We Learn Nothing, “Friends who seemed pretty much indistinguishable from you in your twenties make different decisions about family or career, and after a decade or two these initial differences yield such radically divergent trajectories that when you get together again you regard each other’s lives with bemused incomprehension.” You have to maintain some common ground, or you’ll be unable to leap those gaps of potential unrecognizableness.

Many things my friends and I do are pure nonsense. But, taken as a whole, they provide times during the year for us to be shoved together at some table, talking and laughing hard. While we’re lucky to have a couple guys like Paul and Pete, I think in my group, people try to share the load. If you don’t, at some point you’ll have a lonely Friday night in the castle and realize you have no one to call.

At the wiffleball tournament, we’ve had awful nicknames, brawls, tears. But I as I told my kids last Saturday night, when I came home all dirty and full of beer but exuberant and madly clutching the coveted trophy (we won this year!), with its Stanley Cup-like plaques listing all past winners, many of the names spelled wrong deliberately, these dumb little things just might help me keep my friends when I’m old. Then I thought, it might even be those dumb little things, all together, that make up a life.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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5 Responses to “Wiffleball for life”

  1. The Observer Has to wipe away a tear from reading this. Perhaps because he didn’t win or …….for a more profound reason?.

    Well said my friend.

  2. Scott

    I know your not this sentimental and deep. Don’t be fooled people. This is just his way of letting another group of people know he won this year. To me this article read like…blah, blah, blah, “raindeer game” (had to give a shout out to my wife because she has put up with my incessant ranting about the tourney and the only way to get her to read more of this is if i credit her in the story), blah, blah i am so much better then my friends they only compare to me trivially, blah, blah Paul and Pete are good guys, blah, blah my friends are dumb,, blah, blah Scott is a” troglodyte” (my wife’s term), blah, blah Jim B was on Scott’s team and was the unofficial MVP baby! He’s such a kind soul.

  3. At last a topic I’m qualified to discuss!

    Great article Scott. I absolutely cherish that day of wiffleball every year. We are certainly a diverse group that come together and share this wonderfully important ritual. We are teaching our children many life lessons with this tradition. As you know, I’ve come from as far as New Hampshire to participate. It’s a day I will never miss voluntarily. It is important to me.

  4. Scott, thankyou for bringing back to me a wonderful memory of my childhood I had not thought about for YEARS!! Approximately 55 years ago my brother and I would round up the other kids in the neighborhood and travel to the front yard of a man that was like a grandfather to all of us. He was a widower living alone and really enjoyed the company of us kids over bowls of ice”milk” and games of chinese checkers AND watching us play wiffle ball in his front yard. We played even into the dark of night as he had a floodlight he would turn on especially so we could keep playing. I can still hear him sitting behind me on the porch which was just behind home plate. The light lit up the wiffle ball diamond but didn’t quite reach the
    dark of the woods which was the outfield and an automatic homerun. He would just roar with laughter when I (the only girl) would hit a homerun……I can still see that WHITE wiffle ball sailing into the dark of the night and hear him laughing as he sat in his glider swing and ate his icemilk. What I would give to play with my old neighborhood wiffleball team at a yearly reunion the way you do.

  5. Great article Scott. Even better…Jim’s comment! Haha.

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