WHEN MIKE PALINCZAR was a teenager in Trenton, N.J., he and his buddies loved to play Wiffle®Ball. Though Palinczar also played American Legion ball and would go on to play in college, he never lost his affection for the kids’ game with the slotted, hollow plastic ball and skinny yellow bat.
That’s why Palinczar couldn't resist when he heard in 1990 about a tournament near Boston in which adults played Wiffle®Ball for $10,000 in prize money. “We didn't know anyone else played,” he says. He and his Trenton friends entered the tournament and finished 10th out of a field of 70 teams.
Encouraged by their success, Palinczar and teammate Fred Bastedo got permission to fix up an abandoned basketball court at Pat Pone Playground in Trenton and built a field of their own, and the New Jersey Wiffle®Ball Association was born. What began as a 22-team league has evolved into an annual tournament that Palinczar, now 25 and president of the NJWA, says attracts 40-60 four-player teams from around the country to vie for prize money in excess of $1,000. [ Contact Palinczar at 609-771-8057 or visit the Web sight at www.wiffleballusa.com.']
This is not your garden-variety backyard Wiffle®Ball game. The players generally are in their mid-20’s to mid-30’'s; the pitches whiz, dip, and dive toward the plate at incredible speeds. “This is competitive,” Palinczar says. “We get a lot of softball players who- once they play Wiffle®Ball- don't want to play softball anymore.” Pitchers throw from a distance from 42 to 48 feet; imaginary base-runners advance according to how far the ball is hit.
Curves and screwballs are the staple pitches, but Wifflers also face rising heat at speeds Palinczar estimates to be near 70 mph. “The key to winning is definitely pitching,” he says. Doctoring the ball is not only advantageous, it’s encouraged. “A new ball doesn't have any movement. We allow pitchers to scrape the ball up before they go out there.”
Also pivotal to a team's success is the bat. The typical Wiffle® bat is too light and flimsy; custom bats made by Palinczar, with a plastic barrel and a wood-reinforced handle, have become popular on the Wiffle®Ball circuit. “When I started in 1990, I didn't expect to make money off this,” Palinczar says. “Now it's a business. People laugh, but I'm sending bats to doctors in California.”
The Wiffle®Ball season peaks in September at the North American Wiffle®Ball Championship. Run by Kevin Priessman, athletic coordinator at the Hamilton (Ohio) County Park District, the NAWBC draws about 45 teams from all over the United States. “What I'm trying to do,” says Priessman, “is unify the Wiffle®Ball world.” Hamilton County organized the first park-district-run leagues in 1993. As other districts around the country form their own leagues, Priessman hopes to arrange a sort of regional system that would cultimate with the championship at Hamilton County's field, which is a replica of Fenway Park.
Last year teams from 13 states competed, with the top three splitting $3,500 in prize money. Palinczar’s team-Team Trenton- won back-to-back titles in 1995 and 1996, which says something about the quality of competition in New Jersey.
“Most guys stopped playing when they were kids,” Palinczar says. “We’re pretty good because we never stopped playing. The kids still in me.” This definitely is not child's play anymore.- Anthony Craine