Wiffle Ball tournament lets players be kids again

Playing Wiffle Ball, Tim Cooke hears the quips.

It's a child's game. Grown men playing with plastic balls and hollow bats? Get a life.

Cooke, 35, knows better. A devoted Wiffle buff, he has organized an adult league for a sport that began in youngsters' backyards more than 60 years ago. On Saturday, Mid Atlantic Wiffleball starts play with the first of five weekend round-robin tournaments in York, Pa., culminating in a championship in October with an estimated $2,500 grand prize.

"Its roots are there, but this isn't a kid's game anymore," said Cooke, who lives in south Baltimore, three blocks from Camden Yards. "It gives people who aren't good enough to play baseball beyond high school an outlet to maintain that competitive edge."

Slow-pitch softball doesn't cut it, Cooke said, adding: "Anyone can hit a big old grapefruit that's lobbed in. I want to hit someone's best fastball, and a Wiffle Ball can come at you at 80 miles an hour. When you get a hit, you feel like you did at 10, like you could take on the world. It's that baseball rush. Wiffle Ball is the 'inner kid' in you coming out."

Competitively, it's a minimalist's game. Teams consist of two to seven players, only four of whom can take the field. Batters forgo helmets and fielders play barehanded. There is no umpire and no base running; hits are determined by the distance a batted ball goes. The outfield fence, often an orange plastic snow barrier, stands just 100 feet away.

Still, it's a pitcher's ballpark. The mound is 45 feet from home plate and the ball, with its trademark eight holes, can baffle hitters.

Invented in 1953, Wiffle Ball has long been played at county fairs and charity events, where the perforated white spheres allow those who never mastered a baseball curve to throw like Sandy Koufax. Organizationally, however, the game has met with modest success despite the entrepreneurial efforts of enthusiasts like Cooke.

In 1998, Cooke, then 17, organized a national Wiffle Ball tournament in his hometown of Gaithersburg, attracting 12 teams from all over the country. A year later, 21 teams took part. But in 2004, Cooke bowed out — "I burned out," he said — and, several years later, the tourney followed suit.

Now he's back, having founded Mid Atlantic Wiffleball and hoping to reinvigorate the game.

"I still have that 'want' to play something like baseball, and this is as close as you can get," said Cooke, a project manager for the Maryland Transportation Authority.

To date, four (of a possible eight) teams have entered this weekend's tournament in York, home of two permanent Wiffle Ball fields. The entry fee is $100 per team.

While the balls haven't changed through the years, bats now run the gamut, from generic yellow plastic to graphite models that can cost $200.

"It really is a skilled game," said Paul Cooke, Tim's brother and a mainstay on their team, the Stompers. "There's a science to throwing the ball. Nobody ever spent money to figure out why it moves the way it does, or how the wind goes around the holes. It's a trial-and-error thing."

Unlike in baseball, pitchers are allowed to doctor a Wiffle Ball.

"Most people can't take a ball out of its box and throw it real well. You've got to beat the hell out of it first," said Dan Isenberg, a left-hander who pitches for the Stompers. "You have to bang it into shape to make it fly reliably."

So Isenberg, 34, a psychologist from Cockeysville, hurls the ball against a brick wall, time and again. Or — horror of horrors — he'll scuff it with sandpaper.

"I know the ball is ready when I can throw it about 2 or 3 feet outside and have it come in and hit the corner [of the plate]," he said.

For Paul Cooke, playing Wiffle Ball lets him hark back to his youth.

"As kids playing in the backyard, we pretended we were hitting the winning home run in the World Series," said Cooke, 33, an accountant from Baltimore. "To some extent, this game lets you do it for real, to be a team hero, to never grow up — that's the biggest appeal."

mike.klingaman@gmail.com

(For more details about Mid Atlantic Wiffleball, email timcooke1982@gmail.com.)

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