Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Islands in the Stream, Part III

The last installment of Mordecai's essay...


Pius II’s efforts towards the creation of a utopia in the hills of Tuscany are often glossed over by historians of theology, the Crusades, and the political foundations of modern Europe. It has particular resonance for historians of sport, however, and there is a growing body of research on Pius the Sportsman. Some grants have been awarded in support of further studies of Pius II’s practice of falconry, for example, but, given the prevalence of that activity during the early Renaissance period, more adventurous historians have set their sights elsewhere.

While the evidence is scant, some historians are beginning to assert that Pius II was an ardent practitioner of a much-practiced yet oft-maligned sport: Wiffle Ball. Yes, Wiffle Ball – a variation on baseball that is played using a lightweight, perforated plastic ball, almost invariably white in color, and an invariably yellow plastic bat. Groundbreaking historians in this field, including Hampton, Grieves, et al., now claim that Pius II’s fascination for and dedication to the sport of Wiffle Ball were so great that he designed the central piazza of Pienza to be a Pantheon for its dedicants.

Centuries later, a group of us made good on Pius’ promise to Wiffle athletes. On our recent trip to Tuscany, we played Wiffle Ball in Pienza’s historic central piazza. Crazy, yes, but true. We found many pieces of Pius II’s grand Wiffle Ball stadium still in place and were frequently surprised by the overarching beauty of his plan. The locker room/dugout along the wall of one abutting palace, replete with hooks for jackets. The batting practice cage alongside the ancient well. Infield/outfield practice from the lip of the central door. A perfectly placed circle bricked into the very pattern of the piazza from which the pitcher could serve up Wiffle junk.

The lights shone bright on our field. Tickets were scalped to disbelieving neophyte fans for free – we were putting on a show and inviting all of Tuscany, even the papal ghosts, to join us. Except for when the municipal police rolled by: some of us scattered like high schoolers caught loitering in a midnight parking lot; one of us waddled off with the Wiffle Ball bat running the length of his leg. Our official photographer documented the scene. We laughed at the spettacolo and improbability of it all: Wiffle Ball in the House that Piccolomini Built for Wiffle Ball. A fitting sequel to the Lake Como Cup of 2006.

[For a fuller treatment of Pius II’s fascination with American sports invented, allegedly, after his death, I encourage you to read Jackson Checo’s thorough and impeccably researched examination of the subject, Piccolomini: The First Suburban Teenager?]

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