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A roundup of news on sporting events, people and places in Southeast Michigan by columnist Jim Evans.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The future is plastics; sign up for 2012 Wiffle Ball tournament

Peter Pan promised eternal youth. He absolutely refused to grow up. But he wore tights, not baseball knickers.
Ponce de Leon supposedly discovered the Fountain of Youth. But do you know what; he never once stuck a wad of Double Bubble in his mouth.
So from my vantage point, Pan and Ponce are pure fiction.
Conversely, what John Thompson promises about eternal youth is certified fact.
“The nice thing about the Wiffle Ball tournament is that it’s a family event,” said Thompson. “The kids get to run around and play and the adults get to act like they are 12 years old again.”
Thompson, who resides with his wife and kids in Clinton Township, is certainly right about that. There is something marvelously timeless about the game of Wiffle Ball.
Check the rearview mirror. Take a glance at the resume. Everybody has some Wiffe Ball in his or her background. Did you know that Noah took a Wiffle Ball and bat onto the ark to keep the animals entertained during God’s longest rainout? Trouble is, those surly grizzly bears chewed both bat and ball up. And, to take their minds off the big battle, General Custer and his men played a rousing game of Wiffle Ball before riding out for a couple of innings.
All right, so things did not go so well in their game against the Indians later on. Generally, playing Wiffle Ball is a certifiable blast.
Here’s a brief summation for the one or two folks on the planet who might not know what Wiffle Ball is all about. The ball itself is plastic and full of holes that allow the air to whistle through. Hence, the ball dips and dives; curves and cavorts in ways the Niekros could only dream about. The bat is likewise plastic, making it extremely easy to generate tremendous speed on a swing. Connect solidly and send a line shot straight up the gut and pitchers have been known to go down like they’ve been tasered.
“We played a lot of Little League and city league baseball,” said Thompson, who grew up in West Orange, New Jersey. “Wiffle ball came a little later to us. I think we were teenagers when we got into it. We played a lot at my buddy, Vinnie’s, house.”
Home plate looked suspiciously like the front step of Vinnie’s house. A home run did not have to clear a fence. Nope, the ball had to clear Seton Place Drive, the street which ran in front of Vinnie’s.
“Back then, a home run seemed like it was a 500-foot shot. I’d guess it was probably only 100 feet away, which is still a pretty good shot in Wiffle Ball,” said Thompson, laughing.
Everybody has their own autographed version of a Wiffle Ball game. In South Orange, they were one-on-one affairs. The pitcher stared down the batter. The batter spat some spent Red Man in response. Or was that root beer?
Either way, there were only two competitors per game. All runners were invisible. The bases were merely specters, too.
“We adopted different lineups. There had to had to be an American League and a National League team. I liked the Yankees and the Houston Astros. If a left-handed hitter was coming up in the lineup, then you had to bat left-handed,” said Thompson. “If a right-handed batter was in either the Yankees or Astros lineup, you had to hit right-handed.”
Thompson is the mastermind behind a local Wiffle Ball tournament that recently celebrated its 11th year. The event is usually held at Wanda Park in Sterling Heights. The Polish War Veterans Home is situated there.
Twenty two-person teams competed at the 2011 tournament and the championship squad was manned by Rochester residents Chris Gabbard and Neto Ramirez.
All the fields at the Wanda Park tournament are fenced, with home runs measuring from 85 feet down the foul lines to 100 feet in smack dab centerfield. It’s a double elimination event.
Thompson has been on the winning team twice; in 2006 and 2010. Both times, he’s teamed up with Chris Engquist. This year, their title defense lasted just three games.
“We went from top to bottom real quick,” said Thompson.
John and his wife, Susan, have three children; Emily, 20; Audrey, who is six; and three-year-old Sylvia.
“Susan ripped the first home run that a woman had ever hit in the tournament. My buddy, Jerry, was pitching. I don’t think he has played since,” said Thompson, chuckling.
“That is one thing I like about the tournament,” he continued. “Entire families come out. We don’t just play Wiffle Ball. We grill hot dogs and hamburgers. There is plenty to drink for everyone. We all get a chance to act like kids.”
The tournament is always held on the final Saturday in June. That means the 2012 edition will be held on Saturday, June 22. The cost will be about $40 per player.
How much does a sip from the real Fountain of Youth cost anyway? You’ll look better in baseball knickers than green tights.

For more information, contact Thompson at


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