The Great Wifftini: The Mush Ball

The game we play is all about the ball, the wiffleball. It's not about the bats, the fielding, the rules, the field . . . it's about the wiffleball!  From scuffed to non-scuffed, from fast pitch to medium to slow pitch, it’s about the ball and with that comes the molds.

Wiffleball, the ball I cherish because a scrawny second basemen could challenge the best power hitters and pitchers of baseball and dominate, is a huge part of my life (perhaps sad, go have a cheeseburger), but the game largely depends upon the current mold of the wiffleball. Wiffleballs are comprised of plastic and with any background in manufacturing of plastics you will know that materials (recycled or virgin) and molds are the most important. I’m not going into the science here, but over time the molds wear and thus the product can become disfigured and lose rigidity (among other things). What appears to happen to Wiffleballs is loss of rigidity. This is a huge factor when playing the game of wiffleball. Let me explain.

In 2003, The Wiffle Ball, Inc. replaced their molds – great!  The new molds of the ball weren’t readily available at all distribution and retail outlets until 2004 (for the sake of this article I am going to refer to anything from 2004 on as the “new ball” era, and before that as the “mush ball” era).  The result was a ball that was a little easier to control and had similar movement but not exactly the same.  For example a screwball would break a foot less, but if guys scuffed the ball a lot more they could regain the lost distance.  This new ball also weighed slightly more, and would not taco (a “taco ball” is a ball which is hit and then crushes into a taco shape while traveling through the air). So the new molds fixed a lot of problems with the ball, or did they?  That is up for debate but the new mold definitely changed the landscape and gameplay of competitive Wiffleball.

Fast Plastic/ USPPBA changed the rulebook to accommodate the change in the ball starting in 2004.  The pitching distance was moved back 3’ with a slightly expanded strike zone.  The depth of infield hit line was increased and the outfield deepened.  New bat rules were also implemented which allowed for homemade bats like the then popular Loco bat. Prior it was only aluminum and one piece plastics, like Easton and Griffey bats. The bat rule needed to be changed because of the increased velocity of pitches and it also allowed some much needed offense to the game which had been absent throughout the mush ball era that ran '94-'03.

I've played wiffleball since I was a kid. Once baseball season was over I would hold tournaments with my friends from the time I was 8. However, I started playing wiffle competitively in my late teens (2000), a time known as the mush ball era of wiffle now.  Tournaments were generally smaller for fast pitch (4-8) teams in the northeast (unless playing in Wiffle Up! which drew large numbers based upon advertising and easy rules). At this time I did not throw overly hard nor did my teammates but we achieved success and played around .500 ball simply because we could throw strikes. The mound was 3' closer then too. Not just anyone could pitch a wiffle with multiple pitches and throw strikes back then. If you could then you always had a chance. This is largely due to the mush ball. I'd estimate that 15-20% of balls which were absolutely smoked tacoed. There was no chance at a home run on tacoed balls and more often than not they resulted in an out. In the day of the mush ball when you hit a homerun it was definitely earned. Yes, there were still guys throwing absolute cheese but the crafty guy had just as much a chance of winning (think of it as Randy Johnson vs. Greg Maddux). To be a good pitcher in those days was special, as most teams didn’t have one and would never come back to tournaments after struggling in their debut. It was great for level of play but bad for growing the game. It was nobody’s fault because truly mastering a Wiffleball is a feat not even the most avid wifflers obtain.

So in review, the early 90s - 2003 is the mush ball era. Throwing accurately was much more difficult, the ball did not travel as far, the ball tacoed often, the mound was closer, and many teams didn’t throw enough strikes (resulting in walk-fests and long games).

Then comes 2004 when Wiffle Inc. gets new molds (Fast Plastic technically had the "new" balls at the '03 NCT but they weren't allowed to be used because only a few players had access to them). The result was a more rigid ball that doesn’t taco, can be hit farther, can be thrown faster, and is easier to control. As I stated before I didn’t throw hard pre-2004 but this ball changed things. I worked at it, so it was practice too, but I instantly became one of the harder throwers in the tournament series. Keyword - thrower, not pitcher. I was just gunning that thing as hard as I could knowing if I don’t walk you then you are probably out. I was accurate enough to typically not allow any runs but my WHIP was definitely above 1.00. This new ball brought new pitchers from everywhere over the next couple of years (throwers who would gun it as hard as they could). The ball, still a wiffle, was now just a little easier to control and the harder you threw the easier it was to control (in my opinion). Whether or not this was great is up for debate but organizations such as USPPBA/Fast Plastic and Goldenstick Wiffle League thrived with new teams and great tournament turnouts. Pitchers that were able to throw hard in the mush ball era were still just as dominate whiole some of the true pitchers who relied on finesse, accuracy and grit were left without a home (Example: Mark “Bopper” DeMasi – a great pitcher pre “new ball” or Nick Schaeffer who led his team to a third place finish at nationals in ’03). Now some of the best pitchers during the mush ball era became mere innings eaters because their speed was always hittable, so the pop up out they recorded with a mush ball was now a homerun. The ball was traveling distances I had never seen – 170' HRS with a 90' fence.  It was insane and extremely fun but with it came the new pitchers just throwing as hard as they could with no idea of the craft of pitching a wiffleball which in turn lead to even more walks than the mush ball era.  A whole long list of players could be listed here, and this is when the game of competitive wiffleball really started to see guys blowing their arms out (many pitchers did not last more than 2 years).

Currently there is a plague of overscuffing the ball and knifing and so on and is a direct result of the ball not moving enough for throwers to become pitchers.  I do not agree with this practice and at Mid Atlantic Wiffle we only allow light scuffing (Knifing and other attempts to alter the ball are not allowed).  Knifing and heavily scuffing a ball also leads to considerably less plastic and the result is a ball that does not travel as far and will taco (as you read on you will see why this is going to become a MAJOR issue in a couple years). 

When did the mush ball era officially begin?!  That I am unsure of but wiffle legends like Billy Owens, Mike Palinczar, Bruce Chrystie, Kevin Alvine, Mike Washington, Danny Cryan, or “Super” Lou Worthington could probably provide some insight. These are guys who could throw strikes with their eyes closed (and not just a riser) and they succeeded at doing it for countless years.  According to Billy Owens, a father of competitive wiffleball and arguably the greatest pitcher to ever step onto the flat hill, the mush ball era began sometime in the early 90’s and by 1996 the ball was really bad.

I don’t know when the first mush ball era officially started but I can assure you that we are on our way to a new mush ball era. The ball is tacoing once again, although not at the rate we saw in 2003.  I would expect this mush ball to increase over the coming years and last at least 5 years (but I’m not privy to any information on the resetting of The Wiffle Ball, Inc.'s molds).  Billy Owens had this to say in regards to how long it may last: “It’s a lot like an ice age, the last one we endured was for almost 10 years with '03 being the coldest as the ball aggressively deteriorated. So I would expect the same duration this time around – through 2026 (sounds crazy).” 

The mush ball era is upon us once again and is only going to get worse over the coming years. 

Is this why fast pitch wiffleball is hurting for teams – because the ball makes it too hard to throw a strike?!  While I don’t personally think this is the reason this is not the time or the place. We're here to grow the game of fast pitch wiffle once again. Calling all the true pitchers, you out there?  Let’s play some wiffs!!