Growing up in a small town, at some point in June, my brother and I would celebrate a timeless ritual. We would pool together all of the spare change we’d been saving up for months, then walk or bike our way downtown to Mott’s Sports Shop on Bridge Street.
The prize we sought? A fresh new regulation Wiffle® Ball and bat to kick off the summer season.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, a Wiffle ball was (and still is) basically a white plastic ball, hollow inside, the size of a baseball, with eight slots on the side that catch the air and make it almost impossible to throw with any accuracy. Likewise, the Wiffle bat is also hollow plastic, bright yellow, and slimmer than an actual baseball bat. Which makes it slightly more difficult to hit the ball … which is already tricky enough to hit because you can’t tell which way it might curve when confronted with anything more than a gentle breeze. What’s more, the bat also makes an extremely satisfying whistling sound if you swing it through the air fast enough.
And when you’re able to overcome the odds, and the ball and bat actually do meet? That sound of thick hollow plastic meeting thick hollow plastic is magical in a way that’s hard to describe. You probably know something like this sound, of course. Or at least one that evokes a similar feeling. The sound of an actual bat hitting an actual baseball. It’s a noise that rings out loud and clear even from the nosebleed seats of a stadium packed with fans, and even when you’re sitting on the couch at home watching a game on the television.
Which then begs the question: Isn’t Wiffleball just a kid’s version of professional baseball?
Well … yes and no.
Certainly, when my brother and I and some kids from the neighborhood were playing pick-up games in our yard on a hot summer day, we sometimes imagined ourselves to be the baseball players we saw on TV. Reggie Jackson. Mike Schmidt. Pete Rose (before the scandal).
And yet, for me, Wiffleball had a charm all its own.
Ultimately, of course, it’s just a slightly fancier version of stickball, which prior to the introduction of the Wiffle® brand in the 1950s might have been played with a sawed-off broomstick and a rubber ball. So there’s a long tradition of kids doing something that looks an awful lot like pretending to do something that major league players do.
But really, for us, it was more about going through the motions than aspiring to greatness. We were following the example of something ingrained on our collective brains — America’s favorite pastime! — and finding a way to duplicate the feel of that in a way that was entirely our own. After all, there was nothing at all “regulation” about the field we played on. The sidewalk in front of the chimney was home base. One azalea bush was the pitcher’s mound and another further out was second base. First base was a rose bush … which created the exact challenge you might expect for overzealous runners. And third base was the trunk of a dogwood tree with low branches that proved to be the bane of particularly tall players as the summer wore on.
Hit a ball over the white picket fence into the street, and you had yourself a home run. Throw the ball at a runner and hit them with it, and they were out. Try getting away with THAT play in the major leagues.
It’s probably not an exaggeration to say that no two Wiffle ball games in history have ever shared the same set of rules.
For instance, I don’t remember if we even kept score in our games, or how we kept score, or if we kept track of things like which inning it was. I do know it wasn’t uncommon to liberally switch up who was on which team, depending on who had to leave to go eat lunch when, or whoever might be walking down the street and want to join the game part of the way in. Which made the concept of “winners” and “losers” somewhat fluid.
This is actually something I’ve been thinking about lately as I see increasingly more discussions about what “digital content” is and what it should be, particularly on social media. Because we all have a list in our heads of the people we consider to be the “major league” content creators in our particular sphere, right?
Some of these might be big-name authors or marketing gurus or podcasters. Others might be people who some would consider “influencers,” who may or may not be our cup of tea, but whose reach and renown we can’t argue with.
So when we create our own content — posts and articles and videos and podcasts — and if we sometimes borrow a step or two from these heavy hitters, is it fair to say that we’re simply imitating them? Is it a sign that, on some level, we want to be them, in the way that a kid might wish to be his or her favorite athlete? Maybe, in some cases. But if so, it would seem to be a losing battle. After all, nobody but Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron is ever going to be Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron, no matter how hard they try.
What I see more of, possibly because it’s what I’m drawn to, is wonderfully imperfect content that is unique to the creator. Stories only they can tell, told in ways that only they can tell them. Like a pick-up Wiffle ball game in July, content that is rough, unpolished, and under-produced has a compelling charm all its own.
Some time ago, my friend and content creator Carol Campos posted something extremely clever on LinkedIn about being leery of “Pet Rocks” — her metaphor for “flashy, highly produced content.” To which I responded with a comment saying that these days, I actually trust content less the better produced it is.
Because to be honest, as a kid, I didn’t watch very much baseball on TV, and really wasn’t all that interested in going to the live games in nearby Philadelphia or New York. That was more my brother’s thing. He collected baseball cards, while I collected comic books. He was on the “8-12” little league team for all five years, while I was only on it for one year, and for personal reasons that had almost nothing to do with a love for the game.
That said, I sure did love to play Wiffle ball.
I loved it exactly because it was unstructured. Because the rules did change from one game (or even one minute) to the next. Because it was more about having fun than about having a stadium full of fans cheering us on. The sound that a Wiffle ball and bat made when they collided was satisfying in its own way, apart from the sound that their “real” counterparts made. Because to us, the plastic slotted ball and yellow bat were as real as they needed to be to tell the story we needed to tell.
So to anybody who’s worried that the content they’re creating isn’t “professional” enough or produced enough or too rough around the edges to be taken seriously, my advice is to ask yourself …
What is the story you’re trying to tell? And when it comes to telling it better, what does “better” look like? Is it something that’s determined by the standards that some self-proclaimed judge of technical and aesthetic quality has decreed to be so? Or is it a measure of what’s inside the package, however it looks or sounds or reads?
Because it doesn’t get much simpler or cheaper than a plastic ball and bat. Even today, the two together don’t cost more than ten dollars. Back in the day, it was less than two. Compared to the cost of all the equipment needed to play a proper game of baseball, that’s pennies on the dollar. And yet, for those pennies, we had the time of our lives. And we didn’t worry at all about who took us seriously.
Business is business, of course. Especially the business of personal and professional branding. So I’m certainly not suggesting that anybody ignore the core principles of making content look and feel professional. Or that they not learn how to improve it over time. But there’s a beauty and magic to playing Wiffle ball in the backyard that major league baseball will never capture, and it’s easy to lose that. To lose touch with the story that only we can tell, in our own way.
To quote Shakespeare’s Hamlet (completely out of context), “The play’s the thing.”
Because to me, being in the game, creating content, having fun, and letting the passion and personality of our story shine through is the true standard of excellence. Not which arbitrary set of rules we’re playing by this week.
So if anybody ever tries to beat that love of the game out of you by explaining how the content you’re creating is a failure to play proper baseball — that you’re doing it wrong — feel free to look them square in the eye and tell them:
Actually, I wasn’t trying to play baseball. I was trying to play Wiffle ball. And I was winning.