Like the ghosts from Field of Dreams that emerged from the Iowa corn fields to play pick up baseball, there’s a dedicated group of living athletes that make their way down the trails and through the trees to a secluded corner of Delaware Park each summer week for doubles volleyball.
Now I would consider myself a regular in the local (intermediate) volleyball scene, playing on different teams year round at places like IV Stallions in Cheektowaga, Rose Garden in Lancaster, and Nichols School in Hertel Ave’s backyard. I’ve made a ton of friends and even impressed the 6’7” terror, Jay Josker, enough for him to honor me with my own twitter hashtag…which I, in turn, made into a tee-shirt. Molly McDermid has adopted me as her own overaggressive middle hitter and sometimes we look like we know what we’re doing and other times it’s just silly. The leagues are as fun as they are competitive, filled with bazaar team names, friendly trash talking and some intense rivalries.
So despite having a place in many indoor court and outdoor sand leagues, somehow, this summer doubles league, played on grass and so close to home, eluded me. It wasn’t until the above mentioned Molly, who knows every volleyball league, court, ref and player in WNY, said I should come check it out and play on her team. So I did. And it’s glorious.
My first time playing I struggled a bit to find my footing. Playing barefoot in the sand is a no brainer, but grass? It can go both ways. So I tried both ways. Surprisingly barefoot provides better traction than sneakers. It was also easy to adjust to having only one teammate as opposed to four or five. So now that I’ve got the beginner issues of where the hell is this place, what are the doubles rules, what do I wear, etc. out the way, I’m ready to make this regular habit.
Thom Burnett, organizer and Saranac neighbor, had a vision over 30 years ago that if he built volleyball courts in the middle of a grassy field, people would come play volleyball. I envision James Earl Jones saying “People will come, Thom. People will most definitely come.”
So my guess is that one day, he strapped on his canvas converse all-stars and set up shop. He found an isolated green in the park, lined by trees and backdropped by the serene beauty of Hoyt Lake. Now, each week, the story unfolds the same way. People emerge, set up, play, break down, and leave. They play for the love of the game. It’s not about winning or losing (said the occasional loser). It’s about the friendships, the exercise, and the incredible privilege we Buffalonians have to play a game in the middle of an Olmsted masterpiece in the middle of our great city.
Is this heaven? No, it’s Buffalo.