Playing Ball: Down the Shore
With nothing earth-shattering, or even earth-nudging, going on in the professional game at the moment—the hard-court season takes a few weeks just to get into first gear—it seems an appropriate time to catch up on two other traditional summer pastimes: an afternoon of baseball and a couple of days at the beach. On Wednesday I’m going to see the (world champion) Philadelphia Phillies play the Cubs, and after that I’m heading for the Jersey Shore—"going down the shore," as they say—for a mini-family vacation.
Our beach town of choice has always been Ocean City, an alcohol-free, family-oriented little hamlet that explodes over the summer months, when something like 200,000 people jam themselves within 100 yards of the Atlantic. My grandparents, who lived in the Philadelphia suburbs, owned a house there. Our family visited for a week each August when I was a kid. From what I’ve heard, this is where I was first bitten by the tennis bug. My grandmother liked to tell the story of a week I spent there with her and my grandfather, a devotee of the sport, when I was 5. He took out me out to the town’s public courts the first day, and I guess they couldn’t get the racquet away from me the rest of the week. I would walk out of my bedroom with it in the morning.
What I do remember of vacations in Ocean City is a sense of time slowing down and becoming hazily elastic. I was young enough then to savor the art of doing nothing for hours. I’ve never recaptured that feeling as an adult, even when I’m on vacation. I may spend an entire day sitting on the beach, but to enjoy it I have to rationalize that time as somehow productive—there will be only so many more opportunities to spend an uninterrupted afternoon with a Trollope novel, so I better make the most of them.
I’ve heard that our experience of time speeds up as we get older; or maybe the past elongates in our minds when we remember it, because we experience those moments so much more intensely as kids. Either way, the lion’s share of my day in Ocean City could be profitably spent on the couch in my grandmother’s small, hot TV room playing Sorry!; watching an entire Phillies game, sans DVR or even remote control; winning a checkers marathon; losing in APBA baseball, a primitive and highly addictive fantasy board game, to a family friend; reading Bridge Over the River Kwai or Tom Sawyer; or just lying there staring blankly out the window at the town’s big blue water tank through the murky humid air. (The bigger South Jersey shore towns have water towers with their names emblazoned across them. Legend had it that a friend’s heavy-partying older brother, after a summer spent in Stone Harbor, climbed the tower there and spray-painted a “D” at the end of the first word.) Doing nothing then really meant doing nothing, without a thought to the future.
Outside of that back room, Ocean City, an island three blocks wide and hundreds of blocks long, spreads out along the shoreline in both directions. At our end, the newer end, each block was (and still is) stuffed with a dizzying number of duplexes. To drive toward the other end is to go back in time. Halfway down, the grand old single-family beach houses begin, including, most famously, the brilliantly white mini-mansion where Grace Kelly spent her summers. At the other end is the boardwalk, equally grand in its own way, a timeless mess of pizza, cotton candy, air hockey, neon-signed motels, Kohr’s soft ice cream, miniature golf, ferris wheels, and the assorted humanity of the Mid-Atlantic flaunting its newly tan skin, for better and for worse. Little has changed here in the last 30 years, but skin wasn't always in. My grandmother loved to recall the 1920s boardwalk, when people dressed up, in slacks, dresses, jackets, and hats, for the customary evening stroll.
Near the center of the island, land-locked and hot as hell, are the tennis courts. They were as chaotic as the rest of the town when I was a kid. When we could get a court, which wasn’t easy, I left the beach and saw my horizons instantly narrow. Here, rather than looking out at the wide vista of the ocean, I stared down at the small patch of asphalt in front of me as I walked slowly back to collect a ball at the fence. I moved to my own rhythm between points, my forehead dripping sweat that I enjoyed not wiping off. I blocked out all sensory stimulation other than the sound of the ball and my own huffing and puffing. When you practice seriously for a long time, your opponent tends to fade away and the rhythm of your breathing becomes your companion. You play to the deliberate and purposeful cadence of concentration, of practice, of trying to do something better. Again, when I hit balls at the shore, time slowed down. But unlike those lost hours of indolence in my grandmother’s house, I can still create the same quiet, solitary feeling on a court today. Maybe it’s because it reminds me of playing the sport as a kid, but I still love staring down in front of me and hearing only my breathing as I walk toward the back fence to pick up a ball. If nothing else, tennis teaches us to love concentrating.
I first tried serving in Ocean City and failed miserably. It was a lot of body parts to coordinate, and I can remember the panic of throwing the ball up and knowing that I wasn’t going to hit it anywhere near the service box. Later, as a teenager, I would practice with a junior rival who was vacationing in a nearby town. I also spent one of those weeks reading a tennis novel—these existed in the 70s—called World Class, a veiled fictional portrait of the first group of professionals. The quest of its protagonist, the young American Christopher Hill, to become the greatest player of all time, was inspiring.
That quest is long over for me. I probably won’t play tennis in Ocean City this year—it’s supposed to rain, which might mean another marathon of Sorry! and more Trollope than I bargained for. And I certainly won't play a tennis tournament, which is what I did one year at the shore. My dad drove me to a 14-and-under event in Willingboro, N.J., where I lost to a tiny, cocky human backboard 6-1, 6-1. I rode back to Ocean City under a cloud of gloom; the day was ruined. Now I wonder: What would have prompted a kid to voluntarily leave the shore to compete against another kid he didn’t know 100 miles away in blistering August heat? There can be only one reason: To win, and to experience the feeling you get when you win. There was nothing like it then, and there’s nothing like it now. But just like my ability to enjoy staring at a water tank, I’ve lost the desire to compete seriously at tennis, in tournaments, against people I’ve never met. I get enough competition in my work life and even social life. I still love to play matches against friends and fellow club members—that I can experience the relief and happiness that come with winning, even in these pick-up games, is proof of how powerfully satisfying that feeling is. But anything more official than that, any sense that a match I'm playing really matters, begins to make tennis feel like another quintessential feature of youth: a test. I’ve taken enough of those in my life, on court and off. It’s nice to leave some things in the past. It’s nice just to go to the beach.