|ESPN.com: Page 2||[Print without images]|
|You remember the big red ball, don't you?|
Players with makeshift eye black punch one another in the arm in between stretches, as fans from opposing teams taunt one another in the bleachers.
There are chants and chest bumps.
There are cheers and butt slaps.
There are blue plastic cups scattered all over the sideline, and a guy with a painted-on Robin mask is standing in the middle of the field holding a red rubber ball.
It's a warm summer night in Grand Rapids, Mich., and this is kickball -- grown-up style.
"It's a sport with strategy and logic, and so whenever I compete, I just want to win," said pitcher Daniel Voetberg, also known as Danny V.
Danny and his merry men and maidens represent McFadden's, a popular college bar in town. The league, which started this year, has eight teams total, representing about 100 players. Tonight, Danny V's opponent is not only undefeated but is also, coincidentally, the other team from McFadden's. Talk about an interesting day at the office.
"The brown shirts didn't talk to the yellow shirts at work all day," said John Sherry, a security guard at the bar who started working there too late to join a team but just in time to watch -- and laugh. "If the brown shirts lose, then yellow has a two-game lead, and it's pretty much over. I know it sounds funny, but it's about bragging rights, and it can get pretty intense."
It sure can. Things may start off with laughter and a wink, but by the fourth inning the cordial banter that's been replaced by angry stares, a sprinkling of four-letter words and face-to-face yelling -- and that's among teammates.
Now, if you're thinking, What the hell?, you're not alone. Curious bikers, joggers, even people in their cars all slow down to watch this group of adults go all-out in a game most of us haven't played in decades. And nearly all who pass by leave with a smile, which, I guess, is the point.
"Finding sponsors for the league was the easy part," said Caroline Wessely, co-founder of the Great Lakes Sport and Social Club, which oversees the local adult kickball league and dodgeball league. "The hard part was finding players because people are hesitant to try new things. But once you get them out there, they see how much fun it is, and they tell their friends."
Wessely got the idea of starting the league in Michigan after living and playing in Baltimore, where the league has grown from four teams in 2001 to nearly 250 today. You read that right, 250 teams. That translates into thousands of adults running around reliving their youth -- with a slight difference.
Let's just say, if softball is the country's rec league sport in which players go to the bar after the game, kickball would be the rec league sport that brings the bar to the game. I'm not suggesting the players were all kicking under the influence, but those plastic cups I mentioned earlier were not filled with Gatorade. And the logo for MUSA -- the Midwest Unconventional Sports Association -- is a kickball holding a mug of suds and smiling from ear to ear well, if kickballs had ears.
But it's not just about alcohol. The quiet popularity of kickball is best illustrated by the Founder's Cup, a kickball Super Bowl that's held during Columbus Day weekend in Las Vegas. It is sponsored by the World Adult Kickball Association, an organization that has a full-time staff and attracts teams from all over the globe. This year, Frosty Balls will look to defend its title in Founder's Cup XII.
"We never had beer," said Haley Meyer, who played on a team that was made up of former college athletes and won eight Milwaukee Social Club League championships. "One member would be in charge of the 'kickball juice.' We used a big Igloo cooler with a spout, that each player took turns making the juice and bringing the cups every week. Once, we had to make up a game and have a doubleheader night in one of our last seasons. Well, by the second game we actually were tied with a team, 'cause everyone got so drunk and we were like, um, we need to focus."
Meyer has since moved to Tucson, where the grown-ups are, well, a bit more grown-up.
"People here laugh when I tell these stories," she said. "They can't believe adults play kickball."
But not only do they play, they play to win -- by any means necessary.
"I never saw fists thrown, but twice guys from other teams got in my male teammates' faces," she said. "And teams would get dirty and take out our female players at the bases."
Wow, who's coaching these guys, Prince Fielder? But then I was witness to several cars peeling out of the parking lot after the loss, and if you thought LeBron was a sore loser, you should've seen some of the yellow team players after suffering their first defeat of the season. They're now in a three-way tie for first, and the league's first championship is up for grabs.
Danny V, who pitched his club to the win, said he left it all on the field.
"My arm was extremely sore," he said. "I really gave it my all every pitch. I'm just glad I made it through all seven innings."
Yep, sounds like a pro to me.
LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Page 2. He can be reached at email@example.com.