Features

End of the Summer Special: Notable Players from the Summer Months

By: Paul Cooke

Later this year, The Drop will award the Player of the Year award to the player – among ten finalists – that the editor determines was the best all around wiffler in unrestricted pitch speed competition for the 2018 season. Plans are also in the works for a comprehensive “Top 100” list to be released towards the end of the calendar year.

In July, we highlighted the stories of twenty players who for one reason or another stood out for their performances during the first six months of the calendar year. This time we look at the stories of fifteen additional players who caught out attention during the third quarter of 2018. As a reminder, the award, list, and this article only looks at performances in unrestricted pitch speed environments.


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Did any other hitter do more in fewer games this summer than Ben Stant? In ten spring & summer games between Mid Atlantic and Palisades Ben collected 29 hits, 12 walks, and 8 home runs while striking out only 15 times in 68 trips to the plate. Lest you think he was feasting on subpar competition, Stant did his damage against an array of quality arms: Jarod Bull, Jimmy Cole, Matt & David Herbek (Naturals), Tim McElrath, Adam Milsted, Chris Owen, Johnny Costa, and Jordan Robles. On a per plate appearance basis, Stant very well might have had the best year of any hitter in the sport. Unfortunately, the sample of games is a little too small for Stant to place highly on year-end lists – as his placement in the Mid Atlantic Hitter of the Year category demonstrated – but its an impressive output nonetheless. Stant’s season appears to be done, but everyone – well, expect for opposing pitchers – hope to see him and his bat on the field more frequently in 2019.

One of the coolest things about any Wiffle Ball summer is seeing players from the past that faded from the scene suddenly pop up in unexpected places. Dereck Anderson was the heart and soul of the Los Angeles-based Gunners – who finished runner up to In the Box in the 2005 Fast Plastic NCT – in the early to mid 2000’s and won a GSWL Fast Pitch title in 2010. Dereck faded from the public eye shortly thereafter but re-emerged mid-2018 in the Washington based JAL. Anderson is having a fine JAL XVIII season at the plate, with more than double the number of walks (64) than strikeouts (31) to go with three doubles and three home runs. On the other side of the ball, Anderson has been a solid number two pitcher for the first place Castle Rock Rapids, forming a top notch 1-2 combo with Rapids’ ace Jeter Larson.

I had the opportunity to chat with many players this summer who participated in the NWLA Tournament. When I asked these individuals to name the players from the tournament that impressed them the most, almost to a man the name Gus Skibee came up. The St. Louis based player finished top three in batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs, and totals bases at the yellow bat, fast pitch tournament. Skibee did at least some of his damage against known commodities including Austin Berger (WILL), Anthony LaValley (AWAA), and K-Von (AWAA). Gus was solid on the carpet as well, throwing six shutout innings for his Cardinals team. Skibee’s 2018 unrestricted pitch speed resume is diminished by it’s relative brevity, but you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who saw him play in Morenci that was impressed with his bat. Certainly, participating in a major fast pitch tournament or league outside of the NWLA tournament would go a long way to assessing just how good of a hitter this NWLA Tournament standout is but there is little doubt that he has the tools.

Only two pitchers so far this year have managed to hold the dangerous McElrath brothers hittless over a full 5+ inning game. One is the Palisades’ Dodgers Tim Trenary. The other? The Jersey Lemon Heads’ Ray Lutick. And oh yea, if that weren’t enough Ray also has head-to-head victories over Jordan Robles, Conor Young, and Chris Sarnowksi this year. The Lemon Heads were one of the busiest and winningest teams during the back-half of the summer with Ray leading the charge. During four MAW tournaments this summer – including September’s Mid Atlantic Championship Tournament – Ray ran over opposing batters to the tune of 267 strikeouts and 18 ER in a whopping 104 innings pitched. The Lemon Heads’ workhorse pitched nearly every game for his team, using a power drop pitch - reminiscent of Dan Cryan - to befuddle hitters. In addition, Ray went 5-1 for the Lemon Heads at the tournament formally known as National Wiffle. On September 8th at the Mid Atlantic Championship Tournament, Ray had a tournament for the ages as he pitched at least a part of all nine of his team’s games on the way to a second-place finish and tournament MVP honors.

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Speaking of the Lemon Heads, Ray’s teammate Dave Clark is another player to keep an eye on in 2019. Clark’s numbers in MAW – both on the regular season and in the Mid Atlantic Championship Tournament – don’t jump off the page by any means, but he has all the makings of a top flight Wiffle Ball hitter. Until running into Robles – who he did hit up for a triple and a single – Clark had a heck of a Championship Tournament, including eight hits in twenty at bats against Young and Blake Hoffman. Clark is a line drive hitter and tends to keep the ball in the middle of the field – which limited his home run totals – but he is nonetheless a major threat at the plate with a great swing and effortless power. Now that he has a full season under his belt, 2019 could be a breakout year for Clark. Keep him on your radar.

Ryan Bush has been on the radars of most serious players for years now but his performance during the second half of the 2018 calendar year is going a long way towards reaffirming his spot as a top tier pitcher. It began for Ryan at the NWLA Tournament in July when he threw 14 shutout innings over the course of three games for OCWA. His underlying numbers were just as good. The tall righty allowed a measly three hits and nine walks while striking out 36 batters throughout the course of the two-day tournament. After disappearing for a year from Palisades following a great rookie campaign and tremendous 2016 post-season, Ryan re-emerged this year throwing 20 innings of two-run ball for the pennant-winning Giants. Although he has been far less impressive at the plate this season, Bush has already proven this year that he can shut down hitters no matter what the environment. A good showing at the Fast Plastic Texas Open would only add to his impressive and diversified pitching resume.

It was a bizarre summer for the Ridley Park Red Sox. The team began the 2018 RPWL season 0-6 and needed a 6-2 run to sneak into the playoffs. Lefty Tyler Nachbar had an inconsistent season on the rubber but pitched three shutouts down the stretch to get his team into the postseason. A power threat every time he steps to the plate, Nachbar sent seven of his eleven hits during the RPWL regular season out of the park for home runs. In the playoffs, Nachar’s pitching woes continued and he eventually came down with a sore shoulder following an impressive pitching performance – 11 innings of one run ball – at MAW’s August 4th tournament. With nowhere else to turn, Nachbar handed the ball to his team’s number two pitcher – Cam Farro – who only had 8 2/3’s innings of pitching work to his name during the regular season. That lack of experience mattered little to the high school senior. Farro took the ball for his team’s next five games and threw 27 innings of 2-run ball on the way to clinching the title for the Red Sox. Farro is still a raw flame thrower but was picking up new pitches as the playoffs rolled along. With plus velocity already, he is another pitch or two away from joining what seems to be an endless supply of quality pitchers to come out of the Ridley Park Wiffleball League.

Correction 9.19.18 7:00 PM:

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The minor league arm of Palisades WBL is only three seasons old, but it may have already found its poster boy in Vinny Lea. Lea had a cup of coffee in Palisades proper back in 2015, was missing in action in 2016, and returned in 2017 on the minor league Dragons. Lea had a tremendous season for the Dragons last year on both sides of the ball. He picked up hits in almost half of his plate appearances and worked 33 innings on the carpet while allowing just 11 runs. Despite his minor league success, Lea made it to just one Major League in game ’17 for the Mariners. This year, however, Vinny was not to be denied. In 25 1/3 innings with the Dragons this season, Lea did not allow a single run. He carried that success over to the majors for the first time, pitching to a 0.71 ERA in 60+ regular season innings to lead an underdog Royals squad into the post season.

Two veteran players made good in Tennessee the weekend of July 22nd at the aforementioned National Wiffle tournament.  David “Toast” Wood – back in action for the first time since last year’s Fast Plastic Texas Open – pitched both the semi-finals and finals for the all-star Golden Sticks squad, defeating both the Mothmen and Chicken ‘n Wiffles (a team name of the year contender) to capture the championship. Toast did not allow a base runner the entre championship game. His teammate that weekend – Josh Pagano – took care of the rest, smacking a walk off homerun in the last of the sixth inning. The multi-time Fast Plastic National Champion has been very good at the plate in fast pitch competition when he played this year – including a 10 for 17, four-homerun performance in two games in Palisades – and will no doubt be looking to build off that in a few weeks in Texas.

It takes a special kind of player to be universally known by a nickname. It also doesn’t hurt when your last name is such a mouthful that a nickname becomes a necessity. Kyle “K-Von” Vonschleusingen spent the prior five seasons in Palisades WBL blossoming into one of the league’s cornerstone players, which culminated in back-to-back sub 1.00 ERA seasons in 2016 and 2017. This season, K-Von took another step forward towards becoming one of the game’s best. While his Palisades’ ERA is up over the prior two seasons (1.45), his walk rate is significantly down, his strikeout rate is up, and his batting average has remained virtually unchanged. More importantly, K-Von took a major step forward at the plate by adding nearly .110 points to his ISO (slugging percentage less batting average) this season. Also for the first time, K-Von ventured to a few tournaments outside of Palisades where his plus movement wowed more than a few people. It began in April at AWAA’s Opening Day tournament, continued at the NWLA Tournament where – despite some command issues – K-Von impressed with his ability to throw non-scuffed, and wrapped up with a victory in a late season 2 on 2 tournament in New York. His biggest accomplishment this year might be yet to come as the Palisades Padres – which K-Von is owner/manage of – has a very good shot at winning the 2018 championship.

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On the subject of pitchers who proved adept in both the clean ball environment of the NWLA Tournament and elsewhere, you can add Austin Berger of the Wiff is Life League Waves to that list. Some felt that Berger’s NWLA Tournament performance – where he pitched to a 2.12 ERA over 17 innings of work including the championship game – should have earned him tournament MVP honors. In a tournament with a lot of walks, Berger bucked that trend allowing just 5 walks to 69 batters, for a walk rate that was a fraction – a fifth to be exact – of the overall tournament rate. After relying mainly on an uncut slider in the NWLA tournament, one month later Berger showed off a still developing but already above average cut screwball while pitching in the MAW Canonsburg Classic. In games against the Lemon Heads and Stompers, Berger allowed only a single run. Whether pitching with clean or cut balls, Berger attributes his success not just to his ability to throw strikes, but to his ability to work both sides of the zone effectively.

The Frisco Braves ran over the competition in the Texas Wiffleball League, finishing with an 8-1 regular season record in the league’s top division and then capping things off by winning the league playoffs. The Braves owe a fair amount of their 2018 dominance to right-hander Brian Simpson. Simpson was a force at the dish all season long, batting .500 and reaching base in 62% of his plate appearances – rankings that bear out to the top of both statistical categories in TWBL – while hitting eight home runs. It was his work on the mound, however, that truly made a difference. As his team’s main pitcher, Simpson allowed run one in his first start of the season on June 13th and nothing more the rest of the regular season. Simpson went 21 straight innings without allowing a run to finish out June and July. His best pitch appears to be a hard, sweeping slider that combines velocity and movement in a way not often seen from that particular pitch.

When Nate Cruz left the house on Sunday mornings this summer, he probably had to do a double take to make sure he was wearing the right t-shirt. Cruz played eight games in Palisades over four weeks, which would not be unusual if not for the fact that he did so for FOUR different teams. This year alone, Nate suited up for the Giants, Padres, Cardinals, and Expos for weekend series in Palisades. He proved to be more than just a warm body, hitting a respectable .222/.333/.352 in 54 plate appearances. The ultimate utility player enjoyed more regular playing time at the NWLA Tournament in July as a member of the AWAA Blue Kamikazes. Cruz made the most of it and finished the tournament as arguably his team’s best all around hitter, leading the Kamikazes in OBP while finishing second in batting average and slugging percentage to K-Von and Jimmy Cole, respectively. Here’s hoping Nate can find himself a permanent Palisades home next season.

2018 NWLA Tournament Coverage

NWLA Tournament official Carl Coffee shares his takeaways from this year's tournament, several players and observers share their thoughts on the tournament action, and The Drop's Paul Cooke breaks down the strategy and skills behind winning the tournament by examining this year's champions the Wiff is Life League Waves.

YEAR 7

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By: Carl Coffee

Carl is a longtime member of the NWLA Tournament Organizing Committee and one of the founders of the tournament.

The NWLA Tournament has an interesting history.

The first five years Chris Gallaway ran the tournament and outdid himself each year. Year 6 was not a failure, but it sure was not a success. Wifflers care deeply about stats and videos and we got both wrong. Year 7 to me was a do-or-die year for this tournament. If we once again failed to give wifflers basic stats and video, I am not 100% certain there would be enough interest for a Year 8.

Running a tournament takes a lot of work, but there is no tournament without the players. You get thanked a lot from gracious wifflers who appreciate the hard work you put in to make this tournament run. However, wifflers also need to be thanked. Thank you for driving to a town of 2,200 people with one stop light and crappy cell phone coverage. Thank you for cheering on your All-Star teammates on Friday Night when you probably would rather be in your hotel getting ready for the many games you are about to play. Thank you for embracing the ball boys who look up to so many of you and can’t wait to see you next year. This tournament is nothing without the players and I am not sure I have thanked you all before.

As a tournament organizer, this was my favorite year.

The NWLA Tournament has been very predictable. For six years, it was constantly the same teams in the top four. I would not say it had gotten boring, but we needed a shakeup. Wiff is Life League (WILL) came in last year very confident, only to go 0-2 in Double Elimination and sent to the Dangerfield Bracket, which is for the four 0-2 teams. They won that last year and then a year later they win the entire thing. From Dangerfield to NWLA Tournament Champs. That is the definition of a shakeup and it opens a door that has never been opened before.

WILL did it with team play. You can look at the past champions and if you took out their best player, there would be a lot of doubt that they still could have won. WILL is deep with talent, but I truly believe if you took out one of their impact guys, they would still make that run.

WILL did it at the plate. The NWLA tournament has been a pitcher’s tournament, until this year. The scoring this year was up. Are we finally seeing the hitters catch up to the pitching? Is it down because so many big pitchers (Farkas, Loftus, Butrym, Flakne, Harley) were out this year? Was the extreme heat and humidity too much for the pitchers? That is all up for debate, but it is clear WILL won because of their hitting.

What kind of door does this open? Other teams that have had a mediocre tournament history can ask themselves, “why not us?” WILL is a young team, with their oldest player this year only 21 years old. It also opens the door to bring in new, young leagues. There are a lot of young leagues out there who may have been worried about competing in years past. Seeing WILL shock the NWLA world could give them hope and finally be the persuading factor that gets them to the tournament.

I am very gracious that the Cooke brothers reached out to me to put this on “The Drop”. MAW and the NWLA Tournament are complete opposite styles, but we both play wiffleball. Yes, there are some players who only like one style, or one bat. I do believe however, that there are many others who just want to play in a well-run league, organization or tournament. They will adjust to any style of play. They simply want to play in something that is worth their time, money and effort.

The NWLA Tournament works because it is unique. Most competitive wifflers can trace their wiffle history to a league. We have pride in those leagues, and we want to show the country what our league can do. The league vs. league tournament format is something special. So special, that people will pay to come to Morenci, MI, in 92-degree weather, and play for nothing but a Cup and bragging rights.

I think Year 7 was a success.


QUOTABLE

I like the structure and how well organized the tournament is ran. Secondary would be how difficult and grueling the tournament actually is, having to play nine games in two days, my entire body was locking up. Not to mention we would have had to play two more games to win it all if we didn’t lose in the semifinals. Crazy.
— Nate Cruz, AWAA Outfielder & Palisades player-for-rent
This year’s tournament was special for many reasons. I think it cemented a few thigs. First was that we are part of a community that is special. We are spoiled to be able to play this game at a competitive level with so many quality guys. Second is that the tournament committee without Gallaway is continuing to work hard and improve the tournament. It’s awesome to see so much hard work pay off in a successful event. Third and on a personal level, it was special to spend the weekend with a great group of guys. We blew expectations out of the water and we have a lot to be proud of. As long as those three continue to happen, I will continue to attend this tournament.
— Caleb Jonkman, Griffle Ball League P/OF
The NWLA definitely has some talent that could develop into some powerhouse teams in the next couple years. 3 years ago TWBL played no scuff and Louisville slugger bats and we were quite similar in level of competition and style of play. Since we have learned about scuffed balls and gone and traveled to play in tournaments all around the country we have improved significantly. If you gave some of the power arms in NWLA a scuff ball they would pick it up very quickly and could definitely compete with some of the Texas teams.
— Will Marshall, Texas Wiffle Ball League Commissioner
Mike [Graziani] was huge for us all tournament. Last year he was just a pitcher and he worked hard this off season to hit for us and he did . . . Steve [Keelon] pitched well, this was his first time in the NWLA stage so nerves could have gotten to him a little, but when we needed him he locked in and stepped up . . . Jordan [Castelli] was a horse. He came back from last year fired up and ready to show people that he could play. Last year he struggled throwing strikes and was hitless all tourney. This year he is the tournament MVP! What a turnaround, props to him for his hard work and ambition to be the best player he can be . . . Tim [Marra] was a good kid to have on the team. He never gave up on the team and was a great teammate . . . Austin [Berger] was a horse on the mound. He threw 17 innings and went 2-0 in bracket play. He was our guy on the rubber . . . Nate got signed to the team hours before the deadline and we couldn’t be happier to have him on the squad. I’m so proud of Nate [Morris] and all I can say is one word about him - clutch . . . When Rob [Licht] is in there focused on Wiffle Ball and just that he’s one of the best players there. His contributions were huge on Sunday, including a big game vs. Griffleball in the winners bracket final, where he went 3 for 6 with 4 RBIs and a homer.
— Jake Davey, WILL Waves captain, on his team's performance

MAW Invades Canonsburg - Home of the 2018 NWLA Tournament Champion WILL WAVES

August is almost here which means the final two open tournaments of the 2018 MAW season! The last opportunity to play on our signature fields in York is on 8/4 with "Backyard Brawl". The "Canonsburg Classic" on 8/18 outside of Pittsburgh is a unique chance to compete alongside players from the NWLA Tournament winning Wiff is Life League Waves! Don't miss out!


THE ANATOMY OF A NWLA CHAMPION

A combination of strike-throwing, athleticism, and team chemistry led the Wiff is Life League Waves to the title.

A combination of strike-throwing, athleticism, and team chemistry led the Wiff is Life League Waves to the title.

By: Paul Cooke

In any game or sport, the rules dictate the strategy.

An understanding of that axiom is especially important in competitive Wiffle Ball. Rules among different Wiffle Ball organizations are so divergent that success in one variation of the game can require a completely different set of skills, strategy, and roster construction than what is required in another variation.

Regular readers of this site are likely familiar enough with the cut ball, non-base running, big barrel bat version of fast pitch Wiffle Ball to have a sense of the strategies and skills that foster success in that version of the game. But what about the clean ball, base running, yellow bat version of fast pitch Wiffle Ball played at the National Wiffle Ball League Association (“NWLA”) tournament? What does it take to succeed in that environment? Which attributes are unique to the NWLA Tournament rules and which universal winning attributes are necessary for success in Morenci?

As an outside, casual observer of the NWLA Tournament who is partial to the MAW, Fast Plastic or Palisades style of game, I honestly had no idea what it takes. To get a little closer to the answers, I set out to watch as many of the streamed games from the two-day tournament as I could, dive deep into the statistics post-tournament, and seek out the opinions of those that had different – and perhaps more relevant – views of the action in Morenci, Michigan than I did.

The best place to start is with the impact that clean balls have on NWLA Tournament games. By their very nature, clean balls are more difficult to control than a scuffed, bounced, or cut ball. That is why Wiffle Balls are altered or prepared in the first place. Logically then, a clean ball environment would lead to more balls thrown and more walks, unless the tournament pitchers as a group have mastered the art of throwing unscuffed.

Indeed, pitchers generally struggled to throw the ball over the plate at the NWLA Tournament. Over the course of the two-day event, 647 walks were issued in 2,679 plate appearances for a 24.1% tournament-wide walk rate. To provide some context, the walk rate in Palisades WBL – where the 5-3 ball-strike count is the same as the NWLA tournament – through the end of June was 15.8%. In MAW – with a 4-2 count – the organization-wide walk rate was 19.5% through the June tournament. The numbers don’t lie – relative to other fast pitch environments, the NWLA Tournament was heavy on free passes.

Without a more in-depth study – and a broader sample size – it cannot be definitively stated whether there is a significant correlation between clean balls and number of walks in the NWLA Tournament. There is, however, enough anecdotal evidence to suggest that it is at least a significant contributing factor. A single person and single tournament sample are never definitive proof of anything, but what if we were to compare Kyle Von Schleusingen’s walk rate in Palisades to his walk rate in the NWLA tournament where the same 5-3 count is used? Through the weekend of June 22nd, “K-Von” had an 11% walk rate in Palisades. At the NWLA Tournament, he walked 29% of the batters he faced. While still allowing for the possibility of other contributing factors – a random off day, a minor difference in the size of the strike zone between organizations – the main difference between those two organizations that would impact an individual pitcher’s walk rate is legal ball prep. It seems likely that K-Von was impacted by having to throw exclusively clean balls and if he was, it is safe to assume others are as well.

The Texas Wiffle Ball League’s Will Marshall was in attendance in Morenci as a spectator. In reflecting on the tournament at the request of The Drop, Marshall spoke to how clean balls can impact the competition.

“I forgot how hard it was to control the ball when it’s clean,” Marshall– whose league changed to cut balls a few years back – wrote when reached for comment. “I was surprised to see many pitchers who were supposed to be dominant that couldn’t throw strikes or would walk five to six guys in a row before figuring it out.”

Naturally then, team(s) or pitcher(s) that can limit the number of walks allowed hold a strategic advantage in the NWLA Tournament.

“You can't beat yourselves,” Jake Davey, the captain of the tournament winning WILL Waves, told The Drop, when asked how his team dealt with the high volume of walks. “If you pound the zone and make every team earn each run against you, you'll be in a good position to win every game. Austin Berger really showed that in the championship. He did not walk a guy and gave up two homers, but his consistent strikes only let both those be solo shots.”

Those that have seen the Waves in action can attest to the fact that by-and-large their pitchers lack the awesome stuff of a K-Von. The Waves pitchers – with the exception of Jordan Castelli and his power baseball-like curve – come right at hitters with relatively straight fast stuff.

“I think their [the Waves] pitching was decent but it was not lights out,” Marshall told The Drop when asked for an assessment of the tournament champions.

By contrast, Will singled out Kyle as a player that impressed him due to his ability “to make the ball move in all four planes.” Few would disagree that Kyle has better stuff than the Waves’ pitching staff but in that environment – at least on that day – the Waves’ ability to throw strikes regardless of stuff won out. It is true that in any form of Wiffle Ball, a pitcher – no matter how impressive his stuff is – cannot win consistently if he doesn’t throw strikes. In the clean ball, yellow bat, walk-heavy environment of the NWLA Tournament, however, the ability to throw the ball over the plate with decent velocity is perhaps more at a premium than it would be in other environments.

If you followed the scores as they came in over Twitter on Saturday and Sunday, you were probably struck as I was by the sheer volume of runs scored. For example, the 10:00 AM Saturday round yielded the following final scores: 27-0, 13-0, 18-3, and 23-0. While that group of games was on one extreme end of the spectrum, high scoring games were the rule – not the exception – at the NWLA Tournament. 54 games were played over the course of the two-day tournament. 629 runs scored during those 54 games, which averages out to 11.6 runs scored per game. For the sake of comparison, through three Mid Atlantic Wiffle tournament in 2018, 284 runs were scored in 51 games, which averages out to 5.6 runs per game. Through 66 games in the 2018 Palisades season (through the end of June), 292 runs were scored which averages out to 4.4 runs per game. Relative to those organizations, the NWLA tournament was contested in a very high run scoring environment.

The high volume of walks – which as discussed are a possible byproduct of clean balls – certainly contributed to the relatively high number of runs. However, the NWLA Tournament batting average of .282 is significantly higher than the batting averages through the end of June in MAW (.215) and Palisades (.195). By no means does this indicate that the hitters at the NWLA Tournament are more skilled, but simply that the high run environment was not influenced solely by the large number of walks. There was hitting to be found – including a homerun about every four at bats – in Morenci.

Will Marshall took note of the power output that came despite the use of the thin bats.

“I think what impressed me the most was the amount of homeruns hit even though it was yellow stick. Not all of the pitching was great, most pitchers can only rise or slide the ball with no scuff, but nonetheless there was a lot more offense than I had anticipated.”

Certainly, as Will alluded to, factors like the level of pitching talent – whether influenced by the clean balls or not – could and very likely did mitigate some of the offensive suppression expected in a yellow bat-only tournament.

For their part, the tournament champions hit well but did not outhit the rest of the field in any significant manner. Their team batting average of .299 was above tournament average while their home run rate of 7% was well below average.

The Barrel Bruisers' Jerry Hill participated in the NWLA qualifying tournament in Indianapolis and offered up that athleticism is a key difference maker in this particular environment.

"In NWLA, your athleticism can really shine. The ability to run the bases and make fast plays in the field is huge! That same skill set is a plus in MAW - just look at the "Wiffle Ninja", Dan Potter - however the game is a lot faster in the NWLA," Jerry explained. "You've got to make the play and beat the runner . . . Making contact is huge as you always have the ability to out-hustle the play and throw."

As a group, the Waves are both young and athletic which are helpful attributes in a base running tournament. While the Waves trailed behind their competition from a power perspective, they made up for it with their ability to beat out ground balls, take extra bases, and force their opponents into making defensive blunders. The base running element is perhaps the most significant difference between the NWLA Tournament style of play and the style of play found in MAW or elsewhere because of the way it impacts pitching, defense, and offense. When a ball is put into play in an NWLA Tournament game, a scramble – by the fielders and by the hitter – ensues in a way that is foreign to non-base running variations. The ability to field a team of all young, quality athletes undoubtedly plays up in that environment.

With the Waves’ success in the 2018 NWLA Tournament as a template, it seems reasonable to conclude that the ability to throw quality strikes – even if that means sacrificing movement – with a clean ball, the ability to take advantage of the large number of walks, the ability to hit for average with the yellow bat, and the athleticism necessary to gain an edge on the base paths, are keys to success in the NWLA Tournament. 

The tricky aspect of scouting a style of Wiffle Ball that is not your own is that we often filter performances through the lens of what we are most accustomed to. To discredit the Waves’ win – not that anyone is necessarily doing it – because their style may not or would not play in another form of the game is to miss the point. The team was built for this version of the game and executed their plan brilliantly. Likewise, I think it is safe to say that most would have done exactly as Jimmy Cole did and put K-Von on their team had the opportunity presented itself. He is far too talented of a pitcher not to. Yet while K-Von is an excellent pitcher in Palisades, he struggled with his command at the NWLA Tournament likely due to the clean ball rules. There were other players and teams at this year’s NWLA tournament that devotees of MAW and other organizations know perform better in other environments. It goes both ways, even it may lean heavily in one direction or the other. Talent evaluators who are able to watch different styles of Wiffle Ball and make the distinction between a general lack of skills and style-specific skills are ahead of the curve.

However, there are some elements of winning Wiffle Ball that are universal, particularly intangibles like competitive spirit, calmness under pressure, and team chemistry. It is hard to find anyone that didn't attribute at least some of the Waves’ success to their possession of these qualities.

“The key for me was that they [the Waves] always had good energy and were never “out” of a game. Even when they got down they fought back and came up with a clutch hit,” Marshall – who was absent for the Waves’ final games but watch them earlier in the tournament – remarked. “I did not get to know the players individually, but I did meet the whole squad at one point and got to chat with them. Very nice fellas who love Wiffle and I hope to see them continue to excel and grow as a league and as players!!”

In reflecting on his team’s championship run, Jake Davey also singled out the importance of battling and playing as a team.

“I just want to say how proud I am of the team,” Davey told The Drop. “Everyone did their part and had situations where if we didn't have them we couldn't have won. Jordan [Castelli] had a great tournament and nothing to take away from him, but everyone on our team could have earned the MVP award. Each person was valuable in their own way to the team’s success. Everyone was committed to the team, came to practice, and had that one goal in mind of winning it all. We all truly bought in and we did it.”

Mid-Year in Review: Twenty Prominent Players from the First Half of 2018

By: Paul Cooke

At the midway mark of the 2018 Wiffle Ball calendar, The Drop takes a look at the players that caught our attention over the first half of the season. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of the best players in the game but rather a collection of players and stories that stood out over the past six months. This article covers players that have played in an unrestricted pitch speed environment in 2018.

Iron Man

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Jimmy Cole entered 2018 with an ambitious goal in mind – play in 175 games over the course of the calendar year. So how is it going? By my own unofficial count, Cole has made it north of 50 games but a little short of the 87 games representing the halfway mark of his ambitious goal. Cole has been all over place the first six months of the year, competing in three winter indoor tournaments, playing regularly in at least two leagues in upstate New York, competing in the Skibee Wiffleball League in St. Louis, traveling to a pair of tournaments in Pennsylvania, and suiting up for two of games in the Palisades. Whether or not he reaches his stated goal, Jimmy is well on his way to being Wiffle Ball’s 2018 Iron Man. [HIGHLIGHT: Cole's Grandslam at the MAW Winter Classic]

Tough Outs

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For an eight-day stretch in April, Cole’s Palisades Cardinals teammate and fellow New Yorker, Kris Morse, was an unstoppable force at the plate. It started on April 22nd at AWAA’s Opening Day tournament when Morse pounded out an insane thirteen homeruns for the tournament champion River Monsters. One week later in Palisades, Morse had a game for the ages. Playing for the Cardinals, Kris went six for eight with three homeruns, three walks and a whopping sixteen RBI in a route of the White Sox. Morse has since cooled off a bit – how could he not? – but the eight days in April when he suddenly became the wiffle equivalent of 2001 Barry Bonds is one of the more fascinating statistical feats so far in 2018.

The one-pitch rule in the Washington based JAL league was the subject of some debate earlier this year. What seems undeniable is that making good on one pitch isn’t easy even if you are getting nothing but fastballs straight over the plate (which – to be clear – is not the case in JAL). That is what makes Matthew Morton’s JAL XVII output so impressive. Morton saw 95 pitches during the winter/spring season. He let 30 go by for walks and picked up hits on 23 of them for an impressive .558 on base percentage. Even more impressive was that 13 of his 23 hits (57%) went for extra bases. To make extra base contact on 14% of the pitches you see over the course of a long season is impressive in any fast pitch environment. Due to his relentless offensive output, Morton was named MVP of the JAL XVII season.

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Way back in February at Mid Atlantic’s Winter Classic, Dan Potter deposited the first pitch he saw in 2018 over the left-center wall for a solo home run. That proved to be a harbinger of his season – in more ways then one. The leadoff home run was the first of three game opening shots Potter has hit this season, with the other two coming on April 14th against Ben Stant and June 16th against Tom LoCascio. Since the start of the calendar year, Potter has done nothing but rake against quality competition. The longtime York Yak leads MAW in almost every major offensive category through three tournaments. One of the best athletes in the sport for the better part of two decades, the “Wiffle Ninja” – as he is known – is finally get his due. [HIGHLIGHT: Potter goes deep twice off of Cole]

Veteran Presence

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Saturday May 5th was supposed to be a fun day of bonding between a veteran competitive wiffler and his two kids. And it was, but for Dave Capobianco, Mid Atlantic’s Torneo de Wiffs ended up being so much more. The longtime Wiffle Up player and former Fast Plastic NCT participant – serving as his team’s only pitcher and on a bad leg to boot – held down quality hitters like Dan Potter and Connor Young as he guided his New School Risers team to a 2-2 round robin record. Capobainco hit a walk off homerun in a play-in game to put his team into the semi-finals against heavily favorited My Name is ERL. That’s when Dave saw his two teenage children – who were growing more comfortable with each at bat – mount a rally on a walk and a triple which gave them the momentarily lead. In extra-innings, Dave took care of the rest by hitting his second game winning homerun in as many opportunities. Although the Risers came up short in the finals, their unlikely run to the championship game is one of the best stories of the half-year. [HIGHLIGHT: Dave Capobianco May 5th tournament Pitching Reel]

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Tom LoCascio – a first ballot Wiffle Ball Hall of Famer if there ever was one – received a heck of a Father’s Day gift this year. The captain of In the Box spent the day before Father’s Day back on the Wiffle Ball field flanked by his 15-year old son, Gianni. For one afternoon at least, the 51-year old turned back the clock and even better, got a chance to introduce his son to a sport he had previously only heard about. As everyone expected, Tom played well and left everything he had on the field while pitching all three games for his team. Among Tom’s highlights were a 1-0 victory in their second game of the day and seeing Gianni pick up the nuances of wiffle ball hitting, culminating in several well struck balls against a couple of high quality pitchers. More than a few fellow players remarked that Tom could still make a major contribution on a lot of teams, should he choose to play more than once a season. [HIGHLIGHT: Tom LoCascio June 16th MAW tournament Pitching Reel ]

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Being underestimated and proving his doubters wrong is nothing new to the Stompers’ Nick Schaefer. By way of example, in 2001 as a member of In the Box, Nick was benched during a pivotal USPPBA East regional finals game against the Lakeside Kings because of the misconception that Nick is a weak hitter. Eight months later, Nick hit a walk-off 3-run home run against that same Kings’ squad to capture a tournament title for his new team, the Stompers. Thirteen years later – after being written off as a player on more than one occasion –Schaefer is still competing at a high level both on the mound and on the plate. His velocity is down a notch or two and his barely scuffed balls look like an ancient artifact to some younger players, but Nick continues to produce at high level. Although his pitching workload has been limited in 2018 – the days of 25+ inning tournaments are in the rearview for Nick– he is nonetheless highly effective both on the hill and at the plate. Nick is 2-0 on the carpet this season in MAW against quality competition and he has hit the game winning homerun in both of those outings. Showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon, Nick has been one of the game’s best full-time veteran players this season. [HIGHLIGHT: Nick Schaefer helps himself with a Grand Slam]

Two Way Stars

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At 21-years old, Connor Young is what you might call a “young veteran”. Connor first played in competitive tournaments when he was just twelve years old and has been a mainstay in the sport ever since. 2018 might just be his finest season to date. The man they call Soup has a good shot of winning back-to-back MVP awards in Mid Atlantic and he steadied a Palisades Brewers team that was going nowhere fast before his arrival. After pitching nearly every single inning for My Name is ERL in 2017, Young relieved some of the pressure with several clever additions to round out the roster. That has allowed Soup to be at the top of his pitching game more often than not, even though he still racking up the innings. Young logged 70 innings between MAW and Palisades in the first half of the year, allowing a meager 16 runs in the process. The extra assistance from his teammates has also positively impacted Connor’s offense. Young is a true two-way threat now, just as capable of taking a top ranked pitcher deep as he is to strike out a big time power hitter. [HIGHLIGHT: Young Takes Matters into His Own Hands]

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In 2017, Ryan McElrath put together one of the most impressive individual seasons in Palisades WBL history. Ryan took home the MVP and Cy Young honors to go along with a league championship, becoming only the second player in that league’s history to earn both MVP and Cy Young honors in the same season. So far in 2018, Ryan has picked up right where he left off. His hitting line through twelve games (.250/.407/.597) is nearly identical to last season but with a little more power. On the mound he has already racked up 36 innings for the Giants. While opposing batters have gotten to him more frequently in 2018 than 2017, a 1.25 ERA (per 5 IP) still ranks high up the leaderboard, particularly for pitchers who have thrown thirty or more innings. Ryan’s ability to pick up big hits and shoulder the bulk of the pitching load for his team make him one of the most valuable players anywhere. An impressive eight-inning victory in the finals of the Mid Atlantic Winter Classic this February only adds to his already impressive Palisades resume. [HIGHLIGHT: Ryan McElrath Winter Classic Pitching Reel]

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You know that a player is truly special is when he is among the top all around players on the year and nobody makes a fuss over it simply because it is expected of him. Such is the case for Jordan Robles. Robles is having one of his typically great seasons but because we have seen this level of performance and winning from him time and time again, it may not register to the same way it has with players in the midst of breakout or career years. Jordan started 2018 in impressive fashion by winning three unrestricted pitch speed tournaments in a row – the MAW Winter Classic, MAW Opening Day, and AWAA Opening Day. He is on pace to record anywhere from his second to fourth best pitching season in his illustrious Palisades career. It is easy to take Robles’ talent for granted, which itself is a testament to his immense skill. [HIGHLIGHT: Robles April 14 MAW tournament championship game pitching reel]

Chris Sarnowski was bred to be a championship level wiffler. The son and namesake of the former State of Mind and Hitsom great, Sarno has been around the game almost his entire life and has played competitively for much of this past decade. 2018, however, has been a revelation. While it was abundantly clear from his past successes in GSWL Yard and elsewhere that Sarno had a bigtime bat, he’s shown this year that he has the arm to go along with it. Through three MAW regular season tournaments, Sarno has allowed just four runs in 43 innings of work. His resume includes wins over top-flight teams like My Name is ERL and Cloud9. Sarno is a hard thrower with a typical mix of pitches and has seemingly put his control issues behind him. [HIGHLIGHT: Sarno May 5th MAW Tournament pitching reel]

Another name that might fit that taken-for-granted mold is Tim Trenary of the Palisades Dodgers. Since 2012, Trenary has been one of the best and most consistent players in the Palisades, particularly on the mound where he has averaged 13 strikeouts per games over his eight Palisades’ seasons. This year he is putting up his typical strong pitching numbers with a 0.71 ERA and a tick over 12 strikeouts per game over 27 1/3 innings. While Tim’s offensive output is usually safely above average, he has really taken it to another level this season. In 51 at bats through the end of June, he has slugged nine extra base hits including six homeruns, which is good enough for a .725 slugging percentage. Combined with his solid .410 OBP, Trenary currently has a 1.135 OPS which if he can maintain would be the best of his career.

As a first-time player in Palisades WBL last year, Ty Wegerzn ran away with the league’s Rookie of the Year award. This year, his brother Dave is attempting to make it back-to-back ROTY awards for the Wegerzn clan. Dave Wegerzn – like Ty was in 2017 when he won Rookie of the Year honors – is by no means a newbie to fast pitch Wiffle Ball and that prior experience has allowed him to hit the ground running. Midway through the year, Dave is dominating the action on both sides of the ball with a 1.213 OPS and 0.67 ERA. If Dave can finish the season the way he has started it, he seems poised be the second Wegerzn in a row to finish as a season as Palisades’ top “rookie” player.

Flame Throwers

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48 IP, 4 R, 134 K’s. That is Dan Whitener’s combined Mid Atlantic and Palisades pitching line through the first three months of the spring/summer season. Whitener – who also pitches at Chowan University in North Carolina – poses one of the most electric arms in our sport. He’s put his abilities to fine use this year, retiring quality hitters at a rate unmatched by any of his peers. Whitener has gone through a murder’s row in those two organizations and handled them with relative ease. If Whitener has a shortcoming it is that he is prone to the occasional lapse of command but his stuff and velocity is so good that he is often able to work around any walks. With his pedigree and stuff, the sky is the limit. [HIGHLIGHT: Whitener May 5th MAW tournament pitching reel]

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It is rare to strike out 27 batters over one 10-innning game and lose, as Whitener did back on June 16th in Mid Atlantic. A lot of things need to occur for that to happen, chief among them an opposing pitcher that is up to the challenge. In this particular game that was Cloud9’s Sean Steffy, who kept ERL off the scoreboard by scattering five hits, walking one, and striking out twenty over those same ten innings. Sean’s first tournament appearance of 2018 was a doozy, as he showed off the overpowering stuff that helped propel his team to victory in the 2017 Texas Open. Sean is 5-0 in his last five starts dating back to last October. The matchup with Whitener and ERL in June was easily his biggest test in those handful of games – ERL collectively picked up five hits and made ten outs on balls in play – but as big game pitchers do, Sean found a way to work out of and around jams to get the job done. [HIGHLIGHT: Sean Steffy MAW June tournament pitching highlights]

Two-Sport Stars

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Texas Wiffleball League head honcho and talented pitcher, Will Marshall, is spending a plastic free summer while playing for the Utica Unicorns of the United Professional Shore Baseball League. The UPSBL – an independent league in the Detroit metro area – began its season in mid-May and runs through early September. Working in relief, Marshall has held opponents scoreless in 7 of 12 outings and has a 4.12 ERA through games on June 23rd. Will has been on his game more often-than-not, with seven of his nine earned runs coming in just two outings. Will poses one of competitive Wiffle Ball’s most electric arms and this summer he is proving he can still get it done on the diamond as well. [HIGHLIGHT: Will Marshall FP Texas Open pitching clips]

Georgia's Village Idiots won an eight team tournament in Tennessee in 2017 but have yet to play in 2018. There’s a good reason for their absence, however. One of the Idiot’s key players – Justin Jones – is currently playing professional baseball in the Los Angeles Angels organization. Jones – a four year starting shortstop at Georgia state – signed with the Angels as an undrafted free agent this summer and is currently assigned to their rookie-level team Arizona. 

Next Generation

What do you get when you take the overwhelming arsenal and velocity of Sean Steffy and put it on a nineteen-year old southpaw? You get My Name is ERL’s Blake Hoffman. It is unfair to burden Blake with such high expectations so early in his career, but there is no denying he has the stuff and ability to eventually justify that comparison. Blake has shown off his considerable talent over three MAW tournaments in 2018 but also struggled on occasion, as can be expected of any young pitcher. A longtime student of the game – Hoffman spent the prior five years uploading his backyard bullpen sessions to YouTube before making his pro debut in ’18 – he has the drive needed to become a top tier pitcher. Blake travels from his home in Marion, Ohio to York, Pennsylvania – a one-way trip of about 6 ½ hours – to compete in MAW tournaments. There’s no question the want-to is there and with his stuff, it is only a matter of time before he puts it all together. [HIGHLIGHT: Hoffman versus Way Too Beautiful]

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Last summer, it was Tommy Loftus who broke out of the pack in the Ridley Park Wiffleball League and established himself as one of the game’s bright young pitchers. This year, it looks like its Sean Bingnear’s turn to do the same. Bingnear followed up on his sparkling 2017 RPWL playoff run (15 innings, 0 runs, 24 K’s) with an excellent start to the 2018 RPWL season (16 innings, 0 runs, 28 K’s) before a nightmarish outing on June 20th where he seemingly couldn’t locate the strike zone. Outside of the Ridley Park league, Bingnear is opening eyes with his work in Mid Atlantic. In two tournaments, Bingenear has tossed 16+ above average innings and was one pitch away from defeating Cloud9 by total bases on June 16th. Relying on a heavy screwball and smooth delivery, Bingnear has shown he can get top tier hitters out and should only get better as he gains more experience. The NWLA recently spotlighted the Longballs’ pitcher as one of their players to watch at this year’s NWLA tournament. Sean will likely do the hefty lifting for the Longballs at that tournament, with Loftus still on the shelf as he rehabs an arm injury. [HIGHLIGHT: Bingnear MAW June tournament pitching reel]

Another young pitcher with a near upset over Cloud9 on his resume is Cooper Ruckel of the Texas Wiffle Ball League’s Cosby Show. Last October, the hard throwing sixteen year old kept the eventual Texas Open champions scoreless in a pool play game, but came up short on total bases. In sixteen innings spanning four games this season in the Texas Wiffle Ball League, Ruckel has struck out 46 batters and allowed only two hits. With an electric arm and a deceivingly simple delivery, Ruckel can throw the ball past opposing hitters in a way very few others can. [HIGHLIGHT: Ruckel strikes out Ed Packer]

The Drop National Player of the Year

Wiffle Ball is ostensibly a team sport but in its current state, the game belongs to the individual player. While I hope that one-day soon we will again have the full-time teams and system necessary to accurately rank and compare squads, that time is not now. It is a player's sport right now and there is no shortage of talented players to be found throughout the United States and beyond.

The Drop wishes to recognize the outstanding achievements of the games best, most consistent, and game tested WINNING players. To that end, The Drop will name a 2018 National Player of the Year this fall. In addition to the award, the winning player will receive a cash prize of $500. This is an editor’s choice award, meaning there will not be an open or closed door voting process. The winner will be selected by the The Drop based on the following criteria:

  • Based on a player’s performance in unrestricted pitch speed games* between January 1st and October 15th, 2018.

  • The award will take into account a player’s pitching, hitting, and defensive accomplishments between (and including) January 1, 2018 and October 15, 2018.

  • Among other considerations, the level of competition the player competed against, the player’s statistics, the number of games played at a high level, individual and team accolades earned by the player (i.e. championships), and the variety of competition will be taken into account when selecting the finalists and the award winner.

  • A player’s FULL body of work will be considered for the award. One good tournament is not necessarily enough to make up for a lack of play or performance the rest of the award period nor can will one "poor" tournament performance overshadow an otherwise superb season.

  • The selection will be made based on the hours upon hours of in-person and digital Wiffle Ball watching undertaken on a regular basis here at The Drop, conversations with players and organizers, and 2018 statistics.

* Organizations that meet this criteria include, but are not limited to: Palisades WBL; Mid Atlantic Wiffle; NWLA affiliated leagues that provide an unrestricted speed option (AWAA, Ridley Park Wiffle Ball League, WSEM, etc.); the NWLA national and qualifying tournaments;  the Fast Plastic tournament; JAL; and the Texas Wiffle Ball League.

The finalists will be announced on Monday, October 22nd. The award winner will be announced Friday, November 2nd. The award will be presented to the winner at a yet to be determined date and location.

So keep on playing and GOOD LUCK!

Life After Baseball: Three Men's Journeys from Pro Baseball to Competitive Wiffle Ball

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June 3, 1980

It is the first day of Major League Baseball’s annual amateur player draft. For thousands of aspiring professional ballplayers, the next three days are among the most important of their young lives. For some – like Crenshaw High School’s Darryl Strawberry, selected with the first overall pick by the New York Mets – there is little mystery to the day. Strawberry has been on the Mets’ shortlist of top picks for months and as the draft approaches, it is an open secret that New York will take the talented high school outfielder with their first pick. For Strawberry, draft day is simply confirmation of what he knew was coming.

For other Major League hopefuls, the three-day long draft is a rollercoaster ride of emotions and decisions. Some high school players are almost certain to be drafted in the early rounds, but will then be faced with the difficult decision of starting their professional careers or honoring their college commitments. For most, the three-day event is a nerve-wrecking wait to find out whether they will be professional ballplayers or not.

After Strawberry is selected by the Mets, players of all backgrounds and skill sets come off the board. Future All-Stars including Dan Plesac, Chris Sabo, Doug Drabek, and Rick Aguiliera are selected but opt not to sign. In the compensation portion of the first round, Rick Renteria, Terry Francona, Billy Beane, and John Gibbons are taken within a five-pick stretch. All five men will reach the majors, but the entire group is far better known for what they would end up doing in Major League dugouts and front offices then what they accomplished as players. In the 8th round of the draft, the Cincinnati Reds get a steal when they select Strawberry’s Los Angeles area high school running mate and future All-Star, Eric Davis.

251 spots after the Mets select Strawberry, the Detroit Tigers select a left-handed pitcher out of University of California Berkley by the name of Chuck Hensley. The odds of a 10th round pick – particularly a college player – reaching the Major Leagues are slim. There are no $210,000 signing bonuses coming Hensley’s way like there are for Strawberry, but the Tigers have given the tall southpaw an opportunity, which is more than many will get.

After three days of selections, the 1980 amateur draft wraps up on Thursday, June 5th when the Cleveland Indians – making back-to-back picks after the other 25 teams pass on making a selection in the 44th round – take collegiate shortstop Shanie Dugas with the 832nd and final pick of the draft.

With that, disappointment settles in for hundreds of high school and college players who had hopes of being drafted but were ultimately passed by. It is the end of the road for some of these players. Others are not quite ready to give up on their dreams. That group includes standout Ohio University outfielder Kevin Priessman.

As a Bobcat, Priessman slugged his way to three consecutive all-MAC first team honors (1977 – 1979) and set several Ohio University single season and career hitting records. The latter accomplishments are particularly notable given that less than a decade earlier, future Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt – himself a three-time All-MAC selection – led the Bobcats to their only College World Series appearance (1969) on his way to be taken in the 2nd round of the 1971 draft by the Philadelphia Phillies. Despite the impressive track record at Ohio, Priessman goes undrafted in June 1980.

Not wanting to hang up his glove just yet, Priessman opts to go the free agent route and eventually agrees to terms with the Montreal Expos. While it is not all that unusual for a player to go undrafted only to hook up with an organization as a free agent, what makes Priessman’s story unusual is that he joins the Expos organization as a pitcher. There is no indication that Priessman pitched at Ohio and if he did, his exploits with the bat far outshine any work he did on the mound. Yet somehow, the guy with the prolific, record setting college hitting career is only able to find a Major League job as a pitcher.

With dozens of draft picks ahead of him on the depth chart, Priessman is assigned to Calgary of the rookie level Pioneer League. As a 10th round selection, Hensley receives a far more pleasant assignment from Detroit and is sent to Lakeland of the A-level Florida State League.

Working out of Lakeland’s bullpen in the summer of 1980, Hensley asserts himself well pitching to a 3.36 ERA over 59 innings. His numbers are far from eye-popping but respectable considering that he already threw 118 innings for his college team that spring.

Unfortunately, Priessman’s first taste of pro ball does not go nearly as well. The right-hander gets into 16 games for Calgary but pitches to a 5.23 ERA, thanks in large part to walking 4 ½ batters per nine innings. To top it all off, he blows his arm out during the ill-fated season, which effectively ends his pro career. 1980 is Priessman’s one and only season in professional baseball.

******

May 10, 1986

The San Francisco Giants are in St. Louis for the middle game of a three-game series against the Cardinals.

In the bottom of the second inning, San Francisco’s starter Roger Mason gets Andy Van Slyke to fly out before suddenly losing all control of the strike zone. Three straight walks are followed by a Ray Burris double, which puts Mason and the Giants into an early 3-0 hole. Mason recovers long enough to get himself out of the inning without further damage but stumbles again in the third on the way to allowing three more runs. Having seen enough, manager Roger Craig summons former starter Bill Laskey from the bullpen. Laskey gets his team out of the 3rd inning jam, but expends all he has in the process. Manager Craig goes back to his bullpen for the 4th inning and calls for a 27-year old making his major league debut – Chuck Hensley.

For Hensley, it has been a long and winding road to reach this point.

Chuck Hensley - West Haven A's (1982)

Chuck Hensley - West Haven A's (1982)

Despite his solid rookie season in 1980, Detroit made the odd decision to release Hensley that winter. As odd as that decision might have been, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Hensley hooked on with the Oakland A’s in short order. Not only did the move put him closer to home (he was assigned to Modesto of the A+ California League), but the A’s afforded the left-hander a chance to start after spending all of 1980 in the bullpen. He excelled in that role in both A+ and AA during the 1981 and 1982 seasons. Hensley opened the 1983 season just a step away from the big time as a member of the Tacoma Tigers of the Pacific Coast League. It could have been the notoriously hitter friendly league, a move back to the bullpen, or a combination of many factors, but Hensley struggled mightily that season. He allowed 5 ½ runs per nine innings and saw his strikeout totals plummet. In 1984, Hensley returned to Tacoma and continued to struggle, prompting Oakland to trade him to Milwaukee. Assigned to the Vancouver team in the Pacific Coast League, the change of scenery did him little good. Milwaukee cut bait after only a few appearances and Hensley found himself out of a job midway through the 1984 season.

Hensley knew he could still play but teams were not exactly lining up for his services. With spring training approaching, Chuck switched agents and shortly thereafter landed a spot with the San Francisco Giants. The Giants assigned him to AA – essentially a demotion – but Hensley didn’t sulk and instead took care of business. His 2.81 ERA at AA in 1985 was the lowest of his minor league career and it earned him a mid-season promotion to the PCL. The third trip through the PCL was the charm and Hensley slayed the league in 1985 to the tune of a 3.15 ERA. He returned to the PCL to start 1986 and fired on all cylinders right out of the gate. When the Giants placed reliever Jim Cott on the disabled list on May 9th, Hensley finally received his long awaited – and well-earned – call to the big leagues.

Chuck Hensley - Phoenix Firebirds (1986)

Chuck Hensley - Phoenix Firebirds (1986)

With his long and winding journey to the majors now officially complete, Hensley takes the ball in the fourth inning. If he is nervous, it is impossible to tell. Facing the top of the Cardinals’ potent lineup, Hensley picks up back-to-back strikeouts on Vince Coleman and Ozzie Smith, before getting Willie McGee to ground out to short to cap off the perfect inning. Hensley retreats to the dugout officially a Major League pitcher. In a good news-bad news situation, the Giants get two runners on with two outs in the top of the 5th with the pitcher’s spot due up. Down 6-0 and in the need of runs, Craig brings in Candy Maldanado to pinch hit for Hensley, ending his night after one perfect inning.

Hensley will go onto pitch in five additional games that June posting a solid 2.45 ERA before being sent back to AAA. He returns at the end of June to once again pitch out of the bullpen. On July 2nd in Atlanta – in his 11th major league appearance – Hensley retires all six Brave batters he faces. There is no way of knowing at the time, but it will be the last game he pitches in the majors.

*****

September 1, 1993

The Scranton/Wilkes Barre Red Barons – at the time the AAA affiliate for the Philadelphia Phillies – enter the 10th inning of a day-night doubleheader tied with Syracuse 1-1.

Syracuse pitcher Mark Ohlms toes the rubber as newly promoted Red Barons hitter Mickey Hyde steps in the box. Hyde spent most of the 1993 season in AA Reading. In September, the National League East leading Phillies dipped into their AAA club for reserves for a September stretch run, opening a spot for Hyde on the Red Barons. The 26-year old had a good season at the plate in AA, at least from an average standpoint. At the time of his promotion to Scranton/Wilkes Barre, Hyde’s batting average with Reading was a solid .285. At times during the summer, Hyde’s average rose above .300, which was good enough to earn him a spot on the Eastern League all-star team.

With base runners needed in this tie game, Hyde puts his contact hitting ability to good use and reaches base with a leadoff single. The next batter, Greg Legg, sacrifices Hyde to second base. Syracuse responds by intentionally walking Tom Marsh to set up a double play but those best laid plans are quickly spoiled when Victor Rodriquez reaches on an infield single. Ohlms has no choice but to go right after Sam Taylor with the bases loaded. Taylor responds by bouncing a single up the middle that scores Hyde for the winning run.

While scoring the winning run in a September AAA game in northeast Pennsylvania is not quite the same as doing it in Philadelphia in the middle of a pennant race, the moment is nonetheless a significant one in Hyde’s long pro baseball journey. Simply reaching AAA was validation of what had been an unlikely pro career.

Hyde grew up in Pavilion, New York – a small upstate town that is about a 30-minute car ride from Rochester. He attended Pavilion Central High School where he was a star baseball player before playing at Genesee Community College in Batavia, New York from 1985 through 1987. Hyde continued to excel on the baseball diamond at Genesee and after earning his associates degree he joined the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) baseball team. His tenure at UNLV was short lived. Hyde was cut from the team during the season. As he told the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper in 1992, UNLV manager Fred Dallimore did not mince words when delivering the bad news.

“He told me he didn’t think I’d ever play pro ball,” Hyde told reporter Jim Mandelaro. “I was devastated. If it weren’t for my father encouraging me to hang in there, I would have packed it in.”

Mickey Hyde - Batavia Clippers (1989)

Mickey Hyde - Batavia Clippers (1989)

Hyde heeded his father’s advice and attended an open tryout for the Philadelphia Phillies in Batavia (the home of the Phillies’ New York Penn League affiliate). Hyde did not stand out early in fielding drills and felt his pro aspirations slipping away. He was eventually given a chance to hit and something about the 22-year old caught the attention of Philadelphia scouts. The Phillies signed Hyde to a minor league contract later that night. He was assigned to Bativia of the low-A New York Penn League for the 1989 season and moved to the Bend Bucks, who were also a low-A affiliate of the Phiilies, for the 1990 season.

In 1991, Hyde was promoted again, this time to Clearwater in the A+ Florida State League where he was managed by baseball lifer Lee Elia. He continued to produce just enough at the plate for the Phillies to keep him around. 1992 marked the first season of Hyde’s pro career where he didn’t receive a promotion and instead he was sent back to Clearwater. He made the most of this second go around in the Florida State League. Hyde hit .302 in 147 plate appearances, which was enough to earn a mid-season promotion to AA Reading. He finished well in Reading in 1992 and his hot start to the 1993 season eventually earned him his one and only shot in AAA.

Later in life, Hyde described reaching AAA – which at one point must have seemed to be nothing more than a pipe dream – as his greatest accomplishment in sports. Following his brief cup of coffee at the highest level of the minor leagues, Hyde quietly retired from professional baseball.

***********

September 10, 1995

Chris Bechtold is exhausted.

The left-hander from the Chicago suburbs is pitching his 10th straight game at the North American Wiffle Ball Championships in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has faced more than 200 batters during the grueling three-day tournament and is laying waste to his competition. The Chicago Tribune will later report that Bechtold struck out 214 of the 222 batters he faced that weekend. It’s a feat that seems dubious, but not impossible. Bechtold’s ability to shut down hitters at Wiffle Ball’s premiere event is second only to the almost super human stamina he displays in doing so.

It was just seven months earlier that Bechtold tried out as a replacement player for the Chicago White Sox. With the fear that the labor strike would bleed into the 1995 season, Major League Baseball clubs offered try outs to potential replacement players. The White Sox liked what they saw from the 29-year old left-hander but felt he needed to be in better playing shape. Chicago sent Bechtold home with the instructions to work on his conditioning before reporting to Cominskey Park in early April. Unfortunately for Bechtold and the other replacement players, the strike ended in late March and their services were no longer needed.

Originally printed in the Chicago Tribune (March 10, 1996), Pg. 419

Originally printed in the Chicago Tribune (March 10, 1996), Pg. 419

Now seven months, 10 Wiffle Ball games, 70+ innings, and 200+ batters later, nobody could accuse Becthold of being out of shape. With just his older brother in the field behind him, Chris gets his Becthold Bombers team within one run of winning the first ever North American Wiffle Ball Championship. An extra inning homerun to eventual 3-time champions, Team Trenton, is Chris’ undoing. The Championship might have eluded him, but Chris is rewarded for his superhuman efforts with the tournament MVP and CY Young awards.

The man that presents the awards to Chris also knows a thing or two about having his pro baseball aspirations dashed in an instant – it is Kevin Priessman.

After blowing his arm out just a dozen games into his professional baseball career fifteen years earlier, Priessman left the sport behind. He did what most people do when their big league dreams are cut short – he got a job. Actually, he got two of them. Priessman joined the Hamilton County Parks District in Cincinnati as the athletic programs director. The county job kept Priessman on the fringe of the sport he once excelled in. He organized baseball and softball tournaments for many years and was one of the first to bring the Southern California game of Over-the-Line east. In addition to his nine-to-five job, Kevin and his wife ran the family’s Christmas Tree Farm just over the state border in Indiana.

It was at his Christmas Tree Farm that Priessman discovered another sport in the baseball family. Every Independence Day, Kevin invited family and friends to the farm for a cook out and a Wiffle Ball tournament. At first the tournaments were just for fun and little more than a way to pass the time in between meals. As the years went on, the tournament supplanted the barbeque as the main attraction for his guests. Priessman wondered how he might apply the sport of Wiffle Ball to his day job as Athletic Director.

Priessman pitched his Wiffle Ball idea to the powers-that-be in Hamilton County and received the go-ahead to start a program. In 1994, he organized a league that drew teams from around the greater Cincinnati area. The league was successful enough that Priessman was able to lobby the county for $2,500 for a permanent Wiffle Ball complex. He not only had big plans for the league but saw an opportunity to make Cincinnati the center of the Wiffle Ball Universe. His idea was the North American Wiffle Ball Championship – a three-day tournament that would allow players and teams from all over the country to compete for a National Championship.

Kevin Priessman at the 1997 North American Wiffle Ball Championships in Cincinnati

Kevin Priessman at the 1997 North American Wiffle Ball Championships in Cincinnati

Priessman believed his tournament to be the first of its kind and although that is not exactly the case, the North American Wiffle Ball Championship had an immediate and indelible impact on the fast pitch Wiffle Ball landscape. The 1995 tournament drew more than 30 teams thanks to an all-out national media blitz, which included a pre-tournament feature article in Sports Illustrated.  During a three-year period spanning 1995 to 1997, Cincinnati became the center of the Wiffle universe. The 1995 and 1996 tournaments were the only tournament appearances for Chris Becthold and the Bombers, who finished runner up both years. Team Trenton made their mark as one of the game’s all-time best teams by winning the Championship in all three seasons. The Lakeside Kings re-emerged on the national radar at these tournaments and played well, placing in the top four all three years. The 1996 tournament was the national tournament debut of Hall of Famer Billy Owens and the 1997 edition marked the first time that Owens and Mark DeMasi teamed together as the Georgia Longshotz. It was due to the success of Priessman’s tournaments that Team Trenton member Mike Palinczar reformed the New Jersey Wiffle Ball Association (“NJWA”) in 1996. The NJWA’s annual summer and fall tournaments would go onto be among the biggest and most important in the game over the next several years.

In addition to bringing influential players and teams together, Priessman’s tournaments introduced a game-changing piece of equipment.  He devised an all-in-one backstop and strike-calling device that would affectionately became known as “The Hole”. The Hole was a wooden backstop with a rectangular hole cut in the middle to determine balls and strikes. The Hole went onto be the standard piece of strike calling equipment until the USPPBA re-emerged in 2001 and introduced the target strike zone nationwide.

While not as short-lived as his time in professional baseball, Priessman’s time as Wiffle Ball’s top promoter came and went rather quickly. Following the 1997 North American Championship, Priessman left his Athletic Director position to concentrate full time on his tree business. The Wiffle Ball complex remained, but Priessman’s successors showed little interest in continuing the national tournament. Although his time in the game was short, Priessman’s Wiffle legacy lives onto this day. A clear line can be drawn connecting Priessman and the North American Wiffle Ball Championship to Mike Palinczar and the NJWA to Billy Owens and Fast Plastic to present day organizations including the Palisades Wiffle Ball League and Mid Atlantic Wiffle.

*********

October 9, 2004

It is early in the day on the first day of the 2004 Fast Plastic National Championship Tournament in Cedar Park, Texas. The day begins with an abbreviated two-game round robin that will reduce the overflowing 33-team field to a manageable 28 teams. For the most part, these first round games lack the excitement and intensity of the later rounds. A team must simply avoid being one of the bottom five in the field during the first round – by both record and run differential – to survive. Moving onto the next round is all that matters, whether that is accomplished with two wins, one win, or no wins. That reality leads to a slate of games that are relatively mundane by National Championship Tournament standards.

A couple of the first-round games rise above those circumstances by sheer force of talent. The best example is the matchup pitting New York region champions and long-time Wiffle Ball power house In the Box against the second-place finishers from Northern California, Oldies but Goodies. The talent on the two teams is enough to make for an interesting game, but there is another story lying below the surface. The matchup is a rare Wffle Ball occurrence where a pair of professional baseball players turned competitive Wiffle Ball players compete against one another.

Following his two 1986 call-ups with the San Francisco Giants, Chuck Hensley bounced around the minor leagues for three more seasons without ever getting recalled. After throwing 22 innings in 1990 for Seattle’s AA-affiliate, the 31-year old called it a career and retired from pro baseball. Six years later, he returned to the game as a west coast scout for the New York Mets. Baseball was never far from Hensley’s mind and he continued to look for ways to play.

While scouting for the Mets, Hensley heard about the Fast Plastic wiffle ball organization, which in 2004 had regions spanning coast to coast, including one based in Northern California. Hensley grabbed a friend and entered an early season qualifier in the Northern California region. His team – dubbed the Oldies but Goodies due to both players being in their mid-40’s – split a pair of games against the Gunners before losing to Make Ya Whiff in the tournament finals. Not satisfied with the second-place finish, Oldies but Goodies returned later that season and eventually took the second spot in the highly competitive region.

Following his cup of coffee in AAA in 1993, Mickey Hyde left professional baseball behind for good, satisfied with what he had accomplished on the diamond. Hyde entered the world of financial services, a career that soon took him out of New York and down to Florida. It was while living in Florida that Hyde first discovered competitive Wiffle Ball. In 2002, Hyde’s team – The Toadkiller Dogs – ran through the competition in the USPPBA Southeast region and earned a spot in in the four-team national championship series. Although he did not pitch as a pro baseball player, Hyde turned himself into quite the Wiffle Ball pitcher and earned Most Valuable Player honors in the southeast region that season. The Toadkiller Dogs came up short against the New Jersey-based State of Mind in the national semi-finals in 2002. The following year, Hyde’s team made it the final eight at the Fast Plastic NCT before running into the Joel DeRoche and the eventual second place finishers, the Shockers.

2004 Fast Plastic National runners-up, In the Box (L:R Mickey Hyde, Tom LoCascio, Joe Nord)

2004 Fast Plastic National runners-up, In the Box (L:R Mickey Hyde, Tom LoCascio, Joe Nord)

2003 was Hyde’s final season with the Toadkiller Dogs as he and his family had already relocated back to New York. When In the Box captain Tom LoCascio – who had an inimitable knack for making great player acquisitions – heard the news, he quickly signed Hyde to play for his team. The move paid immediate dividends. The 2004 In the Box team of LoCascio, Joe Nord, and Hyde had one of the best regular seasons of any team in the history of the game, going 31-1 on the way to the New York region title. Hyde continued to pitch but with Nord on board he did not have to shoulder the load like he did with the Toadkiller Dogs. It was during the 2004 regular season that Hyde established himself as one of the game’s greatest hitters.

Now, the two former pro baseball players find themselves across the field from one another at the 2004 National Championship, vying for a chance at Wiffle Ball immortality. Hensley takes the ball for the Oldies but Goodies against In the Box, as he will for every single game his team plays in Cedar Park. The big bats of In the Box win out over Hensley’s talented left arm, as the New York club edges outs the California duo by a score of 2-1.

That type of low scoring, close game becomes the theme of the day for Hensley and the Oldies. They drop their second first round game to Arizona’s Cuatro 2-0, but their low run differential secures them a spot in the final 28. In the 3-game round robin that follows, Hensley blanks Massachusetts’ champions the Blue Sox (New England) 3-0, is edged by eventual champions The Swingers (New Jersey) 2-1, and triumphs over Pacific Northwest champs The Rolling Blackouts 3-0. In the day’s final game, Hensley allows a single run to New England’s Doom Gone Wild, which eliminates the Oldies in the round of sixteen.

2004 Fast Plastic NCT Most Valuable Player, Chuck Hensley

2004 Fast Plastic NCT Most Valuable Player, Chuck Hensley

In a marathon pitching performance that even Chris Bechtold would find impressive, Hensley throws every single inning (46) of every single game (6) for his team. The seven runs he allows are good enough for a 0.91 ERA, but it’s the strikeout and walk numbers that are truly mind-boggling. The San Francisco Giants reliever turned Wiffle Ball ace strikes out 128 batters (16.7 SO/6 IP) while walking only 6 batters (0.8 BB/6 IP). For every batter the southpaw walks on the day, he strikes out more than 21 of them. The performance is so undeniably brilliant that Fast Plastic takes the unprecedented step of awarding the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award to Hensley rather than a player on the championship winning team. Not too bad for a 45-year old.

For Hyde and In the Box, the tournament goes just as planned up through the semi-finals. Box goes a perfect 7-0 to reach the final four, including two victories over DeRoche and the Shockers. In the semi-finals, Nord – who carried the pitching load for the team that weekend – goes down with an arm injury. Playing as a two-man team, Hyde and LoCascio take down the 2002 and 2003 champions, The Vipers, before being shut out by the Swingers in the finals.

For Hyde, the disappointment of the finals loss would prove temporary.

The following year he returned to Cedar Park once again as a member of In the Box, but this time playing the entire tournament as a two-man team with Nord as his only teammate. In one of the game's greatest two-man performances, the duo stunned the competition and captured the title. In doing so, Nord and Hyde became the only two-man team to win a National Championship Tournament in the history of the sport. That accomplishment places Hyde in select company and forever etches his name in the Wiffle Ball history books.

*****

Hyde taking a hack versus Joel DeRoche and the Shockers at the 2004 national championship tournament.

Hyde taking a hack versus Joel DeRoche and the Shockers at the 2004 national championship tournament.

Two years before winning the national title, Hyde - who in addition to baseball and wiffleball, dabbled in softball, bowling and golf - was asked by his hometown paper which sport is his favorite to play. "Wiffle Ball," he told the Democrat and Chronicle, "because it is the most challenging." From an athlete that reached the highest level of the minor leagues and once bowled a perfect game, Hyde's words offer an important insight into unrestricted, competitive Wiffle Ball. The sport - when played at its highest levels - doesn't take a back seat to any other in terms of competition and skill level.

The Major League Baseball season kicks off this week and full season minor league organizations get underway next week. When you are out at the ballpark this summer, take note of the players. You might just be watching the next Wiffle Ball star.

*****

Postscript

The competitive Wiffle Ball career of Chuck Hensley was short lived his 2004 MVP performance serving as his Wiffle Ball highlight. Hensley later joined a pre-Bill Owens version of GSW in 2006 which was his final year in competitive Wiffle Ball. That same year, he switched sides in his day job going from scouting to player representation. In 2008, he returned to scouting, this time with the team that brought him to the Majors, the Giants. Hensley was on the Giants scouting staff for the organization’s 2010, 2012, and 2014 World Series victories. In 2014 at the age of 55, Hensley pitched a perfect game in the Men’s Senior Baseball League (MBSL) in Arizona. It is not entirely out of the question that he could pick up the plastic ball one more time at a future Fast Plastic event.

Despite some efforts to convince Hamilton County Park District to resume the North American Wiffle Ball Championship in the late 1990’s, the facility has not been used for a major tournament championship since 1997. Kevin Priessman has not been heard of in Wiffle circles since, although he still runs his Indiana Christmas tree farm. Chris Bechtold disappeared from the Wiffle Ball scene along with the North American Championship, but his accomplishments in the 1995 tournament are forever immortalized in the pages of the Chicago Tribune.

Winning the National title as a two-man team in a highly competitive field solidified Mickey Hyde’s as one of the game’s all-time great players. In the Box morphed into the post-Tom LoCascio New York Knights in 2006 with Hyde still on board. The Knights made it to the finals of the 2007 Fast Plastic NCT but came up short against GSW. According to Tom LoCascio on a recent FP Radio broadcast, we could see an In the Box reunion with Hyde, Nord, and himself, at a tournament later this year.

2017 National Year in Review

2017 national year in review.jpg

The DROP takes a look back at some of the major happenings during the 2017 year in Wiffle® Ball. Coming later this January, a discussion on what is in store for 2018 and what we would like to see happen in the world of Wiffle this upcoming year.


Fast Plastic Rides Again

At the end of the 2016 season, Billy Owens dipped his toes in the water in testing out a Fast Plastic revival when Fast Plastic co-sponsored the Hall of Fame Classic in Massachusetts with the Golden Stick Wiffleball League. However, it was in 2017 that the one-time premier national Wiffle® Ball organization made a full-fledged return when it hosted the Texas Open in late October. The tournament drew 15 teams from several different parts of the country. Among the states with representation at the tournament were California, New York, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada, Texas, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania. The tournament field was an eclectic mix of veteran players and teams that hadn’t been heard from in recent years, several of the game’s current top players, and a handful of eager (and talented) Texas-based squads. The $5,000 cash prize awarded to the champions, Cloud9, was the biggest purse of the year in competitive Wiffle® Ball. Fast Plastic has plans to bring back the Texas tournament in 2018.

High Profile Players

There are several players who stood out in 2017, not only through quality play, but also by showing up to play in a variety of leagues and tournaments.

Jimmy Cole asserted himself well on both sides of the ball in 2017 between the AWAA, Palisades WBL, the NWLA tournament, and the Fast Plastic Texas Open. At the plate, Cole proved himself adept at reaching base posting a .466 OBP in AAWA, .594 OBP at the NWLA tournament (5th best), and .359 for the Palisades Cardinals (14th best in the league). On the mound, Cole has the innings and stats of a very good “round robin” pitcher. He got most of his work in AAWA where he pitched a 2.76 ERA over 32 2/3 innings, but also worked 18 innings between Palisades and the NWLA tournament while allowing ten total runs.

(Photo: Ryan M. Dute, Ryte Photography)

(Photo: Ryan M. Dute, Ryte Photography)

Ty Wegerzn was named the Palisades WBL Rookie of the Year and with good reason. Ty finished atop most of the offensive categories including 2nd in batting average (.320), 3rd in OBP (.443), 2nd in slugging (.598), and 2nd in homeruns (10). He worked the fourth most number of innings (59) out of all Palisades pitchers with a solid 2:1 K/BB ratio and a 2.20 ERA. Outside of Palisades, Ty was solid in his one GSWL tournament of 2017 but made a huge impression at the Fast Plastic Texas Open for the champions, Cloud9. Ty was arguably as important to Cloud9’s run to the title as anyone on the team, including tournament MVP Sean Steffy. Ty started every single one of Cloud9’s four round robin games. He went 3-1 and more importantly, allowed Steffy to enter the elimination round completely fresh. Ty carried an upper 80’s riser during the tournament and added a backbreaking RBI hit against Wiff Inc. in the semi-finals.

Speaking of Wiff Inc., Jordan Robles was the iron man of 2017. Robles had a significant presence in Palisades, GSWL, Mid Atlantic, and the Fast Plastic Texas Open this past year. The proof of his individual impact can be found in the success his teams enjoyed. Jordan played for the New York GSWL champions (10 Run Rule), the runners up in GSWL Yard Open Tournament (Founders), the Mid Atlantic Wiffle champions (Stompers), the 3rd place regular season and post-season Palisades team (Padres), and the 3rd place team at the Fast Plastic Texas Open (Wiff Inc.). Jordan was truly a two-way star in 2017 combining above average power and patience at the plate with unrivaled command on the mound. His success in both the medium pitch GSWL Yard tournaments and unrestricted pitch tournaments/leagues is an additional feather in his cap.

Other players that succeeded at a high level in multiple environments in 2017 include (but are not limited to): Will Marshall (Texas Wiffleball League, Fast Plastic), Rob Longiaru (GSWL, Palisades WBL, Fast Plastic), Ben Stant (GSWL, Mid Atlantic, Palisades WBL), and Ryan Bush (OCWA, NWLA, Fast Plastic). 

GSWL Goes Yard

After several years of scaling back on fast pitch tournaments in favor their Yard League (“medium pitch”) format, GSWL did not hold a single fast pitch tournament in 2017. It appeared inevitable that GSWL would eventually end up in this position, particularly after hosting only a single fast pitch tournament in 2016. However, the switch over entirely to the Yard format was perhaps quicker than most anticipated. The New England based organization announced a fast pitch tournament for September on their original schedule, but cancelled the event over the summer. As such, 2017 marked the first time this decade that Golden Stick did not hold at least one fast pitch tournament. In a bit of good timing, Fast Plastic’s return to the tournament scene with October’s Texas Open helped fill that void.

On the Yard League side, GSWL trucked right along on similar path to prior years which included a series of “qualifying” tournaments in Massachusetts and New York, separate Massachusetts and New York playoff tournaments, and an open style tournament to cap off the summer. The New York opener (18 teams) and National Open tournament (22 teams) were among the more heavily attended non-slow pitch tournaments of the year. Continuing another trend, GSWL tournaments – even the ones labeled as playoffs or championships – were essentially all standalone events without much in the way of continuity to tie them together. The attempt at bringing other tournaments and even backyard games into GSWL’s larger structure never really seemed to take hold. Going into 2018, GSWL is still arguably the most prolific organization in the game – their latest media attention coming in the form of a VICE Sports piece – even as they trend more and more towards being a medium pitch, standalone tournament organization only.

Kings of Slow Pitch

www.whiffleball.org

www.whiffleball.org

On July 30th, the Cult West Warriors out of South Bend, Indiana outlasted a field of 80-teams to capture the Hometown Cup at Migley Field in New Carlisle, Illinois. It is the fourth time that the Warriors have held the Cup in the past five years, further cementing their status as the most prolific team in an event that dates back to 2005. Just two weeks prior to their most recent Hometown Cup championship, the Warriors finished first out of 48 teams in the 38th annual World Wiffle® Ball Championship in Skokie, Illinois. It marked the second year in a row that the Cult West Warriors won the world’s longest running national Wiffle® Ball tournament.

The Cult West Warrior’s success in these large slow pitch tournament fields certainly gives them a rightful claim to be considered the best slow pitch team in the country. To some players, that might not seem like much of an accolade. Slow pitch Wiffle® Ball is often brushed off as being an unskilled game because it essentially removes the competition between pitcher and hitter. Indeed, under the rules of each of the aforementioned tournaments the pitcher is required to throw the ball in a manner to allow the batter to hit it. The natural reaction to these rules is to declare that there is no skill involved. That is a largely a fallacy; there are skills involved just different ones than those found in a fast pitch environment (and perhaps, more easily attainable skills). If nothing else, the sustained success of a team like the Cult West Warriors supports the idea that there is skill involved in the slow pitch game. Teams cannot consistently win in fields that large if the game is all or mostly void of skill and all or mostly a function of luck.

A Good Year for Veteran Teams

On August 27th in Staten Island, New York State of Mind won a hotly contested nine-inning battle with the Founders to capture the 2017 GSWL Yard Open tournament. The victory was arguably the biggest in the almost twenty years that the franchise has been in existence. One the sport’s most enduring teams, State of Mind made deep runs in several years – a second place finish in the 2002 USPPBA season among them – but found that one big tournament title to be elusive. For Jay Ventresca – one of the game’s all-time great hitters and the only original SOM member remaining – it is another major accolade to a packed resume.

State of Mind’s old foes from the 2002 USPPBA season, the Stompers, also enjoyed success in 2017. Returning after a lengthy absence, the Baltimore based squad won two of the five regular seasons Mid Atlantic tournaments and then swept the playoffs to capture the inaugural MAW title. The Stompers received a big late season boost from Jordan Robles who led the team in the September regular season tournament and again in the playoffs. Nick Schaefer proved that, when healthy, he is still one of the best pitchers around by holding opponents to just four runs over 29 innings of work. The Stompers franchise celebrates its twenty-year anniversary in 2018.

At the Fast Plastic Texas Open, several veteran teams likewise proved that they can still go. 2007 Fast Plastic Champions, GSW, fought to a top 4-finish in the tournament behind another tremendous performance from one of the game’s all-time great pitchers, Joel DeRoche. The Rookies – the 2006 Fast Plastic Champions – also turned back the clock making it all the way to the championship game before being stopped by the eventual champions, Cloud9.

WSEM Dads Add a 3rd NWLA Trophy

The NWLA hosted its sixth national tournament in Morenci, Michigan, with familiar faces atop the table. For the second straight season, the SWBL Cardinals made it to the championship game via the loser’s bracket only to come up short once again in the finals. After a third place finish in 2016 coming off of back to back titles in 2014 and 2015, the WSEM Dads returned to their winning ways this year. The team from Michigan captured their third championship on the strength of another dominant pitching performance by Stephen Farkas. Conspicuous by their absence in the final four was the 2013 and 2016 tournament champions, Freaky Franchise. The OCWA group lost team captain Justin Tomkins to injury and never got on track, losing two games in pool play before being unceremoniously eliminated in the third game of the elimination round.

Impressive Individual Performances

Among the best individual accomplishments of 2017:

  • On June 10th in York, PA, Connor Young (My Name is ERL – Mid Atlantic Wiffle) pitched 25 innings while facing 102 batters and struck out 71 of them. ERL's ace allowed a measly three runs against quality competition. For good measure, Connor hit a pair of homeruns including a tournament winning solo shot off of Danny Lanigan in the tournament finals.
  • Ridley Park’s Tommy Loftus faced 68 batters over 3 games (15 innings) at the NWLA tournament in July. He struck out a remarkable 44 batters or 65 percent of the batters he faced. It was a star making performance for Loftus that put him on the map as one of the young pitchers to watch in 2018.
  • Also on the NWLA tournament front, Stephen Farkas furthered his claim as one of the game’s most accomplished pitchers allowing one run over 22 innings pitched and striking out 53 batters while leading the WSEM Dads to a third NWLA title.
  • Unfortunately no statistics are available, but Sean Steffy’s pitching performance during the elimination round of the Fast Plastic Texas Open is worthy of mention. Facing a murder’s row of great hitters including Craig Freeman, Kenny Rogers, Anthony Didio, Jordan Robles, Evan Lazur, and Josh Pagano, Steffy won three straight games to clinch the title for Cloud9.
  • In one of the more under-the-radar great pitching outings of the just concluded year, Jordan Castelli (Wiff is Life League) befuddled hitters at the 10th annual Wiffle® Ball Bonanza charity tournament in July. Playing on a combined Mid Atlantic Wiffle/Wiff is Life League team, Jordan used a non-scuffed drop pitch to dominate opposing hitters in the semi-finals. Jordan struck out all twelve batters he faced. He was so dominant he took home the award for best pitcher on the strength of that single performance. Although he had a slightly uneven performance at the NWLA tournament, the California University of Pennsylvania quarterback is a player to keep an eye on in ’18.
  • When the general public thinks of Wiffle® Ball, they often think of offensive stats so silly that they must be made up. There was nothing fabricated about the power display from Freaky Franchise’s Ryan Bush in in OCWA this past season. The left-handed power hitter managed a ridiculous 109 homeruns over 341 at bats. While OCWA is no doubt a hitter’s league, Bush’s 109 homers were almost forty more than the next best player in the league. Bush’s power is legit – he hit 8 homeruns in 28 at bats at the NWLA tournament this year, 6 in 44 at bats in Palisades in 2016, and added a few more at the Fast Plastic Texas Open in October of this year.

Golden Age for Leagues

The Wiffle world has been trending in this direction for several years and 2017 proved to be another year that was heavy on leagues and light on tournaments. The end result for 2017 – while not necessarily positive or negative – was a plethora of thriving local leagues but little interaction between the leagues and the players that inhabit them.

Once again, Palisades WBL separated itself from the pack as the best league in the country. While the league continues to draw heavily from New York, players from as far south as Delaware and Virginia and as far north as New England flocked to Palisades in 2017. The league ran a smooth 11 team, 20 game-schedule with many of the game’s best prime-aged Northeast players spotlighted. For the second straight year, Palisades hosted an 8-team minor league which gave players not quite ready for the majors – either due to skill level or time constraints – a venue to play in.

One of 2017’s more notable leagues came seemingly out of nowhere. The Washington state based JAL sprung into existence in May 2015, hosting a series of one and two day tournaments in 2015 and 2016. This past year, JAL held its first multi-week season, expanded to twelve teams, and used a strong social media presence to put itself on the map. An unrestricted pitch speed, no base running league at its core, JAL also utilizes several very unique rules that separates them from their peers. Among the most notable rules are a one-pitch-per-batter rule and a franchise system structure. [Read More about JAL]

It should noted that on the tournament front, the birth of Mid Atlantic Wiffle and the return of Fast Plastic provided several more opportunities for players seeking tournament action this past year. Hopefully it is a sign of things to come in 2018 as a wider variety of choices in terms of leagues and tournaments can only mean good things for the future of the game.

Team work

Think about the best teams you saw on the field this year. How many of those teams have been together – with a majority of the same players – for more than one season? How many of those teams played in more than one organization in 2017? How many of those teams played in more than one tournament? The answer to all of those questions is probably a far smaller number than you might have initially thought. While the team unit has diminished in importance for the better part of the past decade, it reached a nadir in 2017. Just look at the major 2017 tournaments. The NWLA tournament – as it has always been – featured league All-Star teams most of which played together just one or twice last year. The Fast Plastic Texas Open included – at best – two full time teams (Frisco’s Master Batters and Rochester’s Freaky Franchise) and even those teams added some outside help. The GSWL Yard League Open also contained its fair share of cobbled together squads. If nothing else, at a national level there is less of a focus on teams then there are on players or even organizations than there has historically ever been.

As such, naming the teams of the year for 2017 is a tricky task because there were very, very few that played in multiple places, faced a high level of competition, and fared well in doing so. Most of the 2017 teams listed below did not meet one or two of those criteria but did enough relative to their peers to be worthy of recognition. We are looking at true teams here – not squads put together for a single tournament.

  • Unrestricted Pitch Speed, Base Running Team of the YearWSEM Dads (Michigan): The Dads captured their 3rd NWLA Tournament title in 2017. While technically an all-star team, the key players have been together for several years in the NWLA tournament and their track record speaks for themselves. The NWLA tournament is clearly the class of these set of rules and thus winning that tournament gives any team a leg up for this honor.
  • Unrestricted Pitch Speed, Non-base runningPalisades Giants (New York): While some might see this choice as controversial, the Giants stand out above the pack for winning as a cohesive team over the course of a full season. Led by the brothers McElrath, the Giants overcame a potentially crippling loss when Tim McElrath went down with an arm injury midway through the season. The Giants persevered, finishing the tough Palisades WBL regular season in second place before Ryan McElrath took over in the post-season pitching every single inning for his team while taking down such notable players like Rob “Wiffman” Piervinanzi, Jordan Robles, and the Torres brothers on their way to the championship.
  • Medium (Yard) PitchState of Mind (New York): The veteran franchise picked up the biggest tournament win in their near-twenty years in the sport by winning the 2017 GSWL Yard League Open over 21 other teams in Staten Island this Summer. Additionally, State of Mind came in runner up to 10 Run Rule in the GSWL Yard New York championship. Those two top finishes, combined with the team’s longevity, are more than enough to make them deserving of this particular title.
  • Slow Pitch Cult West Warriors (Indiana): Winners of both a 48-team and 80-team slow pitch tournament earn this South Bend, Indiana team the top spot among slow pitch teams. If that wasn’t impressive enough, this was the second straight year the Warriors won the World Wiffle® Ball Championships and was the fourth year they captured the New Carlisle, Illinois Hometown Cup.

JAL: Washington's Wiffle Ball Trailblazers

Aaron Adams (Anaheim Storm) delivers a pitch during a recent JAL XVII pre-season game.

Aaron Adams (Anaheim Storm) delivers a pitch during a recent JAL XVII pre-season game.

    By: Paul Cooke

Sixteen years ago this past October, the A-Bros of Ventura, California – fresh off of an undefeated regular season – swept the Lakeside Kings at Lakeside Park in Granite City, Illinois to win the inaugural USPPBA National Championship. The A-Bros success that season opened many eyes to the fact that quality competitive fast pitch Wiffle® Ball exists everywhere, not just in the traditional hotbeds. That fact was further hammered home when the Arizona Vipers won the 2002 national title and then repeated in 2003 by defeating the Tracy Shockers in the first all West Coast National Championship game. The lesson from those three years was clear – quality Wiffle® Ball exists everywhere, whether we know about it or not.

A decade and a half later, the once vibrant fast pitch scene in California and Arizona that was cultivated by the USPPBA and Fast Plastic is unfortunately all but gone. A little further up the coast, however, exists a burgeoning Wiffle® Ball league that is once again reminding the rest of the country that great Wiffle® Ball – both leagues and players – exists all over, even under seemingly the least likely of circumstances.

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What are you doing December 23rd?

Last minute Christmas shopping? Traveling home for the holidays? Staying indoors to beat the cold?

How about beginning a twelve team, eight-game, five-month long outdoor Wiffle® Ball season? That is precisely what a group in southeast Washington State will be doing when JAL – the Pacific Northwest’s premiere Wiffle® Ball league – kicks of its 17th season with a full slate of games a mere two days before Christmas.

Unconventional? Sure, but that is par for the course for a league that has quickly – and somewhat quietly – blossomed into the country’s most ingenious Wiffle® organization. From its unique gameplay rules to its forward-thinking league and season formats to its expert utilization of social media, JAL is blazing its own trail in the Wiffle® Ball world.

Connor Vermilyea (Cobras) at the plate during a JAL XVI game this past summer.

Connor Vermilyea (Cobras) at the plate during a JAL XVI game this past summer.

Cale Johnson – the twenty-two year old founder and Executive Commissioner of JAL – concedes that he never played much Wiffle® as a kid. He didn’t pay the iconic plastic ball much thought until one serendipitous spring afternoon three years ago in his hometown of Castle Rock, Washington. On that day Cale and his younger brothers, Brock and Ty, were in search of something to help pass the time when they found a couple of Wiffle® Balls laying around in the yard. The impromptu practice proved to be enough fun that Cale organized a two-man five-team tournament later that May.  Just like that, JAL – officially the Johnson Association of Lawnball – was born.

That first tournament led to a sequel one week later and a third a week after that. Cale and his brothers were hooked. As fun as those first three tournaments were, they envisioned something greater than a series of one-off events. Cale looked for a way to tie together what – to that point – were a series of unrelated single tournaments. Borrowing a page from the more ubiquitous national pro sports leagues Cale, dreamt up the JAL Franchise concept. He convinced family members – his grandmother, mother, father, and brother – to act as the “owners” of four teams and tasked them with filling out their respective rosters. The franchise system – complete with contracts, a “stock money” system designed to bring parity to the league, and a detailed Collective Bargaining Agreement – added much needed continuity to the organization. JAL held five more tournaments that August, followed by single tournaments in October, November, and December of 2015. By the time of the December tournament (JAL XI) – held two days after Christmas – the league had grown to six franchises and approximately 20 players strong.

Two and a half years after its modest beginnings, JAL is about to embark on its 17th season. The league has exploded in popularity and now boasts twelve franchises with three to five players per team. The single day events have been replaced by multi-week seasons. JAL XVII, for example, will run from December through the middle of of May. Franchise owners pursue free agents and offer nominal incentives – the highest paid player in the league will earn $150 over the length of his three year contract – as a means of enticing them.  There are several seasons played each calendar year, not including the Association’s innovative Smashout concept,which is described as “homerun derby meets the UFC”. JAL offers a full a full scale Wiffle® Ball league experience that few leagues anywhere in the country can match.

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A social media graphic hyping the start of the JAL XVII season.

A social media graphic hyping the start of the JAL XVII season.

Proof of the league’s tremendous growth is found in the evolution of its recruitment process. As would be expected from a startup family league, JAL rosters were initially made up friends and family members of Cale and his brothers. As the league gained traction, the player recruitment process was aided by positive word of mouth. Recently prospective players have begun to discover the league on their own. Players from as far north as Olympia and as far south as Vancouver learned about the league online and now make the hour drive to Castle Rock to play.

Due to the franchise structure of JAL, interested players must catch the eye of one of the franchise managers to join the league. This is often accomplished by submitting a scouting video to the league, which is then distributed to the franchise managers for review. If a manager likes what he or she sees, the player is signed to a contract.

"Probably half of the new players we get come from someone contacting the league and saying ‘this looks really cool, I want to play’,” Cale said in describing the new player recruitment process. “We will work with them . . . A lot of them will send in a clip of them pitching or batting. We then take that info and we send it around to the owners and General Managers in the league to see if any of them bite. That’s how a lot of guys get signed.”

These free agents are finding JAL in large part due to the Association’s professional and far-reaching social media strategy. In a sport that is often playing catch up to the rest of the world in terms of technology, JAL stands out for its relative mastery of digital marketing. JAL utilizes a multitude of social media tools to garner interest in the league. Whether Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, Instagram or a traditional website, JAL has all of its digital bases covered.

The JAL website – although unassuming at first glance – contains a treasure trove of information just below the surface, all of which is carefully interwoven. An outsider can stumble upon JAL’s website and in a matter of minutes find themselves digging down a rabbit hole of franchise histories, player bios, tournament results, and player contracts. The website accomplishes this by seamlessly integrating Google docs with traditional web pages.

On the social media front, JAL stays active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by posting info-graphics, promotional materials, pictures, and video clips on a daily basis. In particular, the graphics stand out due to their creativity. With the help of a green screen, JAL has an almost endless supply of player profile pictures and graphics at their disposal to use for any occasion. When star player Scott Coleman left the Longview Wrecking Crew to join the Missouri Express after JAL XVI, the organization wasted no time in posting a short clip to Facebook of Coleman modeling his new uniform while the background behind him slowly changed from the Wrecking Crew team logo to the Express’ emblem.

Players in and out of JAL’s home market can easily follow the league online thanks to streaming video. Every single game during the JAL XVII season this winter and spring will be streamed live on either Facebook or Periscope.

*****

Watching a JAL live stream is made even easier by the fact that games rarely last much more than 15 minutes. While four to six inning games in other organizations typically run anywhere from 45 to 75 minutes, five-inning JAL games breeze by in a fraction of that time. How do they do it? The brief run time of JAL games is all thanks to the league’s unique method of game play, known simply as Lawnball.

At first glance, Lawnball rules are not dramatically different from the rules competitive Wiffle® Ball players in other parts of the country are accustomed to. The pitching distance (45 feet from the strike zone) and the strike zone dimensions (24 inches by 30 inches, 21 inches off of the ground) are within the usual parameters. There are no speed restrictions on pitchers and lines designate hits. While a Wiffle® Ball used in a game must be unaltered, several non-Wiffle® Ball brand bats are legal (Franklin MLB Powerhouse, Easton Pro Stix, Louisville Slugger Replica). The imaginary base runners advance in concert with the batter.

While 95% of the rules are instantly familiar to most competitive players, there is one rule that separates Lawnball from all other variations of the game. In Lawnball, every at bat lasts only one pitch. For both batter and pitcher, its one-and-done.

The rule eliminates the ball-strike count for all practical purposes. If the pitcher misses the strike zone and the batter does not offer at the pitch, the at-bat results in a walk. A batter that swings and misses or takes a single pitch that hits the target strike zone is called out on strikes. Likewise, a foul ball results in a hard luck out. The “one-and-done” pitch rule allows JAL games to move along at a brisk pace while also reducing the amount of strain on a pitcher’s arm.

For those who desire a brand of competitive Wiffle® Ball that remains true to baseball, the Lawnball rules can be disorienting.  Hitters lose the ability to work the count and pitchers lose the luxury of nibbling on the corners. It is a different game for sure, but not necessarily a lesser skilled game than any of the alternatives. With less room for error, both hitters and pitchers are forced to make the most of each opportunity. As difficult as it is to recognize when a pitch is a strike and then put a quality swing on that strike when given three opportunities to do so, it is even more difficult when a batter is given just one shot at it. Lawnball may require a different set of skills than other versions of Wiffle® Ball, but it is a highly skilled game nonetheless.

As one might imagine, with fewer opportunities and less margin for error every pitch in JAL takes on an added level of significance. The final two innings of JAL XVI championship – held this past August 9th – exemplifies the drama that the one-and-done rule brings to the game.

In that championship game, the Castle Rock Rapids took an early lead on a solo homerun and padded their lead in the fifth via an RBI double. The Rapids pitcher – Jeter Larson, one of the league’s best – cruised through the game to that point and shut down the Missouri Express offense. With a chance to close out the game in the fifth inning, Larson began to overthrow and walked three straight Express hitters. While under other rules a hitter might take a pitch or two after three consecutive walks, Lawnball rules eliminate that possibility. Knowing that Larson is usually able to command his hard slider, the next batter for the Express went up swinging and singled in a run. The next hitter took a ball, tying the game with nobody out and the bases still juiced. Just when the game looked like it was getting away from him, Larson threw three straight strikes to escape the jam and force extra-innings. Over the course of eight pitches – no more than one minute in actual time – the Express went from probable victory to near certain defeat to gaining a new lease on life. In Lawnball, the momentum swings come fast and often. For that reason, JAL games tend to be far more spectator friendly than the average competitive Wiffle® Ball game.

(If you are curious how that game turned out, the teams made it through six-innings tied at two before the Rapids’ Ty Johnson hit a two-run homer in the top half of the seventh. Larson fared much better in his second attempt at preserving a two-run lead, putting the Express down on three pitches in the bottom of the seventh to secure the title. Displaying a bit of showmanship, Larson planted a kiss on the ball before going into this wind up and blowing a fastball by the final Express batter to seal the deal.

The Castle Rock Rapids (L:R Jeter Larson, Troy Flanagan, Ty Johnson) celebrate their JAL XVI championship.

The Castle Rock Rapids (L:R Jeter Larson, Troy Flanagan, Ty Johnson) celebrate their JAL XVI championship.

While the pace of the games and added pressure are obvious benefits of the one-pitch rule, just as obvious is the potential downside to the rule leading to a pitching dominated environment. While Johnson concedes that the general perception among players is that JAL is a pitching friendly league, he doesn’t believe it is that simple.

"I think it shifts . . . I would say that right now the batting is pretty good but it has definitely fluctuated. There have been times and eras within the league when it has been super pitching dominated.”

During those times, Johnson has not shied away from implementing rule changes in pursuit of the right balance between offense and defense. For JAL’s first three seasons, for example, teammates pitched to each other using a “three pitches per batter” rule. When that led to too much offense, the league adopted the one-pitch rule while still having teammates pitch to one another. That rule lasted up until JAL IX when the organization moved to its current opposing pitcher and one-and-done formats. The implementation of competitive pitching led to a decrease in offense, so the league responded by opening up its bat selection to include the Franklin MLB Powerhouse, Easton Pro Stix, and Louisville Slugger Replica models in addition to the Yellow Wiffle® Ball bat. The mound distance was also moved back a few inches around the same time. Johnson believes that the next shift between offense and defense will come without the need for rule changes, as the JAL XVII rookie class is said to be heavy on quality hitters.

On the great ball altering debate, JAL sides with the NWLA and other organizations that do not allow the Wiffle® Ball to be tampered with. When Coleman – who had prior experience in non-JAL Wiffle® tournaments – showed up in Castle Rock for the first time, he brought with him several scuffed balls which he used during games. Not knowing that scuffing was illegal in JAL, Coleman proceeded to mow down hitters until opposing players finally caught onto what was happening. The miscommunication was explained and Coleman switched over to the unaltered Wiffle® Balls, which did little to hamper his results. Coleman’s low sidearm delivery and riser would not look out of place in any fast pitch tournament in the country.

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Jeter Larson (Rapids) led his team to a championship in JAL XVI and is currently ranked as the league's top player.

Jeter Larson (Rapids) led his team to a championship in JAL XVI and is currently ranked as the league's top player.

Quality Wiffle® Ball does not discriminate; not by the month of the year, geographic location or even by rules. The eyes of the Wiffle® Ball world have rarely – if ever – been fixated upon the Pacific Northwest. This winter, however, they should be. Not just because for the next few months JAL will be the only outdoor, fast pitch league in operation but because this inimitable league and many of its talented players are worthy of the attention. The league's unique structure and rules provide interesting insights into the different ways the game can be presented. And you never know, the next great West Coast Wiffle® Ball star – the next Chad Anderson, Jim Balian or Joel DeRoche – might just be playing in Washington State this winter.

Fore more information on JAL, visit their website at www.jalwiffleball.com or follow them on social media @JAL_wiffleball and https://www.facebook.com/jalwiffleball.

One of a Kind: Pat Pone Park

Jerome "The Legend" Coyle awaits a pitch during the 1998 NJWA Summer Showdown championship game at Pat Pone Park in Trenton, while a crowd of spectators looks on.

Jerome "The Legend" Coyle awaits a pitch during the 1998 NJWA Summer Showdown championship game at Pat Pone Park in Trenton, while a crowd of spectators looks on.

Walking down Chestnut Avenue in Trenton, New Jersey, the last thing you might expect to find is a ball field of any kind. The sidewalks and streets are cracked and in need of a paving. Old brick houses line up side by side, barely leaving any room for a yard. Where there is grass, it is extremely overgrown. But right there on Chestnut Avenue, just between Grand Street to the north and Elm Street to the south, lies Pat Pone Park – at one time one of the great parks in the game and the epicenter of the Wiffle® Ball world.

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Growing up on Chestnut, Mike Palinczar’s family home was one of the few in the neighborhood with a yard big enough to actually play ball in.

A young Wiffleczar takes a hack across the street from his childhood home. The brick wall in the background served as a de facto strike zone and backstop.

A young Wiffleczar takes a hack across the street from his childhood home. The brick wall in the background served as a de facto strike zone and backstop.

At maybe fifty or sixty feet in length and 15 feet wide, the yard was just large enough for a kids’ Wiffle® Ball game. When Palinczar and his friends outgrew the yard, they moved their games to the street. The width of Chestnut avenue between the Palinczar residence and a brick building across the way was just about 42 feet – a solid Wiffle® Ball pitching distance. The enterprising teenagers hung a thick metal sheet off of a knob in wall. The sound of plastic hitting metal – a loud and unmistakable “clang” – signaled a strike. Neither the yard or street setup was necessarily ideal, but it got Palinczar and his friends through many hot Trenton summers.

In 1990 at the age of 18, Palinczar got his first taste of competitive Wiffle® Ball when he and some neighborhood friends entered a tournament in south Jersey and then later that same year, competed in Rick Ferroli’s World Wiffle® Ball Association (“WWA”) national championship in the Boston suburbs. After the national tournament, Palinczar knew he wanted to bring what he saw in Boston to his hometown. Tough and determined even at a young age, the Trenton native was confident he could get a league off of the ground if only he could find a spot to host the games. The make-do solutions of his father’s yard and the adjacent street were inadequate for a real league. The local baseball fields required permits and would have to be shared with youth baseball leagues. That was not practical for a league that planned on running games every day during the summer. Palinczar needed something else.

It was Mike’s father, Vic, who offered up the solution. Pat Pone Park was a largely abandoned park and playground area just a stone’s throw away from the Palinczar residence. The Park did not get much use, at least not for its intended purposes. Neighborhood kids with nothing better to do spray painted graffiti and broke bottles in the asphalt area. Other than that, the Park was largely left alone. Vic suggested to his son that should get the city’s permission to turn Pat Pone into a ballpark.

Former Trenton Major Douglas Palmer (1990 - 2010) personally mans a bulldozer as construction on the Pat Pone Wiffle®Ball park gets under way in early 1991.

Former Trenton Major Douglas Palmer (1990 - 2010) personally mans a bulldozer as construction on the Pat Pone Wiffle®Ball park gets under way in early 1991.

The bottle littered blacktop area just so happened to be the right dimensions for a small ball field. Trees overlooked all four sides of the Park, which served a dual purpose of keeping the wind out and providing shade to players and spectators. The steps that lined both sides of the north entrance – where the first and third base lines would eventually be – could seat spectators. Streetlights that towered over the park could provide ample lightning for night games to be played – if only the city could be bothered to get the power turned on. The Park needed a lot of work to be game ready but in those ways it was already almost the ideal – if not rather unlikely – spot for a professional level Wiffle® park.

Palinczar and his friends got the go-ahead from the city and in March of 1991 set out to create a Wiffle® Ball paradise. They worked tirelessly over the next several months cleaning up the graffiti, repaving the asphalt, and lining the field for play. The city even eventually got around to flipping on the power for the streetlights so that games could be played at night. Pat Pone hosted league games and the New Jersey state tournament in 1991. For the next decade, Pat Pone Park was among the most prolific parks in the fast pitch game.

*******

The New Jersey Wiffle® Ball Association (“NJWA”) operated as a WWA feeder organization through 1992, went dark for two years, and re-emerged in 1996 with an annual summer tournament. When the Cincinnati based North American Championship dissolved after their 1997 event, the NJWA assumed the mantle as the top organization in the fast pitch game. The group’s summer tournament – the Summer Showdown – was the most competitive tournament in the country between 1998 and 2000 and the de facto National Championship. That placed Pat Pone Park at the center of the scene, with the championship-round games (in addition to select earlier round games) emanating from Chestnut Avenue.

If a team was to be considered one of the best during the 1990's,  they had to play and win at Pat Pone Park. This picture - taken at Pat Pone just before the final day of the 1998 Summer Showdown - includes such illustrious teams as In the Box, Georgia Longshotz, Brown Hornets, Fluffheads, PA Cards, and Lakeside Kings.

If a team was to be considered one of the best during the 1990's,  they had to play and win at Pat Pone Park. This picture - taken at Pat Pone just before the final day of the 1998 Summer Showdown - includes such illustrious teams as In the Box, Georgia Longshotz, Brown Hornets, Fluffheads, PA Cards, and Lakeside Kings.

The players that competed in the championship round games at Pat Pone form a veritable “whose who?” list of the late 90’s scene: Jerome “The Legend” Coyle, Darren “The Natural” Bone, Billy “The Kid” Owens, Bruce Chrystie, Tom LoCascio, Dan Cryan, Mike “Salt” Soltesz, “Sweet” Lou Worthington, Mark “The Big Bopper” DeMasi, Rich Ewald, and Fred “The Hammer” Bastedo, to name more than a few.

Many of the championship round games played at Pat Pone during those years have become the stuff of legend.

There was the controversial 1997 championship series between the Lakeside Kings (Coyle, Owens, Cryan, and Bone) and the hosts, Team Trenton (Palinczar, Bastedo & Saltesz), where the validity of the championship format is still disputed by the relevant parties to this day. In the end, it was Palinczar – pitching both games of the championship round – that brought home the trophy for Team Trenton. Despite the disappointment of 1997, Pat Pone was rather kind to the Kings, who put the finishing touches on championship runs on the blacktop field in both 1996 and 1998.

Pat Pone was also the backdrop for one of the all time great pitching performances in fast pitch tournament history. The Georgia Longshotz – Owens, Demasi, Ewald, and Ryan Daugherty – drew the short stick at the 1999 Summer Showdown with Lakeside, the upstart Carolina Whiz Kids, and a hungry Stompers/Busers combined team in their bracket. Things went from bad to worse for the Longshotz when they dropped their second round game to the Kings and had to battle their way through the loser’s bracket. Relying exclusively on Owens’ right arm, the Longshotz fought back and when all was said and done, they had beaten a murderer’s row of the Kings (twice), Whiz Kids (twice), Fluffheads, New England Iguanas, and Tri-State Terror to capture the title.

No other field – with the possible exceptions of Lakeside Park and the Fast Plastic National championship field in Cedar Park, Texas– has witnessed as many big games and big performances as Pat Pone.

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Phil Levonchuck (Fluffheads) about to deliver a pitch at the 1998 Summer Showdown on Pat Pone field.

Phil Levonchuck (Fluffheads) about to deliver a pitch at the 1998 Summer Showdown on Pat Pone field.

Google “Wiffle® Ball fields” these days and you will be overloaded with creative and gorgeous fields all over the U.S. What you will find very little of – if you find one at all – is an urban park woven right into the fabric of a major city. In that regard, Pat Pone was – and still is – in a class all to itself.

Pat Pone Park was a city ballpark through-and-through, for better and for worse. There are stories of neighbors yelling at teams for making too much noise and of kids causing trouble around the way. However, the city location also meant frequent passers-by stopping to take a look and a continuous bustle of activity around the Park. Isolated fields with green grass and trees as far as the eye can see can be great of course, but its urban setting – the fact that the park and Trenton are inseparable – is what made Pat Pone so unique.

So did, for that matter, the complete lack of grass or dirt on the playing surface. Asphalt fields are extremely rare in this sport. Rather than view that as a detriment, Palinczar spun it into a positive. The NJWA boasted the fact that they had – to their knowledge – the first and only professional blacktop field. Players yearned to play at Pat Pone because of its rich history, but also because it meant an opportunity to play on a field and playing surface that was wholly unique.

The city vibe and unique playing surface – which went hand-and-hand – helped Pat Pone gain a reputation as a bucket list ballpark. Pat Pone was a destination spot for wifflers because it provided a playing experience that could not be replicated anywhere else.

A view of Pat Pone from just behind the pitcher's mound with neighborhood houses in the background. The field's location in the middle of a Trenton neighborhood was one of its defining features.

A view of Pat Pone from just behind the pitcher's mound with neighborhood houses in the background. The field's location in the middle of a Trenton neighborhood was one of its defining features.

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This August on an unseasonably pleasant afternoon in Trenton, I walked down Chestnut Avenue with Palinczar and his son towards Pat Pone Park. The Park stopped hosting Wiffle® Ball games around 2002 but continues to exist as a normal neighborhood park and playground area.  I hadn’t been to Pat Pone since 2000 when my team was lucky enough to play all of our NJWA summer tournament games there. Two months prior while in southern Illinois, I stopped by the former site of another legendary park, Lakeside Park in Granite City. There was not much to see – three holes representing where home, the pitcher’s rubber, and second base used to be – and little else that would indicate a great stadium ever sat there. After seeing what was left of Lakeside, I tempered my expectations and assumed the 2017 version of Pat Pone would offer more of the same.

VIDEO EXCLUSIVE: Mike Palinczar gives The Drop a tour of Pat Pone Park in August 2017.

The difference between a ballpark like Lakeside and one like Pat Pone – both brilliant in their own ways – is one could have been built on any good sized piece of land and one was a product of its environment, inseparable from the structures around it. For that reason, even having not been used in tournament play in a decade and a half, Pat Pone still retains much of its charm.

When we arrived at the iconic park, it was like we were all transported back in time. Palinczar stepped onto the field to show us around – using a fungo bat to point to the Park’s features that were still there as well as some that no longer were – and the excitement and affection he felt for his field was palpable. Always with a knack for details, the “Czar” excitedly showed us where railings were missing on the outfield wall, how the trees used to be flush to the playing field, and how the field drained when it rained. His excitement was contagious and had someone offered, I would have gladly played a pick up game right there in my sandals and shorts.

As we prepared to leave, someone in the group mentioned that, relatively speaking, it wouldn’t take much to get the field into playing condition. Palinczar tilted his head sideways; not necessarily agreeing but not dismissing the possibility either. Another member of the Palinczar clan – Mike’s twelve-year old son – seemed more confident.

“We can fix it up. A few of my friends can come over and we will clean it up,” he remarked, pretty much describing how his dad got the field built a quarter of a century earlier.  Clearly tenacity is a Palinczar family trait.

The Czar has tentative plans to revive the NJWA in 2018 for a tournament or two. There is no guarantee that Pat Pone will be part of that revival. Regardless, if the NJWA does return next summer, make it a point to go. And when you do go, do yourself a favor and take a drive down Chestnut Avenue to Pat Pone. It is worth the trip. In a sport that is short on tangible history, Pat Pone Park stands as of the sport's most treasured historical landmarks.

Mike Palinczar never stopped upgrading the field at Pat Pone. This picture, taken in the early 2000's, shows a green wall in right and center field, along with a fresh coat of paint on the blacktop, and a new target strike zone & backstop to replace the old "hole" strike zone design.

Mike Palinczar never stopped upgrading the field at Pat Pone. This picture, taken in the early 2000's, shows a green wall in right and center field, along with a fresh coat of paint on the blacktop, and a new target strike zone & backstop to replace the old "hole" strike zone design.

A Pitching Performance for the Ages: Fact or Fiction?

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Chris Bechtold scarcely knew of competitive Wiffle® Ball when he and his old brother, Greg, decided to enter the 1995 North American Wiffle® Ball Championships in Cincinnati, Ohio. By the end of the tournament, Bechtold etched his name in Wiffle® Ball tournament lore with a pitching performance for the ages.

But did it really happen?

The March 10, 1996 edition of the Chicago Tribune contained an article about the Illinois resident. According to the article, Bechtold – who played as one half of a two-man squad with his brother Greg – threw four one-hitters and six no-hitters during the course of the three-day tournament. If that wasn’t impressive enough it gets better! The topper is that – according to the Tribune – Chris Bechtold struck out 214 of the 222 batters he faced over the course tournament!

It is difficult to even process those numbers.

The strikeout total itself is simply staggering. According to the Tribune, Bechtold struck out 96.3% of the batters he faced over the course of that weekend tournament. But it is not just the strikeout numbers that are mind blowing. Based on that one bit of information, we also know that only eight plate appearances against Chris ended in something other than a strikeout. That means at the most he allowed eight base runners (walk or a hit) – that’s a mere 3.7% of the total batters he faced! If Bechtold recorded any outs with something other than strikeout, that already impressive figure drops even further! Those are not just video game numbers, they are borderline unbelievable.

The reported feat is so great – so above a normal tournament performance – that it is a little hard for me to believe it is true. Don’t get me wrong, I hope it is true and if there were no reasons to question the claim, I wouldn’t. The statistics, however, beg as many questions as they answer.

Thankfully, the Chicago Tribune provides a few more numbers on Chris Bechtold’s legendary performance. Let’s start with that first, eye-popping paragraph paraphrased above that addresses Bechtold’s statistical achievements at the 1995 North American Championship.

Bechtold was named most valuable player of the North American Wiffle Ball Championships after pitching six no-hitters and four one-hitters in 12 tournament games while striking out a dizzying 214 of 222 batters he faced.

This sentence raises many questions.

The first question is just what was Bechtold’s workload during the tournament? Six no-hitters and four one-hitters amounts to ten total games. The only North American Championship rule book I currently have at my disposal is the 1997 version which lists the number of innings per game as seven. If Becthold faced every single possible batter in ten, seven inning games he would have had to record 210 outs. The Tribune has him striking out 214 batters – four more than he would have faced during regulation. There are two explanations for this discrepancy – either something is afoot or the Bombers played into extra-innings at least once.

The author writes that the Bombers played “12 tournament games”. It is possible that Chris’ brother Greg pitched the other two games for his team. If so, nothing really changes in terms of the plausibility of the feat. However, if Chris pitched all twelve games and two weren’t no or one hitters, the result is that Chris pitched two games where he let up two or more hits.  If so, we have now accounted for all 222 of the batters he faced (214 K’s and eight hits). If true, Bechtold did not walk a single batter during the tournament.

Fortunately, there are more numbers cited in the article. Some potentially clear up what happened while others shed further doubt on the veracity of the remarkable accomplishment. Below (in order of appearance in the article) is every other relevant number cited.

Chris, a lefthander, allowed only eight batted balls in 12 games while recording his 214 strikeouts.”

The Bechtolds advanced to the title game but lost 2-1 to a team from New Jersey in extra innings.”

In wiffle ball, only four players are allowed in the game at any one time, and games are six innings.”

Now we are getting a clearer picture! With two references to twelve games – including one that specifically states Chris pitched all twelve – it is reasonable to assume that Chris pitched in twelve tournament games. The article also states that games were six innings and we will go with that, while assuming that the game length increased sometime after the 1995 tournament and before the 1997 tournament. Taken together, that means Chris would have had to record 216 outs.*

* There is a caveat of course – losses. Bechtold’s arm might have been spared a half-inning or two if the Bombers lost one or more games before the extra-inning finals. Delving into those scenarios without additional information is going to make my head spin even more so than it already is so for my sake, we will assume that Chris pitched six innings+ in all twelve games.

Let’s see if the numbers still hold up. Chris had to record 216 outs to get through twelve six inning regulation games. He struck out 214 batters which meant one or two batters made an out on a ball in play (it could be only one if that one ball in play out was a double play). Assuming two balls in play were recorded for an out, that’s all 216 outs accounted for. Then we have the eight hits (four one-hitters and presumably two two-hitters), which gives us a problem. That is 224 total batters and the article lists only 222. The solution to that might be the aforementioned double plays. A batter that records a hit can still record an out (via a double play) so they are not mutually exclusive. To get back to the magic 222 batters faced number we can make the leap that Greg was able to maintain his concentration during his brother’s strikeout parade in order to wipe out two of the eight base runners via double play.

If Chris did indeed pitch every regulation inning (six) or twelve tournament games while allowing eight hits as the article implies he did, then his 1995 championship stat line might have looked like this:

The numbers all work out, even if the line is getting more and more difficult to believe. Plus, there is one final winkle. As stated above, the article gives specific details about the final game of the tournament including that the Bombers lost 2-1 and that the game went into extra innings.

The score doesn’t necessarily present an issue. We already know (or rather assume based on the Tribune article) that Chris allowed 8 hits and that there were a pair of games where he allowed two hits. It is possible that the championship was scoreless entering the 7th inning, the Bectholds scored in the top half of the inning, and then the winning team (Team Trenton) hit a single and homerun to walk it off. It is also possible that Trenton hit two solo shots (one in regulation and one in extras) to win the title. That doesn’t present any problems.

On the surface, the final game going to extras does present a potential issue because with twelve six-inning games and eight hits, we have already accounted for all 222 batters faced. The simple answer is that Bechtold never recorded an out in the seventh inning of the championship game. If he allowed the game winning hit(s) with no outs, the math still holds together.

With that final piece of the puzzle, Chris Bechtold’s line – based on the information provided by the Chicago Tribune – would have to be this:

* Did not retire a batter in the 73rd inning.

** Could be 2 HR’s

That is some impressive line. But is it real?

 My gut says “no”. I have seen some impressive Wiffle® pitching performances in my life and have heard about even more, but none that even approaches this level. At times, Wiffle® ball has been dominated by pitchers and from what I understand that was the case at the highest competition levels back in 1995. Chris was a quality baseball player (the Tribune states that he tried out for the White Sox the prior summer) and Greg says Chris reached speeds of 90 MPH with a Wiffle® ball. It is certainly possible that a pitcher with that profile during an era without a lot of great hitters could go on a strikeout rampage.

The fact that the provided information leaves no room for even a single walk is what I cannot get passed. To have that sort of control with a Wiffle® ball (or a baseball!) while facing a relatively large number of batters is unthinkable to me. Sure, maybe guys were swinging out of their shoes and helping him out on balls out of the zone. I don’t know about you, but if I were facing a guy like Chris Bechtold was described to be I am going up to the plate at least once with the bat squared firmly on my shoulders and praying for a walk. I am guessing I would not be alone in the utilizing that strategy. It stretches the realm of disbelief that Chris Bechtold could face that many batters, having nasty strikeout stuff, and somehow did not walk a single batter of the 222 he faced.

None of this is meant as a character attack on Chris or as a question of the Tribune’s reporting. The quotes from Chris in the article paint the picture of a guy that is very amused at the odd way he earned his fifteen minutes of fame. He doesn’t come off in the piece as someone who way takes his Wiffle® accomplishments more seriously than they should be taken. Perhaps he understood the frivolity of the entire situation and in lieu of actual score books, backed into a stat line that conceivably could have happened. The fact that the hit and strikeout numbers perfectly add up to the total number of batters faced makes me believe that at the very least someone – Chris or the author – gave thoughtful consideration to making sure the entire thing tied together.

Regardless of whether Chris Bechtold had the greatest tournament pitching performance in competitive fast pitch Wiffle® Ball history or whether the account given by the Chicago Tribune is an exaggerated re-telling of a merely excellent performance, I love Wiffle® stories like this one. A lot of our first experiences with the ball involve pretending to win Game 7 of the World Series by hitting a lobbed ball over the fence into the neighbor’s yard. Many of us play Wiffle® ball now as adults because of the way the game and ball allow for high school or college baseball flameouts to be superstars (or in my case, an occasional contributor) in their own right. Wiffle® Ball is game that allows for impossible dreams to (sort of, kind of) become reality. What is Wiffle® Ball without stories of regular everyday Joes (Chris Bechtold works for his family’s insurance company in Illinois) turning in Herculean athletic feats, exaggerated or otherwise?

Note: There are ways to possibly verify the claims made in the Tribune article and perhaps check if the assumptions that I made are indeed accurate. For prosperity’s sake – and because I’ve already come this far – I plan on following up with players at the 1995 North American Championship like Mike Palinczar of Team Trenton and Jerome “The Legend” Coyle of the Lakeside Kings to test their memory and see what they can recall of Bechtold’s 1995 tournament performance. There is also Chris Bechtold himself who I would love to speak with and see what he remembers. Stay tuned.