Child's Play

To a growing number of older guys, wiffleball is serious stuff.

August 10, 2002|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - The right leg-kick is slow and high, the knee bent to the level of his chin. His slender upper body rotates left and rear. At the apex of his motion, he harbors his power - a kind found less in muscle-bound strength than in movement reverently mastered.

Natural as a waterfall, the leg descends, the torso follows, the front foot anchors in the earth. A ball erupts from his left hand, sizzling. How hard it travels, nobody knows: No radar gun can track it.

This Philly ballyard is thick and green, lush with summer on a steamy late Sunday afternoon. The pitch zips across it - so flat, so level, so low it seems to riffle the grass. No batter - not Tony Gwynn, not Tony Batista-would take a cut. It's too far down. The hitter slumps, relaxed.

But to the skilled in this growing game - like the Stompers of Gaithersburg, clad today in their trademark Dodger blue - a play is never over till the last millisecond. A foot before it reaches home, the ball jerks up like a frightened horse. It leaps, all but vertical, through the strike zone. Bang! Strike three, inning over.

It's early in the game, but Danny Isenberg, 20, the Stompers' ace southpaw, has his seventh strikeout. He trots to the bench, head lowered. It's the title match of the all-day tournament.

Void of expression, he sinks into a lawn chair. It's in him to fool a hitter. It isn't in him to show one up.

If the ball he threw were cork, horsehide and stitching, "Dan-o," as teammates call him, would be worth millions. His whippet frame, graceful motion and smooth delivery call to mind Ron Guidry, the former Yankee Cy Young winner. His mastery of four pitches, each thrown from multiple arm angles, makes him harder to hit than a big-league star.

That's partly due to the physics of his game: wiffleball.

At five and a quarter ounces, a baseball is a whirligig in the hands of a Guidry or a Glavine, but at least it seems to follow the laws of science. A wiffleball? This 18 grams of hollow plastic, perforated with slots along one side, can be made, with zealous practice, to dip and rise, to dance and sing, to drive the greatest hitters out of their minds.

You know wiffleballs. Like Slinkies, Silly Putty and BB guns, they're a classic American toy. Maybe, as a kid, you flung one around the back yard. You and your buddies made up rules - a folded glove was home plate, a ball off the fence a triple - and you tried out your curve, your slider and every other pitch you couldn't throw with the big-league sphere.

Some hopped like a toad on asphalt, some floated, some fell. Some splashed in the neighbor's pool. But you knew it was a toy - evanescent as boyhood, transient as a summer afternoon.

Don't remember? Just pick one up. There's nothing to it. Never has been - not since 1954, when the Wiffle Ball Co. of Shelton, Conn., rolled out the first model. Throwing a wiffleball, says Nick Schaefer, the Stompers' right-handed starter, is like throwing air.

Wiffleball - it's one of those childish things you put away. Or is it?

What's so funny?

Tim Cooke, 20, the blond, buzz-cut captain of the Gaithersburg Stompers, knows just why you ask. If the plastic ball and bat didn't bring out the kid in him, he'd never have picked them up in the first place. Sometimes pals will ask him what he's up to this weekend. "Playing wiffle," he'll say. It always draws a laugh.

That's when Cooke, a 215-pound ex-baseball star, gets his team-captain look. "I just hand them a bat and say, `Here, take a few cuts against Danny.' When those balls start diving in from all over the place, they don't think it's so funny anymore.

"That's when they hand me the bat and say, `Have fun.' "

Cooke and his teammates always do. Fast-pitch, semi-pro wiffleball, now one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation, has its roots in a whimsy that gives birth to teams called Wiffle du Fromage (Costa Mesa, Calif.), the Toadkiller Dogs (Dundein, Fla.), the Savage Geckos (Annapolis) and Naked Lunch (Salem, Mass.).

One of the deepest joys, though, is that "wiffle" repays those who take it to heart. Schaefer, for example, who weighs all of 132 pounds, throws a drop ball feared throughout the East. He's honed it for a decade. "I aim it at the top of the backstop," he says, "and throw it as hard as I can." From a height of 15 feet, it dives through the strike zone like a bird of prey.

"Not to sound cocky," says Schaefer, 22, "but that pitch, on a good day, is unhittable." You've seen a few today. He's right.

He'll never tell you this, but Cooke, a public relations major at Salisbury University, is one of the bulldozers behind the national game. "Wiffle" has exploded so dramatically over the past 10 years it's hard even for insiders to count the leagues, teams and tournaments at play from Walla Walla to Waco. Cooke guesses there are 2,000 serious players or more - maybe a lot more.

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