The Unbearable Lightness of Kicking: Adult Leagues Add a New Sport
Adult Kickball in Portland's East End
Bill Sumner sits at a table with his teammates; he shifts his ice pack from one injured leg to the other then takes a sip of beer. It's 11:00 p.m. on a Thursday, and the second-worst kickball team in the region is closing out the bar. Their co-captain, Brendan Radke, orders one last round. Tonight, they are celebrating.
Just a few hours earlier, I met up with Bill, an old college friend, on the sidelines of a makeshift kickball field on Portland's East Side. Bill introduces me to the team captain, Patrick O'Brien, and Brendan. Pat immediately instructs his players to "look good for the press," and Brendan reminds them to stretch before the game. This banter is tongue-in-cheek, but only a little bit.
A few weeks ago when Bill first mentioned Portland's kickball league, I assumed three things: 1) the league was in its first season (and the novelty would wear off soon); 2) the league was packed with self-satisfied hipsters; and, 3) the games would be silly.
I was wrong.
For starters, adult kickball made its Portland debut three years ago and enrollment has only grown since then. More surprising, Portland's teams are just one small division within a much larger organization. The World Adult Kickball Association (WAKA) is a 10-year-old league with 32,000 players in 23 states. As the WAKA literature is quick to point out, kickball is the "New American Pastimea"¢."
Apparently, I'm the last to know.
Kickball is not just for hipsters, either. WAKA was started in Washington D.C. by a few young professionals who "just wanted to kick off some corporate steam."
Their idea exploded.
Kickball-once the mainstay of elementary Phys. Ed.-soon became hugely popular among upwardly mobile, twenty- to thirtysomething urbanites. At first glance it seems adult kickball in Portland is largely the domain of ex-fraternity and -sorority types, but look closer and you'll find it's also populated with alternative types and active military; transplants and locals; greasers and socs.
I was right about one thing: kickball is silly. There's no getting around it. Regardless of your disposition, it's impossible to watch a 30-year-old dude kick one of those brick-red schoolyard balls and not smile. But it's also serious competition.
I can't overstate that.
For instance, when I arrived at the field Portland's two top teams were vying for first place and tensions were running high. When the shortstop from the P-Town Ballers threw the ball at a runner at third, the game screeched to a halt. Jenna Boutin, an insurance writer in her 20s, shrieked in protest claiming the ball hit her in the back of the head. (In kickball, you can tag out a runner by throwing the ball at her, but if the ball hits her above the shoulders she's safe.) As I watched her gesturing wildly at the umpire, I realized I had no idea what I was seeing. Was this theater, or was she serious? She spoke in a comedic pitch, she was humorously over-serious, but she was also sincerely upset. The ump sided with the defensive team, Jenna stomped off the field, and I was left to wonder: is adult kickball funny?
Shortly before his own players take the field, Pat shares his final kicking order with me. As he explains it, WAKA guidelines call for a boy-girl-boy-girl progression, but because the boys on his team outnumber the girls 2 to 1, he's free to follow his intuition. (The nationwide ratio is much more favorable: 51 percent of WAKA's players are female.)
Pat seems cautiously optimistic as Steve, his lead kicker, heads toward the plate. At this point in the season, Team Ramrod is at the bottom of the league: they've lost every game, and they haven't scored a single run outside scrimmage play. On the bright side, however, the opposing team, Look Ma No Hands, is tied for last place. Chances are good Team Ramrod won't get walloped tonight. On the other hand, if Team Ramrod loses to the other worst team in the division, they might as well pack it in for the season.
Luckily, Team Ramrod catches an early break. In the first inning, they get three base kicks and Steve scores their first run. Later in the game, Bill bunts a base kick and starts a rally that gives Team Ramrod a 5-2 lead.
It sounds ridiculous, but adult kickball moves almost too quickly to photograph. The teams play five innings in rapid succession; there's no chaw spitting, cleat tapping, or base stealing. There are no time outs, no belabored warm-ups in the on-deck circle, and no one plays "Baby Elephant Walk" over a P/A system. It's pure sport. The game is over in less than a half hour.
The two teams shake hands, Pat congratulates his team on their first win, then Bill and I drive to the Old Port.
Three Dollar Dewey's-the official post-game hangout - is overrun with ballers. Eleven other teams played kickball in Portland tonight, and every one of them is already at the bar. All the big tables are occupied; when the individual members of Team Ramrod arrive by car, they're forced to split into smaller satellite groups dispersed throughout the pub. Even Look Ma No Hands-the newly crowned worst team in Portland-finagled a table of their own.
Despite this insult, spirits are high.
Brendan buys a pitcher of beer for the opposing team. According to Pat, Brendan always does this. "Even if the other team pounds us 10 to nothing, Brendan will say something like, `I really like the way they put their team together, let's buy `em a pitcher.'"
Pat is a natural captain. He's a Navy pilot , so he's inoculated to the pressures that come with the sport. He also has a generous, can-do spirit. When his teammate Jon confesses he can't drink beer due to acid reflux, Pat reels off a few homeopathic remedies to get him back in the drinking game.
I ask Pat what his winning strategy was.
Pat is suddenly nonplussed. "Winning strategy?" He turns to Jon, "What would you say our winning strategy was?"
"Playing well," Jon deadpans.
"Small ball," says Bill.
Brendan, the analytic co-captain (and soon-to-be law student), agrees: "Our overall strategy is to get the first two batters to bunt the ball toward third base. The kickball is incredibly hard to throw, so if you kick a grounder to third, there's no way the third baseman can throw you out at first. Once we get two guys on base, the third kicker goes for the sacrifice fly and the guys on base tag up and go for home. It's that simple."
"Do you bunt?" I ask him.
"Personally, I go for the fences out of pride, but it's smarter to bunt."
I ask Larisa Kruze, Assistant Director of International Programs at USM, about her kicking technique. "What part of your foot makes contact with the ball?"
"I don't think my foot really touches it," she says, laughing. "I think it's pure shin. And it's pure pain the next day."
"I noticed when the ball comes in from the pitch it's difficult to gauge where it's going. Is that unnerving?"
"Yeah, one of the pitchers had a good curveball tonight. That was tricky."
I'm not sure if Larisa is bullshitting me, so I ask Brendan about it.
"Yeah, you do see some pitchers putting curve on the ball, but those of us who rely on the skill of our fielders just kind of roll it on down there," he says, smiling. "The problem is the ball is completely warped. It's going to go wherever it wants to go. You basically just throw it, close your eyes, and pray something good happens. Tonight that strategy worked."
I make my way around the bar. Predictably, the #1 team in Portland is a pack of mooks. The P-Town Ballers sit at the best table in the house; they're rowdy, they won't answer any of my questions, and they mug for the camera whenever I try to take a candid shot. (I would say that they're just like the Cobra Kai from The Karate Kid, but the Portland division already has a team by that name.) The P-Town Ballers wear matching socks-a rarity in this division-and I'm told they sometimes wear eye black. Aside from those excesses, moderation might be their key to success: the P-Town Ballers leave the bar promptly at 10:00.
The other teams stick it out. Kickball, after all, is a drinker's sport. Bryn Keating, a newspaper reporter and player for Look Ma No Hands, sums it up: "The point of kickball is to meet people, but when you're on the field it's all about beating the other team. It's a different story at the bar, though. I've met a lot of good people here. Alcohol is a great unifier."
Team Ramrod eventually claims a table for themselves and orders a few more pitchers. Before long, the other teams shuffle out the bar and Team Ramrod is the last team standing. From there, things degenerate quickly: a few team members throw popcorn kernels into each other's pint glasses; a deep-album cut from Temple of the Dog plays on the stereo and no one complains.
During a lull in conversation, Brendan's girlfriend, Tracy, summons the courage to admit she didn't read a lengthy e-mail Brendan sent to the team earlier in the week-a primer on strategy.
"It was seven pages long!" she says.
Brendan defends his tome.
"We don't have a lot of baseball players on our team, so no one really knew that during a pop fly you take a slight lead off the bag until you see if the ball's been caught. We've had guys on first who would run all the way to third only to run all the way back after an outfielder caught the ball."
"We've come a long way," says Bill.
I think back to my previous assumptions about Portland's kickball league and realize I still don't know if it's funny. Honestly, when I pitched the story to my editor, I thought the whole thing was going to be a goof. I told her the experience would be so funny it would write itself. Now I'm not so sure. I can't shake the feeling that the evening lacks superlatives. It isn't easily categorized. It simply is. The adult kickball experience seems almost a little too much like life: it's broad, somewhat unfunny, and largely meaningless.
I ask Brendan what to make of it. What's the appeal of kickball?
"People need a little thrill," Brendan says. "They need a little competition-harmless competition. Most of the competition you see today is the bitter competition between coworkers; people strangling each other for promotions-stuff like that. But when you're on a kickball field, the scene is almost too ridiculous. You're an adult playing kickball. It's so ridiculous it allows you to be competitive while not taking yourself too seriously."
"But once the ball starts rolling," Bill says, "you can't not take it seriously."
"That's true," Brendan says, "but the beauty of kickball is that no one ever cared about it. Look at men's basketball leagues, for instance. Guys get really upset because they were probably high-school basketball stars who never went anywhere; they're carrying a lot of emotion into the game. In kickball, no one cares. No one's living up to their high-school days. No one's honor or reputation is invested in it. You want to win, but on the other hand, you don't care if you lose."
At 11:30 p.m., the players from Team Ramrod finish their pints and leave the bar. They say their goodbyes on the brick sidewalk, and go their separate ways. Harmless or not, they'll face stiffer competition next Thursday. In the meantime, however, they're not the worst team in the league.
Ben McCanna lives in Rockland and writes the blog SO RO for downeast.com. He does not play kickball.
- By: Ben McCanna