If the phrase "organized adult Wiffle ball" has a slightly ludicrous ring to it, that's because we invariably associate the white plastic sphere with childhood, backyard fields, and quirky ground rules. A one-hopper off the tool shed was a double, a shot over the boxwood hedge was a home run, and a foul ball into the fenced province of the neighbors' dog meant the game was over.
That version of the sport still exists, fostering, as one enthusiast's Web site puts it, "the ruining of America's backyards." But in the mid-1990s isolated groups of adult players—usually in their twenties or thirties—discovered on the Internet that plenty of others out there shared their passion. Adult tournaments have been around for years, particularly in the Northeast, where the Wiffle tradition runs long and deep, but competitive adult Wiffle ball has now grown into a thriving subculture of self-described "touring pros," structured competitions, cash prizes, and slick playing fields. Forget the boxwood hedges; these guys swing for low, Fenway-green outfield fences eighty to 110 feet from home plate. And forget those plastic Wiffle bats, too. "That little yellow bat just doesn't cut it today, especially against the pitchers you're facing," says Mike Palinczar, the organizer of two annual tournaments in Trenton, New Jersey, and one of the game's premier pitchers. "If you're up there with a yellow bat, you might as well give up." Today's players wield sturdier plastic or aluminum bats (including one manufactured by Palinczar) with names like Ledge Sledge, King Stick, and Wiffle Pro. A carbon-graphite model, the Moonshot, sells for $120.
The sport reached a milestone in January of 2001, when six players from various parts of the country, frustrated by bitter rivalries and a lack of organization, convened in Baltimore to see if they could invest the game with some semblance of order and uniformity. Two days later they emerged as the United States Perforated Plastic Baseball Association, a governing body that publishes rules, sanctions a series of tournaments on both coasts during baseball season, and conducts post-season playoffs that culminate in a fall national championship. The organization's name may suggest a lack of seriousness, but the players, most of whom played baseball in high school or college, intend nothing of the sort. Billy Owens, of Costa Mesa, California, a thirty-four-year-old electronics distribution manager, is one of the association's founders and the editor of an online Wiffle-ball newsletter called Fast Plastic. Owens bristles at the notion that he is consumed by a child's game. "For ex-baseball players," he told me, "this is the closest thing they can get to playing college-level baseball or even semi-pro."
To be sure, USPPBA Wiffle ball, for all its similarities to baseball, is a significantly different game. Teams field just three players (though five may rotate in the batting order). Games go six innings instead of nine, and take about one hour instead of three. And baserunning is not a component. As with the backyard game, hits are awarded according to precise ground rules: one base for a ball that lands safely in the outfield, two bases if it rolls to the fence, and three if it hits the fence on the fly. A home run, naturally, occurs when a ball clears the fence. In a sense this is poor man's baseball, but it is played with a devotion bordering on obsession. Owens, a family man famed in Wiffle circles for his pitching prowess, crossed the country thirty-five times over three seasons to compete against the best talent in the Northeast. "I've spent thousands and thousands on airline tickets and other expenses," he says. Owens's former teammate Mark DeMasi, a thirty-six-year-old married father of two who lives in Atlanta, flew to California seven times in six months last season to compete in the USPPBA's West Coast series of one-day tournaments.
"Almost every other weekend I'm gone," Mike Palinczar says. Such dedication can discourage girlfriends: "I had one for seven years, and Wiffle ball actually drove her crazy."
For a grown man to reveal that he spends his weekends playing cutthroat Wiffle ball can't be easy. "I tell people at work and they're baffled," admits Bruce Chrystie, from Rehoboth, Massachusetts, a thirty-eight-year-old pricing specialist for Metropolitan Life who is the executive director of the USPPBA. "It's like saying you collect Tonka trucks." Chrystie plays for In the Box, a top team in the East.
When Tom LoCascio, a Long Island schoolteacher, met the woman he would later marry, he addressed the matter head on: "I play Wiffle ball," he said. "Is that an issue for you?"
Chad Anderson, a twenty-four-year-old account executive for Sharp office equipment, never gave the image problem a thought. He is one of three brothers who, along with an uncle and a family friend, make up the A-Bros, a virtually unbeatable team from Ventura, California. After getting his first taste of tournament play, in 2000, Chad had team business cards printed identifying the A-Bros as the "#1 Wiffleball Team in the Nation." The boast seemed brazen at the time, even though the A-Bros had won several competitions, but last season they clobbered everyone in sight, compiling a 47-0 record before the USPPBA national championships, in Granite City, Illinois, where they beat the hosting Lakeside Kings three games to none, without allowing a run.
Wiffle ball's great advantage over baseball has always been that it requires so few players. Its great disadvantage—from a spectator's standpoint, anyway—is that the ball itself skews the enterprise decidedly in favor of the pitcher. Those who have learned how to fully exploit the ball's aerodynamic idiosyncrasies can throw pitches that dart about like hummingbirds.
Billy Owens once carried a no-hitter into the sixteenth inning in a tournament final before surrendering a home run and losing 1-0; the opposing pitcher had a no-hitter going too. In last season's eastern playoffs Ryan Hunsel, the Lakeside Kings' nineteen-year-old prodigy, threw back-to-back no-hitters. Chad Anderson tells of pitching Wiffle ball a few years ago against some triple-A baseball players and Cory Snyder, then a major-leaguer: "They couldn't touch me. Then I started telling them what was coming, and they still couldn't touch it."
Forty-nine years ago an out-of-work Connecticut man named David Nelson Mullany cut holes in a hard plastic orb of Coty perfume packaging with the intention of creating a marketable ball for kids that wouldn't break windows and would curve easily. Neither he nor his thirteen-year-old son, David, who helped him experiment with different designs, could have foreseen that their creation would become one of the most enduring toys in American history.