As he stood, knees slightly bent and arms at a fort-five-degree angle, the mesh racket was poised for the pitch. Winding up, I thought that some chin music would back him off the plate—which happened to be my lucky, well-oiled and broken-in little league catcher’s mitt. However, by design, the shuttlecock had its own particular way of dancing through air, occasionally leaving the best intentions bee-lining straight toward the wheelhouse. Contact made, I was spinning on my barefoot heels toward deep center field, which happened to be a meticulously pruned hedge of green paralleling the concrete of the basketball court. “Down to the Night Club” was blaring from the living room stereo. Sweating, I dodged our exuberant brown Labrador barking like a drunken fan in the front row. I thought of the gardeners who must have wondered how their clipped wizardry was being routinely crushed into broken twigs. In a manner of mere seconds, I outstretched my right arm, calculated precisely how high I would need to leap, and if the moldy old mattress on the other side would contain me upon impact. Otherwise, I’d surrender a grand slam to slugger Sinclair—the player’s name chosen from a paint store ad in a L.A. Dodgers program (as were all his team’s names)—as the bases were juiced.
During the early- to mid-1970s, we had moved from a family-centric suburban community, where friends were easily found and made like berries and pie. In the Jurassic Era, before the Internet of Things, the search engine entry for neighbors and friends was knocking on a door, calling on the phone, meeting at the candy store, shouting Hey! from the street. But in that backyard, over Coldwater and into the pricier north of Sunset enclaves, you couldn’t find a cul de sac, a bicycle rally, a street carnival, the ice cream truck jingle jangle or the euphoric aroma from the Helms Bakery truck. What I had was better that all of that; though, at the time I hadn’t a clue.
They say siblings close in age are more competitive, the oldest has more responsibilities, the youngest gets away with everything, the middle stirs up the pot because Hey, I was once the youngest, now you ignore me. The only child tends to mature quickly and thrives without annoying brothers or sisters. Twins either are bonded spiritually or do everything possible to individuate. Then there are the age differences. What of the “accidents,” those babies who were unplanned, arriving on the scene many years after the “last?” In most cases, this is a special relationship for the older siblings, as they are sick of one another and can dote on the latest stork delivery. Though just partially true, the randomness of time was the poetry behind the fabric of badminton baseball, my brother and me.
How did one actually play Badminton Baseball?
- Rule 1: Teams field a team of nine players who are invisible except for the pitcher and batter (the managers).
- Rule 2: Dogs are not allowed on the field.
- Rule 3: Only a league-approved shuttlecock and racket can be used.
- Rule 4: Like baseball, batter faces as many shuttles as possible until contact is made, a strikeout or a walk.
- Rule 5: After contact is made into the field of play, each manager decides the result of said contact. This is done subjectively and with consensus. If managers cannot agree, they must take a time out on the top step until they cool down.
- Rule 6: Each manager has the right to inspect either the shuttlecock, racket, baseball cap, or any other suspect locations for files, pine tar, Vaseline and any other illegal substances. If discovered, the offending team is fined by the league in the amount of four Dodger Dogs to be paid for at the next Dodger game attended.
- Rule 7: The field of play is divided similarly to a baseball field where shuttlecocks lined softly are automatically ground outs and double plays. Bunts are subjective though usually successful if shuttle lands in bunt zone. Hits are powerful swats to left, center of right, doubles and the rare triples are granted if shuttle reaches any part of the hedge in fair play. All of the above pertain to contact not caught by the pitcher.
- Rule 8: Quail are given right of way to pass, and all play is halted.
- Rule 9: Game is nine innings, unless the managers decide to watch Meteor Monster and have root beer floats.
- Rule 10: Managers keep statistics so when they are middle-aged, they can look through the records and ponder How in the world did that come to be?
Life was languid. Shadows stretched as if yawning. Places to go, people to see was not in vogue when there was Badminton Baseball, horror movies, a ping pong table and enough Mallomars for a binge-fest. When my long-haired, Neil Young hat-wearing bro first played Tower of Power’s Bump City (1972), I realized I actually could learn to swivel my white hips. Between innings we cued up “You Got to Funkifize” and played air horn section; my brother preferred the sax, I mouthed trumpet and bone. Hell, we didn’t sound all that bad. Our four-legged fan got into it by stealing home plate, knowing stupid me, I’d give in to the chase. Under all that molasses and muggy sky, under our flowing trails of hair, in a time capsule that could always be opened with the turn of a hand, what the summer of ’72 generously provided was brotherhood.
Pointy branches pierced my legs. Idiot. You’re barefoot again. And in shorts. If you know baseball, catching a ball (shuttlecock) at the pinnacle of the wall to “bring back” a home run involves a Spider-Man like ascension; whether padded fence, ivy, signs, you take a sideways angle using inertia to momentarily cling to the surface, raise your mitt, and snag the sucker. Then, topple down to earth like a cat or a Roly poly bug. That hedge provided the illusion of cushioning, but mostly the rectangular mass was a nicely coiffed death trap. Using full extension of my five-foot-eight frame, I rose to the fluttering birdie, practicing my best guess trigonometry which awaited me in four years. From a distance, Sinclair and his teammates began celebrating what could prove to be the winning hit. But that was my field. That was my team. Brother or not, I had an ass to kick. And Dodger Dogs to eat if he’d added something to his racket. Using the botanical launchpad and its every sprig and leaf, I surged upward even as I began unraveling in reverse. Serta never imagined that particular use of its brand. SPLAT! Spread-eagle, head not clonking on stone but the soft, stinky comfort of the bed I once called my own, I glimpsed the object in my fingers. Sinclair had dashed close enough to witness the catch, our yelping canine was calling it an out, and good sport he was, my bro grabbed me by the wrists and lifted me up.
Lifted me up.
That’s when “You’re Still A Young Man” circled the turntable in search of ears like mine; the precise kind that wanted to kiss a girl for the first time, make many more friends, and go next door to ask actress Jaclyn Smith for a cup of sugar. But also, the kid who wanted to stay a kid and dive headlong over plants making epic plays. A boy with his dog playing chase and tackling each other. Someone his older brother could be proud of.
In 1972, a most ridiculous game could not be more serious.
Because of connection between two brothers.
Don’t miss out on these opportunities to experience, remember and show gratitude to those in your life.