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Scott Ostler

This Sport Is Old-Fashioned Fun, Whether You Hit or Wiffle

February 13, 1986|SCOTT OSTLER

Spring training is just around the old corner. It's almost play-ball time for that wonderful, age-old game unmatched by any other for charm, simplicity and aesthetics.

I'm talking about Wiffle Ball, of course.

Baseball is a nice sport, too, to watch. But you can't play it much beyond the age of 15, unless you own a ballpark and have 17 friends ready to come over at a moment's notice.

With Wiffle Ball, all you need is one other player and very simple equipment, and you can come unbelievably close to simulating real baseball.

Let me tell you about the game. And don't worry, this won't be self-indulgent reminiscing about some kids' game I play because I think I'm living in a beer commercial.

Wiffle Ball is serious competition, a real alternative to golf (zzzzz) and tennis (yawn).

And you don't need expensive equipment, silly outfits (take a good look at yourselves, you golfers and tennis players), fields, courts, money, memberships, reservations or lessons.

You don't even need a Wiffle Ball. That's just a convenient name for the game. You can use a Wiffle Ball, which is a plastic ball, half solid shell and half punched full of holes.

But I recommend using an off-brand plastic ball that comes with holes punched all around. Wiffle Balls do way too much dancing, which makes the game strictly a pitcher's duel. With the off-brand ball, you get some slugging.

With the Wiffle Ball, everyone is an instant trick-pitch king or queen. With the off-brand ball, you have to work to develop a repertoire of specialty pitches. I happen to feature an effective, crowd-pleasing submarine riser.

Also, don't bother with the official Wiffle Bats, which are weightless plastic fly-swatters. You want real lumber. A full-size bat is too heavy for this game, but you do want a stick with some meat. Get a Little League-size wooden bat, or use a sawed-off broomstick.

Now find yourself a stop sign, or reasonable facsimile. This is your strike zone and your umpire. I certainly don't advocate stealing stop signs, but it is absolutely the perfect size and shape and material.

Put the stop sign, or garbage-can lid, against a garage door or fence, about two feet off the ground. This becomes the pitcher's target. Any pitch that hits the sign is a strike.

The metal stop sign instantly tells pitcher and batter the location and the velocity of the pitch. If the pitch nips an edge, the stop sign pings. If you fog one right down the middle of the sign, the sound is like a Chinese gong. And the faster the pitch, the louder the ping or gong.

The game itself is simple. There is no baserunning and little defense. This is baseball, remember, not track and field.

You will get all the exercise you can handle, however. Pitching and hitting are hard work.

This is a real sport. Pitcher vs. hitter, elemental baseball, mano-a-mano , Gooden vs. Jackson, or any matchup you care to conjure up.

The field can be anywhere, front yard, alley, rim of the Grand Canyon. You need home plate (the stop sign), pitcher's rubber (a chalk line), two foul markers (beer cans, rocks) and extra-base-hit markers (chalk lines or natural features of your "field").

Three strikes, you're out. The number of balls for a walk can be adjusted. Five is usually about right. Three outs to a half-inning.

Any ball caught on the fly is out. Any ball fielded cleanly by the pitcher is an out.

Any ball that is bobbled or hit past the pitcher is a base hit. Extra-base hits are determined by your chalk lines or by natural obstacles. A ball hit into a tree might be a ground-rule double, and anything over your neighbor's green-monster Chevy is a homer.

There are no set measurements. The pitcher's rubber will be about 30-feet away, but you can adjust that distance up and back until you achieve the desired pitcher-hitter power balance. The home-run line should be reachable, but you don't want cheapies.

Realism is what you're trying to achieve.

The only rules are common sense and good sportsmanship.

The common sense comes in realizing, if you're 40 and haven't thrown a ball in 20 years, you can't throw nine innings of pure heat. Go with a change-up, off-speed stuff, be cute, nip at the corners.

For the pitcher, the natural instinct when you gong a third strike or make the batter lunge like a fool after a darting screwball, is to whoop and cackle like a lottery winner.

This is what baseball players refer to as "showing the other guy up." It is frowned upon.

Remember, this is war but it's also a gentleman's sport. If you want to throw equipment or tantrums, if you need to act like a clown and a baby, go back to tennis and golf.

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