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November 15, 2002

Serious about Wiffle ball

From: Palm Beach Post, FL
Nov. 15, 2002

By Joe Capozzi, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 15, 2002

Think it's tough hitting a baseball thrown by Greg Maddux? Try hitting a Wiffle ball thrown by Mike Ryan.

He's a fastball pitcher for the Runnin' Rhinos, one of 33 teams from around the country that will compete this weekend in the first Palm Beach Wiffle Ball World Series.

Before you laugh about grown-ups swinging plastic bats at perforated-plastic balls, consider the testimony of one major-leaguer who has faced Maddux, a four-time Cy Young Award winner, and Ryan, a Washington, D.C., public relations consultant.

"To me, a Wiffle ball can be tougher to hit than a Greg Maddux curveball," said Wellington resident Curtis Pride, a free-agent outfielder who has played for Atlanta, Montreal, Boston and Detroit.

"Of course, Maddux is tougher to hit than a Wiffle ball because he throws a little bit harder. But hitting a Wiffle ball can be tougher."

That's the attraction of the ball invented in a Fairfield, Conn., kitchen in 1953 by an out-of-work former semipro baseball player who was looking for ways to occupy his kids.

With one solid side and eight oblong holes on the other, the ball dips and darts in a manner that can make the pitcher -- whether a 10-year-old kid or a 35-year-old banker -- look like Sandy Koufax.

It's a pitcher's game, which is why the ball gets its trademark name from the strikeout slang "whiff."

"Wiffle ball is definitely a different sport than baseball because it brings everybody down to the same playing level," said Ryan, who met Pride more than 10 years ago at the College of William & Mary.

Sold in drug stores for about $3.50, the plastic bat and ball set originally was marketed for kids. Over the years, those kids grew up and kept playing.

Today, there is a United States Perforated Plastic Baseball Association that sanctions 20 regional tournaments -- each featuring at least 100 teams, with names ranging from the Wiffle Sticks of Tequesta to the Aleutian Kings of Anchorage, Alaska -- and conducts playoffs capped with a championship.

"Wiffle ball has always had a cult following. There are people who live and die for Wiffle ball," said Bruce Chrystie, USPPBA's executive director.

At the Wiffle Ball Inc. in Shelton, Conn., where 15 employees churn out the sets, vice president David J. Mullany wouldn't divulge sales figures but he did say kids continue to make up the bulk of their customers.

"We've seen a little more interest in the last few years of guys in their 20s, 30s and 40s who are tired of playing softball," said Mullany, whose grandfather invented the ball. "They can play a decent game of Wiffle ball and they can still show up for work on Monday morning without a knee brace."

Players like Chris Chaprnka, a hand therapist from Royal Palm Beach whose office will field a team called the Hand Me Downs.

"You don't have to be in great physical shape. You don't have to run the bases," Chaprnka said.

The rules of Wiffle ball are similar to baseball, but without base running. There are three ways to get a batter out: 1) a strike out; 2) a fly ball caught in fair or foul territory; 3) a ground ball fielded while the ball is in motion, in fair territory.

Neither bunting nor walks are allowed. As few as two people can play Wiffle ball because hits such as singles, doubles, etc., are determined by where the ball lands.

Not easy for major-leaguers
Pride, who made history in 1996 when he became the first deaf baseball player in the modern era, is organizing the tournament to raise money for his charity. The nonprofit Together With Pride Foundation benefits hearing-impaired children in South Florida.

"I remember when I first played in college and I was terrible," Pride said.

"A lot of the college students were better than me. They all looked at me like, 'Man, you play professional baseball and you can't even hit a Wiffle ball?' "

Mullany says he doesn't know why the ball darts and dips the way it does. All he knows is that his grandfather, who died in 1990, stumbled on the current design while carving test balls with a kitchen knife.

The ball is made of clear polyethylene crystals, about the size of rock salt, that are mixed with white coloring and heated into liquid form and then pressed into molds. It weighs two-thirds of an ounce, about one-seventh of a baseball.

Mullany donated equipment for Pride's tournament, which goes from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, but he said Pride isn't the first major leaguer to play Wiffle ball.

"In the late '70s, I remember Rusty Staub organizing a tournament for the New York City Police Athletic League," Mullany said. "Chris Chambliss, Willie Randolph and Mark Fidrych were there."

Florida Marlins outfielder Kevin Millar used to fill the skinny, yellow Wiffle bats with rocks while learning to hit as a kid. The past two seasons, when the Marlins played the Astros in Houston, Millar took a bunch of his teammates home to Beaumont, Texas, for an off-day of Wiffle ball. The brother of Marlins catcher Mike Redmond boasted about striking out Millar.

Among the handful of pro players in Pride's tournament will be Philadelphia Phillies catcher Todd Pratt, Kansas City Royals second baseman Luis Alicea and Wellington natives and Pittsburgh Pirates prospects Bobby Bradley and Sean Burnett.

But the majority will be plastic ball veterans with no major league experience, such as 30-year-old Brian Burrell of West Palm Beach, who played in the 1998 Wiffle Ball World Series at Cincinnati.

Two major-league umpires who live in Florida, Ed Rapuano and Steve Rippley, will officiate the championship game.

Pride even enlisted help from his first Wiffle ball nemesis -- Ryan, who will be in town today to help convert fields at Palm Beach Polo into replica major-league parks.

They'll be at Palm Beach Polo today erecting mini-parks to replicate Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, which will include a wall with ivy.

"It's pretty absurd," Arthur Castner, 38, of West Palm Beach said, poking fun at the enthusiasm of his Bash Brothers teammates.

"My wife thinks we're all nuts. We're just old guys who used to be good athletes just trying to relive the glory days."

Copyright © 2002, The Palm Beach Post. All rights reserved.