Monday, June 25, 2007

Wiffle Ball Tourny Explains my Absence [J. Mark English]

This past weekend I was up in Worcester, Massachusetts, participating in a Wiffle Ball Tournament, hosted by the New England Wiffle Association. Wiffle Ball is becoming the pick up game of choice in New England. Its a lot easier to get a group of friends to play wiffle ball in your back yard, then to play a full game of baseball. Also, its a lot safer since the plastic balls hardly can hurt you if you are hit by one. Nor could they break a window if hit hard. It is keeping baseball a popular sport among up and coming kids, and young adults.

I went to the tournament with some friends, including Addison Quale, a contributor to this blog. We had a blast, and it was a great way to catch some sun on a lazy, hazy summer Saturday. The two teams of four that we put together didn't fair well against some teams that practice every day. There were wiffle ball teams that take their wiffle addictions to extremes. One team, called the Lawn Boys, built a replica of Fenway Park behind their house, where they play every moment they get.

Paul Harber of the Boston Globe wrote an article about how serious some people are taking Wiffle Ball:

It's easy to think of Wiffle Ball as a kid's game, the pastime of lazy summer days. You can play it with just two people --one to pitch, one to hit -- which makes it ideal for days when friends are away on vacation or at camp. For a game of humble and relatively recent origins, invented in 1953 in a Connecticut backyard by a father and son, Wiffle Ball has become solidly knit into the fabric of America.

But Wiffle Ball has, in recent years, developed another, more serious side.

There are competing Wiffle Ball organizations, and leagues where players wear team uniforms, play a season-long schedule, and vie in national tournaments offering as much as $10,000 to the winners.

Locally, there are leagues sprouting up in towns such as Randolph, Weymouth, and Bridgewater.

And the New England Wiffle Association will be holding its annual tournament on July 31 in Stoughton, at the West School

Athletic Complex on Central Street, with as many as 500 teams involved in two age-based divisions. One tournament will feature teams of players age 15 or younger, and the open division's contests are for everyone else.

''We have players who are over 50," said Erik Newmark, executive director of the New England Wiffle Association.

Wiffle Ball is a game well-suited for players with a few years under their belts, given that its official form involves no base running. Whether a hit is a single, double, or triple is determined by where it lands on the marked field. Like in baseball, over the fence is a home run.

And its rules are relatively simple. Games last for six innings. Two strikes make an out, as do cleanly fielded grounders and fly balls. Four balls are a walk (although nobody actually goes anywhere). The strike zone is a plastic target, measuring 18 inches wide and 27 inches high, perched on a stand behind home plate. If a pitch hits the target, which sits 15 inches above the plate, it is considered a strike.

Pitchers throw from 41 feet away from home plate, and there is a speed limit of 38 miles per hour. If an opposing team complains that the pitcher is throwing too fast, Newmark has a radar gun to check.

Teams typically field three players, but there can be as many as five on a team and as few as one. ''We had a one-man team in the tournament a year ago," said Newmark. ''There is an advantage. You get to know what the opposing pitcher is throwing because you are up every at bat."...

....These days he travels to Danvers every Sunday to play in the Golden Stick League, the big leagues of Wiffle Ball. His team, the Blues, is ranked third in the nation, and competes in tournaments across the United States.

''There is nothing like it. Everybody has uniforms and it's highly competitive. There are 24 teams in the league, which is divided into two divisions," said Coutoumas.

One division is called the Pro League, which consists of the better teams and players. There is also a Prospect League, for developing players. The league is affiliated with Fast Plastic, a national Wiffle Ball organization, and features rules that make for games very different than NEWA's style of play.

''It's almost like baseball, and there is no speed limit for pitchers," said Coutoumas. ''Pitchers throw as hard as they can. Some can get it up to 70 miles an hour."

''I think the Internet has been a boost to Wiffle Ball," said Newmark. ''Players from all over the country are able to get together and form leagues and tournaments."

The biggest tournament is the Fast Plastic National Championship in Texas, with teams from across the country competing for the title and its $10,000 prize.

"It's definitely not the same game you use to play in the backyard," said Coutoumas.

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