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Stickball Dreams Die Hard on Hastings Playground

Childhood memories more often than not reside in faded photo albums and in tall tales told between old friends and tipped glasses at high school reunions, local taverns or these days in Facebook.

But for the members of the Ethical Stickball League, longtime pals whose halcyon athletic days have long past, the meeting place that connects youthful memory with their remaining, sore-muscled glory days – is a Sunday-morning parking lot behind Hastings High School.

“It’s like turning back the clock,” said Frank Fumagalli, a former North Salem resident who recently moved to Massachusetts but returns to play ESL ball. “I played this game as a kid, played it with my kids growing up and played it here for years. I have to be here, no matter what, to stay connected.”

Ethical Stickball League games are played on Sunday’s from 11 a.m. to about 1 p.m. depending on the players’ endurance. Pitchers fire an array of pitches toward a blue box strike zone on the school wall and batters from ages 45 to nearly 80 look to place hits around the parking lot. The left field foul line is marked by an oak and the right field line by a corner of the school building. It may not be the stickball of The Bronx or Brooklyn in the 1950s, but it's a close facsimile.

League Commissioner and co-founder Kevin Ettinger taught in the Hastings schools and while a teacher took to the playground 40 years ago to begin the ESL. His son Andy, who attended Hastings schools, is one of the league’s “younger players”.

“Another Hastings guy (Steve Kanfer) and I started the league,” the 79-year-old Ettinger said. “He left because of a bad knee and now loves playing ping pong. None of the guys here (today) were in that first group. There’s been turnover over the years, but the spirit is the same. I grew up playing in Manhattan as a kid, same way, against the wall. Many of these guys played as kids in the Bronx, Queens, wherever. And they still love to play even if we’re a little slower.”

On the most recent Sunday morning (May 29) the in-game chatter was no different than any other in the four decades of ESL play. Good-natured ribbing, trash talk about who hit the ball and how far and tales of past home runs and strikeouts. The jibes fly like batted balls, non-stop in all directions. If you squinted into the sunlight that bathed the players and imagined hard enough, these aging stickball warriors might look and sound a lot like 10-year-olds playing just another stickball game – at a slightly slower speed.

The younger Ettinger continues the legacy.

“I started playing as a senior in high school,” Andy Ettinger said. “I won Rookie of the Year nine straight years. That was the joke here because everyone was much older than I was and players never left. The banter is better than the stickball. We talk to people walking by, needle each other and then go have lunch when we finish playing.”

“I play for the comraderie and comments that fly,” said Hastings’ resident Cliff Nebel. “Most of these guys have played forever, this is my fourth year. It’s just like when we were kids, just playing and having fun, but here you could have an R-rated sitcom. You never want to let that go.”

The ESL has become such an integral part of the community atmosphere that despite infrequent complaints about the games from irate residents across Hillside Avenue where home runs balls land in yards and hedges, folks have accepted the “old kids” playing in the schoolyard.

“We did have a problem with one family that went to the school board and had us shut down,” Commissioner Ettinger said. “Lots of people showed up at a board meeting to support us – so when the board saw the crowd they went into executive session and repealed the ban.”

The ESL players say they have been embraced by the those homeowners whose properties serve as landing pads for home run balls – often times returned the field by the residents with a smile. Last Mother’s Day the league presented bouquets of flowers to the homeowners who live beyond the outfield fence.

“The people are great,” said Irvington’s Ethan Stein. “We get smiles and support from people who walk by. One quiet Sunday we brought in a tape player, took off our caps and played the National Anthem and I guess it was pretty loud because someone called the police and said rowdy kids were playing in the school lot. A police car drove up and the officer asked, ‘Did you guys see any kids making noise out here?’ We told him we were the kids! He thought it was great and the game went on.”

Alan Fine is a second generation player and product of the Hastings schools and stickball tradition.

“I graduated from Hastings High in 1975,” said Fine, a filmmaker who lived in Los Angeles for 20 years before moving back to New York in 2001. “These were my teachers, that’s why I play. I knew about the league because 40 years ago I watched them play. I started playing as a ringer. When they needed a player I was invited in and I’ve have been playing ever since.”

And like most kid stickballers who began their careers in the crowded narrow streets and blacktop schoolyards of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens in the mid part of the last century, this group of fading stars cling to the nicknames that better describe their old-field personas. “Commissioner”, “Hit Man”, “The Wise One”, “Late Lightning” and “Tuscaloosa” (How’d that southerner get in the game).

And with those names echoing between batted balls and pitches whizzing toward the school’s brick wall, comes the cherished ribbing.

“Who chose these sides,” one player yelled when the score became a lopsided 9-0.

“That’s going foul,” another said as a high fly ball faded onto the street behind the school fence.

“We should never have let you in the league,” the older players chide a younger player for hitting a home run.

And the games go on.

“As long as the temperature is 45 degrees or higher we play,” Commissioner Ettinger said. “I’m just glad to be able to play and make it home.”

And making it home is what the game is all about.

Did you ever play stickball?

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