Wiffle Ball Hits Home

October 11, 2000

LA Times

J. MICHAEL KENNEDY | Times Staff Writer

The old-fashioned kids' game is attracting a growing legion of competitive adults, lured by the game's high skill level.

Wiley Roberts leaned into the batter's box, glaring as Marty Rackham went into his windup.

Rackham delivered the pitch and Roberts swung ferociously, hitting the wicked sinker deep to right. The ball sailed over the fence, a towering 77-foot shot.

The crowd, sitting in bleachers that once graced Anaheim Stadium, applauded loudly between swigs of beer, then settled back and checked a nearby television to see how the Yankees-A's playoff game was going. And in the broadcast booth, comedians Jeff Hatz and Jeremy Kramer poked fun at Roberts, Rackham and most anyone else who came in their line of sight.

All this, in Rick Messina's backyard.

The game: Wiffle ball. But not the kids' game that ranks right up there with Monopoly and the yo-yo as an icon of the American scene. This is Wiffle ball for adults, Wiffle ball squared. Serious stuff, sort of.

What Messina, who manages comedians, has done is take Wiffle ball to the extreme, spending a wad of cash to transform the backyard of his posh Encino home into wiffler heaven. His buddies turn up every Sunday to play ball, imbibe freely, smoke cigars and watch sports on the seven televisions that line the wall of his den. Messina even bought the house next door for $700,000 to expand his complex, filling in the swimming pool to make way for a second wiffle field and various other games played by this 40-something crowd.

"This is where every man wants to be if he could," said bachelor Messina, 45, whose clients include comic superstars Drew Carey and Tim Allen. "I could have bought a home in Colorado that I'd use once a year, but I get to do this every weekend."

While Messina may take his Wiffle ball to the outer limits, he is not alone in taking the game very seriously. This may be the season of baseball's Fall Classic, but it's also a time for Wiffle ball tourneys galore. One that will be held later this month in Glendale, Ariz., bills itself as the World Series of Wiffle ball, as do a number of others around the country. Another just-finished tournament in the Northeast covered eight cities in six states. Teams in Texas are gearing up for a state championship. Two California tourneys are coming up in Costa Mesa and Ventura before the end of the year. Each year, more and more tournaments using patented Wiffle balls or similar orbs are being staged as the game's popularity expands.

While the game has its roots in New England, California is well-represented. In one national ranking compiled by the Wiffle newsletter Fast Plastic, eight California teams are in the top 20.

"I never expected the game to evolve the way it has," said Mike Palinczar, a Trenton, N.J., wiffler who helped pioneer serious adult play a decade ago. "Now there's a tournament every single weekend."

That may be an exaggeration, but not by much. Until recently, most people confined their play to the neighborhood or, at most, their hometowns. Now there are touring pros and cash prizes, though not enough for wiffleheads to give up their day jobs.

The reason given most often for the sport's explosion in popularity is the Internet, which now boasts hundreds of Wiffle ball sites throughout the United States. Through the Web, people who thought they were unique in playing serious Wiffle ball began discovering they were not alone, giving the game a much broader base.

"It's a strange underground cult, is what it is," said Jay Wolfe, a devoted wiffler from Laguna Beach.

Though rules vary, the game of Wiffle ball is played by two teams, usually with three or four players a side. The field for tournament play is in the shape of a pie, with the batter standing at the narrow end.

Since there are no umpires, balls and strikes are determined by where the ball hits the backstop behind home plate. Strikeouts and fly outs retire the side. Lines mark off fair territory as well as the areas for singles, doubles, triples and homers. As play progresses, imaginary baserunners advance. Pitchers can grip the ball several ways, causing it to curve and dip much more than a regular baseball.

It is, in essence, a slightly more sophisticated game than the game played by millions of children over the years--and who still do. At the top level of play, it is dominated by men, most of whom played some kind of organized baseball as they were growing up.

So what's the lure? Part of it is social, getting together on weekends with like-minded enthusiasts. But the other is the level of difficulty. Among the best of the wifflers, the perforated plastic ball can be hurled more than 75 mph from 45 feet away. That's the equivalent of a major league 95 mph fastball, with the kind of movement sure to tie a hitter in knots. In Wiffle ball, even more than baseball, the edge belongs to the pitcher.

Take the case of San Diego's Chris Hancock, only a few years removed from playing shortstop for the University of Denver. The rest of his teammates also played college baseball. Yet he thinks wiffling tests the limits of his hitting skills.

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