Kickball bounces into the big leagues

An American childhood pastime makes a comeback among 20- and 30-somethings who like to kick back while they compete.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The runner rounds third and pounds toward home plate. With the ball still stuck in the outfield, a home run looks inevitable.

But the grass, slick from the drizzling rain, proves to be the defense's greatest ally. The runner slips, and with cartoon-like acrobatics, flies through the air and lands flat on his face.

Just as he gets to his feet, the third baseman throws the large yellow rubber ball at the target on the back of the runner's team shirt, tagging him out.

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No, this isn't a strange version of baseball or softball. This is kickball, that great American childhood pastime, the same game you loved as a kid.

But these Boston players aren't children – or even teens. They're adults. And this isn't a casual pickup game but part of an organized league.

Fun is Rule No. 1

The Boston Ski and Sports Club organizes leagues for a variety of other sports such as softball, soccer, volleyball, and basketball. But there was a push for less competitive games, so kickball was added to the schedule this past June.

"It's so nice to be in a league where you hear so much laughter," says Janis Chicatell, the club's kickball coordinator. When runners fall, or when the ball is overthrown, or not thrown far enough, the response is always laughter – and encouragement.

Response to the new league has been tremendous. Notices on the club's website and in e-mail lists generated so much interest that some people had to be turned away.

Throwback to childhood

Part of the attraction is pure nostalgia. The game allows players, who are mostly in their 20s and 30s, to relive some of their carefree childhood memories. And every player gets to feel like an athlete. There are no playground rejects here.

Women, especially, are drawn to the game because it is less competitive, and they don't feel overpowered in the coed league. Men's greater strength isn't as much of an advantage in kickball as it may be in more physical sports, and they don't have the advantage of having played it in high school or college.

The league has nine coed teams with 15 to 18 players on each. But this isn't just a Boston phenomenon. WAKA, the World Adult Kickball Association (www.worldkickball.com), headquartered in Washington, D.C., is setting up leagues all across the states. The group, founded in 1998 by five friends who were in their 20s, now serves almost 4,000 players who want to reconnect with their inner child. Next year they expect to have 10,000 players.

Potential kickball teams contact WAKA for help in finding teams to play against. WAKA will also help individual players find teams with openings on their rosters.

Once there are enough teams in an area ready to play, a division is born. For the past two years, teams have been able to compete in a "world championship" tournament.

Bouncing ahead

Jimmy Walicek, one of the founders, has big plans for future championships, which the organization hopes to move around the country and give various cities the honor of hosting in the future, "like the Olympics."

The winners of the World Kickball Championship receive the silver Founder's Cup. The cup, which has a splendid – yet entirely fictional – history, adds to the silly mystique of the game.

Kickball even has an official song, appropriately, if prosaically, named "The Kickball Song": "Remember when you were just a kid way back in fifth grade/ Learnin' how to play the game that your best friends played/ ... Now, I'm way out here in left field 'cause there's a Big Kid up/ We're playin' in a tournament game for the Founder's Cup."

Kickball players are out there to win, says Mr. Walicek, but at the same time they realize, "It's just kickball."

Scoring smiles

The fun-first attitude of players is evident in their team names as well as in their demeanor on the playing field. The Boston teams include the Recess Rejects, the Renegade Giraffes, and Team Whammo!

And while kickball may not provide as much exercise as soccer or basketball, getting outside with a group of friends and kicking a big rubber ball is a great way to lift spirits and release tension, kickballers say.

And ultimately, creating smiles is what kickball has always been about.

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