Hitters often at loss in wiffle competition

September 15, 2002

Daily Herald - Albany, NY

William Kates - Associated Press Writer

ALBANY, N.Y. -- The temperature is in the 50s and the pulsing rain that comes and goes makes for a raw, unseasonable summer day.

After six hours, Andrew DeMarco can't feel his toes because of the soaking cold. His overused right arm burns with soreness and fatigue. His team, O.A.B. Big, has just lost the championship game 2-0 to the powerful Patriots on a pair of two-out walks with the bases loaded in the first inning. But, with a $300 prize check clutched in his hand for the first time, DeMarco is pumped and ready to go again.

"This is such a blast," says DeMarco, a 21-year-old Bowdoin College student from Winthrop, Mass., smiling and indifferent to the wet, muddy clothes that cover his shivering body. "There's nothing to match it."

Such is the passion of competitive wiffle ball.

Across the country, increasing numbers of adults are rediscovering the childhood backyard game as teams, leagues, tournaments and associations pop up from New York to Florida to Texas to California.

"The game has been transformed," said Mike Palinczar, a 30-year-old Trenton police officer who serves as president of the New Jersey Wiffle Ball Association when he isn't hurling his fabled riser past befuddled batters.

"Instead of a bunch of guys just lollygagging in their back yard, it has become a serious, competitive game," Palinczar said.

Some teams play for fun; some for cash prizes generally in the hundreds of dollars. The 3-on-3 tournament in Albany in late August was sponsored by Wiffle-Up, a 6-year-old tour produced by Diamond Sports Group of Wilton, Conn. It attracted more than 700 teams in 14 events in eight states this summer and will host its World Finals Sept. 28 in North Branford, Conn. "It's a fun way of reliving a childhood game but, believe me, there are really good players out here who are serious about winning," said Damian Plingos, a 32-year-old computer technician from San Diego who took the red-eye to Albany to play with his two cousins in their first go at tournament wiffle ball.

Plingos' team was eliminated 8-7 despite yielding only one hit.

Only 32 teams played in Albany -- a turnout blamed on weather -- making it the smallest tournament of the tour, said Mike Alessie, the company's president and tour organizer. The field exceeded 80 teams in Cleveland, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

"We're averaging around 50 teams a tournament. It's really taken off the past few years," Alessie said. "It's moving beyond a subculture status and out of the back yard."

The United States Perforated Plastic Baseball Association also sanctions 20 regional tournaments and conducts playoffs capped by a national championship Oct. 19 in Sarasota, Fla.

"Wiffle ball has always had a cult following," said Bruce Chrystie of Rehoboth, Mass., a 38-year-old insurance company pricing specialist and the USPPBA's executive director. "There are people who live and die for wiffle ball," said Chrystie, who pitches for a team called In the Box and throws a beguiling assortment of curves, sliders, change-ups, cut fastballs, screwballs, sinkers -- even a few creative combinations. "People were loosely organized until the Internet gave them a convenient way to come together," Chrystie said.

Palinczar said his New Jersey-based organization's Web site has links to 160 wiffle ball sites.

Although rules vary from place to place, most tournaments are played as home run derby-style games with no baserunning and hits awarded by where the ball lands on the field. Regulation games are typically six innings.

Fields, which range from spray-painted, cone-marked grass lots to specially built mini-stadiums, are wedges from 70 degrees to 90 degrees, with outfield fences 90 feet to 110 feet from home plate.

Two bare-handed teammates help the pitcher defend the field, which is divided by an infield-outfield line. Teams can typically bat up to five players, with two acting as designated hitters.

A target or target hole, 2-feet-by-3-feet or smaller, serves as both catcher and umpire.

The pitcher's rubber is 42 feet away -- which means a 70 mph pitch, the speed some pitchers can throw, gets home in a hurry. Add the ball's famous hummingbird-like dips and darts, and it is no surprise that wiffle ball remains a pitcher's game. In tournament play, extra-inning no-hitters are common.

"It can be pretty elusive trying to hit one against a top pitcher," said Rich Wasvary, a 28-year-old exterminator from Hyde Park, N.Y., who pitches for the PO-Town Express. That team made it to last year's national Wiffle-Up semifinals.

To enhance the movement, Wasvary -- and all good pitchers -- scuff, file, bruise, dent and otherwise disfigure the outside of the ball. Only cracks longer than a quarter-inch will get a ball tossed from a game. "You get to know what the ball will do, what kind of breaks it will have. A new ball has no movement. You can get pretty possessive about a ball," DeMarco said.

The wiffle ball -- with one solid side and the other with eight oblong perforations -- was invented in 1953 by David Nelson Mullany, an out-of-work, one-time semipro player from Fairfield, Conn., who wanted to give his son a way to play backyard baseball without breaking nearby windows.

Mullany's son said they should call the ball, "whiffle," for the slang word, "whiff," meaning strike out. They dropped the "h" so it would be one less letter on their signs. David J. Mullany, a third-generation executive in the family-owned Wiffle Ball Inc. in Shelton, Conn., remembers seeing his first tournament in 1975 in Frederick, Md., on a converted dairy pasture.

"I think part of the game's appeal is the simplicity," he said.

"If you have two people, you have a game. And it doesn't have to be Nolan Ryan and Sammy Sosa. Just anybody who can throw a ball or swing a bat."

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