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A Whiff of the Past

Wiff That’s Ira Cohen throws a pitch to Diablos’ Kyle Owen during a scrimmage. © 2021 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Wiffle ball league is serious fun for adults

On certain summer nights in Oshtemo Township, amid the green backdrop of fairly well-manicured fields, one can glimpse flashes of yellow and white plastic as adults give new life to their athletic pasts by resurrecting their childhoods.

They are playing Wiffle ball.

The Kalamazoo Wiffle League includes a broad assortment of folks, from legitimate athletes to people who can barely tie their shoes without gasping for air. It’s what would result if the Bad News Bears and The Sandlot kids grew up and traded in their baseballs and bats for Wiffle ball equipment, since those other things are heavy and hard and no one wants to get hurt.

But behind all the nostalgia and fitness jokes is a rather serious group of individuals who have created a funky community that’s as cathartic and supportive as it is competitive.

“It reminds most of us of our youth and the simple enjoyment of simple fun,” says KWL Commissioner Brian Lewis. “Whether you talk to our oldest players or our youngest players, they’ll each say they played Wiffle ball in their backyards as kids. They can each share specific details like hitting certain parts of your house was a double, triple or home run, and hitting the neighbor’s house was an automatic out.”

Since the KWL started in 2006 as a backyard pickup game by four Kalamazoo friends — Brian Meyers, Andy Ross, Jim Moe and Daryl Hutson — it has grown to become a nonprofit organization with more than 12 teams and 70 players, competing on three fields on Kalamazoo’s west side. Its season is highlighted by a raucous All-Star Game at Mayors’ Riverfront Park, an intense playoff bracket and a thorough set of statistics — per baseball tradition — on its website. The league went viral in 2011, and CBS News dedicated a segment to its brief internet fame. Some of the league’s top players competed in a national tournament in Ohio in 2020, notching an emotional, come-from-behind win to help the squad take second place.

“There is a low level of skill needed to participate,” Lewis says. “Most players, even if they played softball or baseball growing up, need half a season to figure out how to be effective. By effective, I mean able to pitch, hit, play defense in a way that makes them feel they’re contributing to their team and leave the game with a few stories to tell about awesome plays.”

What’s with the Wiffle?

The Wiffle ball is a hollow, lightweight plastic ball about the same size as a regulation baseball, and it’s rather vulnerable to wind. The primary difficulty of the game lies in the ability of the ball to dip, rise, curve and dance. Against the league’s best pitchers, who can make the ball hit the “strike board” with remarkable velocity and accuracy, players occasionally engage in the bat chuck, a dramatic throwing of the bat perfected by Mason Everett, among many others. Even a standard fly ball becomes a potentially embarrassing disaster for a fielder should the slightest breeze pick up.

The team rosters of the KWL — a co-ed, competitive fast-pitch recreational league — are composed of insurance agents, marketing managers, bankers, college students and others, ranging in age from 18 to 58. Teams field three defenders — a pitcher and two fielders — and a minimum of three players is required, but most teams have six or seven players. Teams compete on Monday and Thursday nights at Flesher Field and Oshtemo Township Park, on fields professionally constructed for the sport in collaboration with the Oshtemo Township Parks and Recreation Facilities department.

Two of the league’s premier players — Grant Miller and Lee VanStreain — played college baseball. A starting infielder for Western Michigan University from 2014-2017, Miller ranks fourth all-time with 223 career hits. He also holds the school record for career hit-by-pitch (52). VanStreain, a graduate of Kalamazoo Central High School, played infield for Grand Valley State University from 2004-2007. He batted .435 in 2006 to lead the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and helped the Lakers to multiple deep playoff runs.

In addition to those with serious athletic prowess, KWL Vice President Justin Gregory also mentions the league’s “colorful characters,” including Mike Seigel, whose announcing skills during the league’s annual All-Star Game are a kitschy baseball-comedy blend of Ernie Harwell and Zach Galifianakis.

“Mike missed his calling as a sports announcer but honors the KWL with his gift for our All-Star Games,” Gregory says. “If you came out to see the league play, you might notice Mike by looking for the guy with the cigarette hanging from his lip, (his) pre-1990 team ball cap, (his) questionably short shorts, and a graphic tee that seldomly disappoints.”

Lewis says the KWL works closely with Oshtemo Township to maintain the fields, which are open to the public when official games aren’t underway. There’s some talk about adding a community Wiffle ball field near Homer Stryker Field, in Mayors’ Riverfront Park, where the Kalamazoo Growlers play. Lewis collaborated with the city of Kalamazoo in September to renovate a seldom-used softball field at Upjohn Park into a Wiffle ball field aimed at encouraging kids and families to take up the sport.

“It was a pretty fun day. Hopefully, everyone will enjoy it (the new field),” says Patrick McVerry, deputy director of Kalamazoo’s Parks & Recreation department.

There are some tentative and in-formal conversations involving the KWL and other community partners about hosting a Wiffle ball tournament in Kalamazoo in the near future, Lewis says.

“Anytime we can combine a leisure activity with a sports event of some kind and it draws visitors into the community, that’s something that we’re always going to get excited about,” says Brian Persky, director of Sports Event Development at Discover Kalamazoo.

A connected community

As its longevity grows and its roster of current and former players expands, the KWL is developing into its own community, whose connectivity can reach surprising levels. Lewis pointed out the league’s healing aspects.

In May 2015, Lewis’s teammate and friend Josh Whitfield died unexpectedly from collapsed lungs. He was 33. In his honor, family and friends created the Josh Whitfield Memorial Athletic Fund, which provides financial assistance and support services for Comstock-area youth seeking to participate in sports. To date, the fund has helped cover activity fees and physical exam costs for more than 600 local elementary, middle school and high school students.

On Sept. 11, 2020, longtime KWL player Joshua Rhoton died in his sleep unexpectedly, of natural causes. The married father of two children was 30. Less than two weeks later, the players representing the KWL in the National Wiffle League Association tournament wore a No. 2 on their jerseys in remembrance of Rhoton. The team lost early in the tournament but managed to claw back. In the tournament semifinals, the underdog team was propelled to the championship thanks to a walk-off home run in extra innings by Rhoton’s longtime teammate and friend Nate Thompson. Final score: 2-1. Three days later, family and friends held a celebration-of-life event for Rhoton at one of the KWL fields.

“While each of these are tragedies, we found that, each time, Wiffle ball was used as a way for family and friends to cope with the loss,” Lewis says. “They would come to league games and tell stories of their spouses, children or parents and how they loved to play in the KWL each week. Wow, I’m getting teary-eyed talking about it again.”

Because of the Covid pandemic, the league’s 2020 season had safety rules in place and a limited number of games, but that didn’t dampen enthusiasm, Lewis says.

“Unexpectedly, though not surprising in hindsight, we saw a huge upswing in player morale,” he says. “Those who might have been on the fence about playing another season were super-excited to get outside and have a good time. We had zero conflicts around players who were more or less cautious about Covid. All players followed the league’s safety rules, and each player thanked us for making sure we had a season.”

The KWL’s 2021 regular season is scheduled to start May 10.

John Liberty

John Liberty began his professional career as a journalist, but now he’s “a craft beer ambassador” and says the two vocations aren’t really so far apart. Liberty, a former Kalamazoo Gazette entertainment writer, and Aric Faber created West Michigan Beer Tours in 2013 to allow people to experience the area’s growing craft beer industry.

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