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If Eagan's Pat Moriarty has his way, the game featuring a little plastic ball and bat will soon be a big-league attraction.
BY RICHARD CHIN, Pioneer Press
If he builds it, will they come?
He is Eagan resident Pat Moriarty. It is a miniature ball field. And the they Moriarty hopes will show up are adult Wiffle ball players.
In fact, Moriarty hopes to become a sort of George Halas of Wiffle ball in the Twin Cities, a founder of a competitive adult league complete with a permanent field, a draft, statistics and a championship.
If the idea of grown-ups devoting their time to playing with a backyard kid's toy seems a little absurd, perhaps it's because hard-core Wiffle ball just hasn't hit Minnesota.
What we mean by hard-core are networks of tournaments that attract dozens or even hundreds of teams, specialized aluminum Wiffle ball bats, Wiffle ball college intramurals, permanent Wiffle ball fields with lights, fences and PA systems, "professional" Wiffle ball players who vie for prize money.
It's not that there's no Wiffle ball activity in Minnesota. Last year, Cloquet teenager Tyler Korby was one of four amateur athletes inducted into the Wiffle Ball Hall of Fame (www.candystand.com/wiffle). His mother nominated him for the field he sets up every summer in his back yard, where neighborhood youths play almost daily.
But we aren't in the Wiffle ball big leagues.
"We're talking about big-money tournaments where people are taking home $2,000 in cash," said Moriarty, 29.
"There are leagues, which are extraordinarily professional, and they travel the country and play in tournaments. There are college kids and 50-year-olds out there trying to be the best in the world," said Hank Paine, president of the Connecticut Store (www.thecon necticutstore.com), a big player in the Internet Wiffle ball retailing scene. "From what I understand, from what I've seen, these folks take it about to the same level as semi-pro ball in their dedication to it, in their willingness to travel."
Serious Wiffle ball has been going on for years on the East Coast and in places like Texas and California, according to Moriarty. Until he moved to Minnesota last August, Moriarty played in a Massachusetts league that had been in existence since 1986.
"Where I come from, the league I was in, practically our entire social lives centered around Wiffle ball," said Moriarty, who used to play three times a week. "We had a very, very successful league."
"When I first came out here, the first thing I thought was 'How do I get some Wiffle ball going?' " he said. "I guess I'd like to be the pioneer that brings a real good league to the metro area."
Working against Moriarty, however, is the idea that whacking a hollow white perforated plastic ball with a skinny yellow plastic bat — retail price about $3.50 — should be considered an organized competition worthy of adults any more than backyard badminton.
"It's developed very much under the radar. Unless you're into Wiffle ball, most people snicker or laugh that there are serious competitors nationwide," he said. "To those, I say just try it one time and you'll understand why we do it."
The why, according to Wiffle ball fans, is a game that can be both competitive and accessible, a game where you can play in your bare feet and still hit a homer.
"First of all, it's baseball scaled down," said Moriarty, who played baseball in college and high school. "Because it's played on a smaller level, it's physically not as strenuous. You can be a big fat guy like me or skinny as a rail and still be good at Wiffle ball."
Since the lightweight plastic ball doesn't fly very far, the home run fence need only be about 100 feet away from home plate. That means you can build your own personal stadium in a biggish back yard or a vest-pocket field.
"A lot of people will replicate a Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium or Ebbets Field" in miniature, according to David J. Mullany, vice president of Wiffle Ball Inc.
THE RULES VARY
Wiffle ball rules can vary widely, depending on the league, tournament or field configuration. Base running is required in some competitions but not in others. The number of innings per game, strikes per out or balls per walk differ depending on the organizers. In some leagues, you can get an out if you catch a runner off the base, hurl the ball at him and hit him.
"Home runs in our particular field was anything that hit the roof of the house or went onto the deck," said Justyn Cowman, a Wiffle ball enthusiast from Coon Rapids who put on a pretty large local tournament for a couple of years in the late 1990s until his parents put a stop to it.
There are usually only two to five persons per Wiffle ball team, so everyone gets a chance to be a star.
"You're always active," Mullany said. "It's a pitching and hitting duel, and that's what people like to do."
"We've got guys that throw sidearm heat. Some guys will throw nothing but fastballs. Myself, I have a wide array of junk that I throw," Moriarty said.
With a Wiffle ball, "a kid who's 12 or 13 can probably throw as decent a pitch as a guy who's in their 30s or 40s," Mullany said.
What makes that possible started 51 years ago, when David Mullany's grandfather, a former industrial-league baseball pitcher from Connecticut, was trying to come up with a ball that his son could throw and hit around in the back yard.
The ball had to be light enough not to break windows or dent the neighbor's siding. And it had to be easy to throw into a curve, so it wouldn't overwork 12-year-old arms.
According to Wiffle ball company lore, the father and son experimented with cutting holes into hollow plastic spheres that were used to package bottles of Coty perfume. Their solution: a plastic ball with eight oblong holes on one half that helped it swerve in midflight.
Mullany's grandfather, David N. Mullany, was out of work at the time. But he took a second mortgage on his house to start a company to sell the ball as a toy. It was dubbed Wiffle after whiff, the slang term for when a batter swings and misses.
Manufactured in Shelton, Conn., "the highest quality perforated plastic ball and plastic bat available" is shipped around the world.
"Last week, we sent three dozen bat/ball combinations, $122 of product, to Malta," said Paine, who has also mail-ordered Wiffle balls to France, Poland, Japan, the Netherlands, American Samoa, Italy, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Australia, China, Russia, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Moriarty, however, said he has had a hard time finding Wiffle balls in stores in the Twin Cities. He's also looking for a place for a permanent field and for players.
He has received only a handful of responses to a message about a proposed Twin Cities league that he posted at Wiffle Ball Network (www.wiffleball. net, "official site of the United States Perforated Plastic Baseball Association").
"I would love this to become the next big sport," he said. "I hope somewhere out there are guys who want to get involved. There has to be."
Richard Chin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651- 228-5560.