The Future Is in Plastic

Grab your yellow bat -- Wiffle ball has gone pro.

Jason Kelley (left) and Mike Foley traded their wooden - bats for plastic ones. - WANDA  SANTOS-BRAY
Jason Kelley (left) and Mike Foley traded their wooden bats for plastic ones.
As Jason Kelley walks out his kitchen door, his wife, Amy, says, "Have fun," with enough sarcasm to fill a swimming pool. She's seen this before, her husband heading out to throw fastballs, sinkers, and sliders until his arm goes numb.

Amy knew what she was getting into when they met at Bowling Green State University, where Jason was a star pitcher. A hard-throwing right-hander, he broke the school record for wins his senior year. His heroics were enough to get him drafted in 1999 with the 1,024th pick by the Milwaukee Brewers.

But in Utah, where Jason played for the club's farm team, his lifelong dream smacked into fiscal reality. He earned just $1,000 a month, riding cramped buses to nowhere towns like Billings, Montana. After one up-and-down season, he quit, moved to Broadview Heights, and took a job as a financial planner. "The money sucked," he says. "I was sick and tired of borrowing money off my dad."

But baseball, if it lives inside you, doesn't just go away when you tell it to. So Jason, now 28 years old, goes to the garage, where he keeps a bat and bucket of balls. Except this isn't the Louisville Slugger of old, but a rod of yellow plastic. And the balls are of the Wiffle variety, available for a buck at your local Toys "R" Us.

"Everybody has a nostalgic relationship with Wiffle ball -- it's the game of their youth," says Bruce Chrystie, director of Fast Plastic, a Wiffle ball organization. "This is just that -- on steroids."

The 41-year-old Chrystie, who lives in Massachusetts, is a pricing analyst for MetLife. But in his real life, he and a handful of other players are responsible for spreading the hyper-organized and competitive brand of Wiffle ball across the country.

Though grown men have been playing in Wiffle ball tournaments for 30-plus years, these Wifflers have taken the game to new heights. They have a magazine, rankings, statistics, and a national championship tournament. They refer to themselves as touring professionals, traveling the country playing for money, wearing uniforms, and toting travel bags embroidered with team names like "Balco Boys" and "Wiffaholics."

"These guys are even bigger dorks than we are," says Mike Foley, a former Ohio University pitcher and a Wiffle teammate of Jason's.

The national tournament began in 2001 with two regions -- east and west -- and a single championship game. Four years later, it features 14 regions, each with their own season of qualifying tournaments. It all leads up to the national championship in October. This year's tournament in Cedar Park, Texas, near Austin, will feature 30 teams and $6,000 in prize money. Next year, Fast Plastic hopes to offer a $30,000 purse.

Chrystie has yet to find players to host qualifying tourneys in Ohio, but that doesn't mean the state isn't chock-full of serious Wifflers. Over the last several years, 341 Ohio players have registered online with the U.S. Perforated Plastic Ball Association, an online Wiffle-ball network with thousands of members nationwide. For a while, there was even a Northeast Ohio Wiffle-ball league. A guy in Canton, much to his wife's embarrassment, converted his backyard into a mini-baseball field and invited teams from throughout the state to play regularly.

There are also local tournaments. Each August, a guy in London, a small farming town in central Ohio, converts a barnyard into a Wiffler's field of dreams: 12 diamonds complete with chalk lines, wire fences, and foul poles. Last year's tournament brought 64 four-man squads and 700 spectators. A dad in Brook Park hosts an August tournament to raise money for a scholarship fund he started when his teenage son died in a car accident. A national tournament, Wiffle Up, comes to Cleveland next month.

Then there's Wifflepalooza. Hundreds of players from around the country trek to Cincinnati each August for a giant tournament; the winner takes home a three-foot-high trophy. The 2004 prize sits on the mantel of Jason Kelley's two-story home in Broadview Heights. "They're rotating it around," Amy says of Jason and his teammates. "It just moved in."

After Jason gave up baseball in 1999, he tried softball, but it didn't hold his interest. The game was too slow and lacked the most intriguing part of baseball: the battle between pitcher and hitter.

By contrast, Wiffle ball is a sport built for the pitcher's duel. The country's best Wiffle-ball pitchers are virtually unhittable. They throw upwards of 80 miles an hour, their pitches dipping and diving as if guided by remote control. "It's nothing like softball," Christie says. "It's 100 times harder."

In most leagues, there's no base-running. "Ghost runners" are awarded bases depending on where and how far a ball is hit. (Past the pitcher is a single, past the outfield a double, etc.) "It's pitching and hitting, and that's what keeps everybody's interest," says David Mullany, president of The Wiffle Ball, Inc., which sells millions of Wiffle balls and bats each year.

The Shelton, Connecticut-based company was started 53 years ago with modest ambitions. Mullany's grandfather, a former semipro pitcher, wanted his son to be able to play baseball in the yard without busting any windows. He bought some plastic spheres and cut holes in them to see whether they would curve or slide. He quickly found the right formula -- eight oblong holes on one side and none on the other. The same balls are used in tournaments today, although most pitchers scuff the shiny gloss off them for better control.

Jason Kelley isn't a scuffer. He's still discovering the ins and outs of high-level Wiffle ball. In fact, he learned only recently that the sport has its own major league. But the promise of pitching in a national championship game clearly intrigues him.

"This is fucking awesome," he says.

"Amy's gonna start hating this," adds his teammate, Foley.

And with that, they're off to squeeze in some practice before nightfall.