Monday, August 11, 1997
If four men in Trenton had their way, this city would be a Wiffle® utopia, where no one argues with the ump and no one pulls a muscle running the bases. That's because, according to their rules, there’re no umps and no base running. It’s all part of a crusade the group is waging to bring respect and organization to the sport with the plastic ball. And to make the Capital City the International-Hub of all things Wiffle®, 25-year-olds Fred Bastedo, Mike Soltesz, Dan Cryan and Mike Palinczar, members of Team Trenton, have shown the world how to do it-winning back-to-back Wiffle®Ball National Championship and attracting media exposure world over. Most recently, the foursome appeared on MSNBC to talk about their trip to the National Championship in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Sept. 12 to defend their title. If Team Trenton wins , the guys said last week on TV last Sunday, it will be the first time in Wiffle®Ball’s 40 year history the same team has walked away with the National title in three consecutive years.
“We never expected to wind up on cable TV or that the response would be this big,” said Bastedo, who gave up on being the next Barry bonds to legitimize his favorite childhood bat and ball game with Palinczar. “It’s been our biggest dream come true.” A dream that came in 1989, when a couple of Mc Corristin high grads picked up their hollow, yellow bats and 8-slot white, plastic balls and started playing seriously. “When we first started there weren't a lot of guys playing Wiffle®Ball anymore, but we were,” said Bastedo. “We figured it was easy to play, we didn’t break anymore windows and once we started playing again we got good at it.”
Bastedo and Palinczar registered their team, then Trenton Giants, in 1989 with two other friends, placed 2nd in New Jersey and 10th in the World Tournament in Boston, Mass. Soon after, the game, which they once played on lazy summer days as children, became a competitive sport and to Bastedo and escape he can provide to young city kids. “We created a league and tournament in Trenton that kids could participate in to keep them off the streets and do something productive and fun and maybe even win some money,” said Bastedo. (With purses up to $10,000 in some tournaments, Wiffle®Ball can be awfully lucrative.) Bastedo and Palinczar also decided to create their own mini-stadium and set their sites on a dilapidated, drug-infested, vandalized, South Trenton park to fix up and use as a Wiffle®Ball field.
That was eight years ago. Today, the once abused Patrick Pone Park on Chestnut Avenue has a black-topped court, water hook up and lights for night play and a group on volunteer custodians. The group of six guys has since expanded and given themselves a name, the New Jersey Wiffle®Ball Association, and now has several hundred members and includes 60 organized teams within the Garden State. They join more than 1,000 teams across the country involved in serious Wiffle®Ball tourneys.
Palinczar estimated there are several thousand semi-pro and pro players in the country with 3 to 5 members per team and ranging from age 12 to 45. There is no longer league play in this area, and instead the NJWA hosts an annual tournament, which Team Trenton won last weekend. “This was the first year we didn't use umpires to call the balls at the plate and used a back board target to rule balls and strikes,” said Palinczar. Because their was no way to worry about biased umps, Team Trenton, whose members run the NJWA, felt they could compete in their own tournament. “It was the first one in the eight years we've been running the tournament we felt we could compete,” said Palinczar. Because the annual tournament has been so successful, the NJWA hopes to organize a tournament for every other weekend for during next summer's season. “Some of the people start dropping out of the league,” said Bastedo, “but it picked up again in the last few years. It's just spread like wildfire.”
When the Trenton Giants broke up in 1994, Bastedo and Palinczar found Cryan and Soltesz and became Team Trenton. “College baseball was over softball was too slowed paced and I was tired of playing neighborhood kids,” said Cryan. “I figured I had been undefeated in my own backyard in Wiffle®Ball since I was 14, and this could be a real challenge.” For those of you who can’t envision Wiffle®Ball as a serious or competitive sport, consider this, said Cryan, who pitches with Soltesz for their team. “Most professional baseball players will tell you that they actually do play Wiffle®Ball when they're not playing during the regular season,” he said. “And it's important that people know when we play Wiffle®Ball we're not talking about the kind of thing kids play in their backyards.”
The big boys in fact, have been clocked with pitch speeds up to 70 mph that include curve balls, sliders and drop pitches. “I’m telling you some of those babies will some whipping right past you and you don't even see them,” said Cryan. Off speed pitches, he said, makes the look more effective and most of the players use a modified bat. Palinczar even made his own in his basement, which includes a wooden shaft at the bottom and measures about 36 inches long.