Fast Plastic

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.

FP Texas Open: Top 5 Plays

5. Great Stop, Better Throw (LV Wifflers vs. Wiff Inc.)

This play had a little bit of everything - range, good hands, and an incredibly athletic accurate throw. This hit off of the bat of Jordan Robles look destined to be a single to left field and would have given Wiff Inc. runners on first and second with less than two outs. Instead, it nearly ended in a double play. Getting to the ball was great enough; making that accurate of a throw while falling backwards put it over the top. Unfortunately for the guys from Las Vegas, they were unable to convert on the second half of the double play but the first half was spectacular enough to check in at #5.

4. Stant & Jim's Pub Turn 2 (Jim's Pub vs. Wiff Inc.)

Although Jim's Pub eventually fell short in their bid to beat Wiff Inc. during the first round of games in Frisco, Ben Stant did his part to keep the game in reach with this excellent double play. Stant dove to his left to come up with the ball, steadied himself, and made a perfect feed to Jimmy Flynn at second. Flynn completed the twin killing with a spot-on relay throw to Johnny.

3. Cross' Basket Catch (GSW vs. West Coast Wiffle Report)

Mike Cross has long been one of the more athletic and quality defenders in the game. Even after a long layoff from high level competition, Cross still knows how to make the highlight reel. Brock Drazen's bid for a double was snatched away courtesy of this Willy Mays-style basket catch.

2. Robles Turns Two The Hard Way (Wiff Inc. vs. Moonshots)

There were so many things going on here, I don't know where to begin. In the quarterfinals against the moonshots, David Wood put his defense to work and they held up their end of the deal by making several quality plays. None of which were bigger and better than this catch and throw by Jordan Robles. With the wind swirling, Robles went straight back on a dead sprint to catch the ball. The Moonshots called for the tag with Robles' back still turned towards the infield. In a fluid motion, Robles turned around and fired a bullet that hit Johnny square in the glove to complete the double play. That big time athletic play put the momentum squarely on Wiff Inc.'s side and helped punch their ticket to the final four.

1. Matty Griffin Goes Over the Fence . . . Again (Remember the Rookies vs. Cloud9, Championship Game)

In the semi-finals against GSW, Remember the Rookies' Matty Griffin leaped over the center field fence to rob Billy Owens of a home run. Unfortunately, the high point of the play - the actual catch - was not caught on the one stationary camera filming the game. Griffin took care of that by simply repeating the feat in the very next game. In the tournament championship, Matt made almost the exact same play in the exact same spot, this time robbing Cloud9's Ed Packer of a definitive home run.

 

 

Sean Steffy: A Glimpse of What Should Be

Already one of the game's most prolific pitchers, Sean Steffy secured a place in the record books by going 3-0 to lead Cloud9 to the 2017 Fast Plastic Texas Open title. In addition, Steffy took him tournament MVP honors. (Photo: Sean Steffy)

Already one of the game's most prolific pitchers, Sean Steffy secured a place in the record books by going 3-0 to lead Cloud9 to the 2017 Fast Plastic Texas Open title. In addition, Steffy took him tournament MVP honors. (Photo: Sean Steffy)

For years describing Sean Steffy’s place in the world of competitive Wiffle® Ball has been complicated.

Everyone that has ever seen him throw the ball – whether in person or via one of his many highly viewed YouTube videos – sees the immense talent he posses. Few in the history of the game can do with a plastic baseball what Steffy can. His combination of velocity and stuff is nearly unprecedented. His knowledge on how different pitches are thrown – the grips, the arm angles, the arm action – is extraordinary. Ask him how to throw even the most obscure pitches and he responds with a clear and concise explanation. His mechanics are smooth and easy which allow him – on a good day– to pound the strike zone with relative ease. Due to his talent and knack for self-promotion, Steffy is arguably the most widely known Wiffle® Ball player of all-time.

That sure sounds like a player worthy of “the best pitcher in the game” title. When it comes to Sean Steffy, however, things have never been that straightforward.

While few would deny that Steffy is among the most talented to ever throw the ball, it takes more than sheer talent to be considered the best pitcher in the sport. To be considered for that accolade, a player needs to compete regularly in tournaments and/or leagues, win games, and rack up some championships along the way. It is one thing to dazzle YouTube viewers with backyard bullpen sessions. It is another thing to strike out live, experienced hitters in a pressure packed tournament or league setting. Steffy has been heavy on the former, light on the later during a career that – for all intents and purposes – began in 2009 during the final year of Fast Plastic. During his career, Steffy has been plagued by an inability to win a major high quality fast pitch tournament. He experienced the greatest amount of on-field success during the 2014-2015 GSWL Yard League (medium pitch) seasons as a member of the Minutemen. Steffy saw little time on the rubber in each of those seasons, however. In recent years, his tournament playing time has been sporadic at best. He is best known for his videos and backyard exploits, rather than his participation in major tournaments.

Steffy’s stuff has never been in question. The lack of tangible results has been. There are many plausible reasons why the results have never matched the talent. Injuries, lack of opportunities, and inability to handle pressure have all been brandied about over the years. The reasons ultimately do not matter. All that mattered was that this incredibly talented pitcher rarely – if ever – displayed those talents in a major fast pitch tournament setting.

It is too early to state definitively that Sean Steffy’s championship winning, MVP performance at the 2017 Fast Plastic Texas Open completely altered the narrative of his career. It was, at the very least however, a giant leap in the right direction.

Steffy was at his most allusive in 2016 and 2017, playing in just a few sporadic tournaments. That time away seemingly did him well. By his own admission, his arm never felt better than it did going into the Texas Open. He was backed at the Open by a veritable all-star team comprised of his long-time teammate Ed Packer, top flight pitcher Ty Wegzryn, and slugger Kevin Norris. Wegzryn – with a two inning assist from Norris – got Cloud9 through pool play without Steffy needing to do as much as lift a ball. The stars appeared to be aligned for Steffy’s long-awaited coming out party at a major fast pitch tournament. Healthy and fresh, he was handed the ball for the elimination round. It was an excellent opportunity to show he could carry his big game stuff into actual big games.

The tall right-hander started Cloud9’s stretch run to the championship by taking the ball in a quarterfinal matchup with the upstart Master Batters. The Master Batters were jittery at the plate and in the field, allowing Cloud9 to jump out to an early lead on several defensive miscues. Steffy didn’t have his sharpest stuff that round (relatively speaking) but was able to work through it and fine tune in what turned out to be a relatively stress-free victory.

What came next was anything but. Cloud9’s date with 5-0 Wiff Inc. in the semi-finals was a game that several observers stated could have passed for the championship. Wiff Inc.’s lineup was the most potent in the tournament and more than a formidable challenge for any opposing pitcher. Kenny Rodgers sat out most of the 2017 season but is considered by some – including Palisades WBL commissioner Brett Bevelacqua – to be the best hitter in the game. Anthony Didio’s power complemented Jordan Robles’ professional and patient approach at the plate. With David “Road Toast” Wood rounding out the lineup, it is fair to state that the Wiff Inc. lineup was among the best Steffy has ever been tested with.

He passed with flying colors. He threw strikes and was around the plate with nearly every pitch, forcing the Wiff Inc. hitters – among the most selective throughout the tournament – into swing mode. Steffy held his opponents to a single hit (error) and a few walks. His teammates spotted him a run in the first and that was all that he needed. Wiff Inc. got only a single runner to second base and were never able to mount much of a rally.

Sean Steffy (Cloud9) is interviewed before the championship game at the Fast Plastic Texas Open. Steffy pitched every inning for Cloud9 during the elimination, going 3-0 en route to being named tournament MVP.

It was fitting that Steffy’s title game foe would be none other than Josh Pagano. Pagano won a national title in his second year at an Fast Plastic NCT and would add a second three seasons later. Pagano’s career has been marked by big wins and championships – quite the contrast from the man he faced in the championship game in Frisco.

The defining moment of the tournament for Cloud9’s ace came in the third inning of the championship. With Cloud9 already up by a couple of runs and a pair of quality innings behind him, Steffy appeared to have everything under control. Then – just like that – he lost his command. Ten straight pitches missed the target. Even more disconcerting was the pitches lacked the zip they had just an inning earlier. He suddenly found himself with the bases loaded and unable to buy a strike. A run would have given the Rookies a major burst of momentum. If you watched this stretch and thought “here is where the wheels are going to come off”, you weren’t alone.

Instead, he bared down and worked his way out of the inning in impressive fashion, striking out the final two batters to escape the jam. It was only the bottom of the third but his escape act that inning all but sealed the outcome. Six outs later, it became official.

To nobody’s surprise, Steffy was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. In addition to the award, trophy, and his share of the $5,000 cash prize, Steffy came away with an accolade befitting of a pitcher with his incredible stuff. From this point on, he is not “just” the guy that makes the Wiffle® Ball YouTube videos; he is also a Fast Plastic national tournament champion and MVP.

The sport could use far more performances from Sean Steffy like the one we saw in Frisco and could use them on a regular basis. There were several players on different teams who spoke excitedly of about getting to step in the box against him and test their mettle. Some never got a chance. Those that did are almost certainly itching for another shot. We know after Saturday how dominant of a pitcher Sean Steffy can be over a 15 inning stretch. How great would it be to see those battles – against the Kenny Rodgers, Josh Paganos, and Jordan Robles of the world – over an entire summer?

Saturday was a heck of a day for the game’s most prolific pitcher. Here’s hoping that it wasn’t a one and done, but rather a sign of things to come. We saw how dominant Steffy can be over three pressure packed games, now its time to see it over the course of a full season next summer.

Fast Plastic Texas Open Preview

Past, Present, Future.png

I am not sure that I can remember a tournament – on paper, before it happens – quite like the Fast Plastic Texas Open. We are just days away from the event and I am still not quite sure what to expect.

Fast Plastic’s return to the tournament hosting business takes place this Saturday, October 21st, in Frisco, Texas just outside of Dallas. Fifteen teams are expected to compete with the winner going home with a cool $5,000 in cash. That is unless Freaky Franchise – the lone NWLA representative in the field – happens to win in which case they will return home to Rochester, New York $10,000 richer. The rules are essentially what we came to expect from Fast Plastic during its heyday a decade earlier which means no pitching restrictions, no base running, and a three-man defensive alignment, among other things.

The cash is certainly unusual. The amount of dough – especially when it is entirely sponsored driven and independent of entry fees – is virtually unprecedented. However, what really makes this tournament unlike any other tournament I can remember is the composition of the field.

Make no mistake about it, the tournament field – especially when you dive below the surface of the often unfamiliar team names to get to the players – is loaded with big name talent. There are heroes of Fast Plastic past including the DeRoche brothers, Jim Balian, Josh Pagano, Billy Owens, Danny Lanigan, and Randy Dalbey, among others.  There are players who built impressive legacies in the post-FP environment in Golden Stick including Ed Packer, David “Road Toast” Woods and Rob Longiaru. Some of the current starts of Palisades – including Jordan Robles and Anthony Didio – will be on the field in Frisco. The future of the game will be further represented through the participation of up-and-comers such as Will Marshall and Ben Stant. There are several former National Champions among this group. It is not an exaggeration to state that 80% or more of the players involved come into the tournament with a major accolade tied to their name. In that regard, it is a very impressive field.

What makes the field a bit of a mystery is that many of these players formed their resumes years ago during the Fast Plastic years and/or in the immediate aftermath. That is to say, the tournament field is littered with players who for all intents and purposes are not active in the game. Joel DeRoche very well might be the best pitcher the game as ever produced but he has not been an active player for the better part of a decade. It is impossible to know what to expect from him or the upwards of two-dozen other players who fit that bill. I would never underestimate a Joel DeRoche or a Jim Balian after what we have all seen them do on the Wiffle® Ball field over the years. It would not totally shock me to see some of these players return to their old selves under the bright lights in Frisco. Time and age do not discriminate, however, not even for the legends of the sport. How well the legendary players perform after significant time away from high level competition will be one of the – if not the – most interesting storylines to follow this weekend.

Of the teams expected to participate, only three can definitively be considered active, full time teams – Freaky Franchise (NY), Master Batters (TX), and Jager Bombers (TX). The rest of the field are either teams from the past reuniting – GSW as one example – or teams specifically constructed for this event. The lack of participation by full-time, active teams at the Texas Open is impossible to miss. This is partially a side-effect of the current environment where the team unit simply isn’t as important as it once was. It is a players’ game now and the Texas Open field reflects that. Perhaps this is an inconsequential detail. Talent usually triumphs over everything else so perhaps team chemistry really does not matter all that much here. Certainly, if one of the active regular teams – like Freaky Franchise – were to win by defeating a field of veritable all-star teams and re-united squads, that would be a major feather in their cap. In some respects, full time teams have more to gain than any of the makeshift teams by winning the event.

There might not be many active teams at the Open, but there will be plenty of extremely talented active players to keep an eye on. That list starts with Jordan Robles. Robles has already had an impressive 2017 season, leading different teams to the semi-finals in Palisades, finals in GSWL Yard, and to a championship in the Mid Atlantic. Those accomplishments – along with undeniable talent on both sides of the ball – make Robles one of the best players currently in the game. Robles’ teammate for the Texas Open, Anthony Didio, is also in that discussion. Didio has unreal power as evidenced by his .340 ISO this year in Palisades league play. Will Marshall of Frisco’s own Master Battershas top level stuff which he will get to show on a national stage for the first time on Saturday. While much attention is being paid to the big names of yesteryear returning for this event, it would not be at all surprising if the Texas Open is owned by one of the immensely talented young guns that will be in attendance.

Those natural conflicts – youth versus experience, active players versus non-active players, full time teams versus all-star teams – simultaneously make the Texas Open both fascinating and nearly impossible to put a finger on. Like everyone, I have my suspicions on how the tournament will play out but would not dare go public with them. Not in this instance. On paper the Texas Open is unlike any other tournament I can remember and very tough to predict. What that means for the actual tournament itself remains to be see, but it will no doubt be exciting to watch it all unfold!

Not attending the Texas Open? Follow along courtesy of “The Drop” from Mid Atlantic Wiffle. The Drop – the news and commentary branch of MAW – is the official home for live and post-tournament coverage of the Fast Plastic Texas Open. Make sure to check The Drop throughout the day on Saturday for live game recaps and commentary. Also stayed tuned to Twitter (@midatlanticwiffle and @fastplasticwiff) for additional live tournament updates. After the tournament, check back to The Drop for exclusive written, video, and audio coverage.