I saw a group of old friends on Sunday. Twenty-five years after our Whiffle ball obsession began to inevitably fade, we gathered at the old field. I’m sure it felt differently for each of us.
The Burlington International Airport bought up most of the little (nearly identical) 3-br., 1 ba. ranches on Dumont Avenue in the past fifteen years; only a few hold-outs remain. Without the single-floor triplex on the corner, one end of the runway is in full view. It’s shocking how close the planes are; regional and narrow-body jets were taxiing and taking off only a couple hundred yards away. They seemed much louder without the houses to buffer the sound.
The Whiffle ball field at the Methot’s was the center of the universe back then—to us kids, anyway. From ’95-’98, more than a dozen of us spent “every spare moment—throughout the spring, summer, and fall, during the day and under the lights, in the heat and in the cold—playing game after game of Wiffle ball at ‘Dumont Diamond’ in my backyard,” to quote my memoir. We kept statistics and recorded video with a camcorder borrowed from the high school’s A/V club. Over 200 games were recorded some years. The local news (WCAX, Channel 3) sent their sportscaster and aired a story of the 1996 Dumont Diamond World Series on the 6-o’clock news. At our instruction, the cameraman recorded video from the roof. I still have the VHS recording.
It's not an overstatement to say that I grew up in that backyard, alongside my brother and a group of neighborhood kids. There were seven of us housed in immediate view, an additional handful of regulars a short bike ride away. Every one of them, my teammates and opponents on the field, was older and bigger than me. Besides one neighbor and my brother (each one year ahead in school), everyone was at least four years my senior.
The field is unrecognizable today. The houses, fences, and driveways have been removed; the trees have grown larger; the brush has encroached and the grass is sandy and covered in anthills. Each of us struggled to find landmarks to connect our sights with the pictures in our minds.
A single plastic yellow bat (available at your local drug store)—its handle and barrel expertly taped—and a handful of round-holed Whiffle balls were really all the equipment we required. (We never used the curvy ball that comes atop the yellow bat.) But just like the old days, the bare minimum wasn’t enough—even for a beer-in-hand-optional reunion game. Rules were determined and refreshed, measurements were taken, foul lines spray painted, home plate and bases put in place.
Almost all of the major players showed up—an unacknowledged miracle in itself. We’ve all aged, of course; some, it seems, a lot more than others. It once felt like we were all in the same place—at least I wasn’t considering our differences back then—but as is always the case, time has treated each of us differently.
I don’t want to gossip about how everyone looked or turned out; that isn’t my style or place. A few beer guts have grown, some bigger than others; wide-ranging levels of fitness and (lack of) agility were on display; and one guy rolled out of the back of a van in a wheelchair driven by his parents.
In place of the pile of bicycles and teenagers’ cars parked on the street, the (very) occasional spectator, ever-present bags of sunflower seeds and cans of “dip,” there was a long line of full-size pickups and minivans, wives, sisters, teens, and children, multiple coolers and chairs, and even hamburgers, hot dogs, and a grill. And fluids for hydration. And sunscreen. And everyone was wearing shoes. Very different, indeed.
I was asked early on if I wanted to be there; we could always get together elsewhere, they said. I, of course, would be sitting on the sidelines in my wheelchair. Everyone seemed to recognize how difficult that might be. While I used to be squatting behind home plate calling pitches and blocking balls, or on the mound throwing wild curveballs from every arm angle, today I’d sit in foul grounds and watch. It still hurts, to be sure—not participating, merely watching others live their lives—but I’ve mostly gotten used to it. I can usually stay in the present these days.
You want to know about the game. Here are some observations: The Whiffle balls seemed to be harder and fly farther; they were purchased on Amazon instead of our old go-to, (now defunct) Mills & Greer on Dorset Street. In the past, everyone always seemed to know the score and the count, who was due to bat and their stats for the game. Today, the focus wasn’t there; remembering was a group effort.
As in Major League Baseball, there were far more homeruns than there used to be—in our case a blessing to broken down bodies. As I mentioned before, the fitness levels of our members have diverged over the years: while some guys were sprinting down the line and diving for balls in the field, others could barely muster a duck-footed, bow-legged shuffle after putting bat to ball. I have a difficult time seeing people choose to let their bodies decay.
The first game featured two teenage sons, each quiet and shy among a group of (mostly) strangers. Two minivans arrived before the start of the second; a boy and a girl, about eight to ten, joined each side. The presence of children brought out something different, of course. The game wasn’t all about winning and losing, catching every fly ball, or striking everyone out. It wasn’t about plunking batters with chin-high fastballs, winding up and beaning vulnerable baserunners, or jacking towering shots and taunting the pitcher as you gleefully jog around the bases—although each of those happened.
Some would say it was a group of middle-aged, potbellied gray hairs having a midlife crisis, trying to recapture the past. Hopelessly attempting to go back to a much simpler (and possibly better or easier) time. The whole day would be weighed down by melancholy; longing for the past is an exercise in futility. But I didn’t see much of that. For most of us, at least, the day was about reconnecting and sharing with loved ones. It was about remembering the past and bringing it into the present. After more than twenty years dormant, Dumont Diamond once again brought us together—and it meant something.