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What Wiffle ball reveals

At our annual extended-family game, I learn a lot about my relatives’ personalities.

Gracia Lam

A 70-YEAR-OLD MAN IS BLOCKING THE BASE PATH. He’s clearly in the wrong here, so I shove him forward, and as he stumbles, I race toward second base.

Wiffle ball is not to be trifled with at our house. Each year when the weather warms, we invite my wife’s family over for a midday meal. Cousins bring their kids, aunts and uncles arrive from out of state, and invariably someone brings a college roommate. We shake hands and politely ask how retirement is treating them, how the job hunt is going, ask for updates on the sibling who didn’t make it this year. After lunch, before satiety turns to somnolence, my wife announces: “Time for the game! Only winners get dessert!”


We trudge out to the backyard where my son is practicing his swing while an older cousin pitches. The teams are formed like this: Some people head out to the field while the laggards wait their turn at bat. In other words, the enthusiastic people end up on one team while the people who are just hoping for cake and coffee shuffle onto the other.

The players range in age from 7 to seventysomething. Their skills range from having played some high school ball to “can name only one player on the Red Sox” (Big Papi), but everyone knows the basic rules of baseball, so we play.

The game casts everyone in a new light.

Uncle Joe, that 70-year-old in my way, playfully blocks the base paths and is the king of the fake throw. He’s constantly needling and joking and is the first to laugh when someone teases him back.

Maddy is a bit younger than Uncle Joe, and before Wiffle ball I had only seen her at sit-down dinners and weddings. Turns out she’s a hard charger and argues every call that doesn’t go the way of her team. In other words, she’s aggressive and loyal, and I understand why she remains one of my mother-in-law’s closest friends. Plus, she somehow looks elegant in her pantsuit even as she runs the bases. After playing ball with her, I can imagine what she was like as a young mother.


The men in my generation finally speak up. Instead of waiting to hear family news from our wives — who actually talk to one another — we use the game to banter and connect with one another. The fact that men need to do something together to relate is a stereotype, sure, but one based in reality.

Our kids’ eyes open wide. They don’t understand the lunch conversations referencing politics or pop culture from 30 years ago, but on the diamond, they see aunts and uncles laughing and joking. Kids are sticklers for rules, but they’ve come to accept that someone who hasn’t swung a bat in two decades might need five or six strikes. The games give them a glimpse that some of the things they love in their childhood don’t have to be finite.

There are always one or two new people at our lunches, and I never feel as if I know who they are until the game. I learn facts about their job and where they live and went to school, but when I see them switch-hit or slide into the tulip bulbs or kick off their heels to run barefoot, I feel as if I get to know something real about their personality. Wiffle ball is a great icebreaker.


Somehow when my wife declares the game over, the score is always tied, so we’ve all earned dessert. We head back in, and the conversation is more relaxed and more familiar. As people make their excuses to leave, the formal handshakes that greeted our guests turn into hugs on the way out.

Jack Cheng writes in Waban and on Twitter @jakcheng. Send comments to

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