It was the night after Christmas, and Birmingham was quiet. I was on a walk through a neighborhood, watching street lights wink on at dusk.
The sunset was neon pink. There were sirens in the far-off. A distant train sounded its horn; two long, one short.
There were people walking dogs, old ladies watering ferns, and children riding scooters. And there were six kids playing a game of Wiffle Ball in their backyard.
“Heybatterbatterbatter…!” shouted the sweaty kids in the infield, punching their little hands.
The boy at the plate golfed one into right with his plastic bat.
“Throw him out!” shouted someone’s mom.
The throw was good.
“YOU’RE OUT!” shouted six kids in ecstatic unison.
The runner made the long walk of shame back to his mom’s lap and cried tears of sportsmanship.
Funny thing about Wiffle Balls. Not long ago, the State of New York declared that Wiffle ball, along with kickball and freeze tag, posed a “significant risk of injury” to kids. New York legislature decreed that any summer camp that included these activities would be subject to government regulation.
Meanwhile, back at Wiffle Ball Inc. headquarters in Shelton, Connecticut, Wiffle employees probably thought this legislation was a prank.
Wiffle Ball dangerous? Wiffle Ball Inc. has been around for over half a century and has never—not once—been sued over safety issues. They have doled out over 60 million plastic balls since they opened their doors. There are Wiffle Balls on nearly every continent.
So people across the U.S. were ticked off about New York’s decision. They were vocal about it, too. They made a big stink, and they won. New York legislature finally removed Wiffle Ball from its list of regulated high-risk activities along with other allegedly dangerous sports like dodgeball, knitting, and Algebra II.
Anyway, as I walked past the kids playing Wiffle Ball, a stray plastic ball rolled onto the sidewalk and stopped only inches from my shoe.
I looked at the ball for a moment and my entire childhood came back to me.
I remembered winter evenings spent with my old man in our backyard, learning to throw velvet hammers with the Wiffle Ball I got for Christmas. I can even remember the way the world smelled that day.
I was jolted from the past when the redheaded kid with the bat shouted to me.
“Can you throw it back to us?!”
So I picked up the ball.
Let me make it clear before I go on that I am no athlete. In fact, I am the opposite of an athlete. I grew up as a chubby boy. I was a book nerd with a crippling addiction to carbohydrates. Incoordination was my middle name.
I was pretty good with a Wiffle Ball.
Something the casual observer might not know about Wiffle Balls is that you can throw ridiculous curveballs with them. In fact, that’s why these balls were invented.
In 1953, David Mullany came up with an idea for a ball that would enable his 12-year-old son to throw wicked curves, heart-shattering sliders, and trick risers. The design worked like a charm.
His son and his pals referred to these strikeouts as “whiffs.”
I held the ball. There were six children standing around me, and a few parents on the porch.
I decided to pitch it from where I stood. So I leaned forward and dangled my arm behind my back. I found the grip my old man showed me. Then I hurled the ball and it curved like a freak of physics.
The kids were impressed. And I was 11 feet tall.
“Do it again!” they shouted.
So I did. I threw a Yellowhammer curve right across the plate. The ball moved through space like it had been dipped in Jim Beam and lit with an acetylene torch.
I was met with a howling applause.
“Show us how you do that!” the kids roared.
So I knelt in the grass like a minor celebrity and showed a few very interested kids how to grip a hollow, lightweight, perforated plastic ball.
And it made my heart hurt inside momentarily. Because I was suddenly reminded of all the things I miss out on each Christmas. I miss out on family because I have so little.
I come from a broken home. I have no kids. I am just an average middle-aged guy that nobody will ever call Daddy.
Furthermore, my own father has been dead for a long time now. He’s been gone so long that sometimes I wonder if I made him up. Sometimes I even find it hard to recall the way his body moved; his gait, his mannerisms, his smile.
Sometimes I forget that he was once, briefly, a pitcher. But then, I forget a lot of things.
I suppose someday I’ll eventually forget my whole childhood, and my old man will become about as fictional to me as King Arthur, Wyatt Earp, or Walter Johnson.
But tonight, just for tonight, he was with me in Birmingham. And I have a Wiffle Ball Inc. to thank for that.
Carole Moormann - December 27, 2021 6:23 am
What a bittersweet story. God bless you.
Frank Wirtz - December 27, 2021 6:25 am
I love your writing but I am tired of your “I’ll never be a dad” crap. You’re a good man. You can foster and adopt. For crying out loud, step up and do some good. It will do you good too.
Patricia Gibson - December 27, 2021 2:19 pm
Wow! He is sharing his feelings not complaining.
Jim - December 28, 2021 1:08 am
Frank’s right! Sean has a lot to offer young folks.
Christina - December 27, 2021 6:30 am
Funny how small things can bring our whole childhood alive. I bet your old man is proud watching you tonight.
Susan Johnson - December 27, 2021 9:20 am
Please consider adopting or fostering. You and Jamie would be such wonderful parents.
Susan Johnson - December 27, 2021 9:21 am
I know, none of my beeswax…bur please consider adopting or fostering. You and Jamie have so much love to give and would make such awesome parents.
Missus Mux - December 27, 2021 12:15 pm
I love the story, the memories and how you happened to become the wiffle ball hero. Sounds like you might enjoy coaching! PS. Im appalled at some harsh uncalled for comments. 🙁
Ann H. P. - December 27, 2021 12:29 pm
Thank you, Sean! You helped me again today. I’ll never throw a wiffle ball but I know what missing departed loved ones means. Today is my sister-and-only-sibling’s birthday. Today is Faye’s Day. Our mother also joined her and my daddy in heaven a few months ago. Your essay today illustrates my longing and more. As a wife, mother, grandmother, aunt, cousin, and soon to become a great-grandmother, I have loved ones aplenty but I don’t forget and I still love and remember those I have already lost. You do too. And never say ‘never’ on children. You played that daddy role in Birmingham only yesterday.
Paul McCutchen - December 27, 2021 12:47 pm
Your stories do bring back memories. Hope you have a good 2022
Vivian Sammons - December 27, 2021 1:23 pm
I love this story! I love any story that places us back in a good memory of our minds! I thank God that He makes the good ones much more vivid than the bad ones! Keep the stories coming Sean, that helps spark our own good memories!
Letty - December 27, 2021 1:25 pm
Sean, you have so many experiences and wisdom gained from them to share just by being a good person- whether your are a father or not. Keep on keeping on, sir!
stephenpe - December 27, 2021 1:38 pm
Sometimes I feel a total connection to you in our likes and then other times totally opposite. I had a dad forever. A great one. I have four kids. I taught PE for 40 yrs so I had thousands of moments like your wiffle ball one. But I love books and writing like you. I am sentimental like you. Totally sentimental about people like you. If you love that interaction with kids think about volunteering in a school. I still do when they let me. I think what I like best about your writing is you have no fear about bearing your soul.
Denise Walker - December 27, 2021 1:45 pm
your words are your legacy. Thanks for sharing them
Cynthia - December 27, 2021 1:51 pm
I DO believe that dodgeball should NOT be a required activity (won’t call it a sport). I was a tiny girl in coed PE and it was terrifying having balls fired at me. The best strategy was to get in front, so you would quickly be hit and “out”. Yes, injuries could easily occur, especially if hit in the face. Our PE teacher/coach must have had a sadistic streak.
Shelton A. - December 27, 2021 2:09 pm
I get my love of rocketry from my dad. He could do all the math to calculate orbits and re-entry. He did all on a slide rule and he was faster than I ever was with a calculator. Physics was fun until I went up against my pop with his slide rule. He gave me his spare but I could never figure out how to use it. Engineers back before scientific calculators used slide rules. And if dad was an indicator, they were both accurate and fast. He followed along with the math in Scientific American. Physics on steroids, chemistry too. Dad just checked their math. He knew it was correct but he knew how to check it, so he did. Different memories, same kinda dad. Dad took apart the lawn mower engine each spring, cleaned it out, rebuilt it, put it back in the mower, then changed the oil. Dad was like your dad, taken too soon. My dad died from natural causes but it was way too soon for me. He never got to see his grandkids or his great grand-kids. But the memories now are like your dad teaching you how to throw that curve (dad could do it…I never could). Good memories that bring back lively discussions and just plain fun. Dad taught me to read so I could read the comics so he could read the news. That’s a good memory. We both have memories to treasure and that’s God’s gift to us. Hold onto them and so will I. Happy New Year to you and Jamie plus the pups!
Ernie - December 27, 2021 2:11 pm
Great memories. We started with a standard whiffle ball, and would tape it up with packing tape as we got better. The bat, too. And whether we’re all kin or not, you have lots of people who love you. And that’s as much a family as anything biological. (Maybe better in some cases!)
Patricia Gibson - December 27, 2021 2:15 pm
Patricia Gibson - December 27, 2021 2:14 pm
I had forgotten about wiffle ball. Neat experience but I understand what you are feeling because I wasn’t blessed with children and don’t even have a spouse. It can feel lonely sometimes even though I am blessed with friends and family ❤️
Cathy M - December 27, 2021 2:20 pm
I am at a loss foe words. Here we are , two days after Christmas and you share another touching story that takes most of us back in time. A simple time when a plastic ball and bat made children happy. Then you receive a couple of negative comments from people I hope I never meet. As we age we reflect on the people who have passed away and miss them more than ever. Pls. Disregard any negative comments and focus on the majority of your readers who start their day with you and a cup of coffee. I am among them and I get you.? Kindness is word for the new year. Keep on keeping on because you make a difference in so many people’s day. ❤️🙏🏻👍
Betty Martinez Lowery - December 27, 2021 2:22 pm
I am the mother of 4 — 3 bio kids and one adopted. I am the grandmother of 7, 3 from my adopted daughter. I am the great-grandmother of 2, both the offspring of my adopted daughter. Folks often will tell me how wonderful we were to adopt. They don’t realize that we were the ones who benefited most from having this remarkable little being join our lives. It was not planned. Never had we even entertained the thought of adoption. It was totally unplanned. Our oldest daughter brought home this child from school one day and asked if we could keep her. She was a child in crisis, and we told her she could spend the night as we contacted authorities to report the hell she was living. That night turned into the rest of her/our life. First we became licensed so we could foster her. Eventually we became her forever family. But here’s the thing. She give us so much more than we ever gave her. She enriched our lives beyond measure. She became the missing piece of the puzzle that is our family that we never new was missing. I hope you and Jamie will consider fostering/adopting. You will be blessed beyond measure!
Sandi. - December 27, 2021 7:03 pm
Loved reading about Betty Martinez Lowery’s adopted daughter and the blessing she continues to be in Betty’s life. I hope it will spur Sean and Jamie to consider adoption, or at least seriously consider becoming foster parents. I think any child would relish living in their home.
Chasity Davis Ritter - December 27, 2021 2:24 pm
It’s been said before and I’m gonna say it again that even though y’all aren’t biologically having kids of your own you could still foster or adopt. I know you and Jamie have the biggest hearts with so much love to give it’s gotta physically hurt sometimes. But that’s also your choice. My brother likes kids but my sis in law isn’t having then dunno if physical or emotional reasons. They’ve been married 19 years so it’s pretty much so. But he does love my daughter his niece. And he enjoys the title of uncle. I’m glad you had another moment with your dad this Christmas. We mentioned ours a lot it seamed this holiday and all went to the cemetery to visit before the day was out.
Ken Marston - December 27, 2021 2:27 pm
Love your writing. Excellent thinker and story teller. Most of all, however, what comes through in the “stories” is the obvious fact that you are a good human being.
MermaidGrammy - December 27, 2021 2:32 pm
#1: Someone can call you daddy! Adoption – or a baby or foster child – is a miracle. You cannot believe how life-changing, in a good way, both choices can be. You and Jamie can be stellar parents.
#2; Your daddy is so real to me, I can smell his workplace on him whenever you bring him to life. If he’s real to an 80-year old woman, then he can still be real to you. Your daddy loves you from Heaven. Yes, Heaven. Suicide victims do not go to hell because they killed themselves. Yes, it’s a sin. Just like shoplifting is a son. Robbery, murder, child abusing. But Jesus keeps asking. He doesn’t leave anyone to suffer. He gives us chance after chance to go to Him.
#a3: Live a happy new year
Stacey Wallace - December 27, 2021 3:24 pm
Thomas Roberson Sr. - December 27, 2021 3:38 pm
Sean, I don’t know how you do it – turn out great stories day after day. It has to be a gift! I love your blog posts. Keep up the good work.
Kathy - December 27, 2021 4:09 pm
It cracks me up to think about a wiffle ball being dangerous. They don’t break windows. My brothers used to make a ball of old socks, which the wiffle ball replaced.
Clark Hining - December 27, 2021 4:20 pm
“ The ball moved through space like it had been dipped in Jim Beam and lit with an acetylene torch.”
Indeed!! You sure can turn a phrase there Sean!! You still amaze us!
Cynthia Russell - December 27, 2021 4:54 pm
LOVE YOUR HEART!!
Sean of the South: Wiffle Ball | The Trussville Tribune - December 27, 2021 5:08 pm
[…] By Sean Dietrich, Sean of the South […]
Jay Payleitner, author/speaker - December 27, 2021 5:24 pm
HOW I LEARNED TO IGNORE THE STICKBALL DENTS ON MY GARAGE DOOR
When I pulled up to my driveway, I saw it instantly. My son Isaac and his three college buddies had gashed my new $1,200 garage door playing stickball. Now, I knew my boys played driveway stickball. That’s why I spent $1,200 on the heavy-duty garage door—one that would not be dented by plastic Wiffle Balls. Unfortunately, what I had not anticipated was that occasionally one of the batters might gash my new $1,200 garage door with that wooden broom handle on the backswing.
Did I mention the garage door cost $1,200?
So, here’s the big question: How did I, as a father, react to those fresh dents in my fresh garage door? Actually, I did pretty well. My mind quickly calculated the value of the events taking place that afternoon in my very own driveway, and knew I had come out way ahead. My teenage son and some of his lifelong friends had chosen to hang out in my front yard. No beer cans were littering the front lawn. No police squad cars were pulling up with bad news. No creepy, dark video games were crashing and slashing in a dark basement. These young men were playing the time-honored game of stickball in the Payleitner driveway. What kind of investment does that require? Broom handle: $3. Wiffle Balls: $6. A garage door with stickball bruises: priceless. (Marked down from $1200.)
I confess, at another time or place, I might have raged. But this time, reason prevailed. Somehow God helped me see the beauty of the moment. Instead of pointing out how Isaac had let me down, I had the good sense to smile and say, “Swing away.” My son and his friends were wonderfully relieved.
Dad, I pray you have the same loving response when your door is dented. Otherwise, your son’s pals might not feel welcome in your home. Even your own son might not feel welcome. And that would be tragic.
A home is to be lived in. If you stress out every time a floor gets scuffed, a table gets scratched, or a door gets dented, your home is not going to be a place where young people want to hang out. Make kids feel comfortable in your home, and you’ll always know where your own kids are and who they’re with.
Harmon Killebrew, the all-star power hitter for the Minnesota Twins, tells a great story:
My father used to play with my brother and me in the yard. Mother would come out and say, “You’re tearing up the grass.” “We’re not raising grass,” Dad would reply. “We’re raising boys.”
Ann Syfert - December 27, 2021 6:23 pm
Everyone that has made a comment about Sean and Jamie adopting, enough is enough!!! Don’t you all think that after a time they have most likely considered adopting and for some reason, which is entirely their business, have decided against it. I can’t imagine that the criticism makes them feel one bit better. Let it go, people, and let’s just mind our own business. OK? Thank you, Sean, for another wonderful column. From another faithful, grateful reader!!!! Have a very Happy New Year!!!
Lucinda - December 27, 2021 6:58 pm
Thank you Ann! My thoughts exactly! Good grief folks. I think adoption is wonderful. But know adoption horrors as well. Some people just choose not to have or can’t have children. Life is what you make it. Kids or no kids. It appears Sean and Jamie are doing a darn good job with their life circumstances. It still doesn’t mean one doesn’t occasionally yearn for things. That’s ok too.
Sean, love the honesty in your writing. Have a great New Year and looking forward to more great stories.
Susie - December 28, 2021 7:30 pm
I’m with Ann Syfert and Lucinda. MYOB. Who says EVERYBODY SHOULD have kids? After all, kids aren’t for everybody. Not for me or my husband; it’s called CHOICE. If Sean and Jamie wanted kids, they have, most likely, already “batted” the idea/option of adoption around. (See how I tied that in with the whiffle ball thingy?!). Lol. And, Sean, I doubt you’ll ever forget your dad, simply because you so well and so often keep his memory ALIVE by sharing your stories and feelings about him with us. And we thank you for that! Too bad he has missed out knowing you. That’s the saddest part of all. Because “YA DONE GOOD, SEAN!”
Linda Moon - December 27, 2021 6:33 pm
Walks through neighborhoods near Birmingham are wonderful, especially during Christmastime. All kinds of people and kids are often playing outside, so I’ll be listening for that “whiff” sound while I’m walking. My old man…my beautiful, flawed father…won’t let me forget him or childhood. You won’t forget either, Sean. Here’s a poem I’ve written about my daddy and pieces of his chair I’ve repurposed:
My Daddy’s chair, it held me
When I was three years old,
“Twas red and white back then
But now it’s covered Gold.
My daddy’s arms they left me
When I was only three,
Now is his chair remembering,
He’s somehow here with me.
Jane Tallent Shoultz - December 27, 2021 8:04 pm
Sean, you and Jamie would be wonderful parents. Don’t discount adoption! We have two sons that made us parents that way, and we were passed the ripe old age of 40 when it happened!…I couldn’t love them more! Both are grown now, but still my babies! Think about it!
Spence Bilbo - December 27, 2021 8:09 pm
Thanks. This was really good. Made a grown man tear up. God be with you.
MAM - December 27, 2021 8:19 pm
How about you find a group of Wiffle ball players, Sean, and teach them “the grip.” Keep working with them so they can show their prowess and wow the new kids on the block! I bet you will soon be in demand from others who love Wiffle balls!
Karen Snyder - December 27, 2021 10:04 pm
Sweet story. Thanks. ‘Nuf said.
George Cozby - December 28, 2021 12:39 am
Loved whiffle ball. We had a bad about as big around as a watermelon. We nicknamed it Bloat Bat”. No one EVER struck out. Great story.
Harriet White - December 28, 2021 1:31 am
I love the story Sean. I’m glad you got to show those kids how to throw a wiffel ball.
AlaRedClayGirl - December 28, 2021 2:37 am
My own dad has been gone for 38 years, and I also wonder sometimes if he really existed or did I just made him up. However unlike you, I hated whiffle ball that we had to play in PE. I spent my summers playing with a wooden bat and a baseball so I had difficulty with the plastic bat and ball. And the boys were not very sympathetic. It’s a wonder I lived through those years because in addition to baseball, I also played kickball, freeze tag, dodge ball, and lots of other life-threatening games.
Cat fountain - December 28, 2021 4:16 am
Love this. The game nerve goes away.
Susan L Wolf - December 29, 2021 1:54 am
Sean, say it isn’t so – kids aren’t a possibility at all? I once told a young man, like you, who had decided not to have kids because his parents were so terrible, that he would NEVER be the dad/parent his parents were. He now has two children. I have three and numerous stepchildren, even had two foster kids. All my kids were bad. Two were in the throes of addiction for 10 years, but are now clean and sober. One hasn’t spoken to me in years. But my step kids are great and so are their kids. And one of those foster kids is a treasure. So I hope you haven’t given up on kids. Just sayin’ . . .
Nancy M - December 29, 2021 4:03 am
Save all the columns you’ve ever written about your dad. Reread them when you’re feeling distant from his memory. That should help bring it back to you.
Your sister has children, doesn’t she? Does Jamie have nieces and nephews? Be the very best uncle you can be. Teach them tricks. Make them giggle.
There are many children who have written you over the years, you are a mentor to them.
Your calling is to write, and that often involves travel, to speak and to gather more stories from the people you meet. If you had children, you and Jamie wouldn’t be as free to travel. God has given you a different calling in life, and there are many, many of us, adults and children, who appreciate that calling. That gift.
Kim Ladoczky - December 31, 2021 3:53 am
Lordy!! People sure have an opinion about everything. SMH. Sometimes things you think do not need to come out of your head. That’s for your readers, Dear Sean, not for you. Your thoughts are wonderful… your words touch our hearts. Please don’t stop. & fyi, I stopped a lot of “thoughts” before I wrote these words…