Big-time sport, little plastic ball


Like many Americans, Marlin Ballard Jr. started playing Wiffle ball when he was a child. And, like an increasing number of Americans, he never stopped, although for many years his backyard games with family and friends were something of a shameful secret.

"We loved the game," Ballard, 48, of Baltimore said, "but the culture in Maryland is, you're sissies because you like Wiffle ball."

Yesterday's scene at the Randazzo Softball Park in Severn might have proven Ballard wrong. His team, the Baltimore Bees, joined 23 others for the Wiffle Up! Baltimore tournament, which could have passed for a Saturday with the Boys & Girls Club - except that most players were adults.

As the warm sun shone and a game-thwarting wind blew, pitchers threw the trademark plastic balls at squares of netting behind the batters - some wielding the iconic yellow bat, and some brandishing a newer aluminum model. If the batter managed a hit, the opposing team's pitcher and two fielders tried to stop the ball before it passed the chalked lines marking a single or a double, or worse, sailed over the fence for a home run.

At the end of the afternoon, the teams that placed first or second in each division - medium-pitch and fast-pitch - earned cash prizes and the chance to play in the World Championship Tournament on Sept. 23 in Connecticut.

The Baltimore Bees have been playing in tournaments since the team learned of their first one on the Internet in 1995, Ballard said. "No one knew that other adults were doing it, but then the Internet came along, and you type in 'Wiffle ball' and it's like, 'Wow, tournaments!'" he said.

Wiffle Up! started hosting tournaments in 1997 in eight cities throughout the Northeast, founder and event director Mike Alessie said in a telephone interview. Yesterday's tournament was Baltimore's first since 2001, he said.

Many players say they like Wiffle ball because it's more relaxed and social than baseball, although some still take it seriously. Old School Risers pitcher Dave Capobianco, 28, spent years perfecting his fast pitch, which growls as it dips low before rising into the strike zone at the last minute. His team drove for 2 1/2 hours from Salisbury for the tournament.

Most teams were local, although there were players from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York. And in the end, the out-of-towners won the day. The Old School Risers and the Isotopes from Nyack, N.Y., won at fast-pitch, and teams from New Jersey and York, Pa., won at medium-pitch.

"We challenge three of the Orioles' best, any time, anywhere, any amount of money," Capobianco said.

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