Sham-battle: A True Love Story

There is no physical activity (that is morally and legally acceptable to perform outdoors) that I love nearly as much as baseball. It’s not close. Second place is not close, and I am not completely sure, but it just might be dodge ball, or sham-battle, as it was introduced to me.

I know. Sick. Over the weekend, I was able to play dodge ball with some of my students for a few minutes – I lack the arm strength, lung capacity, and attention span to stick around for much longer than that – and realized how awesome I feel whenever I get to play. I was also lucky enough that one of my students in the photography class was snapping pictures while the game was going on. I’ve got a few shots of myself in action. It’s not very pretty, but still.

Not quite the Marino-esque release.

*My brother Matty and I attended Waiau Summer Fun in the late 80s-early 90s. That’s where we learned the art of sham-battle. Mr. B. was the leader in charge of sports and games and over time he became our Jedi Master. Mr. B. was the first African-American I ever spent an extended period of time with. It seemed like he rocked Jordans, Jordan apparel, and/or Chicago Bulls t-shirts every day. I want to say that he was easily over 6 feet tall, but I was a kid then. All adults looked like they were over 6 feet tall. Except my mom.

Anyway, Mr. B. was an athlete. Aside from being fast enough to catch any one of us in a chase and beat us all in a race, he could jump, and holy hell, could he throw. I was probably something like 9-years old during my first summer at Waiau, the first time I played sham-battle. During that first game, Mr. B. unleashed a laser meant for another kid. It sailed wide left and drilled me square in the chest. The outside of my chest was on fire, inside, it felt like it had caved in. Breathing was not easy. He apologized. It would be the last time I would cry playing sham-battle.

For whatever reason, I wasn’t dissuaded from playing, getting drilled and living to tell about it – other kids had seen me take the hit and were in shock that I still had all my body parts firmly attached – somehow made the game more appealing. Twenty years later, I want to say that it was some kind of misguided sense of pride and interest in protecting my own ego that led me back to the field the next day. But a 9-year old doesn’t think in those terms. In the simplest sense, I was 9 and had only played soccer and baseball. Sham-battle was just as fun as both, with less running than soccer, more action than baseball, and no practice.

Matty and I lived for 1:30 pm. That was free play. There were three options: quiet games inside the rec center, play on the jungle gym, and sham-battle. The staff knew we loved it. Whenever we had to rehearse for finale, or some other kind of show, they threatened to take away free play. They knew. Over the years, Matty, myself, and other kids would push for things like the sham-battle tournament. When we took field trips to visit other summer fun programs, we quietly and politely sat through all of the activities in hopes of an hour-long game of sham-battle, Waiau versus whoever.

Throwing change-ups during sham-battle isn’t really effective.

*As I moved on to high school, the opportunities to play sham-battle evaporated. I was already into the period of my life where I would eschew everything in the quest to play baseball. It’s true. When I go over college applications and college recommendations with my students and they feel sad about their lack of participation during high school, I laugh. Then I say, “Baseball, newswriting, yearbook. That’s it.” “Really?” they say. Yes, really.

Anyway, the games we’d throw together during high school were often of the shaky sort. You know, rubber slippers marking lines, two volleyballs, a couple of Nerf footballs, and about 10 minutes before it devolved into pure chaos.

It was just the high school schedule (and probably the popularity of high school football) that prevented epic games of sham-battle from being organized. Still, with so much going on for me during that time, I hardly missed summer fun or sham-battle. Instead, I was busy with trying to hit fastballs, failing pre-calculus Honors, and creating tension and awkwardness between myself and any females I had even the tiniest bit of attraction to. Ah, high school. I think I might miss it if I didn’t spend the last 10 years of my life working there.

Looking back, baseball consumed my life. I was talking with Lynnette a while back and had the epiphany that I never really had weekends in high school. Saturdays were devoted entirely to baseball; on Sunday’s we took the Lord’s advice. Since I was not a very skilled player, nor naturally gifted, I had to work hard to develop a certain set of skills. I didn’t have the time or freedom to worry about anything else. I couldn’t catch up to above-average fastballs, I didn’t really have an arm. Not being able to hit or pitch means there was plenty of room for me on the bench. Despite that, baseball was still the only thing I really wanted to do. As I mentioned before, the penultimate summer came between my sophomore and junior school years: I played for Maryknoll, Damien, and Kaimuki – in the same league.

Just call me Neo. There is no spoon.

*After my freshman year of college, I needed a summer job and got one at Pearl City District Park Summer Fun. Matty was my junior leader. That first year, I was in charge of arts and crafts (have you seen my skill with construction paper and scissors?). The first period of the first day, we played sham-battle. Over the next three years or so, Matty and I would do to our kids what Mr. B. had done to us. We became Jedi Masters to a new set of kids who had never taken sham-battle or the myraid variations that Matty and I played with them so seriously.

These were my golden days. I hadn’t yet dove for a football that would prevent me from ever throwing well and pain-free again. I still wore large t-shirts and pants with a 34-inch waist. I loved to play, and as corny as it sounds, I really just wanted my kids to love it as much as I did. For whatever reason, I wanted them to be as crazy about it as I was. I was Obi Wan Kenobi. Matty on the other hand, became Darth Vader.

My brother is the dirtiest sham-battle player I have ever seen. It never seemed to bother him that these children were half his age. Hit lit them up. Oddly enough, it never seemed to bother his kids, either. He did things like chase them with the ball raised in his right hand so they’d run, then he’d aim for their legs in the hopes that they’d fall. He’d roll out one ball slowly so kids would run up to it. Then he’d light them up as they bent over to pick the ball up. When we played with adult teams, I always made sure I was on his team. I mean he’s my brother, but all bets are off when he plays sham-battle. The Force was strong with that one, but that one was a dick.

The highlight of my sham-battling career came when Waiau summer fun came to visit Pearl City District Park for a day of fun. At the end of the day, we had budgeted an hour for mass sham-battle. I can’t believe I did this, but I gave my kids a pep talk. Nothing nasty, just some “I want to win today,” rah-rah stuff. I participated in the game sporadically (we had enacted a rule that leaders and junior leaders could only throw at juniors leaders, and most of their leaders were women/girls), but as I walked through the play area, I heard one boy from Waiau tell his friend, “These guys are animals.” To this day, it stands among the greatest compliments I have ever indirectly received.

I knew that if I played for longer than 20 minutes this weekend, my arm would be a mess. I played just long enough to make a few throws, catch a few, and move around just enough to elicit “Oooooooooooooooooooooooohs!” from students who think little of me athletically. Good game.


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