Somewhere in the stacks in a library near you there may be shelved a long-unchecked-out book called "The World of Games: Their Origins and History, How to Play Them, and How to Make Them." Should you be the type of person moved to pick up an odd, earnest book like this one, you'll be taken on a global tour of games humans have been compelled to invent for one reason or another. One page shows an elaborately painted game board from 2000 B.C., whose rules are a code experts have yet to crack. Another page shows two paintings of Christ's crucifixion, both depicting a grounded crew dicing for his robe. A third shows a photograph of crouched gamers in the Saharan Desert playing Zamma (you may know it as 'Quadruple Alquerque'), a game whose board is the sand and whose pieces are stalks and pellets of camel dung. (The pellets are different colors. Black goes first.)
The book's four authors (good teamwork, gentlemen) spend the introduction using history as backdrop to suggest that games have played their own unique part in the movement of civilization. Before the book's third paragraph, the authors lay down their statement: "[T]he playing of games is one of the few of our regular activities that has managed to transcend the enormous social, cultural, political, linguistic and geographical barriers between people in this world of ours."
Somewhere over this historical field of world games comes the grassy shadow of two leaning figures St. Louisans Pete Kindig and Mike Walters who have just added their contribution. Its name? BallzOn!
Yes, it's a funny name. It's really very funny. But for now let's do our best to move on.
On a gorgeous recent Saturday afternoon, I met one of the game's investors/promoters, Mike Walters, at Forest Park for an introduction to B.O. (sorry I guess the acronym's not much better). Walters, a 1985 Wash U grad and current computer programmer and Web architect, was wearing yellow jams, a blue t-shirt that read "Taboo," and a goatee a combination to me suggesting someone laid-back yet recreationally alert. We hauled the supplies from his black Pathfinder to a grassy spot just east of the park's handball courts.
I'd studied up on the game at www.ballzon.com, and got the sense that it's comparable to aim games like horseshoes and washers. (This site has loads of helpful info, including the fact that "very little strength is required," which was basically all I needed to hear before agreeing to write this piece.) As the site explains, the game is played with two PVC-pipe-constructed targets called "racks" they look like hurdles and a pair of what they call "ball sets." These sets (players throw three sets each turn) are really two golf balls connected by a rope, and the set's balls have red or blue stripes to distinguish teams. The racks are set 25 feet from each other, and players get two points if their thrown ball set stays twirled around the top bar, three for the middle, and one for the bottom. First one to 21 wins. Gotta win by two.
As we set up the game, Walters told me it was his friend Kindig who'd come up with the game last fall. Kindig a leftie who Walters says "plays more than he lets on" and Walters are seriously dedicated tailgaters. During last year's Rams season, the friends regularly made BallzOn! part of their pre-game routine. People dug it. Jerseyed guys walked out of their way to get the low down. Curious folks pointed and asked questions. While the friends enjoyed the attention, and while they were even on their way toward marketing the game, Walters was quick to get paranoid at the level of the people's interest. It wasn't that they were checking it out; it was, according to Walters, as if they were committing the measurements to memory. (Though it's easy to laugh this paranoia off, particularly when Walters responded to my question about the rope's length with, "It's a trade secret," apparently they spent quite a bit of time testing measurements and dimensions before they found the right mix.)
Amid the kite-flyers and Rollerbladers, Walters and I started our match. It wasn't long before we were razzing each other about throws way beyond the rack ("Someone ate their Wheaties"), as well as tosses that bonked around before landing on the bottom bar ("And you called me the Slop King!"). Game one ended with Walters beating me 21-13. I won a nail-biter next, at 22-20, but lost the third 22-19. Chit-chatting while playing (very easy to do), we landed again on the topic of the game's name. He said that the first name they'd come up with was "Balls-On-a-Rope," to which I said as little as possible. Knowing that the name might be a tough one to bring up at family picnics ("Did you pack the Balls-On-a-Rope?"), Walters said he decided to just cut it short after the first two words. After all, he told me, players are supposed to get the balls to stay on the bars.
Playing there in Forest Park, we'd been receiving looks of curiosity from passers-by. My hope that some interested people might want to join in was realized when we spotted three Frisbee players inching toward our space. The two girls and guy were battling winds too tough for Frisbee, so when the invitation to play went out to them, one of the girls had only one question: "What's it called?"
Turns out these three Mary, Rebecca and Jason were the perfect people to join the game. Quick-witted, friendly and sarcastic, they played for a good thirty minutes, making fun of each other in turn. Jason, despite having been a pitcher in college, was having some serious trouble. "Do I get anything for going through?" he asked, to which Mary quickly responded, "That'd be called BallzThrough!, not BallzOn!" Jason didn't argue.
As the three continued to play licked-finger checking for wind; mocking a gymnast's composure I looked over and saw Walters sitting, perfectly content, on the grass. His legs were crossed, his shades were on, and his smile was wide. He and Kindig had taken a personal little game of fun, given it a ridiculous name, and were on their way to making it a shared experience.
"Games of various kinds have been played in all parts of the world since the times of our earliest ancestors," states the book quoted up front, "for the instinct to play is buried deep inside us." Kindig and Walters have let it out.