NEW YORK — As a Bostonian visiting New York, I’m the slightest cut above, which is to say I’m not a total rube. I lived here for nearly three years, 1983-85, wrote almost daily for the New York Times sports section. I lived in Queens, Manhattan (Upper West Side), and the Bronx, schlepped regularly to Uniondale to cover the Islanders, to Exit 16W for Devils games, to Madison Square Garden for the Rangers, and sweltered buckets in the summer ovens of Yankee and Shea stadiums.
So, yeah, I know New York, at least to the point where I can tell a gypsy cab driver what he can do with his outrageous $30 quote for a short ride on the East Side around 9 p.m. A verb, an adjective, and a $15 counter offer got the job done Thursday night. I am sure I could have chipped it down to $10, but I was hungry, late for dinner, and the driver at least grunted in serviceable English.
Anyway, for all that schlepping, I never once came across a stickball game in New York. What’s more quintessential New York than stickball, right?
Uh, no, not right.
Stickball doesn’t live here anymore. At least not in the way it does in the mind’s eye, how it did when a young, vibrant Willie Mays swung a broom handle in the street outside his old home in Harlem in the 1950s or when Joe Pepitone did as a stylish Yankee in Brooklyn in the ’60s. And certainly not in the way some Boston country bumpkin might believe it is played to this day in, say, the Bronx, Brooklyn, or Staten Island, too.
So there I was Tuesday morning, killing time during yet another hockey practice inside MSG, figuring I’d take my idea to the streets. I turned to fellow scribe Jesse Spector, a favorite son of Brooklyn Heights and a pal of mine in the NHL world, and asked if he could suggest where I could find a stickball game.
“Stickball?’’ he said, looking and sounding the way only a New Yorker can when he has a dumb tourist by the white socks and Bermuda shorts of naiveté.
“Yeah, stickball,’’ I said, my voice deftly masking the fact that the rube-o-meter inside my head was now pegged at 100-plus.
“Sure, stickball,’’ he said, one hand rubbing the back of his neck, a sure Letterman-like shot to the blind side about to be delivered. “Yeah, you’d maybe go to, oh . . . 1958, I guess?’’
Ouch. Not only embarrassing, but correct. Like Joltin’ Joe, stickball here has left and gone away.
The City That Never Sleeps, it turns out, is just like the USA everywhere else in that kids rarely play outside anymore. Sure, they play, if it’s an organized league with parents in control of scheduling and transporting and rule making and, of course, paying. We have no shortage of parents forking over big bucks to get their kids in games, in private instruction, on travel teams to chase the next $5 plastic trophy.
But for reasons we all know, few of our kids are either compelled or equipped to dash out the door after school or during the summer to play pickup anything. New York stickball is, or once was, our nation’s unofficial official game of pickup baseball, with its bats of broom handles, curtain rods, or bamboo poles, its home runs measured by how many sewer or manhole covers the batted ball could arc. No more.
That get-out-there-and-make-it-up-as-you-go-along game is long gone in America, kids now hooked instead on social media, video games, the myriad passive things they do while cloistered inside four walls instead of playing on the street or in our abundant, wide-open green pastures.
We have a childhood obesity and diabetes epidemic that gains girth by the bite and swig, our sedentary sons and daughters ignoring the play time they might one day beg for when forced to work at desk and terminal for 40 or 50 hours a week.
Thankfully, some vestiges of the grand old, somewhat romantic game still exist. For instance, there is a three-day stickball tournament going on not far from Yankee Stadium this weekend, with 15 teams, including nine from the Bronx-based New York Emperors Stickball League, competing for a championship. There is a similar tournament each year in the Bronx, right on Stickball Boulevard (Google it, kids) on Columbus Day weekend.
There are nine teams, upward of 120 stickball players total, in the Emperors League, which has been around for some 30 years. All games are played on Sundays, April through August. Vido Creales, a 37-year-old software developer from the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx, is the league president.
“If you’re looking for a pickup stickball game, sorry, you’re not going to find it,’’ said Creales, far more polite than my pal Spector. “I don’t see kids here playing anything like that, you know, whether it’s tag or kick the can.
“I ask kids all the time why they don’t play stuff like that and it’s like I’m some dinosaur. It doesn’t matter where you are, where you’re from — we’re all battling the same [issues]. It’s the video games and all the extracurricular stuff.’’
Emperor League players, said Creales, range in age from their mid-teens to, well, unlimited.
“No age restriction,’’ he said. “But you’ve got to be good, so you’re not going to see a kid playing our league until he’s maybe 14 or 15, and then it’s guys in their 20s, 30s, 40s. We’ve even got one guy, Andy, he’s in his 70s. Retired. Still gets around. Good player.’’
So, there is still hope, New York. A tree grows in Brooklyn and the Bronx keeps a light on for stickball. A smaller league still exists in Spanish Harlem, said Creales, and there are teams in this weekend’s Bronx tournament from as far away as Florida, California, even Puerto Rico.
“It’s the seed thing,’’ said Creales. “You’ll usually find those teams started because a New Yorker moved there and just wanted to play, keep the game alive.’’
Surely, I said to Creales, I could get in a cab in midtown Manhattan and find a pickup stickball game. In a city of more than 8 million people, it had to be out here. Somewhere. I could see it. As surely as the photo of the Say Hey Kid.
“Big city, but I doubt it,’’ said Creales. “I’m not sure the cabbie would know where to go.’’