From Player to Management
Updated: Jan 29, 2020
At the end of the 2018 Mid Atlantic season, I made the decision not to play in 2019. Or rather, I said out loud what I had already privately decided on much earlier that year.
It wasn’t necessarily a difficult decision to make. As a light-hitting, non-pitching player whose major wiffleball offensive moments include a bunch of “big” walks, one important line drive single in a do or die post-season game, and a memorable moonshot of a grand slam in 2004 that my brother Tim still can hardly believe I actually hit (despite having witnessed it), the game was hardly going to miss having me as an active player.
As MAW grew, I realized that playing the game was moving down the list of things I enjoy about the game. Wiffleball filled my baseball-playing void for many, many years and I still enjoy playing it, but I didn’t feel like I needed to play it as much as I maybe once did. I like writing about wiffleball, talking about the game, discussing and discovering new things about its history, helping young guys just as people like Bruce Chrystie and Tom LoCascio helped me when I was one of those “young guys”, and promoting the sport as best as I can. I didn’t feel like I needed to play the game to enjoy all that it could offer me. In fact, I was fully confident of that.
As it turned out, I was right. Sure, there were moments in 2019 where I got that itch to get back on the field. Once or twice I had myself thoroughly convinced that my OBP deficient former team would greatly benefit from having me and my one semi-marketable skill back in their lineup (they were just fine as they were). It certainly didn’t hurt that I got to see a little game action in June and twice more in October. But I didn’t really miss playing – not that much. I kept myself busy with those other things I had come to enjoy. When most people retire as wiffleball players, they retire from wiffleball altogether. Playing was their only connection to the sport. It was comforting to discover that wouldn’t be the case for me.
I quickly found that stepping off the field provided me with a fresh perspective on the game that I had obsessively dotted over since I was 14 years old. What did I discover from my new vantage point? That this is a legitimately exciting time to be involved with competitive wiffs, whether you are a player or otherwise. The current sport - the current wiffleball community - is worth embracing.
After every Mid Atlantic tournament – especially those in MAW’s home base of York, PA, which is just a short 50-minute drive from our hometown of Baltimore – Tim and I spend the entire car ride home deliriously recounting the day’s events. A mixture of exhaustion, dehydration, joy, and [on occasion] passenger-side drunkenness drives our conservation. The exact content of those giddy talks depends on the content of that day’s tournament, but over the past three years there have been two consistent themes in each post-tournament debrief – the quality of the players and the quality of the people we are fortunate enough to have at MAW events. Whenever we’ve gotten a chance to venture outside of MAW the past three years, those takeaways often remain the same.
The quality of the play, I think, speaks for itself. Watching wiffleball has never been easier in terms of accessibility – another reason I believe we are living in a special time for the sport – and that footage shows a glut of talent in virtually every part of the country. All you need to do is seek it out. The talent floor is very high across the sport relative to historical standards and I wouldn’t bet against that floor continuing to rise in the near future. The mix of veterans (which by wiffleball standards can be late 20’s, early 30’s with roughly 10 years of experience), prime age players (early to mid-20’s) and advanced teenage talent is something special. There are great players everywhere you look.
In MAW specifically, we are very fortunate for and are always humbled by the level of talent we get to see play on a semi-regular basis. Teams will often go three or four quality pitchers deep. Hitters like Ben Stant and Kenny Rodgers Jr. defy logic. Jordan Robles was on another level in 2019. Ridley Park is a veritable wiffleball pitching factory. It is a testament to that league the way that their players - all of whom are young - can step up against players with a decade more experience than them and not miss a beat. It works the other way, too. A guy like Dave Capobianco who has been competing for about 15 years can still befuddle hitters who are half his age. I could go on and on listing players - on the car rides home, I sometimes do.
In wiffleball as in life, it is easy to get caught up in nostalgia and focus on the past. It is also very easy and tempting to focus on the future and its seemingly endless possibilities. But we shouldn’t do so at the expense of the present. Don’t miss out on the great wiffleball scene that is happening right in front of our eyes now because you are too focused on the past or too concentrated on the future. Don’t overlook the Ridley Park Wiffleball League and its unprecedented level of local (as in “from the same high school” local) level of talent because you’re busy glorifying the past. Don’t get caught up on what Golden Stick accomplished earlier last decade while missing the great play going on in the stacked New York Yard scene right this moment. Don’t let dreaming about what wiffleball could possibly be in the future take your attention away from the great players, competition, leagues, and tournaments happening this year. Great wiffleball is here right now and it stands on its own without needless comparisons to the past or future.
Even more so than the tremendous quality of play, what stood out to me while standing on the sidelines this past year was the quality of the people involved in MAW and the sport at large.
One of my favorite Mid Atlantic events of 2019 was the one I was least looking forward to in the buildup. The idea of a draft tournament in October was proposed sometime late in the summer and while I wasn’t against it, I wasn’t exactly excited for it. 2019 was a long year of wiffs and even though I didn’t play much, it still wore me out. I kind of just wanted to rest in October. The idea of a draft tournament at the end of October, one week after a bunch of MAW regulars were scheduled to compete in a marathon tournament in Texas, didn’t seem like a good idea. I wasn’t sure how many people would show and wasn’t convinced that those that did would play at the level we had become spoiled to seeing them play at.
I could not have been more wrong. Frankly, I should have known better.
27 players showed for a full, eight-team tournament. The players that competed the weekend before – some of whom who had thrown up to twenty innings – showed zero signs of mailing it in. The opposite was true. From watching guys like Ryan McElrath, Chris Sarnowski, Connor Young and Vin Lea pitch, you never would have known this was a relatively low-stakes draft tournament. Tim McElrath –who had registered as a hitter, was under no obligation to pitch, and had a bum arm – took the ball for his pitching-short team in the very first game of the tournament. The draft format made for some unique teammates, but every team gelled. Whether it was guys like Austin Berger and Colin Pollag encouraging newcomer teammate Will Thorpe, Connor taking time to cut wiffleballs for first-time MAW player John Polanco, or Stant providing valuable and unsolicited advice to Gino Joseph, everywhere I looked there was a reminder of the welcoming nature found in most wifflers. There were no barriers at this event and that was wonderful to see.
While the MAW Fall Draw tournament perfectly encapsulated the passion and comradery of the players, it was on display all year long at every tournament.
There is a misconception - how common it is, I am not completely sure - that north east wiffleball players are obnoxious and perhaps “overly passionate” about that sport. It is both a silly and false take. Do not mistake passion for arrogance. Competitiveness and fun are not mutually exclusive. These guys have fun - a lot of it - and it is never at the expense of other players. I literally cannot recall a single time in the past three years that a player at a MAW event taunted another player in anything even approaching a mean-spirited manner. These are largely hard-nosed competitors, but good competitors who understand that the line between being a competitor and using competition as an excuse to act like a jerk. It is not that MAW - or wiffleball as a whole - is immune to people that step over the line or are immune to an otherwise good person losing his perspective for a moment. Those people cannot be avoided in any walk of life and we all make mistakes. It happens in MAW. It just doesn’t happen very often at all and virtually never in any severe or significant manner.
As the 2020 season quickly approaches, I am excited to once again watch all the action unfold in MAW and nationally. There is A LOT of great wiffleball out there. As I have heard one player say many times, the problem isn’t that there aren’t enough tournaments and leagues. If anything, there might be too many of those things, which can make it difficult for everyone to get to all the events they would like to get to (although that is admittedly a good problem for the sport to have). To be blunt, if someone doesn’t see just how much good stuff is out there, it is simply because they don’t want to see it.
Competitive wiffleball has a lot of room for growth. There is no doubt about that. It goes without writing that it is not a bad thing - rather it is an essential thing - to consistently seek ways to improve the sport. It is never a bad thing when that is done with good intentions and without trampling others to accomplish it.
But also take it from someone who spent last year taking in all that wiffleball has to offer. There is a lot of great stuff out there right now - don’t let another year go by without enjoying it!