Old-time street game hits a home run in Lancaster - LancasterOnline: Lifestyle

Old-time street game hits a home run in Lancaster

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Posted: Wednesday, June 2, 2010 5:36 pm | Updated: 8:44 pm, Wed Sep 11, 2013.

Steve Scotto cocks the skinny bat, his knuckles whitening as the scorched tennis ball torpedoes toward him.

The odds against bat-ball connection could make any swatter sweat.

Pitting a no-frills and no-Phils bat that's been put on a strict diet and had a growth spurt - 40 inches long and, at ¼-inch around, only half the diameter of a baseball bat - against a yellow missile which has been torched to create low fuzz, less wind resistance and is only ¾ the size of a baseball - could lead to a no-hitter, if not a no-brainer.

For first-time stickball players and halfhearted hitters, it's like trying to whack a speeding pebble with a pool stick.

But for Scotto, a 47-year-old Long Island transplant with a sticky bat and almost four decades of stickball stick-to-itiveness - including participation in major-league stickball play in the New York area- it's just a day in the park.

For the past year or so, Scotto, with the help of brothers Alex and Jesse Tornabe, also from Long Island, has been gathering together an intergenerational band of stickball players ages 15 to 55 for the Lancaster Stickball League.

Participants now number about 40, and they make up two- to five-member teams with names like the Strasburg Stallions and Stick of Dynamite.

Since he was a kid, Scotto has carried a torch for stickball, a street game which originated in New York City in the '20s and '30s. At that time, it often incorporated broken broomsticks, and eventually evolved into several game variations. (Now, there are specially made aluminum and wood "bats.")

At a recent pickup practice on the Manheim Township Middle School blacktop, Scotto is like a patron saint of stickball, blessing willing converts with the rules of the game.

"It's such an appealing game, really for anybody," said Scotto, who's used to aiming for the stars, or at least the end of the pavement. "Actually, it's probably a lot harder and more challenging than baseball and that's one of the attractions.

"There's quite the eye-hand coordination," he said, and the classic "pitcher-batter confrontation" is addictive.

Pockets of stickball play remain in urban areas and, particularly in the Northeast, the game also exists as a competitive major league sport, Scotto said.

Scotto calls his 35-year attachment to the game "an obsession for which there is no cure" - an obsession he is eager to share with other players like the Tornabes.

"I just fell in love with it," said Alex Tornabe, 22. "There's a lot more hitting in stickball than baseball, and that's my favorite part."

Veteran stickballers find nothing off-base with the quirky but curiously fascinating parking lot game - it's baseball, but it's not - where hitters are backed by a wall with a 24-by-32-inch "strike zone" taped up as a gauge for pitchers in lieu of an umpire - giving it the name "wall ball" and "fast pitch" for this variation. Players (a catcher isn't a position on the roster) may experience a hit-or-miss, but no hit-and-run.

There is no running in stickball, so it follows that there are no bases.

"Base hits," runs and fouls are calculated by the distance the ball travels from the wall behind the batter - a distance marked by cones or other objects. A homerun is about 200 feet away. If the ball is caught, or the batter gets three strikes, the batter is out.

Also known as the "poor man's baseball," stickball was a city kid's economical and easy adaptation of the great American pastime.

"Kids probably just wanted to make up a game and invented it on their own," said Alex Tornabe, who recalled stories from his Brooklyn grandfather.

"He used to tell me that when the cops would come and they didn't want (the kids) playing, they'd take the broomsticks and put them in the sewers."

Bernie Oracewski, Scotto's father-in-law, is glad to see the stickball tradition pass through the generations.

As Oracewski, formerly of New York, watched the pickup game from the edge of the asphalt, he wistfully remembered mid-20th-century city stickball games.

Sewer caps, hydrants and even parking spaces were used as hit markers, and handball courts sometimes came in handy for a game venue, he said.

"It became quite a thing in New York," he said.

Jesse Tornabe, 17, has created a website for the league at www.playlsbl.com.

"It's pretty cool," he said, and word-of-mouth "advertisement" is also working well.

There's no waste in this no-frills game, not a lot of cost and plenty of convenience.

Any open space with a brick wall will suffice for a "fast-pitch" playing field.

Players don't need uniforms - although they may sport T-shirts with nicknames and the league logo.

Bats are usually only around $10 - $40 at the highest - and any soft, worn baseball glove will do.

"For me, it's one of those games that just brings me back in time to a more simple and affordable form of recreation," Scotto said.

"No computers, iPods or video games, just good clean fun, fresh air and community.

"There is something magical and hypnotizing in the simplicity of the sport."

LEARN MORE

WHAT: Lancaster Stickball League

ON THE WEB: www.playlsbl.com

E-MAIL: Steve at smecheng@comcast.net; Alex at tornabes23@yahoo.com or Jesse at tornabe12@hotmail.com

sjurgelski@lnpnews.com

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