August 7, 1998
By Dallas Hudgens
OUR TEEN-YEAR-OLD Wiffle ball ace Justin Rowe has a pet name for every pitch in his arsenal. Most of them conjure images of wind, rain and swirling debris. The Tornado. The Hurricane. The Thunderbolt. As I step up to the plate against him, I'm not sure if I should be carrying a plastic bat or an umbrella. "This is the High Tide," says the lanky right-hander as he goes into his windup. "Whatever you say," I mutter under my breath. "Just bring it on, Weather Boy." Within the span of a second, the ball shoots out of Rowe's hand, dives toward my shoelaces and then, at the last possible instant, resurrects itself and streaks across the plate at eye level. It's like a 60 mph magic trick. It makes my eyes hurt just to watch it. I flail at the ball like a drunk man trying to swat a hummingbird. Wiff! The bat cuts through the air, evoking the sound that gave the ball its name in the first place. At the sight of my futility, a satisfied grin spreads across Rowe's face. It's not an uncommon reaction. Over the years, the Wiffle ball has left many backyard hurlers feeling quite full of themselves. It looks harmless enough. Just a plastic ball with eight oblong perforations on one side. Oh, but how it tortures batters. It curves. It dips. It flitters like a butterfly. Even when you get good plastic on the ball, it rarely travels more than 90 feet. Since its introduction in 1953, Wiffle ball has offered weekend jocks a laid-back alternative to organized baseball and softball leagues. All you need for a tilt is two players, a ball, a bat (together only about $3) and a small playing field. Back yards. Back alleys. Gymnasiums. They've all doubled as Wiffle ball diamonds. I even had a PE coach who claimed that he and his Air Force buddies once played a game on a cargo plane. In flight, no less. Rowe plays on an honest-to-goodness organized Wiffle ball team, called the Gaithersburg Stompers. The Stompers grew out of backyard games started by the team's captain, 16-year-old Tim Cooke. As he searched the Web one day, Cooke found an abundance of Wiffle ball sites. Tournaments. Leagues. Aluminum Wiffle ball bats. Even a company that erects miniature ballparks in suburban yards. After realizing this was no underground activity, Cooke formed both the Stompers and the Maryland Wiffle Ball Association, which will hold its second annual Maryland State Championship tournament Saturday in Gaithersburg. Teams from as far away as Pennsylvania, Delaware, Georgia and New Jersey are expected to compete in the double-elimination event. "You see a lot of guys in their twenties and thirties at the tournaments," says Cooke. "Most of them loved the challenge of hitting or pitching a baseball, but they weren't good enough to play in college. For them, Wiffle ball is perfect. It narrows the game down to that confrontation between the batter and the pitcher." Tournaments most often use slightly modified versions of backyard rules. Teams vary in size from one to five players. Base running is taboo. Instead, the batter is awarded base hits depending on how far he hits the ball in the air. Lines on the field denote singles and doubles. Anything off the wall is a triple. Invisible runners advance the same number of bases as the batter. Cooke, Rowe and the rest of the Stompers (Cooke's brothers Phil, 11, Paul, 14, and their friend Daniel Isenberg, 16) can construct a portable field in a matter of minutes. Today, they've set up shop on a local soccer field. The outfield fence (80 feet to dead center) is made out of orange construction fencing. The foul lines and base-hit lines have been laid out in chalk. A rectangle measuring 32 inches high by 22 inches wide and sawed into the plywood backstop represents the strike zone. Any pitch that streaks through the opening is a strike. Isenberg grabs a bat and steps in to take some batting practice. Rowe, who pitched a complete game (six innings) no-hitter in a recent tournament, shows no mercy. He unleashes a variety of benders, risers and sinkers, each with good velocity. "Pitching is mainly in the grip and the release point," he says. "You just have to experiment to develop pitches. The good thing is that you really don't feel any strain on your arm. Not like you would if you were trying to throw breaking balls with a baseball." Isenberg, a lefty who also pitches, is having some success against Rowe. He even pokes a few balls over the fence. He says the best hitters wait as long as possible before they commit to a pitch. After all, the ball can change directions at any point in its flight. "The bat is so light that a flick of the wrists is all you need to get around quickly enough," he says. "It's also important to pay attention to the pitcher and then try to anticipate what he's going to throw." Just why does the Wiffle dance on its way to the plate? The ball's quirky movement is obviously related to the wind drag created by the perforations. Still, no one at Wiffle ball headquarters in Shelton, Conn., has bothered to commission a scientific study of Wiffle flight patterns. "It does what we want it to do, so what's the point?" says David J. Mullany, whose grandfather, David N. Mullany, built the Wiffle ball prototype at his kitchen table. "My dad and his buddies were playing with a plastic golf ball, and dad's arm was sore from trying to make it curve," says the young Mullany. "My grandfather had been a semipro pitcher, so he got some plastic parts and cut out 10 or 12 different designs. Then he sent my father out to try all of them. The one that worked best is the model that we still use today." In an effort to preserve the casual spirit of Wiffle ball, the company has declined opportunities to start its own series of tournaments and competitive leagues. "Nobody plays the same way," says Mullany. "Some play home run derby, others play straight baseball and others a hybrid of the two. If we got all these people together and told them they had to play a certain way, some would like it and some would hate it. So, we're content to let people have fun in their own way. There are more than enough rules to follow on a day-to-day basis without me saying you have to play Wiffle ball a particular way." Several unofficial governing bodies have drafted their own rules, which are used in leagues and tournaments around the country. One of the most respected outfits is the New Jersey Wiffleball Association (NJWA). Founder and president Mike "Wiffleczar" Palinczar has helped dozens of would-be commissioners, including Cooke, launch their own Wiffle competitions. The NJWA holds two professional tournaments every summer at its lighted field in Trenton, N.J. Since the inaugural tournament in 1990, these Wiffle wars have drawn more than 500 teams. Some of them have earned prize money in excess of $1,000. "It was just for fun at first, but now it has become a business," says Palinczar. "We have a 10-man staff, including a grounds crew and statisticians. We even make our own bats and sell them over the Internet. I send them out to doctors, policemen, lawyers. You know, really big kids." Palinczar, now 26, was only a year older than Cooke when he and his buddies entered their first tournament. Team Trenton is now one of the top Wiffle ball crews in the country. They won back-to-back titles in 1995 and 1996 at the North American Wiffle Ball Championships, which are played in Hamilton County, Ohio, on a field that replicates the appearance of Boston's Fenway Park, right down to the "green monster" in left field. For Cooke and the Stompers, the championships will have to wait until their parents grant them permission to make the long road trip. Right now, practice is winding down. Cooke and one of his brothers are busy polishing off a Slurpee. Isenberg is resting in the grass. The field is speckled with balls, and the sun has disappeared behind a bank of rain clouds. Still, I grab a bat and Rowe plucks one last ball from the bucket. The sky starts to sprinkle rain as he winds up. "Here comes the Thunderbolt," he says. MARYLAND WIFFLE BALL ASSOCIATION -- 18308 Winter Park Ct., Gaithersburg, MD 20879; 301/948-4127. For information on the state championship tournament, fax your name and phone number to Tim Cooke at 301/948-4127, or e-mail to email@example.com. Tournament information is also available on the MWBA Web site at members.tripod.com/~wiffleman/index.html.
The tournament will begin at 9 a.m. Saturday at Strawberry Knoll Elementary School athletic field, 18820 Strawberry Knoll Rd., Gaithersburg. The tournament field is full but spectators are welcome. Resources WIFFLE BALL INC. -- The makers of the Wiffle ball have an excellent Web site, complete with suggestions for backyard rules and instructions on mastering basic pitches like the curve, slider and fastball at http://www.wiffle.com. NATIONAL PASTIMES CONSULTANTS -- Constructs Wiffle ball-sized re-creations of historic ballparks such as Ebbets Field. 436 Pleasant Run Dr., Suite E, Wheeling, IL 60090. 847/419-9787. Web site:www.npcplayball.com. NEW JERSEY WIFFLEBALL ASSOCIATION -- For information on equipment or tournaments. 609/771-8057. Web site: www.wiffleballusa.com.