A single white square painted on a red school wall.
To some it represents little more than an eyesore, a jarring aberration amongst the smoothly ordered bricks, void of artistic merit or function. To others, its purpose is as clear as its boundaries — it represents the strike zone.
But to Adrian Golombek, founder of the Toronto Burby League, it’s a portal to simpler times with friends, long before the weight of adult responsibility took hold, when the abbreviated stretch of magic known as recess seemed to contain an entire lifetime of airy adventure.
For Golombek, 37, that simple square contains the magic of childhood. And what better way to honour it, then gather up a few raggedy tennis balls, retrieve the splintered Louisville Slugger from the basement, and start playing burby again.
The sport of burby, as it’s known exclusively in pockets of Toronto, goes by many other names throughout Ontario. It’s most commonly known as wall-ball, but has also been referred to as balk, balk-ball, and bourbon.
A burby game consists of 7 innings with two outs per inning. At least two players on each team must pitch, and only three players are allowed on the field.
Its roots lay in New York City stickball – a longtime street passion with a storied history throughout the five buroughs.
For most who remember playing as school kids, it soon went the way of Red Rover and British Bulldog – destined for extinction once high school hit and raging hormones trumped soaring homers.
“It’s a sport that I always wanted to play again, but you just get old and you don’t play it, like who plays Red Rover any more?” Golombek pondered.
“But I saw all these boxes on the walls and I thought ‘you know what, that was a great, great game.’ ”
Inspired by the visual reminder of the floating strike zones, Golombek took his streak of nostalgia a step further than most who indulge occasional daydreams of elusive playground glories. He didn’t merely gather up a few of his old friends for a couple creaky innings down memory lane — he founded a league that now hosts 10 teams, each representing a different neighourhood in Toronto.
They boast names like the Leslieville Brickies, the Ronscesvalles Rockets, and the Dufferin Wallballers, to name a few.
“I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we could gather all these guys that used to play way back in the day, from different neighbourhoods and get them to play each other in the city?’ ”
Utilizing the internet to spread the word, the Toronto Burby League was born. It’s now in its second full season.
“It takes off with social media,” the league’s lanky founder admitted. “When I started a Facebook page and put pictures up — boom! That’s where it really took off.”
Two years later the Toronto Burby League is thriving.
There’s a TBL website that tracks results and stats from bi-weekly games, a mid-season all-star game complete with a home-run contest, and an awards banquet where tennis-ball trophies are handed out to league standouts at the end of the season. The playoff champs take home the coveted Burby Cup.
“The whole thing about this is we are making this look like a pro league even though we are far from pros. The website, the logo, the uniforms, it’s like a game that we are playing, like a fantasy league, and we are in the fantasy,” Golombek stresses.
But with most participants aged 25 and over, and many in their mid to late 30s, it’s a fantasy that often clashes with reality.
Unlike the carefree schoolyard days, many players now have wives and children and hold jobs as lawyers, social workers, real estate agents, and brokers. “There’s a lot of challenges, a lot of people with commitments,” Golombek admits. “That’s why I made the schedule so easy, once every two weeks, and if you can’t make a time you call up the other crew and say ‘hey can we switch it because my kid’s got a birthday?’ ”
There’s also the unavoidable aches and pains of ‘older’ age to contend with.
“Guys were learning that ‘wow, I’ve got to stretch before and after I play,’ ” he chuckles.
“But you adapt, you rest more, and the guys that really want to play they stay in shape.”
It’s a sunny spring day and several members from rival TBL teams have decided to meet for a make-shift practice at a local school.
Mark Kennedy, 33, plays for the Leslieville Brickies.
He was raised in Sault Ste. Marie, and played the same game growing up, although it was called ‘Balk’ amongst his friends.
“We played this every day that we could growing up in the Soo,” he explains between at-bats. “At this age responsibility has definitely taken over in other areas of life and everybody has their unique schedules but it’s nice that we can collaborate and come together a couple times a month.”
He stops to watch as an out-gunned batter futilely whiffs at some blinding fastballs being thrown by ace pitcher Kevin Leach of the aptly named East York Heat.
“You notice when you’re at bat that picking up the ball is not as easy as it used to be,” Kennedy laughs, sympathizing with the batter’s struggle to connect. “We’ve still got some guys out here that can really heave the ball pretty quick.”
Rocky Parejo, 31, grew up in Toronto’s Eglinton and Bathurst area and played ‘wall-ball’ at North Preparatory Jr. Public school.
Like many who have since joined the league, he initially couldn’t believe the sport was making a comeback with grown men.
“I was blown away when I heard about the league, I couldn’t believe it. As soon as I saw it on Facebook I rushed out to play a game and thought ‘this is a dream.’ ”
“A lot of it is nostalgia,” he admits. “It takes you back to the times when it was just pure fun, you’re out there being your heroes and all the players that you watched growing up on TV.”
Golombek sees great things ahead for the Toronto Burby League.
“I see this thing going on TV. I can see this easily starting out on local cable, Game of the Week. I see baseball cards being sold, I see fans coming out. I can guarantee you in five years the city will have a burby park,” he adds excitedly. “I’ve already got inroads, I’m already talking to a lot of councillors.”
In the meantime, he’s content to soak in the humble joys derived from the rebirth of a nearly forgotten childhood pastime.
Taking a mean cut at a split finger fastball.
Striking out the side.
Spanking one deep.
Sitting back and watching as lost playground glories are reclaimed.
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