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Unless you're a stickball player, you have no idea how serious these people are about their game. For example, Kevin Barnes kept a detailed record, including the pitchers and sites, of each of his 758 home runs. A few years ago, Barnes, 34, who has been playing stickball since his boyhood days in Fort Lee, N.J., gave out baseball jerseys in commemoration of his 500th dinger.
"I was putting down the names of every pitcher I'd ever hit a home run against and contacting all of them just to be sure, because the first couple of years I only kept track of the number but not the pitcher or site," says Barnes, a freelance sports broadcaster in Atlanta. "There was one guy I couldn't get hold of. I was pretty sure I'd hit a home run, maybe two, against him, but I hadn't talked to this guy in a long time. I finally reached his sister, and she asked him. The answer was, 'He remembers giving up two home runs against you, but he knows you never beat him in a game.' This is 17 years later!"
Or how about Perry Vitucci, 25, of the Seaford ( N.Y.) Vikings, who is approaching his 1,000th homer. "We started out when we were kids putting all our friends' names on three-by-five index cards," he says, "and we kept track of our home runs. It's been almost 20 years, and now we're up to the largest-size index card." According to Vitucci, the all-time home-run record belongs to Bob Robinson, also of Seaford, who retired three years ago at age 23 with 1,146 career round-trippers.
Because of the intraneighborhood orientation of most stickball competition, however, fanatics like Barnes and Vitucci had no way to rate their accomplishments outside of their own circle. Then Ron Babineau, a telephone-systems salesman and stickball junkie from East Rockaway, N.Y., created a system to bring together the greats and near greats of the game.
"Everybody has fond memories of stickball," says the 36-year-old Babineau, who plays for the Hewlett ( N.Y.) Henchmen, "but there had never been anything organized for the sport."
This is not quite true. As a high school student in Hewlett, Babineau had once organized a six-team circuit. "It was pretty loose," he recalls, "and after a few games, guys weren't showing up."
In May 1984, Babineau decided to give it a serious shot. He quit his job, wrote a rule book, devised a scoring system, declared himself commissioner and put some ads in local papers, and on June 14 the United States Stick-Ball League (USSBL) began its inaugural season with 23 teams. By the end of the campaign in August, there were 39 clubs, prompting Babineau to create a second season in the fall, at the end of which the two seasonal winners met in a one-game championship.
Since '84 the USSBL has expanded steadily. This year 142 teams of four to six players each paid the $210 entry fee for the 14-week summer season. There are teams from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and, thanks to Barnes, there is also a four-team division in Atlanta. The USSBL—its rosters peppered with many former college varsity baseball players and a few ex-minor leaguers—has brought a new degree of respectability to stickball and a new level of intensity to the competition. The New York Daily News publishes a list of the top 25 teams weekly.
The stickball played in the USSBL is a standardized version of the game known as "pitching in" (as opposed to the self-hitting game, or another, old-fashioned version in which the ball was delivered on one bounce by the pitcher). The dimensions of the strike zone—a rectangle chalked onto a wall—are set at 24 inches wide and 32 inches high, with the bottom line 17 inches from the ground. Base hits are determined by the distance the ball travels, and the imaginary runners are forced along according to the number of bases the batter reaches. Both teams must have the same number of fielders—three, four or five, according to the managers' pregame agreement—but each team can bat as many players as it chooses, up to the maximum roster limit of six. Individual and team statistics are meticulously—one might say compulsively—kept.
If, as it has so often been pointed out, the heart of baseball is the duel between pitcher and batter, then stickball is a cardiac-intensive distillation of baseball. "It's the closest thing there is to hardball in terms of the one-on-one challenge of batter and pitcher," says USSBL charter member Gene Sidor, 46, manager/DH of the Nitecap Bombers of Suffolk County, N.Y., and a former All-America catcher at Nassau Community College. "I love that tough competition. And it requires no running, which is fantastic at my age."