It took almost 25 years, but Jeff Marshall has found a home for his five-foot-breaking curveball. As a child in Lebanon, Ohio, Marshall baffled his brothers during endless games of backyard Wiffle ball. In those days the big oak tree was first base, a shot over the forsythia bushes was a home run, and a blooper into the cranky old lady's yard meant the game was over.
When the Marshall brothers outgrew their backyard park, Jeff took his game elsewhere. After getting a maintenance job with a motel chain in 1985, he would play on lunch breaks in an empty conference room, where the watercooler was first base and a shot to the ceiling lights was a homer. Marshall never had to worry about a cranky old boss because the boss was playing third base over by the lectern. Alas, this park had its flaws: Wiffle ball was not meant to be played in 30-minute sessions with timeouts for phone calls.
At the age of 32, Marshall finally found the perfect place to play last year, when the Hamilton County Park District, which runs the park system in nearby Cincinnati, opened the country's first permanent multifield Wiffle-ball park. It is home to several leagues but not one disagreeable neighbor.
Marshall immediately formed a team with his brothers Ken, 29, and Rick, 24, and that nice boss of his, Todd Pflaumer, 27. The Big Benders—named for the tremendous effect of Jeff's killer curveball—went 28-0 in their first season and won a league title. Jeff pitched one perfect game and one no-hitter and won team MVP honors. "This place is heaven...with home run fences," said Jeff as he warmed up before this year's season opener on April 15. "It means we can keep playing Wiffle, never grow up and never have to run to the store for more balls because some neighbor confiscated them."
The complex, located in Triple Creek Park, in northern Cincinnati, is the brainchild of Kevin Priessman, the park district's athletic director. Priessman, 37, played baseball at Ohio University (where he broke most of Mike Schmidt's batting records) and in the Montreal Expo minor league system before joining the HCPD. Every Fourth of July he throws a party and puts on a Wiffle-ball tournament on his Christmas tree farm in Brookville, Ind. "After the first couple of years my friends were forgetting about the holiday and concentrating on the tournament," Priessman says. "It made me think Wiffle ball doesn't really have an age limit, and maybe I should do something with it at work. Cincinnati is the birthplace of professional baseball. So why not make it the birthplace of organized Wiffle ball?"
Last summer, using temporary fields, word-of-mouth advertising and the rules that he uses in his tree-farm event, Priessman held two Wiffle-ball tournaments in Cincinnati and drew 45 teams. Next he successfully lobbied the park district for the $2,700 that he needed to build four permanent fields—each with its own pitcher's mound, cement batter's box, backstop, outfield fence and spray-painted field lines. Without an official governing body to guide him, Priessman experimented with game rules and field dimensions. He also solicited suggestions from players. "I tried hard to stay as true to baseball as was humanly possible while maintaining the backyard pail of the sport," Priessman says. "Those are the park's greatest attractions."
The fields resemble cones rather than the diamonds of baseball; each is 85 feet down the foul line and 95 feet to deep center, with an outfield that is 100 feet wide. The distance from the pitcher's mound to home plate is 37 feet. Teams use a pitcher and two fielders on defense, but four players are permitted to bat. There are no base runners. Anything hit cleanly past the pitcher is a single; a double requires a poke of 65 feet; shots that hit the fence on the fly are triples.
Gloves are unnecessary. And each team's $25 tournament fee helps provide balls and bats for everyone, or else "people would show up and try to use those giant pink Fred Flintstone bats," says Priessman, who is now known as Mr. Wiffle around Cincinnati. Behind the plate there is a wooden backstop with a 32-by-22-inch strike zone cut out a foot above the ground. If the ball sails through the hole, it's a strike. Priessman cut the strike zone five inches wider than the plate to allow pitchers to hit the corners and still be able to throw a strike.
Because the game's rules are so clear, there are no umps and no arguments. And the park's design reduces baseball to two essential elements, pitching and hitting, performed at a fast pace. A player might bat 25 times in a single game or throw hundreds of screwballs in a tournament. And you're never truly out of a game. During the April 15 tournament, teams often came back from deficits of eight, 12 and 14 runs in the bottom of the sixth (and final) inning to advance to the next round.
"If you're a true fan, then you're starved for the game of baseball," says Kevin Richardson, 33, whose team drove up from Covington, Ky., to compete. "I mean, you can't talk about major league baseball without using unprintable words. And soft-ball tends to get way too intense. So this gives us a chance to stay in love with the game." Nobody, it seems, ever outgrows the magical feeling of clearing the fence or striking out the side with the bases loaded. "The game is like a drug," says Richardson, "and this park is like a dream come true."