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Backstory: The habit Little Rock can't seem to kick

An adult kickball league draws hundreds, creating new social ties.

By Suzi ParkerCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 20, 2006



LITTLE ROCK, ARK.

On a makeshift soccer field, Stephen Charla rolls a rubber ball toward home plate, methodically. "Roll faster," chides one of his teammates, Angela Hunter, a college professor. "It's grass. It'll make the ball stop dead before it reaches the plate."

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Josh Doering, an aspiring actor, doesn't seem to mind. He's playing outfield with a red ballon tied to his wrist. Suddenly a ball flies his way. He scrambles over, but misses it – because of the balloon. "I thought we were just playing for fun," he says when his teammates roll their eyes.

Fun is the order of the day on this sun-dappled Saturday, as it is most every weekend in Little Rock. That's when hundreds of local residents – young and old, black and white, lawyers and librarians – come together to play a game most haven't seen since recess in grade school: kickball.

Kickball has become to the '00s what bowling was to earlier generations. Adult leagues have sprung up across the country. But perhaps few cities have embraced the game with more fervor than Little Rock – nor seen more social barriers broken as a result.

More than 1,000 people now play on dozens of different teams in this city of 185,000. When people aren't playing, they come out with barbeques and ice chests to watch those who do. It has become the closest thing the city has to a community water cooler, a town hearth, drawing different social classes and racial groups together in a place where most people stick to their respective ZIP codes and political cliques.

"Kickball is the only place in the city where I know there are no boundaries with race, age, money, or education," says Jim Pierce, a retiree.

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For the record, kickball is still played the way it was back when we wore braces and madras shirts. It's baseball with a big red rubber ball and no bats. You roll the ball to home plate instead of pitch it, and you can throw the ball at runners to get them out. Kickers are allowed two strikes.

One reason for its allure is that it has an element of antisport. Almost anyone can play it. Most of the players in the Little Rock league, for instance, have never played organized athletics. "I was never even comfortable playing team sports or in P.E. classes," says Mr. Charla, an archivist at the William J. Clinton Presidential Museum and Library. "I joined kickball mostly for the social experience. I don't think it's made an athlete out of me, but it feels like I've gotten a little bit better at it over the last year."

There is a competitive element, too. One team, Boulevard Bread, won 44 games in a row at one point and became three-time champions. Scott McGehee, the owner of an upscale bakery and the driving force behind the team, watched some people leave the club because it was too competitive. He has since formed a new team, but learned a few lessons about himself.

"I was relatively athletic in high school, but never competitive like this," says Mr. McGehee. "It's taken me a couple of years to get to the point that it isn't about winning. If you can't enjoy and have fun – no point being out there."

As much as an athletic equalizer, the league has turned out to be a social equalizer. It has created new friendships on and off the field. One couple met through kickball and married a few seasons later. Some kickballers from various teams are going camping together in a couple of weeks. Others sometimes post invitations to watch TV or get together for pizza on an electronic message board for kickballers.

"I think most of the people who play feel like an outsider or that athletes are cooler than them because that is how it has been in society," says Larry Betz, the league's founder. "I was a geek in high school, and I think this red rubber ball allows people to finally be athletic and find that team bonding we never got in high school or college."

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