Yes, it's that kickball, and it's coming back

League: An adult version of the old elementary school game is hot here.

March 21, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

What would make a grown man like David Resnick walk up to home plate on a Riverside Park ball field during a steady rain holding a rubber chicken in one hand while a Broadway show tune blares from a nearby portable tape player?

Beer? No. It's not about beer (although a few cans are rumored to be within reach). Resnick is operating under the influence of kickball, the old elementary school game that's making a surprise comeback as a co-ed sport for adults.

Sixty teams from Federal Hill and Canton - collectively representing about 1,200 players - swing into action every Thursday night under the auspices of the privately run Kickball League of Baltimore. That's compared with four teams and 60 players when the league was launched three years ago. The fever shows signs of spreading nationwide. A commercial kickball company based in Washington has spawned leagues from Boston to Detroit to San Francisco.

The target audience in every case is primarily the under-30 set, people eager to do almost anything on a weeknight other than pay bills, clean the kitchen or watch Seinfeld reruns, people young enough to run down a ball without pulling both hamstrings.

"This is it!" crows Mike Saulo, coach of the Kickin' Chickens, as Resnick leads off the top of the seventh, and last, inning. They're down 3-2 to a team with an X-rated name that happens to be coached by Saulo's girlfriend, Meggan Smith.

The Chickens bring four, bright-yellow rubber chickens to every game that emit a high-pitched, pseudo squawk when squeezed. According to team tradition, each player must clutch a good-luck chicken while kicking the ball. Each player also must pick a favorite tune that Saulo cranks up on his tape deck whenever they're "at bat."

`Fiddler' fight song

Resnick chose as his signature theme that famous Jewish fight song ... "Fiddler on the Roof." Who's to argue? Resnick is age 28 and lives in Cross Keys. He owns a driving school, and at the moment seems to be having trouble getting himself into gear. He lets pitch one roll by. He lets pitch two roll by. The counts runs to 3-2. Rally cries of "C'mon Chickens!" rise up from the sidelines.

Normally, a person would worry about whiffing in the clutch and being publicly humiliated. But this is kickball. And an incoming kickball looks as fat as a harvest moon.

Resnick launches a double to left-center field. That's followed by another hit. And another. And another. The Chickens swoop to a 7-3 win, setting off a round of celebratory chicken squeezing. Mike Saulo also coaches co-ed touch football, softball and broomball teams, but this one's different.

"Kickball is all about fun," he says. "The other leagues are a little more competitive."

Indeed, Brannan Armstrong Villee, 27, a marketing assistant with DAP Inc., and Jim Figlozzi, 38, a financial analyst with the city school system, got into this as a lark. However, both co-commissioners have been forced to retire as active players because their infant league unexpectedly exploded as if it's on growth hormones. Now they're incorporated. They're talking about expanding into Towson. The Kickball League of Baltimore has turned into a part-time job.

"It's nice to finally make a little bit of money for all the time I put in," says Armstrong Villee.

She and Figlozzi were inspired to take kickball action after hearing about a start-up league in Washington. Now 5 years old, the World Adult Kickball Association has become a full-time business for Jimmy Walicek, a former information technology consultant, and four other employees.

Walicek, WAKA's chief financial officer, says gross revenue is running about $500,000 a year. There are WAKA leagues in 22 cities, including 150 teams in and around Washington. He has received kickball inquiries from India, Canada and Central America.

"Those are areas we're interested in, but haven't planted the flag yet," says Walicek. "There's a huge market out there for us to grow."

The seeds planted in Baltimore are bearing fruit, at least at local bars. Kickball is as much about scoring socially as it is scoring runs.

`Hang out and drink'

"It's fun to hang out and drink," says Amy Seidenfaden, 28, a nurse at Mercy Medical Center, whose previous kickball experience was of the nonalcoholic variety served up at St. Martha elementary school in Louisville, Ky.

Dave Walman, 27, a software engineer from Towson, plays on a team that racked up one victory last year, but the kickball camaraderie helped ease his pain. "I hate to admit it," he says, "but I miss it during the off-season."

Is there a retro-sports trend in the making? On the heels of this kickball renaissance comes a dodgeball revival. Members of the year-old Los Angeles Dodgeball Society (no doubt expecting to ride a popularity wave created by Dodgeball: The Movie starring Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn, which hits theaters this summer) openly dream of establishing a nationwide presence. A turf battle might be brewing with the 4-year-old, Illinois-based National Amateur Dodgeball Association.

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