Dodge ball!

Last week in Albany a group of local guys set the world record for longest continuous dodge ball game. This event appealed to me in a number of ways. Not the world record part, even though the Guinness Book loomed large in my childhood: in 1976, I was part of the world’s largest kazoo orchestra (playing at the 7th inning stretch at a Phillies game); the following year, when the new edition came out, I tried reading the whole thing cover to cover (it was maddening. I didn’t get very far). And not the dodge ball part, either: I remember it being a fun game, but I never felt the urge to see the movie that ultimately was responsible for this world-record attempt.

Rather, this event just seemed to fall at the nexus of several interesting themes: the purpose and function of obscure sports and hobbies, the “more is better” fallacy, misdirected childhood nostalgia, the pursuit of elaborate, monetarily unrewarding goals. The latter, in particular, applies not just to the event itself but to the venue in which it was held, the Washington Avenue Armory.

Built in the 1890s, the grand brownstone Richardsonesque structure occupies one of the busiest corners in the city. After WWII it was repurposed as Albany’s premier concert venue and the home of Siena basketball. It was where, in 1974, you could watch the Rumble in the Jungle on a giant screen, and where, in the 1980s, you could take in the glory days of minor league basketball’s Albany Patroons. The bigger, blander Knickerbocker Arena put the Armory out of business in the 1990s, and it remained dark through the first six or seven years I lived here. There was a bold but impractical move to relocate the city library into the Armory; soon after it was purchased for next to nothing by a group determined to resurrect the Patroons. The entire league ended up folding soon after, but the Armory has stayed in business catering to ever-smaller niches (roller derby, antiquarian book fairs, comedians you haven’t heard of, sub-Patroons basketball leagues you haven’t heard of). Some of these events, it would seem, hardly cover the cost of utilities. But that’s what I like about it – most venues would be content to be dark 28 days a month while expending their energy trying to line up benefactors.

And certainly there is no smaller niche than dodge ball.

Tipped off by a short mention in our local newspaper, my friend Mark and I decided to check out the festivities. We got a parking space directly in front of the entrance, where a lighted billboard beckoned World Record Dodge Ball Game In Progress! An ancient security guard was scraping tape off of a front window with a razor blade. Inside, 1980s Patroons banners festooned the ceiling, while beneath them, twelve people were engaged in a very slow-paced round of dodge ball. This was just as it should be – this was only hour 12, with 19 still to go. There were serious-minded players, and others seemingly there on a lark. One was identified to us as a “professional”, which I have yet to figure out. The substitute players and a handful of support crew and girlfriends occupied a few of the 3,000 or so empty seats. The whole thing was exquisitely pointless and quite enjoyable, aside from the sound system at one end of the gym pumping out Korn. We watched about a dozen rounds then went out to watch Duke and Butler, and of course you couldn’t help wondering why some forms of throwing inflatable balls around on a wooden floor generate so many millions more dollars than other forms.

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