Boys of summer delight in plastic

By DAN CARPENTER


The people who make Wiffle balls are aware that the World Wiffle Ball Classic has been held since 1980 in Mishawaka.

The manufacturer - The Wiffle Ball Inc. of Shelton, Conn. - even sells the tournament some of its famous plastic bats and balls at cost.

Nevertheless, Jim Bottorff, founder and playing commissioner of nothern Indiana's lightest-weight International sports showdown, decided this year to take no chances.

Guarding against any threat of copyright infringement action, the World Wiffle Ball Classic henceforth has an "h" in its name.

Whiffle, not Wiffle.

"I think that (Whiffle) is what most people think it is anyway," says Bottorff, a 27-year old pharmaceutical technician who started the tournament nine years ago while working in the Mishawaka park system.

However they spell it, it seems safe to say most people use Wiffle as a generic name for any of the plastic baseballs- hard or soft, with or without holes, regulation-size or otherwise - that have initiated infants and addicted adults for three decades.

"I never really got over it," says Bottorff, who played his Wiffle games as a kid on a vacant lot in Mishawaka, where the alley was the home run fence.

"I'd like to get it started here (in Indianapolis, his home the past six years). But I really haven't had the time. It's frustrating for me, because you could probable get it going nationally if you had the time....It's something everybody has played"

Ah, yes. Who among us with an iota of athletic interest is without memory of the merry bonk of that skinny yellow bat against that hollow wind-blown sphere with holes over half its surface?

Who among us baseball lovers, hasn't ripped one of those 70-foot home run shots onto the left-field garage roof and imagined himself Roger Maris or Henry Aaron, taking some ace fastballer downtown?

The thrill lasts well into maturity, as Bottorff can attest from more that just his personal experience. He had 20 teams, with many members from out of state, in the WWBC last year; and 10 are signed up so far for this year's running on July 23-24. It started out as Bottorff's idea for occupying idle teen-agers, but most of the participants now are grown-ups. Franz Lidz, a staff writer for Sports Illustrated, came from New York City to play last year.

Under WWBC rules, four-person teams play in a triangular area with a fence 100 feet away down the lines and about 85 feet away in centerfield. First base is 40 feet from home plate. Bottorff says, and "we kind of throw second out in the middle there."

Runners can be put out by tagging them, by hitting them with the ball (below the neck only) or by throwing the ball to the pitcher. Base-stealing and bunts are allowed.

Scores tend to be divinely influenced, Bottorff notes. "The wind is a real big thing. Last year we had eight fields going, and on the fields with the east-west wind, there were a lot of home runs. On the other fields there was hardly any scoring."

Bottorff, with the help of several buddies, has kept the WWBC going mainly by word of mouth through the years, even while living 140 miles away. There are no trophies or published rules; but there are, of course, T-shirts.

Wind permitting, there's also plenty of glory to go around. Just like those golden days of youth, aiming for the alley.

"You'd play all year and the only stat you'd keep was home runs." Bottorff recalls, "Anybody can be a star at this."