Updated October 25, 2013 at 3:26 PM; Posted October 1, 2013 at 10:00 AM
By MIKE FRASSINELLI
Like a butterfly on caffeine, the plastic ball perforated with eight holes leaves a pitcher’s hand as he stands 45 feet from a batter holding a plastic stick.The ball does a “Dancing With the Stars” audition — the samba, the paso doble and the quickstep, all at once — before reaching home plate.
Think Wiffle Ball is kids’ play, or perhaps something to do at a picnic while holding a brew in one hand? Then you haven’t seen the New Jersey Wiffle Ball Association’s Wiffle Fest.
The tournament is held every fall in the middle of New Jersey’s capital city and attracts teams of three to five players from several states, with names such as Hicks with Sticks, Take a Whiff and Sons of Pitches. This year’s tournament is scheduled for Oct. 26 at Cadwalader Park in Trenton. During a visit to the August tournament last year, it didn’t take long to realize this is extreme Wiffle Ball.
You might recognize the players in real life. They are engineers, teachers, government workers and students. But on weekends they turn into Wiffle Ball addicts and they want nothing more than to beat the sweatpants off you.
Before the tournament games begin, pitchers take a knife to the Wiffle Balls — the rules allow it — or scrape them on the sidewalk to make it easier to throw a curveball.
The batters are allowed to use thicker bats than the traditional thin yellow “banana bats.”
“The game’s evolved,” says Dylan Colgate of Pitman, who plays in the annual tournament with his pals on a team named The Fats. “We were more hefty last year,” says Colgate, who during the fall suits up as a tight end for Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
The Fats, playing for a second straight tournament championship, are playing a team called The Bads, out of Strafford, Pennsylvania, west of Philadelphia.
The Bads are playing for a departed friend, Corey Salazar, who died of cancer.
“Corey loved all sports, baseball in particular,” says his brother, Rick Salazar, an engineer and a member of The Bads. “It just brought back the inner child transitioning from baseball over to Wiffle Ball. Every person, whether you’re a guy, a girl, whoever, they always want to have that inner child, that joy, that excitement. Corey, he just loved Wiffle Ball.”
“We decided that we’d come back and play again — kind of to get ourselves together, but also in memory of him, and because we played together before growing up — since we were 8 years old,” says another member of The Bads, teacher John Koenig. “We miss him tremendously today, but we’re still here for him and thinking about him.”
There was an old commercial that depicted the “Kool-Aid” house on the block, the place that had the coolest mom and was the hangout for all the kids on the street. That was the Salazar house, where lights were installed on their own Wiffle Ball field and they had a pitching machine. Play the sport of your childhood, and for a few hours, anyway, you become a child again.
“It’s a sport that you play when you’re 6 years old and you play when you’re 15 years old and you play when you’re 40 and 50 years old — if you can still get on the field — and every single time you get up there you think that you’re just like Lou Gehrig or just like Alex Rodriguez or just like any of the great players,” says Koenig. “It brings you back to the dream of baseball, and that’s what I think the attraction is. The dream and the imagination — that’s what Wiffle Ball is all about.”
All the participants in the tournament have their reasons for playing. Koenig, Rick Salazar and Dave Serafin are playing for Corey.
The Swingers — typically the Yankees of the tournament — are playing to prove they’re still the best.
Fifty-year-old players from Pennsylvania, on a team known as the Cardinals, are trying to show they can still compete against the young bucks.
The Cardinals from Lancaster played their first tournament in Trenton in 1997, and have been returning most years to compete against younger players. They have become so well-established as the elder statesmen that people clap when they walk into the bar after the tournament.
Scott Rutter and Brian Vulgaris, both near their mid-50s, are childhood friends who used to play games of Wiffle Ball pretending to be in the lineups of their favorite teams. “He was a Phillies fan, I was an Orioles fan,” Vulgaris says. “So, we’d always have these fantasy lineups. Who we got today? All-time Orioles, Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, against Mike Schmidt and Bob Dernier. We’d go at it hard.”
“We were so ashamed of it when we were in our 20s, we’d put the bat down when people would come by because it’d be like, ‘Hey, we’re playing a kid’s game,’” Rutter says with a chuckle.
Then he turns his attention to the field, where his childhood friend has just hit a grand slam.
“Nice, B! ... Way to go there, pal.”
“Against young kids, it’s awesome, man,” Vulgaris says as he returns to the bench. “It’s awesome. That’s what keeps you young.”
After the game, Rutter has a burger, no bun. He’s watching his carbs. There’s a lot of food imagery in baseball — home runs are called taters and a pitched ball that becomes a home run is called a meatball.
One field over, the Cardinals see themselves when they were young.
Teenage pals on the Jersey City Bombers — Hans Schundler, Dylan Deans, Devin Melman and Patrick Keenan — all 13 or 14 — are the talk of the tournament for their surprisingly good play against established teams.
Tournament games are four innings. Wooden backstops serve as strike zones and the 70-degree angle playing fields are shaped like ice cream cones, with the point at home plate. Balls that go 48 feet without being caught are singles, and balls that hit the fence — 85 feet away to center field, 95 feet away to left and right fields — are either doubles or triples, depending on where they hit.
The tournament is run by Trenton cop Mike “The Wiffle Czar” Palinczar, who no longer plays, but his legend lives on in YouTube videos showing him mow down opponents with a wicked breaking ball.
Astounded that there was prize money for winning, Palinczar and his childhood friends entered a tournament near Boston in 1989, finishing 10th out of 70 teams.
They built their own Wiffle Ball field of dreams out of an old playground near their home on Adeline Street in South Trenton, complete with foul lines, lights and bleachers.
In the cramped quarters of a city, they could play Wiffle Ball without breaking the neighbor’s window.
“The East Coast is where Wiffle Ball was born,” Palinczar says. “When I think of summer, I think of cookouts, I think of the beach and I think of Wiffle Ball.”
Palinczar sent news releases to local newspapers about a New Jersey Wiffle Ball Association summer league, not quite sure what to expect. To his amazement, 22 teams signed up. He started producing thicker custom Wiffle bats.
“We started out as teenagers,” the Wiffle Czar says. “We kept playing.” Then he proudly looks around the fields of Trenton, as hundreds of players relive their youth and the thwack of plastic balls and sounds of cheering fill the air.
“I never thought it would come to this.”