The short pitching distance (the "rubber" is 55'6" from the wall, so the batter is only about 52 feet from the pitcher), the thin bat (no more than 1? inches in diameter) and the tennis ball (sorry, guys, nobody plays with a "spaldeen" anymore—they haven't been made since 1979) all give the pitcher the upper hand.
"When I first joined the league I thought, 'How good can it be?' " says California Angels scout Brian Collins, 46, who played in the St. Louis Cardinals organization in the 1960s. "But I was surprised; it's very competitive. Most teams have excellent pitching. I'd say good pitchers can bring it in the mid-80's, and most of them have pretty good breaking stuff—drop balls, curves, sliders. There are a lot of strikeouts. If you hit .300 in this league, you're considered a very good hitter."
Working to the further advantage of pitchers is Equipment Rule C, which allows a pitcher to doctor the ball by burning off the fuzz, making for greater velocity and sharper breaking balls. At present, any low-felt, yellow-green tennis ball with uniform fuzz can be used in the USSBL. In an effort to standardize the sport, however, Babineau has spent more than a year overseeing the development of the quintessential stickball—i.e., one with the least possible amount of felt. "From a manufacturing standpoint, our difficulty is coming up with a totally worn-out product," says Steve Banks, president of Steegro of Gloucester, Mass., the U.S. distributor of Nassau Tennis Balls. "It hasn't been easy. We're on our third prototype now; it's getting better each time. We're hoping to have something available by the fall stickball season." Banks estimates a first run of about 24,000, with a retail cost of about $2.50 for three balls.
Through last year, only wooden sticks were allowed as bats, but this season the USSBL has recognized three official bats: the StreetStick, an ash model that retails for $10 to $12; the Quick Swing, which features an aluminum barrel, ash handle and ash top knob for $14 to $16; and the Powerflite, an all-aluminum job for $18 to $20.
Stickball traditionalists shudder at these developments. "Aluminum is fine if you want to side your house, but I certainly don't want to swing it in a stickball game," scoffs Frank Passero, 56, who has swung the same broomstick for the past 20 years, most recently for the Long Island Veterans. "But there is one thing about aluminum—you'll never have an argument on a ticked ball, because there's a ringing in your ears. If I used that bat I would need earplugs. Look, this is really a simple game. The guy throws the ball, you swing the bat and hit, and see how far it goes. Today the players have everything custom-made for them; they're trying to turn a simple game into something exotic."
Indeed, there are those who feel that the institutionalization of stickball goes against the grain of the game. "We stand directly opposed to the league," says Steven Beer, 29, one of a group of New York City professionals—most of them lawyers like Beer—who get together every Saturday morning. "Our attitude is that stickball is a game that was born in the streets and should remain there for kids of all ages to play and negotiate each time they walk out onto the asphalt. Deciding the boundaries, choosing sides, how many outs per inning—all these informal aspects are fundamental to the enjoyment of stickball for us. For some, I suppose the rules and regulations of a stickball league may be O.K., but for me and my colleagues, we would never conform to such a formal and restrictive approach to what is essentially a very simple game."
Babineau shrugs off such criticism, pointing out that membership in the league brings with it a larger focus. "Players would never know, had they not joined the USSBL, of the existence of all the other teams," he says. "They'd be playing forever in their own school yards against the same competition."
Peter Burke, 25, considered one of the league's premier pitchers (a couple of years ago he struck out 53 batters while going the distance in a 21-inning playoff game), agrees. Says Burke, whose Seaford Vikings won the overall championship last season, "Everybody out there is appreciative of the opportunity to play in an organized league."
A new USSBL division is being formed in Boston, and Babineau is exploring additional expansion plans; he sees Philadelphia, St. Louis and Baltimore, all of which have stickball traditions, as potential USSBL cities, and he welcomes inquiries from other areas. For more information about the USSBL, write Ron Babineau, P.O. Box 363, East Rockaway, N.Y. 11518, or call 516-599-2915.