A little more than seven years ago, Matt Carsten and some friends were sitting on the back porch one night talking about what they missed from their childhood. Yes, beverages were involved so of course someone suggested they should go for it and try recapturing some old energy.
So they started a whiffle ball tournament with six teams, and now the Whiffle Ball Classic is capped at 16 teams and includes about 200 players. This year's event will be held Sept. 15 near the corner of Ball and Bieneke roads -- or as player Mikey Dennison refers to it, ``his family estate.'' They start early and they'll play until the light runs out. The beverages never run out.
They'll also raise some money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital through entry fees and by passing the hat. They've raised money for SCAN and for Honor Flight over the past few years. Each year they raise a little bit more money.
``It's really just an excuse for grown men to play whiffle ball,'' said Seth Keirns, one of the team captains.
Who could argue with that?
``Our wives used to get into it and come out all the time, but now most of us have kids, so they bring the kids out for a little while,'' Keirns said. ``They say, `This is you guys' thing, so go play.' ''
Actually, the wives enjoy watching the men act like 12-year-old boys making fools of themselves. Though most of the players are in their mid-30s to mid-40s, the rules are the same as when they were in their mid-teens. Instead of the garage, electrical lines or a row of trees providing the boundaries, the four fields have 100-foot fences, but teams are allowed only two home runs per inning. After that, it's an automatic out unless there's a heavy wind, and a ruling can be appealed to an umpire.
``It was a good move because it made the games more competitive,'' said Tyson Becker. ``When that rule goes into effect, it's funny to see what the batters try to do to make sure they don't hit home runs. What you really want to do is load the bases and then try to hit home runs. The good teams can pull that off.''
The umpire is about the only way this game is different from the one they all grew up playing in their back yards. There's one pitcher and five fielders on defense, and because there's no first baseman, pitcher's hand is the rule for getting an out on a grounder. The best teams have ultra-quick pitchers who can run close to make it easier on their fielders.
Carsten and his wife managed the entire tournament the first couple of years until it became too much, and now there's a small committee of folks who help out. They do that in part because they get to set up the fields, including painted lines, on the day before the tournament and play ball all afternoon.
``It just kind of turned into something we didn't expect,'' Carsten said. ``We were just looking to have a good time and play some whiffle ball, and now we're talking about keeping it going so hopefully all of our kids can play in it.''
Unfortunately, Carsten didn't get to play last year because of his sister's wedding, and he won't get to play this year because of his brother's wedding. No way he's missing next year.
``We all grew up playing this because we didn't have the internet or video games,'' said Chris Barker, captain of ``The Fortysomethings.'' ``We had to provide our own entertainment. For us, it's all about childhood friends who played together at different houses all the time. We played Little League together, and a couple of us go all the way back to kindergarten. We're still friends and this helps us get together at least once a year.''
It's an excuse to stay in touch with old friends and meet some new ones. Sometimes opponents know each other only from the tournament, and players can be identified only by their hats, but there's also a certain respect present. Any arguments of calls last about seven seconds because everyone is having so much fun.
Some of the teams have hung together for six or seven years of the tournament.
``It's never hard to find people to play,'' Becker said ``The emails all come back pretty quickly saying they want to play.''
Those competitive synapses start flowing and so does the trash talk. Two years ago, Justin Parker's team won the championship and he placed the gaudy, 3-foot-tall trophy in his front window -- directly within sight of Keirns' house from across the street.
``I wanted to make sure Seth could see it every night,'' Parker said.
Last year, Keirns' team regained the trophy, so he placed it on his front porch where Parker would have to immediately see it whenever he left the house. A lot of the other players live in the same neighborhood, too, so they saw it when they drove past.
``It's supposed to be for fun, but when you get down to the last few games or whatever, it gets intense,'' Keirns said. ``It's fun to see guys 30 and 40 years old out there getting real competitive trying to play whiffle ball of all things.''
The beverages certainly help with that.
Keirns usually has one of the better teams each year, and because he's one of the tournament organizers, there are always ethical questions about his team's ``success.''
``He's always picking up ringers,'' Parker said. ``His team has won it or finished as the runner-up almost every year.''
Keirns countered, saying ``You can only listen to about half the stuff Justin says.''
Other captains wonder if Keirns' ``experienced'' team needs a little more help now with the draw to ensure a successful tournament.
``Each year they are always in the finals,'' Becker said. ``Is it seeding or talent?''
``They run it, so how does that work?'' Barker said with a grin. ``You wonder how the brackets are stacked.''
Not nearly as high as the blarney.
``My goal every year is to be the worst player on my team,'' Dennison said. ``If I'm the worst player, I know I'm decent enough so that means my team must be pretty good. Then I can drink beer and watch us win.''
All the talk is fine until the end of the day when it's a little hard to get back up after finally sitting down to rest.
``You don't use your whiffle ball muscles very often, so the whole next week you are paying for it,'' Becker said.
When they were kids, they could play all weekend, but not any more. The next day, no one gets very far off the couch.
``You're using all parts of your body that you never really thought you would move,'' Dennison said with a laugh. ``It's well worth it in the end.''
But each year it gets just a little bit harder to recover.
``We can't move for almost a week,'' Keirns said. ``You are swinging that bat as hard as you can and throwing the ball around.''
No matter how sore they get, none of them will dare stop. For one thing, they'd never hear the end of it.
``We'll do it until our legs run out,'' Barker said. ``We'll be in another 10 years if they let us.''
That will likely depend on how many beverages are involved.