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A group of local adults is proving that Wiffle ball is not just for kids anymore.

by Brian Gomez,  Star Tribune

Pat Moriarty of Eagan, looking like a proud papa, leaned against the fence of two makeshift ball fields and watched grown men act like kids.

Jim Renneberg of Brooklyn Center, all 5-7 and 150 pounds of him, huffed and puffed as he scurried around third base and reached up to give a high five to one of his Twins teammates on a mad dash toward home plate.

On the other field, Luis Cota of Eden Prairie glared toward the wooden strike zone behind home plate. He then took a swig of beer and delivered another fastball for the Yankees.

And the depleted Expos, down to only a couple of players, lost again.

No surprise there.

But what is a surprise is that the game is not baseball or softball; it's Wiffle ball, and it's being played by adults, not kids.

Founded by Moriarty this spring, the eight-team Home Run League: Twin Cities will stretch play into October, just like the big leagues. The playoffs and the inaugural HRL World Series will follow an 18-game season, and there even will be an All-Star Game. The league is full, but Moriarty is looking for teams for next year.

"I would have been overjoyed with half the response that I got," said Moriarty, who serves as commissioner and plays for the first-place Kansas City Royals. "It has come together very quickly, and it has come together better than I ever would have imagined."

HRL games are played Mondays and Thursdays at Eagan's Sky Hill Park, where Moriarty, 29, converts a broomball rink into two Wiffle ball fields.

The rules for Wiffle ball are the same as baseball, with a few differences.

The bats are plastic, not wood, and the ball has holes in in it. It's the same equipment kids use to play the game.

Games last only six innings. Six balls are needed for a walk because the perforated plastic ball is harder to pitch than a baseball. And the distance between the bases is 46 feet, about half the length of the major league distance.

To record outs, fielders (there are only three) don't have to throw to a base. Catching or picking up the ball before a runner reaches a base constitutes an out.

And if a team only has three players and the bases are loaded, a "ghost" runner is used at third base and the runner on third comes into bat.

"It's a blast to play," said Brooklyn Center resident Andy Gillund, who plays for the Twins. "I'm a fan of baseball and softball, and Wiffle ball is just an extension of that."

The league, which costs $40 per player, is dominated by teams with strong pitchers, even though Moriarty instituted a rule that prohibits starters from pitching back-to-back games.

Moriarty, the Royals' ace, is 6-0 with a 1.20 ERA and 71 strikeouts, making him the leading candidate for the Cy Wiffle Award. Phillies pitcher Bryan Shirley, who used a nasty sinker to throw the first no-hitter in league history last month, is 4-1 with a 1.50 ERA.

"If you can throw strikes, you can win games," Cota said. "You've got guys that throw hard, and you've got guys that throw junk -- curveballs, knuckleballs, things like that."

Said Moriarty: "There are not many teams that have more than one good pitcher. If you look at the standings right now, the teams that are at the top are the teams that have two aces, or possibly even two aces and a closer."

It doesn't hurt to have some power hitters, either.

Renneberg leads the league with a .448 batting average, more than 50 points higher than any other player. The Athletics' David Mathis has the most homers with 11 and also has a .792 slugging percentage. The Brewers' Paul Henderson has 10 home runs and a league-leading 31 RBI.

"You can't try to hit the ball out every time," Renneberg said. "You just have to wait for the pitch. If you swing easy and you hit it right, it's going to go far."

Moriarty -- who moved to Eagan last summer from Massachusetts, where he had run a league -- wants to expand the league to at least 12 teams next year and also is lobbying for a permanent field.

For now, he is focused on trying to help his teammates stay in first place.

"It's all in fun," said Moriarty of the league, which has a Web site for players to check statistics and talk smack to each other. "During the game, they take it seriously, but as soon as the game is over, everybody goes out and has a beer together."

Brian Gomez is at bgomez@startribune.com.

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