When our almost 8-year-old grandson, Benjamin, announces he’s ready to go to Dudy Noble, he initiates a time-honored sequence of events. He goes and gets a metal bat and a small cloth bag containing six to 10 worn-out tennis balls, and I begin looking for my shoes.
We then go over to the vacant lot behind the Catholic Church where I become equal parts Red Barber and Sandy Koufax and he, “Lucky 13,” the star hitter and mainstay of the Mississippi State Diamond Bulldogs.
I’ll say something in my best announcer’s voice like, “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a beautiful day for baseball. Welcome to Dudy Noble Field where the Mississippi State Bulldogs are about to take on the Kentucky Wildcats in the first game of a twilight double header.
“Leading off for the Dawgs is Lucky 13, and let me tell you, every fan in this stadium is on his feet watching and wondering if the Lucky One can work his brand of magic against these hungry Wildcats from Lexington. He’s dangerous.” (technically speaking, more or less)
I then begin to lob the tennis balls one at a time toward his strike zone with accompanying commentary, and he either whacks them straight back at me, over my head toward the church, or he swings and misses.
We do this until the little blue cloth bag is empty and then we pick up the balls and do it again. It gets to be tedious pretty quickly, picking up the tennis balls.
After doing this for at least two years, I reached the conclusion we need more tennis balls.
Discouraged by the options on eBay (100 used “indoor clay court” tennis balls delivered to your home for $44.40 or 50 “quality used tennis balls” for $30.99 postpaid) I tried Magnolia Tennis Club. There I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Billy Gip Clark, club manager and resident pro.
“How many you want?” he said.
A Delta boy by birth (Webb), “Billy Gip” (Gip is his middle name) didn’t take up the game until he was in his 30s. When his job of 30 years at a Greenwood cottonseed mill dried up, he started stringing racquets and giving lessons. Soon he was the pro at Greenwood, then Cleveland and, for the past three years, Columbus.
While we talked midday Wednesday in the club’s pro shop several weeks ago, I could see Ed Edmondson, Juddy Boyd, Bill Brigham and Rickey Walker going at it in the 90-plus degree heat.
“Where you parked?”
I pointed to my van.
“Drive it down to that shed,” Billy said pointing to a utility shed near the entrance of the club parking lot.
Other than some lawn maintenance equipment, the place was filled with what looked to be grocery carts filled with tennis balls, some new, others worn.
I got a trash bag out of my car and put in it what is a reasonable amount plus a few. And, as it turns out I shouldn’t have been self-conscious about it.
Billy says when he gives a lesson he wants his student to hit a thousand balls. Most people use a $3 can of balls for one match, maybe two. They then put them in a trashcan dedicated for that purpose. Turns out the supply is virtually limitless.
Nursing homes and schools come by and get them. They slit the balls and put them on the bottom of walkers and furniture to muffle the sound and minimize skidding. Billy’s wife Sheila, a potter, uses them in her work. Some people get them for their dogs. Others throw them in the dryer when drying sheets or comforters. Billy says sometimes he just bags them up and takes them to the street for the garbage pick up.
Surely there are other creative uses for worn out tennis balls, I thought. Turns out there are plenty on the Internet, many of them wacky.
Bill K. puts them in the tank of a toilet to reduce water used per flush while a woman in Minnesota named Monica hooks a tennis ball to the end of her fishing pole, casts it across the yard, then, to the delight of her dog, reels it in. “She just loves it,” Monica says.
A doctor with Doctors Without Borders takes them to kids in third-world countries.
John uses them to soundproof a recording studio.
Here’s my favorite from Eric in Georgia: “I recently moved into an apartment building that does not allow waterbeds. Since I own a waterbed and can’t use it, I instead filled the bed frame up with old tennis balls. The balls provide a very therapeutic back massage while I sleep. My roommates thought I was crazy, but you haven’t slept until you have slept in a tennis ball bed.”
It does sound crazy, but then that might be just the thing for a pitcher who’s thrown both games of a twilight double header.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.