Wiffle ball is all grown up and being played in Oshtemo

Wiffle ball has come a long way since it was played in the backyard. At this level, it's really not much like that kids' game of yore. 
On a recent Saturday, several families gathered at Flesher Field on 9th Street in Oshtemo Township. Children played on the jungle gym, hot dogs and sodas were served, the wind blew gently through the trees and a couple dozen grown up adults ran around a miniature ball field playing with plastic balls and bats.

This was the 8th annual Kalamazoo Wiffle League All-Star Game--a celebration of the area's finest athletes who weekly take to the cozy confines at Flesher Field in Oshtemo Township Park to slap a plastic ball around a diamond measuring no more than 100 feet to dead center.

Unlike baseball, or even softball, both of which can be games of patience and endurance, Wiffle Ball is played at breakneck speed, baselines are only 45 feet long and batters have less than 42 feet to recognize and swing at a pitch slicing through the air towards home plate.

But before we go on, let's get one thing straight. Wiffle Ball has nothing to do with those large plastic bats and balls with either no holes or holes all around, a fact taken quite seriously by members of the Kalamazoo Wiffle League.

"It matters a lot," Brian Lewis, the commissioner of the KWL said. "Once you play, you notice the difference right away. If you're at someone's house and you're just hitting a plastic ball around you may not know the difference. The kid's giant red bat and the balls that come with it are very different from what we use."

For starters, the official Wiffle bat is thin, 32'' long, and bright yellow. Some players choose to tape up the handle for better grip, the only modification sanctioned by the league.

However, the ball is what sets Wiffle apart from other plastic bat games. The ball is where the magic, or in some cases, consternation, lies.

"The first time I saw people actually, forcefully bringing it was probably one of the more intimidating things I can recall," says John Liberty, the captain, and founding member of the PF Flyers. "I'd been able to throw a baseball and softball with a decent amount of velocity, but actually throwing a Wiffle ball with speed and movement and accuracy was something I could not master and after five or six years, still can't master."

That's because an official Wiffle ball, when thrown, ducks, dips, dives, rises, rips, flips, curves, and cuts unlike any object ever created by man.

The key is in the design. Hollow, light, about the size of a baseball, and sporting eight rounded rectangular holes on one side.

Oh, and physics has something to do with it too.

When thrown, the openings on one side of the ball create a channel for air to enter and swirl around through the circular body while other channels of air simultaneously move around the ball as it flies through space. Depending on the velocity at which the ball is traveling, these competing forces of air will cause the Wiffle ball to pull off maneuvers more akin to a UFO than a terrestrial game ball.

"You can throw the ball very fast and accurately and having the holes only on one side is what gets the Wiffle ball to sort of dance around or curve," Lewis says.

Even after four years in the league Liberty says he still has a heck of a time figuring out how to hit a ball that seems to have a mind of its own.

"I have no idea how to hit of one of them, I'm just guessing ninety percent of the time. I'm just holding the bat out there and hoping it goes in a positive direction," Liberty, an accomplished high school baseball player, says humbly.

The reality is Liberty has led the PF Flyers in home runs, slugging percentage, and RBIs nearly every season since joining the league and has been named to two all-star teams to boot. So if he's guessing, he seems to be doing it correctly.

If Liberty was, in his words, "mortified" the first time he stepped into the KWL batter's box, another player, Matt Jennings of the Glory Days sees the game through slightly rosier glasses.

One of the more animated KWL veterans, Jennings was a staple at the annual FunStars game, an event that coincided with All-Star Weekend. The FunStar game, which has since been replaced with a rookies vs. veterans showcase, worked much like its All-Star cousin. However, instead of rewarding players whose talents and stat lines shine the brightest, the FunStar contest highlighted players whose attitudes, personalities and penchant for practical joking went above and beyond the call of duty.

"My fondest KWL memory is still my 2010 Fun Star MVP. I spent hours that week making a paper mache Wiffle Ball bat and filling it with Tootsie Rolls. It couldn't have played out better in my last at-bat as I made contact and sent candy flying through the infield," Jennings recalls.

For years, the Fun Star game was a lighthearted reprieve that harkened back to the game's beginnings as a simple backyard contest played by a handful of friends.

Founded in 2006 by Brian Myers, the KWL began with four teams playing weekly games in Myers' backyard. Through word of mouth, the "league" began to gain traction and attention from friends and co-workers, many of whom wanted in on the fun.

As more players formed teams it became obvious that a suburban backyard was not going to be large enough to support the festivities, so Myers decided to branch out.

"They needed more space to play so Brian (Myers) approached Oshtemo Township to see if they could build a field in some empty space at the township park. He was willing to put the time and money into building the field and that started a great relationship between the KWL and Oshtemo Township," Lewis says.

Since the Kalamazoo Wiffle League's move from backyard to park the league has grown to 16 teams and nearly 100 participants split between two Leagues: the American and the National. Several of the new players have joined after coming off stints playing college baseball or softball.

"The league is supportive of people of any athletic background, but in recent years it seems if you want to be successful it is helpful to have a baseball background. Many teams recruit talent by bringing in friends with baseball experience," says Jennings, a league member since 2008.

The recruiting of new talent is actually a league priority at the moment. Lewis, who took over as full-time commissioner in 2013 has taken on the responsibility of growing the league and is doing so by inviting curious fans out to participate in games for free before signing on as a full-time Kalamazoo Wiffle League member.

"If somebody and their buddies or family members want to come try it, they can contact us, and come down and play for a week for free," Lewis says. "They can play a game or two and see if they like it. Their stats will be added to the website just like everybody else's. It also gives teams a chance to scout new players and maybe they'll find an ace or a big slugger to bring on for next year."

But it's not just membership that Lewis wants to grow, he's also overseeing the construction of two new fields, which will replace the aging diamonds at Flesher Field.

The new fields will come with a redesigned layout, and slightly altered outfield dimensions along with varying fence heights that will create a neat visual backdrop as well affect home run totals and how defense is played.

"In the past, we had outfield fences (at Flesher) joining so if you hit a home run it would go into the other field. The new design will have home plates together, about 50 feet apart. Before, the fields were 85 feet down each line and 100 feet to center. Now we're looking at 83 to left 87 to right, with it being opposite on the other field, and we'll have 6 foot tall fences on the short sides. That will hopefully stop people from toppling over the fences to rob home runs," Lewis says.

The previous fence heights, both at Flesher field and Township Park had been only about 4 feet tall, allowing for "fence hopping" and the occasional injury as outfielders tracked long fly balls. Such a scenario led to the most prominent moment in KWL History.

During a 2011 Game between perennial powers the Industrials and the Friars, Industrial outfielder Steve Everett, followed a deep ball to left, jumped and made an astonishing one-handed grab as he toppled over the fence.

The initial ruling was that the home run stood, despite the catch, because Everett left his feet and did not touch back down in fair territory, however, the left fielder happened to be friends with a major league umpire who he called on the spot. The umpire who was in California working an Angels game conferred with his co-workers and ruled that the catch was indeed a catch and the call was reversed.

A video of the play, along with the story of the call quickly circled the internet, landing on ESPN as one of SportsCenter's top plays of the night, and was also shown CBS, Yahoo Sports and other national news outlets.

"It was a great way to put the KWL on a much larger stage. At that point we were just starting to record more highlights from the game to put on YouTube or our website," Lewis says. "After it got out there, the media and the people that were watching it all had the same reaction. They didn’t realize that people played Wiffle Ball, that they took it seriously that you could be really athletic, treat it like baseball but still be playing a kid's sport."

The national media may have been even more amazed if it knew just how extensive the network of competitive wiffleball players is, with the KWL being only one of several leagues spread out across the country, all loosely affiliated under the National Wiffle League Association banner whose website has news and articles of national importance, tracks stats, doles out awards and even compiles weekly national rankings. The NWLA also hosts an annual tournament in Dublin, Ohio attended by 16 elite teams.

"There have been a lot more teams from around the country interested in getting in. This year we split it up, instead of having just one national tournament we set it up to have four regional tournaments and the top 16 teams from those regionalis got to go to the national tournament," Lewis says. "Kalamazoo was lucky enough to win the bid to host our regional. We had four other teams from around the Midwest, along with the organizers from Washington D.C. We did well enough that we'll be going back to the national tournament.

A team of Kalamazoo Wiffle League all-stars will head south from July 17-19 to compete for a national title, a prize that has so far eluded the league.

As both the league and the sport expand, Lewis says he hopes he can continue to raise the level of competition on display without losing the magic created by the dancing plastic ball.

"The KWL is a wonderful thing to participate in. This really hits home for me and reminds me of all the fun things I did as a kid but has enough competition to get your juices flowing. It's in a setting where your family can come watch and participate. The KWL is a great family atmosphere; its unique and we have a great relationship with Oshtemo Township," Lewis says.

And for those of you keeping score at home, the American League claimed a 4-1 All-Star Game victory over the National League with Lee VanStreain of the Glory Days taking home MVP honors.

Jeremy Martin is the craft brew writer for Southwest Michigan's Second Wave.

Photos by Susan Andress.
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