Backstory: The habit Little Rock can't seem to kick
An adult kickball league draws hundreds, creating new social ties.
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."
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.
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."
Mr. Betz, also known as "The Grand Poobah of All-Things Kickball," or "The Poo," for short, began the league in 2004 in memory of two friends. The trio had talked about setting up a league on New Year's Day in 2002 as a lark. But by the end of that year, one of his friends had died in a car accident and the other had committed suicide.
So he followed through and formed a league that is separate from, and more informal than, the World Adult Kickball Association, which has 20,000 registered players in 20 states in the US. The first year, 16 teams paid the $200 entry fee. Now more than 60 groups compete on a typical Sunday afternoon.
The players and team names reflect the polyglot nature of Little Rock. The Los Diablos is an all-Hispanic team with a majority of players who are first generation US residents. The SuperFriends is a scrappy all African-American team whose coach is the mother of one of the players. The Busch Hawgs – more blue collar. The Hot Tamales – all female.
Then there's the Zombies – a group of punk artists, musicians, computer technicians, and restaurant workers who dress up in white T-shirts with "Zombies" scrawled in black paint. They sometimes spatter their faces in red. The group has become a league favorite, known by the chant "Zom-bie, Zombie Up!"
"The diversity of the league is great," says Jeremy Brasher, the Zombies captain, an embroiderer. "The neighbors from up the street, a bunch of bar dwellers, some [red] necks from the country, wealthy entrepreneurs, thugs, carpenters, people of assorted sports backgrounds, people without [sports] backgrounds, they're all there and everyone basically gets along."
The Zombies practice weekly with their unlikely counterparts, More Cowbell. It is a team of 30-something professionals who were high school friends but drifted apart as careers and marriage intruded. Leslie Cloar, the team's captain, heard about kickball last year and knew it was the perfect solution to reconnecting.
"We get to spend so much time together that it has truly become one of the top priorities in my life," says Mrs. Cloar, who will soon begin work on her doctorate. "We practice once a week, then go out for dinner."
Many players only know each other by their kickball name. Michael Wolcott, who works for a cellphone company, probably throws the ball harder than anyone and is called "RPG." "I can be driving down the street and hear, 'Hey, RPG!' I just wave my hand out the window and continue on with a smile," says Mr. Wolcott.
For those who lack competitiveness, Betz created a laid-back division of the league. While sportsmanship counts, the teams displaying the most spirit and creativity win the playoffs. Seriousness? Not allowed. This year, the Marquis De Sod remained the laid-back champions, thanks to a homemade guillotine and a player dressed up in velvet knickers, white wig, and gold mask in 90-degree F. heat. Their opponents, the Angry Penguins, featured lawyer Michael Moyers in a penguin costume offering players a chance to get wet on a slip-and-slide at first base.
Even though it's now the off-season, tournaments and scrimmages still bring players out. On this day, more than 30 people have gathered in a park that was a former landfill. Mr. Moyers – minus the beak and flippers – has joined the Unholy Alliance to play first base while Mr. Pierce umpires.
Pierce, a Vietnam veteran, sits on a lawn chair wearing a Ball Hawgs T-shirt. He's thinking of hanging up his cleats and doing more refereeing next year. One thing's certain, though: He won't leave kickball. "This keeps me young," he says. "I might stop playing, but I'll be here on Sundays."