Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Wiffle Ballapalooza: East vs. West

Brenton Sabo

Parker Smith

Taylor Sabo

Matt Sabo

Ethan Sabo

It was late August on a sultry afternoon with a slight breeze rustling the leaves of the trees above us when two irresistible forces of nature collided in Gloucester. Perhaps you're recalling how the 5.8 magnitude earthquake and Hurricane Irene struck just days apart, rending earth, trees and homes alike. You would be thinking flat wrong. It was no force of literal nature that collided, but rather forces of unnatural strength, power and dizzying speed that crossed paths. It was the long anticipated matchup discussed literally for years, talked about by pundits, dissected endlessly by commentators and broken down at length on the cyberpages of Facebook. Yes, it was the vaunted "East Vs. West Wiffle Ball Matchup of the Century" at Sabo Field at Courthouse Square. Gloucester may never be the same.

The game was in a round-robin format, mano a mano, pitcher vs. batter with 2 fielders. The friendly confines of Sabo Field would settle once and for all who plays the better brand of Wiffle ball. Would it be the newcomers from the West, who talk smack with the best of 'em and had to beef up their lineup by taking Brenton Sabo on loan from the East? Or would it be the vaunted team from the East featuring a player in the twilight of his career and two young, stout arms in the prime of their youth? The matchup consisted of the aforementioned power-hitting Brenton Sabo and his trusty slinging-n-hitting sidekick Parker Smith, a brawny young man better known perhaps for his starring role playing the prophet Habakkuk in a production that can still be seen on Youtube (Google "Sesame Street Habakkuk" and you'll be in for a treat). Facing them were yours truly, a 42-year-old soft-tossing, wily veteran who's been playing Wiffle ball for 35 years or so and the dynamic brotherly duo of Ethan and Taylor Sabo with electric arms and dazzling bats.

Every player faced every other player as both hitter and batter. The game featured Gold Glove caliber fielding, jaw dropping bombs rocketing off the bat (Sorry neighbors!) and pitching that, in some cases, defied the laws of physics to the point that MIT is sending down a team of top-notch nerds armed with video cameras, slide rules, laptops and pocket protectors to determine how exactly some pitches literally enter new dimensions of time and space.

In the end, it was something of a draw, as the top two run-scorers were from the West and East. Some things are indisputable. Brenton and Old Man Sabo scored the most runs. But they also gave up the most runs. Brenton can still wield a mean glove in the field. So can Ethan. Taylor swings for the fences. If he connects, look out. Parker wields a strong bat and the East teamers grudgingly admit he can pitch.

We do, however, hold these truths to be self-evident:

1) Brenton may look funny at the plate, but leave the ball up at your own peril. Brenton at the plate is a cross between Kevin Youkilis and Craig Counsell. He holds the bat high, wagging it around as he sort of wags his hips, then comes steady as the pitcher hurls the ball at him. Hitting left-handed, Brenton launched one shot into straightaway center that nearly hit the roof -- of our neighbor's house. I'm sure I heard someone say, "Houston we have liftoff!" He, uh, struggles at the mound, however. There's a divot about 20 feet in front of home plate where Brenton routinely drilled the ball into the ground as he was pitching. One time Ethan hit a nice rocket into center field off one of those bounces.

2) As noted before, Parker can pitch. His slider is pretty nasty. He's deceptively fast. For a beefy guy, he's more a slap hitter and uses his surprising speed to motor around the bases. But make him labor as a pitcher and he can get in trouble. He's not an innings eater, but is pretty solid for 1-3 innings. The East players freely admit that if he comes up in free agency, we'd snatch him in a heartbeat. That's about the highest compliment a West Coast player can get, in case you're wondering.

3) Taylor has struggled this year finding his release point and pitches. When Taylor can locate and has his pitches working, fuhgeddaboutit. He did seem to have some elbow issues, until he popped some ibuprofen during the middle of the game. He seemed to get more life on his fastball after that and started inducing grounders. At the plate he swings for the fences. He's not looking to stroke a single anywhere. He wants to tear another hole in the ball. Unfortunately for me, sometimes he actually succeeds.

4) As for me, well, I'm just hanging on. If my forkball isn't working, I'm in big trouble. Taylor and Brenton each scored 5 runs off me in one inning, I believe. I had to go to the chiropractor the next day because my neck was so sore from watching balls fly over our roof.

5) Ethan is absolutely dominant on the hill. It's not even close. He put up some pitching statistics that absolutely boggle, stagger and even blow the mind. Try this one on for size, for example: In 10 innings pitched while the West Coast team was in the 'hood, he did not give up a single hit. Not one. The only thing I can compare that to is Don Larsen's perfect game in Game 5 of the 1956 World Series. Ethan registered more than 20 K's. We had so many forward and backward K's hanging on the fence that makes the short porch in right field we had to run to the store to get more paper. Parker thought about retiring at the top of his game after he simply put a ball in play against Ethan. I would have loved to have put a ball in play against him. The challenge for the MIT guys will be figuring how Ethan's fastball gets so much giddyup on it as it crosses the plate. That thing literally comes in fat and then jumps out of the strike zone as if it's possessed with some sort of bat-avoiding properties. It's like fishing with dynamite. It's not fair. Then he has this changeup that pretty much stops in front of the plate. I threw out my back once waving at it.

In the end, it was determined that nothing was settled. The only thing settled was that a rematch looms in the offing.

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