Wiffle ball: It's not just for kids anymore

International house of Wiffles 

Wiffle ball: It's not just for kids anymore

For some fans, baseball is forever associated with summer. But that connection is rather misleading because the season begins with much fanfare in the spring and ends with the playoffs and World Series in the fall. Thus, the hand-to-eye coordination sport that more closely defines summer for many recreational purists is Wiffle ball -- an activity as comparable to baseball as Frisbee golf is to the PGA tour.

Some ballparks are built specifically for the game, major and minor leagues participate in it, and nearly 100 Web sites are devoted to it, but Wiffle ball is often dismissed as a kids' game. Not so. It is a game for adults -- some of whom are admittedly bloated and pokey, but mature nonetheless.

It is certainly adults who partake in the increasingly popular Wiffle Ball World Series (played round-robin style à la the college WS), which boasts such squads as the Georgia Longshotz and the New York State of Mind. It's not surprising that so many of these teams are based in Connecticut (The New England Iguanas, The Naugatuck Greyhounds), because the game itself originally evolved in that state. The first Wiffle ball was created by taping two halves of a Coty Perfume package together and was batted with a broomstick handle. The eventual white plastic ball debuted in 1953 and was initially sold at a Connecticut diner. The wafer-thin yellow plastic bat that is often dubbed the "golden staff of justice" soon followed (though there is currently an aluminum bat being marketed just for the sport -- a sacrilege?).

Sure, the World Wiffle Ball Association (WWBA) has an official rule book, but the great thing about the game is how it can be forever modified to suit any terrain and number of players. Here is an easy primer for those who yearn for some guidelines to orchestrate a more sensible game. Call it KC-rules Wiffle ball.

The beauty of the pastime is that so little is needed to start. Generally all that is required is some form of backstop -- a fence or a wall -- and a minimum of two players. For a more uniform stadium, use a tennis court, which comes in especially handy for night games because of the frequent artificial lighting. Here, the batter sets up in the center of the fence behind the serving line. The pitcher stands in the middle of the midcourt line. Balls and strikes are called by agreement between batter and pitcher (when in doubt, it's a strike). An out is recorded either by strikeout (frequent) or by a ball's touching the ground before it reaches the pitcher. A single is accomplished by hitting the ball past the pitcher and between the tennis net. A double is over the tennis net. A home run (difficult) must clear the opposing serving line. There is no triple. Ghost runners are used.

A caught ball is an out. A caught ball with men on base is a double play (two outs). But if a batted ball hits off the pitcher without being caught, it is an automatic double. This adds incentive and suspense to keeping hold of the wily Wiffle ball on a routine pop fly.

Past that, how many more rules are needed? If there is a question, just go by baseball regulations. However, it's the perfect sport for those who don't have enough friends or co-workers to field a nine-person baseball or softball team.

But the fascination with the game stems from the pitching, because the ball itself has eight oblong air holes, which allow it to dance in the wind. Mastering these pitches is the whole trick, as sometimes throwing a strike can be subject to weather conditions. The strategy is fairly simple, though: Point the ball's perforations toward the direction you want the pitch to move. For a righty-righty matchup, a curve that moves away from the batter is thrown with the holes facing inward; a slider the opposite. Tossing sidearm can result in nasty sinkers or gravity-defying risers depending on whether the holes face down or up. Knuckle balls have been known to cross state lines.

Much in the way that baseball is the great equalizer, Wiffle ball is even more so. The strongest man on earth can't knock one over the fence of even the smallest Major League Baseball stadium -- unless the wind is particularly strong that day. Even pitchers such as Pedro Martinez or Roger Clemens can't chuck one over 80 miles per hour.

You can't get a black eye from being pegged in the face by a Wiffle ball. You can't break a neighbor's window with it. If you run over it with a car, the ball can be resurrected with a little prodding. Even if the game ball is lost to a sewer drain or captured by a tree, it is easily replaceable for no more than a couple bucks.

As the Wiffle fans of summer can attest, there is little bit of magic in that plastic.

Contact www.wiffleball.com for more information or www.wiffleballusa.com to register a team nationally.

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