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How to Play Stepball

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Illustration by Tom Labaff

In the early days of summer, boys and girls escape from school and seize the season with the pent-up excitement of a dog darting out the front door. They yelp, howl and yap, running through yards, hopping fences, pedaling through streets.

But while June days belong to the pack, summer slows down considerably in July. Baseball fields go empty, friends flee to the Shore, and a special quietness envelops the days like a summer haze. It was on just such a day that stepball must have been invented. It’s a game born of circumstance.

The kid is inside, seeking shelter from the 90-degree heat. Best scenario: He’s nose-deep in a book. But, more likely, it’s reruns of some Nickelodeon series, or maybe he throttles a joystick while Pitfall Harry navigates his pixilated jungle. 

The mantra begins.

“Go outside! You’re not staying in here on such a beautiful day!”

“But it’s really hot. No one’s around.”

“Go outside.”

“It’s 90 degrees!”

“Get!”

And so, he goes. Sitting on the front stoop, he spots another banished comrade ambling down the street. 

“Hey!” he calls.

“Hey!” the other answers.

“I thought you were on vacation.”

“Just got back. Man, no one’s around.”

“I know. Wanna play stepball?”

“Sure.”

And the two begin their first game. Standing just off-center from a set of stairs, the “batter” throws a tennis ball at the bullnose of a step with all his might. The rules are ridiculously simple (this isn’t Minecraft, after all). If the “fielder,” standing a predetermined number of feet away, catches the ball cleanly—be it a grounder or a fly ball—the batter is out. A misplayed ball leads to a hit. Balls shot over the fielder’s head lead to a double, triple or home run, all depending on the previously agreed-to landmarks reached. For us, anything that cleared the telephone wire across the street was an automatic round-tripper (no running required).

In other instances, standard Wiffle ball rules apply. Four fouls (tennis balls that either slam against the screen-door backstop or veer too far left or right) are an out. There are three outs an inning and six innings to a game. 

And so the game of stepball continues, summer after summer, for kids in neighborhoods everywhere, regardless of demographics or economics. If you have a tennis ball and can locate some steps (outside, please), you’ve got yourself a game—and a perfect panacea for boredom on those steamy midsummer days.

Michael T. Dolan lives in West Chester, where steps and tennis balls are abundant. Read more of his work at www.conversari.com

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