My brothers, friends, and I spent summer of 1997 – as we had spent most of our summers as kids – playing some variation of baseball in our driveways, yards, and out in the streets. We tended to use whatever balls we had laying around (tennis balls, different plastic variations, and even occasionally real hard balls) but for whatever reason that summer we gravitated towards the classic Wiffle® ball. Around that same time, we read an article in the Washington Post about a man from just outside of Washington, D.C. who built a Wiffle® ball field in his own backyard. Even more impressive to us was that he used the field to host leagues and tournaments. It was our first hint that others (adults nonetheless!) were playing the same game we were playing that summer in our driveway just at a more competitive level. Our minds were further blown when we took to the Internet and discovered that Wiffle® ball teams, leagues, and tournaments existed all over the country. All of us – although specifically my fifteen year old brother, Tim – spent the fall and winter months getting our hands on all the Wiffle® related information we could find. We were hooked on Wiffle® before ever taking the field.
Tim talked so much Wiffle® ball over the winter that our dad agreed to take us to one tournament the next summer just to shut us up. No sooner had those words left my dad’s mouth then Tim contacted the host of a tournament in Shamokin, Pennsylvania – the first major tournament within driving distance of us in suburban D.C. – and registered our team (which Tim hastily christened “The Stompers”). Our dad probably wouldn't have backed off his promise anyway, but Tim eliminated that possibility completely by locking us in right away.
Nine months after discovering the existence of Wiffle® ball tournaments, we found ourselves about to play in one. On Saturday, May 16, 1998, our four person team – which ranged in age from 14 to 16 years old – walked onto the Shamokin ball fields trying to figure out just what we were getting ourselves into. Despite all of our research and prep work, it was still impossible for us to know exactly what lied ahead, which is an often-repeated refrain from novice teams entering their first tournament. The tournaments we read about and the players Tim talked with described these tournaments as both professional and highly competitive. We were prepared to be the youngest team there (and we were by a significant margin) but we were still cautiously optimistic about our chances. The best teams on the circuit – the teams we read so much about like Team Trenton, the Lakeside Kings, and Georgia Longshotz – weren’t at this tournament. Other good teams were, but we were blissfully ignorant enough to believe we could hang. I don’t think any of us would have been surprised if we won the entire tournament or lost every single game by ten runs. We didn’t know what to expect.
The odds appeared to shift towards the latter option when the tournament director read off the list of the first round games. “On field number three, it will be the Gaithersburg Stompers versus The Porkchop Express.” I knew that name. The problem was that I couldn’t remember exactly where I had seen it. The best tournaments in the country at the time were generally considered to be the New Jersey Wiffle® Ball Association ("NJWA")tournaments that were played twice annually in Trenton. I eventually realized that I had seen Porkchop Express in the results section of the NJWA website, which meant they had finished top four in either the pro or semi-pro division of a Trenton tournament (it turned out to be semi-pro, but we didn’t discover that until after the tournament). Either way, I figured we were toast having to play a team that not only had tournament experience but also had experienced a modicum of success.
I remember being rather intimidated by the Porkchop Express players. The truth is that they were just your average 20-something softball players, but even that was intimidating to a skinny fourteen year old kid who had never seen an actual Wiffle® ball tournament game before.
The very first thing I learned when the Stompers took to the field was that strikes were at a premium, even for experienced teams. The Porkchop pitcher threw side arm (EVERYONE threw sidearm or submarine style in those days) and had solid vertical and horizontal movement on his riser. The problem was the pitch rarely found its way inside the wooden board cutout that represented the strike zone. We took our walks, sprinkled in a couple of timely hits, and suddenly found ourselves with a 4-0 lead.
Our pitcher that day was our friend Justin who was a bit of a local baseball star, having started for our local high school varsity team as a freshman. We knew enough to know that the best Wiffle® pitchers threw from an angle, so Justin had developed a submarine pitching style. He had good velocity behind his pitches and like most pitchers at the time, Justin relied heavily on a riser that moved right to left across the plate while also darting upwards as it approached the plate. Justin didn’t throw many strikes either but the velocity and movement of his pitches was enough to keep the Porkchop players guessing. He walked at least a batter an inning but kept the Express off of the scoreboard and didn’t allow a single hit. I am still not quite sure how it happened, but the Stompers' very first game ended in a 4-0 victory with our pitcher throwing a no-hitter. Not bad at all for a bunch of newbie kids.
In the one-hour that passed from the start to the end of the Porkchop Express game, I had gone from thinking we were going to go winless to being supremely confident that we were going to win the entire tournament. Our first game proved how fun tournament Wiffle® ball could be. Our next games would show us juts how humbling it can be.