The Wiffle Kings

Updated Aug. 6, 1999 1:31 a.m. ET

The Wall Street Journal

By Stefan FatsisStaff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

You think it's easy being, to quote Roy Hobbs in "The Natural," "the best who ever played the game"? Consider Frank and Tom LoCascio. They make just a couple thousand dollars a year playing. They get no publicity. Their friends make fun of them. Even their father says this of their talent: "It's a little regression thing, I think."

Of course, when you've chosen to devote your adult athletic life to Wiffle Ball, you don't command instant respect. At the risk of hyperbole, though, what the LoCascio brothers do with the white plastic ball and yellow plastic bat is akin to what Sammy Sosa and Randy Johnson do with ash and leather, and that makes them, like all top athletes, worth a closer look.

That Wiffle Ball is a competitive sport at all may surprise anyone who grew up playing the backyard game with makeshift rules. (At my home field, a drainpipe marked the left-field line, into the driveway was a double, over the white picket fence a home run.) But dozens of Wiffle Ball tournaments have sprung up around the country, and entrepreneurs are peddling aluminum Wiffle bats, prescuffed Wiffle Balls and custom Wiffle stadiums. The family that invented the Wiffle Ball in 1953 and has sold tens of millions since keeps churning them out at a small factory in Connecticut. Even Major League Baseball is marketing a knockoff of the game on a 15-city tour this summer.

No Baserunning

Competitive Wiffle Ball is played on a field shaped like an ice-cream cone. Rules vary, but there are some general principles. There is no base running. Hits are based on how far the ball travels, with lines demarcating singles, doubles, triples and, when no wall is available, home runs. The outfield fences are 75 to 110 feet from home plate; the pitching line, 40 to 45 feet. Tournaments draw 50 or more teams of two to five players, with first-place money ranging from $500 to $1,500.

The LoCascio brothers have been Wiffling obsessively since childhood, when their dad hooked a spotlight to the roof of their West Islip, N.Y., home to allow for night games. But they're not kids anymore. Frank is a married, 30-year-old middle-school teacher with a shaved head and goatee that make him look like the wrestler-turned-governor Jesse Ventura. Tom, 32, is a high-school business-education teacher who could stand in for the actor John Turturro. They are gentle jocks who don't talk trash at their opponents, instead high-fiving them after every half-inning.

The brothers played real baseball in college and Wiffled privately through their 20s but didn't discover tournament play until 1997. "I was waiting all my life for that," says Tom, who told the organizer of their first event that he and his brother would win. "That's what everyone says," he heard back. But the LoCascios did win. They took six of their first 13 tournaments -- a remarkable record in a flukey game -- and last year their team, In the Box, was ranked No. 1 in the country by Fast Plastic, a Wiffle newsletter. Since merging with another top Wiffle squad last fall, they've won seven of 11 events and remain No. 1.

What sets Frank and Tom apart is pitching. The Wiffle Ball has eight oblong holes on one hemisphere, and the air passing through them makes the ball dance and whir erratically. While no one knows precisely why a Wiffle Ball behaves the way it does -- though physicists have pondered the question -- the LoCascios can chuck it upward of 60 mph and, at will, make it hit a free-standing strike zone measuring from 19 inches by 22 inches to 26 inches by 36 inches, depending on the tournament, all with an array of mystifying gyrations.

Frank, a right-hander, is the better pitcher -- 12-0 this year, including three no-hitters, on top of 30-2 last year. (Author's note: One of the losses came against a team consisting of me and four friends.) His repertoire of six pitches includes the "circus pitch," an 8-foot curveball that's been known to curl behind a right-handed batter before nicking the strike zone.

'Throwing Air'

This season, Frank has relied almost exclusively on a virtually unhittable drop-screwball that speeds toward a right-handed hitter before sinking precipitously at the last moment. "I found out it didn't hurt my arm at all," he says. And that's a key to Wiffle. Pitchers can throw more than 450 pitches in a day, and Tom, a lefty, already has had a bout of "dead-arm" this summer. "You're throwing air," he says of the 0.7-ounce ball. "Eventually, your arm is going to snap. You just don't know when."

Pitching may be Wiffle Ball's wonder, but it also is its weakness -- and the reason you won't find the sport on ESPN anytime soon. Pitching so dominates hitting that games can be prolonged, hitless affairs decided by a single mistake. One of the LoCascios' new teammates, Mike "the Wiffleczar" Palinczar, 27, played in a 21-inning, 1-0 game last year. In July, he pitched what's believed to be tournament Wiffle's first "perfect-perfect game," striking out every batter.

A lively Wiffle community on the Internet has won the LoCascios recognition, and Wifflers from around the country ask them to attend their tournaments. Now known as Tri-State Terror, the team already has played in eight events this season -- Tom squeezed in his engagement party on a rare open date last Saturday; the evening ended with a game of Wiffle -- and starting tomorrow they're booked on 10 of the next 11 weekends, including a trip to Granite City, Ill., where eight of the country's top teams are to gather at a Wiffle-only stadium.

The LoCascios' old softball buddies -- they quit this year to focus on Wiffle -- derisively dubbed them "the Wiffle kings." But the brothers make no apologies. They even dream of playing Wiffle against a team of major leaguers someday. "Honestly? I think they'd have a tough time hitting us," Frank says. "I think we could hit them. I don't think they could hit us."

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