Column: Kids still playing for all the marbles

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Circa 1860 drawing by André-Henri Dargelas, "Boys Playing Marbles," courtesy of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

In this world of pompous athletes, overbearing coaches, money-grubbing owners and a win-at-all-costs mindset, it’s easy to become jaded.

And then – in the parlance of another era – a brief story rolled across The Associated Press sports wire.

“2 Pennsylvania kids win National Marbles Tournament,” the headline said.

I was intrigued.

Kids still play marbles?

Thankfully, they do.

The 94th annual National Marbles Tournament recently crowned its newest champions along the Jersey shore.

They both hailed from the marbles hotbed of Allegheny County, in and around Pittsburgh, where the throwback game still thrives largely due to the efforts of one family.

“If you go to a mall or a school or a park and you set up a marbles ring and have kids playing, it just draws the other kids in,” said Ed Ricci, whose grandfather started a program that is still supported by the county parks department. “They really enjoy it.”

Ricci spoke by cellphone as the family, including his wife, Maureen, who helps run the program, made the long drive back to west Pennsylvania from Wildwood, New Jersey, which is essentially to marbles what Williamsport is to Little League baseball.

Along for the ride was another national champion, 12-year-old Sierra Ricci, who followed in the footsteps of older sister Amber, the 2008 national girls champion.

“It’s special,” their father said, his voice filled with pride. “It’s a family tradition. It couldn’t get any better than that.”

Sierra played 79 games over four days, finishing off the tournament with an 8-5 victory over another Pittsburgh player, 13-year-old Lauren Shutey. The boys division was a thriller: 14-year-old Eli Murphy of Pittsburgh – yet another member of the Allegheny County team and coached by Ed Ricci – rallied from an early deficit to defeat Josh Frazho of Michigan in the deciding game, 8-7.

When it was over, Sierra and Eli received their rewards, which included $2,000 scholarships and matching crowns.

Then, in keeping with the tournament’s tradition, Eli gave Sierra a peck on the cheek.

When asked about the kiss, Sierra groaned.

“It was weird,” she said. “Like, I’ve known that boy for a long time. That just made it awkward.”

Smooching aside, Sierra loves the chance to get on the ground, eyeball one of the 13 target marbles and send it skidding out of the 10-square-foot circle with a pinpoint blow, while her shooting marble stays safely within the ring.

The social aspects of the game are just as important as the competition, maybe more so.

“You get to meet new people,” said Sierra, who’s as hooked on Snapchat and Instagram as any other 12-year-old. “It gets you away from your phones and your technology. I’m on it like all the time, so it’s good to take a break.”

Not to turn this into a plea for the good ol’ days – sorry, I love my cellphone and the internet and 6,000 television channels as much as the next guy – but it’s a bit comforting to know that some kids still get a kick out of such a low-tech endeavor.

“All you need is a 5-foot string, some chalk and a smooth surface,” Ed Ricci said, “and you’ve got your board.”

Of course, it’s hard to get most youngsters to step away from their computers or put away their video game controllers long enough to come outside for a quaint game of marbles.

The booming popularity of eSports has led to professional leagues, nationally televised events, huge prizes and more and more colleges setting up their own gaming programs.

But Ricci insists there’s still a place for marbles, which provides actual face time instead of the trademarked version.

“In today’s electronic world, they’re meeting kids from all over,” he said. “My older daughter (now 21) is still friends with kids she shot with from other areas, like Maryland and Colorado. They make friends basically for life.”

There’s also a sense of honesty and fair play built into the culture.

“It builds character,” Ricci said. “We teach the kids that you play your best, but you don’t cheat to win. It’s sort of like golf. It has an honor to it.”

While marbles remains a popular game in western Pennsylvania, and the national tournament has drawn players from as far away as the state of Washington, there’s no denying it holds a tenuous place in today’s fast-paced society.

Ricci remembers a coach from Yonkers, New York, who used to bring a team to the national tournament every year. When he died, the program died with him.

“There isn’t a team from New York anymore,” Ricci said sadly. “I’m hopeful that we can keep it going as long as possible.

Even the national committee, they’ve started getting some of the younger players, some of the ex-players involved, so that when they move on, the keys get handed over to the next generation. This year, they had my older daughter on the stat team. Hopefully, they can keep it going long after I’m done.”

We hope so, too.

There should always be a place for a game of marbles.