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Having a Happy Fun Ball

Kickball is making a comeback with thousands of adults who find the game more playful and less competitive than 'grown-up' sports

August 17, 2003|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — With a satisfying thwunk of sneaker on rubber, the red ball is catapulted into the air, making a lazy arc before bouncing into -- and right back out of -- the arms of a flustered catcher. A runner sprints around the bases, grimacing with effort as fielders try dutifully to throw the utterly clunky ball. Hundreds have gathered to play and heckle, their orange, yellow, black and red team T-shirts brightening the overcast August day.

And you thought kickball was just for kids.

Try telling that to the 10,000-plus members of the World Adult Kickball Assn., which hosted the fifth annual Founders Cup World Kickball Championship at the foot of the Washington Monument on Saturday.

"Look at this," said Jimmy Walicek, 31, one of the organization's founders, surveying the fields of kickball action around him. "You're here on the national monument grounds, you're playing one of the best games there is. You couldn't have more fun."

Lots of people seem to agree. In recent years, 30-year-olds have come to share this common playground passion with third-graders. The goofier, gentler cousin of softball and a perennial favorite among the prepubescent set, kickball now attracts throngs of young professionals from all over the country.

"It's carefree; anyone can do it," Walicek, WAKA's chief financial officer, said. The game affords grown-ups the opportunity to break free from "their cubicle lifestyle," he said. "They can feel like a kid again while still being adults."

Turned off by increasingly competitive recreational softball or other team sports, many adults consider kickball a creative, low-key way to unwind. A sense of humor is as integral to the game as a big red rubber playground ball, as some of the more offbeat team names suggest: In one Washington division, My Left Foot and the Afterschool Specials face off with the Blacktop Bullies and DC Detention.

"I think the key is that we have a third-grade mentality," said Dan Calderone, 24, of College Park, Md., whose team, Spaceballs, was vying for the world title.

Athletic skill is optional. "You can be the kid who got picked last in kickball in grade school and still be good here," said Sara Slusarski, 26, of Arlington, Va., who works at the Watergate Hotel. Slusarski and the rest of the My Left Foot squad were among 16 Washington-area teams battling in 90-degree heat for the privilege of drinking beer from the coveted Founders Cup.

Teams of about 20 people kicked balls and ran bases -- just like softball, but with slower, bouncier balls. One team arrived for the day's activities in a white stretch limousine. Team USA pumped themselves up for the first tournament game by doing jumping jacks and saying the Pledge of Allegiance before a large American flag they had brought. Jiminy-Kick-It, composed mostly of lawyers and law students, brought a croquet set along in case its kickball games didn't go so well that afternoon.

A few players wore cleats, and a few others enjoyed a pre-game cigarette. For Alan Adye, 24, an "all-star shortstop" on the team Stiffler's Mom, victory was in the air. "I don't know how to lose," Adye said, sporting an orange bandanna, orange knee socks and Day-Glo orange gloves with black tiger stripes to match his team uniform.

"Fear the orange!" Adye said as he proceeded to wrestle two of his teammates to the ground.

Stiffler's Mom went on to defeat its first-round opponents, the Naughty Little Monkeys, 5-4.

Spaceballs didn't seem concerned about its first-round elimination by Team USA, 12-0 -- just relieved to be escaping to air conditioning.

"The first inning we weren't awake," said one retreating teammate with a smile.

The playoff games continued through the day until only two teams remained -- My Left Foot and Happy Fun Ball, from Alexandria, Va. But a sudden torrential thunderstorm sent players and spectators to the celebration parties a little early, Walicek said. The game will be rescheduled, probably later this week, he added.

There were volunteer referees and official rules for the five-inning matches, but the aerodynamically challenged balls, which are 10 inches in diameter, kept the games' pace slow. And that's just how kickball aficionados like it.

"We consider ourselves a social group that happens to play kickball," Walicek said.

Mingling is the foundation of kickball culture; each division has a sponsor bar where opposing teams gather after games.

Walicek and several friends founded the World Adult Kickball Assn. in 1998 in Washington after an inspired bar conversation. It grew from 150 players in the D.C. area its first year to membership all over the United States, plus one team in India. The Washington area alone boasts 19 divisions of 16 teams each.

The players' median age is 26; participants are about evenly divided between women and men. Some cities, like St. Louis and San Diego, have their own kickball associations.

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