Yes, There Is A World Kickball Championship
There are a lot of unforeseen benefits to being the Commissioner of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour. One of them is the opportunity to end sentences with phrases like “…and tomorrow it’s kickball in Vegas”.
If you are young, socially-inclined, and even marginally athletic, your life can be immeasurably enhanced simply by typing “kickball.com” into your internet browser. This will introduce you to WAKA – the World Adult Kickball Association.
WAKA is one of those grass-roots organizations that flies below the radar screen and exists solely to enable people to have a blast playing a game. In this case, a game that anybody with even a single unrepressed memory of childhood will recognize immediately.
Loosely headquartered in Washington DC, WAKA is far from merely a confederation of hobbyists. It operates year-round with a full-time staff of roughly twenty people and a healthy dose of today’s enabling technology. Part-time staffers and volunteers bring the total WAKA management team to about 200 people spread across the country.
Chances are there’s a heavy WAKA presence hiding in plain sight in your city, as dozens of leagues have been formed in 32 different states (plus one league in London’s Hyde Park). Literally thousands of grown men and women are chasing that red rubber ball that you remember from your elementary school days. Only this time, the post-game spread is usually cold beer and wings instead of warm milk and graham crackers. In fact, each league (or Division, in WAKA-speak) is strongly encouraged to secure a host bar as part of its charter.
As if competing and socializing with like-minded others on a weekly basis wasn’t enough to entice people to sign up, there is the annual WAKA Founders Cup, contested each fall in Las Vegas. This I had to see for myself.
And so it was that I climbed out of my car after a 5 ½ hour drive and stretched in the warm sun of Desert Breeze Park, on Vegas’ west side. It was impossible not to be at least somewhat awed by the spectacle – once I got past the strange notion of “kickball” and “awe” occupying the same mind space.
Acres and acres of parkland stretched out before me, covered entirely by prefabricated kickball fields. And by “prefabricated” I mean somebody went out with a measuring tape, walked off distances and plopped down rubber bases. Poof – instant kickball diamond.
“Dugouts”, in the form of pop-up tents, were provided by the teams that called each diamond home for as long as it took to complete a game. Once that contest was over, the teams picked up their tent and carried it to their next assigned field. As best as I can recall, we never had to carry around our own tent at Windermere Elementary School, but hey – these are the sacrifices you make to play in the big time.
There were actually two separate events at this extravaganza: the 13th WAKA Founders Cup, and the inaugural Kickball Games. The former is the often hyper-competitive tournament that culminates in the World Kickball Championship Game. The latter is equal parts competition and costume ball.
Much to their credit, the WAKA organizers took to heart feedback received from member teams and leagues that didn’t necessary have the skill level or the inclination to play cut-throat kickball all day long – but who still wanted to experience Founders Cup Weekend. In response they created the Kickball Games, whose sole goal is to offer round-robin play between teams just looking to have some fun.
And oh yeah, there’s also that money thing.
The teams that arrived in Vegas for the Kickball Games were still competing, but on a different level. Specifically they were trying to win prizes for “Best Promotion”, “Best Performance”, “Best Costume”, and “Life of the Party” as well as an overall “Best All Around Team” award that was determined through voting by all of the Games’ participants themselves. Suffice to say that some imaginations ran wild.
As well they should have, since the team that won in each of these categories received $1,000 to be used for staging a victory party for themselves and other members of their league back at home. That’ll buy a lot of Jell-O shots.
Think of it this way: The Kickball Games were to the Founders Cup what beer pong is to table tennis and what keg ball is to softball. But with much more inventive uniforms.
In case you were wondering…yup, this brand of kickball is pretty much like you remember it from school recess. There are a few pretty notable exceptions though.
First of all, instead of just rolling the roll benignly toward home plate, most pitchers use some combination of throwing and rolling the ball with a sidearm motion. As a result, the ball spins, curves and bounces up to the plate, making it much harder to contact solidly. Balls and strikes are called, so you can theoretically walk or strike out, although to be honest I didn’t see a single instance of either.
Second, the game is played more like baseball than I remembered, with little kickball-esque wrinkles that pop up now and again. For example, securing an out by throwing the ball to the base ahead of a runner is far more common than throwing the ball at the runner, as we used to do.
This makes perfect sense to me now, since missing the runner with the ball causes it to go sailing off into the distance while everybody gleefully circles the bases. How did our razor-sharp 8-year-old minds not pick up on that?
Lastly, and most importantly, there is actually strategery involved in kickball as it is played at this elite level. I attribute this largely to the fact that there are 11 defensive players on the field – seven men and four women. And get this: All of them are paying attention! Billy and Sally are not running around in the outfield throwing stones at each other. Dusty has not become fascinated by the dandelions behind second base. Megan isn’t screaming and fleeing across the infield to escape the butterflies in hot pursuit.
This is a radical departure from the game I thought I knew.
Teams employ actual defensive alignments, some of which call for as many as six infielders. Consequently, almost anywhere the ball is kicked, there’s somebody there to make the play. It’s highly unusual for a player to be able to boom one over the outfield, and there are no “gaps” into which you can direct the ball. Hmmmm…What to do?
The first time I observed a bunt I thought “Oh, how clever – a nice little unexpected strategy.” The 3,948th time I observed a bunt I wanted to run out on the field, grab the ball and kick it as hard and as far as I possibly could, following that up with a screaming tirade about how they’ve sucked all of the fun out of a game that is supposed to be played with childlike abandon.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
To be concluded in next post…