Beset By Mystery: The Wiffle Ball
So often I write about indigenous people or a traditional cultural pathway.
But the other day I saw a few minutes of a baseball game and I haven’t watched baseball in years. I used to be a fan and then it fell away for me. Then the same day I saw some kids and a dad playing Wiffle Ball in Marcus Garvey Park near my home. Suddenly that variety of ball sports were on my mind. So reflecting on that a bit brought me to this musing.
Some say that baseball is America’s sport.
Maybe it is. If it is to you then it likely summons all kinds of bucolic images of mid-20th century America. Of dusty kids and broken in mitts and peanuts and cracker jack. Of dads and sons and playing catch. It’s all rhapsodic but not nearly as fevered as the opening pitch and the national anthem. The diamond might be the last place where there is large scale public secular group singing – the national anthem is what passes for soul-stirring and acceptable to the common ear paired with ‘Take Me Out To The Ball Game’ at the seventh inning stretch.
The kid brother of baseball is certainly Wiffle Ball.
Wiffle Ball was invented in post-war Connecticut in 1953 when the image of all this baseball lore was being branded into the public consciousness and it’s our ramshackle myth now here. And it was perfect for America then – cheap, plastic, easy, and fun.
The rules for Wiffle Ball are simple but flexible. Two to ten players. No bases required. No running needed. Not everybody has access to a field so Wiffle rules don’t burden you with that either. Just swing the bat and hit the swooping ball if you can. The ball won’t or can’t go too far.
Somehow Wiffle knew ahead of time that neighborhoods wouldn’t always have enough kids to make for a full team of nine. And that the cost of baseball gloves wouldn’t always work out. And that most kids won’t have the space in their lives or their towns to play ‘regular’ baseball. And so Wiffle Ball fit right into the slumping cities and suburbs and for five bucks you could have a good time all summer and all the summers to come as long as you didn’t lose the ball in traffic and you didn’t break the bat on your cousin’s head when you used it as a sword.
And yet there is a kind of sweet genius to the game. It welcomes all players. Can’t run? Can’t field? There’s barely anything to do besides toss the ball back to the pitcher when you are on defense. Come on and play. And like all games that kids play when they are dirty and the sun is going down and they are ignoring their mothers calls for dinner because they just need a few more minutes…the rules change. Score is 500 to 16? ‘Next double wins.’ And they may argue for a second but it will work out and yes, the next double wins the game. There is often a grand egalitarianism when kids play games without adults because the boundaries and rules are very lightly held. And wouldn’t it be grand if there was any sense of play for the sake of continuing play rather than just attempting to modify rules for the sake of status or personal aggrandizement?
But I wanted to talk about the Wiffle ball itself. The physics of its looping and sudden curves and how it might, might, might relate to loving the living world and submitting to such a world.
A Wiffle ball is the same size as a regulation baseball but hollow, 3mm thick, and has eight oblong holes in it that are on one side of the ball that are 19mm long. A surprising amount of science has gone into trying to figure out and map the wicked curves of a Wiffle ball pitch.
The holes on the ball, simply, create strange drag patterns that mess with the aerodynamics and with increasing speed laminar flow changes the airflow even more. For a long time baseball physics nerds put the balls in wind tunnels with smoke to show the flows and demonstrate the laminar flows. Did scuffs on the ball impact the flows more or less than the holes? How much did the human-made whipping action change the laminar flows? These were the nerdy questions.
And then Jenn Stroud Rossman got high speed cameras and computer modeling involved only a few years ago and showed that while scuffing and arm speed and angle and velocity matter there was this small matter that air could travel into and through the Wiffle ball and not through a solid baseball. She showed that this captured air creates what she called a ‘trapped vortex effect’ that can compete with the other factors as well.
Maybe to love and be loved by the living world requires a kind of openness. A penetratability that might open you to strange things and new directions if the living air is let in. If you are to play the fluid ruled game that just requires you to simply show up then you must let your intent for what you want be held loosely. The ball and your path will not go where you have planned. You can hold the ball with holes on the right intent on throwing a curve ball but as long as you make a decent effort to actually throw the ball this trapped vortex effect will enter in and surprise you and the batter and maybe even the air itself.
I don’t want to push this analogy too far or make anything perscriptiony or life-lessony but it does seem to me that there is a kind of submission to mystery that comes up so often with these stories that I so often tell. And mystery, being faithful to its name, seems to show up in the places one never counted on.
So may these eddies of mystery be available to you. May they stay secret until absolutely the last moment. There is no automatic redemption to being beset by mystery but the softening that happens there, if it happens, is absolutely worthy.
Thanks for reading and wondering.
Until soon enough,