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The Legend of Nerfball Baseball

In 15 seasons as a Major League Baseball player through the 1960s and 70s, Ed Brinkman batted .224 with a grand total of 60 home runs — four per season. He fashioned one All-Star appearance, played in one postseason game and, in 1973, struck a somewhat uninspiring pose for his Topps baseball card.

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Back in 1983, my best friend Chad had this card, and it never failed to send us into hysterics. The awkward crouch, the choked-up grip, the glasses, the barely-over-.200 batting average and even the name — Ed Brinkman. Although 15-year-olds found pretty much everything funny, Ed really was the substitute teacher we never got to ignore.

But Ed Brinkman was a No. 1 draft choice for the All-Duds and Weenie Wicks, the teams we created from the worst or dorkiest players out of our baseball card collections. They added a thick layer of nerdiness to the epic Nerfball baseball games that occupied large portions of of our pre-driving summers.

I USED TO DO BASEBALL. REALLY.

Now that I’m 50 and should be drawn to slow-moving entertainment, baseball bores me terribly. Somewhere in my early adult life, the sport just lost its juice for me. However during my sports-crazed adolescence, baseball stood on near-equal ground with football and basketball. Scott and Chad, my two closest friends, each had baseball at the top of their list too and so we spent a lot of time with various permutations of the sport.

We could complete a nine-inning game in about 45 minutes, and we did this a lot.

For example, Orangeball was played in Scott’s front yard, hard against a busy road in Anderson, Indiana. We surreptitiously plucked tiny plastic oranges from a fake orange tree on their front stoop that were larger than a ping-pong ball but smaller than a tennis ball. Light enough to fly far and dance with the currents. A red split-rail fence, less than 100 feet away, created a natural left-field wall. Balls struck just right with the long, yellow Wiffleball bat sent George Foster-worthy moonshots soaring over the fence and street.

Strat-O-Matic, meanwhile, was sedentary. It was “Magic: The Gathering” for the stick-and-ball crowd. Played with complex-looking cards and a 20-sided die, Strat-O-Matic’s simulated games were supposed to approximate real-life results. We could complete a nine-inning game in about 45 minutes, and we did this a lot. In the hundreds of games played among my friends, the only no-hitter belonged to knuckleballer Joe Niekro, who didn’t throw a single no-hitter in 500 real-life starts. Whether that tarnishes the credibility of Strat-O-Matic is irrelevant to me because Joe Niekro pitched that no-hitter for my Minnesota Twins. My friend Rick, the victim, didn’t get over that for a while.

But of all our baseball-related pastimes, none created more joy (or more shoulder damage) than Nerfball baseball.

It was a deliriously simple two-man game. We taped a brown grocery sack to the back wall of Chad’s garage to approximate a strike zone. On the driveway just outside the garage floor, we set down duct tape for a pitching line. The only other equipment consisted of a regular Nerfball and that long, yellow Wiffleball bat. Balls hit into the driveway were singles. Balls that nestled between the raised garage door and roof were home runs. Everything else was an out. Strikeouts and walks were as normal, using the gentle ripple of Nerfball against grocery sack as arbiter. Games were nine innings, and in those days before pitch counts and good judgment, you finished what you started, firing that light-as-air Nerfball as hard as possible from first inning to last.

But within 30 minutes, one of us would look at the other and say, “Go again?

Each of us now blame Nerfball baseball for destroying our throwing shoulders before we could even drive because hurling that ball of fluff for at least 150 pitches took its toll. When a game was over, Chad and I collapsed in chairs in front of MTV (“Panama AGAIN?”) recharging with Kool-Aid or Maplehurst fruit punch (a drink that made Kool-Aid look like a green vegetable smoothie). I remember my right hand being red, swollen and tingly from the blood that had been forced to it by the violent, repetitive motion of drop balls, fastballs and screwballs delivered over the previous two hours.

But within 30 minutes, one of us would look at the other and say, “Go again?”.

The second summer of Nerfball baseball required a greater degree of realism, so we created rosters from our baseball cards, and kept scorebooks of every matchup. But instead of choosing stars of the day like Tim Raines and Dale Murphy, we started with Ed Brinkman and proceeded to select other light-hitting, unathletic-looking players for the All-Duds and the Weenie Wicks. I cannot remember any of the other players, which is why this past June, I bought baseball cards for Chad for his 50th birthday with the hope of jogging our collective memories.

The true All-Dud in this case, however, turned out to be the U.S. Postal Service.

At a card store in Indianapolis one day recently, I saw several unopened packs of Topps (1989) and Donruss (1988, 1990) for $1 each. I got 15, with the idea that I would make Chad open the packs while we were on the phone together, separated as we are now by over a thousand miles. I anticipated the side-splitting laughter when he came across a Strat-O-Matic legend such as Junior Noboa (announced as JUUUUUU-NIOR NOBODY!!!! at every at-bat) or a former All-Dud player. 

Sadly, weeks after Chad’s birthday the package hadn’t arrived. When it eventually came back to me, I sent it to his mom’s house in the hopes that he could open a few packs when he was visiting.

There was one true gem Chad would later find along with the packs — a 1973 Ed Brinkman card. After I told the card shop owner our story from 35 years ago, he actually threw it in for free.

Sorry, Ed.  


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