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The city game — of old

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Once, it was played on every street, on every day, in every corner of Brooklyn.

But last Saturday, the sight of a stickball game stopped traffic in Bay Ridge. That is, until the players got out of the way so the cars could go past.

Yes, it was stickball “Old-Timers Day” on 80th Street again — and for the 39th year, Pete “Stickball Pete” Syrdahl was orchestrating it all.

“When you get to be my age,” Syrdahl said, “you start thinking about the end.”

If the end of the great game finally comes, it won’t be for lack of torch-bearing by Syrdahl. He sends out invitations months in advance and makes sure that all of the equipment and refreshments are ready. He also designs, orders, and sells the t-shirts and hats.

And wherever he drives, his vanity plate — “STICKB-LL” — heralds the sport he loves.

He’s not alone. On Saturday, it was hard to tell that the popularity of the sport has faded. Fathers and sons faced off in the middle of 80th Street between Third and Fourth avenues. Spectators drank beer and soda pulled out of ice-filled garbage cans, and almost every stoop had a family watching the game.

One of the games pitted a team of adults (“The Old Timers”) against younger folk (“The Oldish”), who ranged from their mid-20s to as young as 6 years old.

A Brooklyn Paper reporter — a rookie somewhere in the middle of “the Oldish” age group — was asked to join in. Not coincidentally, his team lost both games by scores of 10–4 and 17–4, and the top awards went to old guys, like Michael Malett, who won the Pete “Best” Purlett “Three-Sewer” award for the game’s longest blast.

Obviously, stickball is not a game for the young. Though Syrdahl runs a friendly competition, the older guys certainly play to win. There were arguments over the how many runs had scored and the rules themselves (one thing is unarguable, though: in this old ball game, it’s one…two…two strikes you’re out!).

Many things conspired to end stickball’s hegemony over Brooklyn athletic life, Syrdahl said, including (but not limited to) video games, overscheduled kids, car traffic and even the Vietnam War.

“The good players got drafted,” Syrdahl said.

Even the equipment is getting harder to find. Almost every year, Syrdahl checks garbage cans for old broomsticks for bats.

“Unfortunat­ely, they’re all plastic,” he said.

Updated 4:33 pm, July 9, 2018
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