Aug 8, 2014
Behind my childhood home in Connecticut, my father tried to grow a lawn in a small clearing on a rocky, tree-covered slope. But two spots were always worn to dirt: a pitching rubber and a batter’s box.
Our backyard was a Wiffle ball stadium.
There were ground rules. A ball hit into the woods was a homer. Anything hit short of the woods was a single. Mom’s clothesline, anything hanging from it, and all limbs, stumps, ferns, clumps of moss and bedrock outcrop were in play. If a high-hit ball Plinko’d down tree branches and into your opponent’s hand before hitting the ground, it was an out.
Of course, in our imaginations, there were no stumps or clumps. We were playing for tens of thousands of fans — in a real stadium.
I’m 41 now, and I finally got to play in a real Wiffle ball stadium last month. It’s called Yellowbatz — the name is a twist on the game’s iconic yellow bat. It’s in O’Fallon, Mo., next door to the Penalty Box sports bar.
If you grew up playing Wiffle ball, you put up with stumps and clumps of your own, and you owe yourself an hour of Wiffle heaven at Yellowbatz. It really is a field of dreams.
Yellowbatz opened last month, and its owners, Joe and Shawn Nevins, say it’s a hit. Their father, Ken Nevins, 70, owns the Penalty Box, a sports bar in Bridgeton that was destroyed by a tornado on Good Friday in 2011. He bought a vacant restaurant site on Main Street in O’Fallon and reopened the Penalty Box there in March 2012.
When the business struggled, the sons hatched a plan to build a Wiffle ball stadium. Build it and they will come — to Dad’s bar. Or so they hoped.
And why not? Wiffle ball stadiums are popular on the East Coast and in California. Wiffle fans come far and wide to play at Little Fenway in Essex, Vt., a replica of the Boston Red Sox’s storied home, and at the $1 million Strawberry Field in Encino, Calif., said to be the most expensive Wiffle stadium ever built. Why couldn’t a Wiffle stadium take off in St. Louis, a baseball town?
The Nevin brothers say they put more than $100,000 into the stadium. When it was done, in the days before it opened, they reverted to children, playing under the stadium lights into the night, which did not please their wives.
Joe Nevins, 41, works for a bank; Shawn Nevins, 42, for a food-service vendor. Neither has time to run Yellowbatz, so they hired a grown-up kid named Derek Dust, 36, to be “president of Wiffle ball operations.” Dust, who had been working for a company selling collegiate sports apparel, had been scheming to open his own Wiffle ball stadium in St. Louis when someone told him about the Nevins brothers’ plans.
“It’s a place to dream like a kid, even if you are 36,” said Dust. “It’s as close as we’re ever going to get to playing in Busch Stadium.”
BEST PARTY EVER
It was built; and they are coming.
An adult summer league is filled up, and Yellowbatz is taking reservations for a fall league that starts Sept. 7. The stadium is also available for parties.
I learned about Yellowbatz on July 2 from a tweet by sports talker Tim McKernan: “Just checked out @yellowbatz … wiffleball paradise.” I immediately knew where we’d be having a birthday party for my 10-year-old.
It wasn’t cheap: $300 for two hours. But we managed to play an entire round-robin tournament with four teams, the Yankees, Dodgers, Cardinals and Pirates; nine games in two hours. My birthday boy made uniforms for every player using thrift-store T-shirts, stencils and spray paint.
I pitched. Dust manned the PA, and we passed a second mic around for color commentary and on-field interviews. (“Now batting for the Cardinals is William. His favorite sport is baseball and his favorite player is Yadi.”) The park was far from homer heaven — only two boys took me deep.
As we were wrapping up, one of the party guest’s moms came over to say: “Best party ever.” On the drive home I got another text from a guest: “Best party ever.” Before he went to bed, our birthday boy told my wife and me, “That was the best party EVER.”
It really is a field of dreams: a pristine grass-and-dirt infield, with white baselines, wood benches and a tall, green fence that is 88 feet to left, 80 feet to right and 101 feet to dead center. The field is meant to evoke memories of Sportsman’s Park, down to the squared-off deep center field notch. The Nevins plan to install a replica of the Sportsman’s Park scoreboard in left field.
For some kids, it was their first game of Wiffle ball. They got to skip the stumps and clumps and head straight to the big leagues. It would be like playing your first round of golf at Pebble Beach. Seriously, kids today get everything.
Wiffle ball is a variation of baseball played with a long, yellow, plastic bat and a perforated plastic ball. There are no baserunners or umpires — only pitching, batting and bare-handed fielding. You can play with any number of players, but it’s best played either one-on-one, or with three players cutthroat style, with one pitching and one in the field.
Usually, Wiffle ball players use a chair to call balls and strikes. The chair goes right behind the plate. If the pitch hits the chair, it’s a strike. If it misses, it’s a ball. No umpire needed.
The game was invented in 1953 in a backyard in Fairfield, Conn., just 20 miles from where I grew up. David N. Mullany was concerned about children hurting their arms by throwing curve balls. He developed a ball that would curve on its own — and at which batters would swing and “whiff.”
The ball is a hard, light, rubbery plastic with eight ¾-inch oblong holes cut into one side. The other half of the ball is solid plastic, without holes. The shape and position of the holes make it a Wiffle ball. (Those balls with tiny round holes all over? Those are not Wiffle balls.)
The design of the Wiffle ball makes the game special. Hold a ball in your right hand with the holes facing to the left, and throw overhand, with a little snap of the wrist, and the ball will curve dramatically to the left. Reverse the direction of the holes, and the ball will curve to the right. Pitch sidearm with the holes facing down, and the ball will sink. Pitch side arm with the holes up, and the ball will rise.
Those are the basic pitches. Wiffle aficionados have developed sliders, knuckleballs and changeups. One of my friends in college used to spin a wicked gyro-curve that hovered like a hummingbird, daring you to strike it, darting away just as the bat neared.
Of course, we used to play those games in the space between two wings of our dormitory, with a crabapple tree and a few engineering majors in play.
The beauty of Wiffle ball is you can play it anywhere. Three days after the Yellowbatz party, my two boys and I were playing Wiffle ball on the beach in New Jersey, using sandals to mark fair territory.
But in our minds we were hitting dingers at Yellowbatz.
Where Yellowbatz, 609 North Main Street, O’Fallon, Mo. • More info 314-971-0216; yellowbatz.com
Wiffle ball primer
It’s safe: Wiffle ball is a variation of baseball played with a long yellow plastic bat and a plastic ball with eight oblong perforations on one side of the ball. The holes on the ball help the pitcher throw curves, sliders, sinkers, screwball and risers without putting any stress on the throwing arm. Wiffle balls are easy on windows, and they are cheap: A box of 24 should last a kid all summer ($28.70 on Amazon).
It’s fun: It’s tough to play baseball without an umpire because so much of the game relies on an umpire’s calls. But no umpires are needed for Wiffle ball. If the pitch hits a chair behind the strike zone, it’s a strike; if it misses, it’s a ball. There is no baserunning. If the fielder makes a clean play of a fly ball or a ground ball in fair territory it’s an out. Otherwise, it’s a hit.
Advanced moves: Check out the pitches on wiffleboy28.com. Sean “Wiffleboy” Steffy has published an incredibly complete how-to guide for mastering Wiffle ball pitching. If you want to learn how to amaze your friends, or your kids, take some pointers from Wiffleboy’s videos.
Other Wiffle ball stadiums: Little Fenway in Essex, Vt. (littlefenway.com) and Strawberry Field Park in Encino, Calif. (strawberryfieldpark.com)
By Jeremy Kohler