God made radar guns to get two kinds of people: drivers with heavy feet and old ballplayers with big egos. Unfortunately, this revelation hit me a split second late, just after I decided to test my fastball at Jack and Jake's Radar Ball, a baseball pitch game at a firemen's carnival in New Windsor, Md.
In June my family and I visited my mother during what folks in New Windsor call Carnival Week. As we motored toward my old hometown I described to Matt, our 10-year-old, summer nights in the 1950s when I, as an artful little dodger, moved along the midway, beating the flimflammers and hustlers at their own games.
"Ring a dinga, ring a dinga! Ring the dinga and win a cigar," the barker would cry, flexing his biceps.
"Guess your weight—win a prize!" the weight lady would shout.
During my hammer-swinging days, the ringer never climbed past the mark that said MOMMA'S BOY. My true calling was as a carnival ballplayer. As a Little League catcher I couldn't throw out a runner for all the stuffed animals at the Maryland State Fair, but when it came to easy pitch games like the old milk-bottle toss, my arm was in a league of its own. I'd plunk down two bits, get up on my tiptoes, lean across the counter and flick the horsehide into the neatly stacked bottles. Bull's-eye!
So this spring when Matt and I stepped out on the midway on our first night in town, saw the booth with the big J & J Radar Ball sign and heard the guy in the red golf shirt barking about "the easy pitch baseball game," I was intrigued. "Step right up, throw the baseball, best game on the midway," he said, giving me the once-over. "You don't have to throw hard to win." As Matt and I slipped into the crowd of onlookers, a teenage kid in a yellow WHY WALTZ WHEN YOU CAN ROCK-'N'-ROLL T shirt was forking over 50 cents. "O.K., step back, folks, we've got a ballplayer. Let's watch his speed. Right here." He pointed to the speed gun's digital display board.
The rock-'n'-roller went into a windmill windup, kicked his leg and threw. Whop! The display board whirred and stopped at 62. For the next 30 minutes I stood among the noisy spectators watching young arms crank up and fog pitches past the radar gun. As their speeds clicked up on the readout, the onlookers filled the air with cheers and jeers. "Sixty-five miles per hour, sorry, you guessed 68. Try again!" the barker shouted. While the procession of would-be Gossages and Ryans chucked away, Jake Townsley, one of the two enterprising young phys ed coaches who spend their summers touring Maryland's carnival circuit with J & J Radar Ball, offered some insights into the game.
"The idea is to take two practice throws and guess the speed of your third pitch, but most people play to see how fast they can throw. I guess it's macho, or whatever you want to call it. But the speed of fastballs varies so much that the hard throwers rarely win," he said.
I learned that the most likely customers to win are the 9-to 12-year-olds. "The kids will always throw right around their top speed. They'll crank out a 40 mph, come back with a 39 mph, guess 41 and hit it right on the number. The Little Leaguers beat us to death," Jake said.
How good is the gun, I asked of the JUGS Super Gun II. "Guaranteed to be accurate within one mile either way. It's the same gun they use to clock major league fastballs," he said.