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
part of the sport," Priessman says. "Those are the park's
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 softball
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."
Priessman wants still more. He hopes to add fields and to turn
the existing cones into replicas of several of baseball's
greatest venues. Soon Cincinnatians should be able to knock a
Wiffle ball over a Green Monster, wander a centerfield like the
one in Yankee Stadium, climb ivy-covered walls inspired by those
of Wrigley Field and keep track of games on a giant scoreboard
like the one at the Reds' old Crosley Field. Priessman's
crowning achievement will be the North American Wiffle Ball
Championships at Triple Creek Park, to be held Sept. 8-10. "I've
had calls from people from Boston to San Diego," Priessman says.
"You know what they say: If you build it, they will come."
Indeed, the Cincinnati complex has attracted an eclectic group.
Competitors' ages range from 10 to 70, with a few father-and-son
combos and one three-generation team. Some teams scout with
video cameras, tape recorders and computer printouts, while
others take clipboards onto the field, maintaining stats.
Chatter is plentiful, as are diving plays, hightop spikes and
flashy sunglasses. But the competition is friendly. During the
1995 lidlifter, which drew 23 teams, the loudest protests were
heard shortly after the tournament began at 9 a.m. It seems a
home run ball knocked over several steins of breakfast belonging
to the Beer Bellies. "That's an out, man," hollered a player
with an expansive midriff. "Hey, Commissioner Kevin, tell 'em.
Beer fouls are an automatic out, man." The Bellies claimed the
day's only injury: a groin pull attributed to an improper cooler
On the field next to the Bellies were three players with DUMB,
DUMBER and DUMBEST printed on their respective uniforms. The Big
Benders were on field number 1, shutting out a team named after
the '70s TV show James at 15. The team features a prosecuting
attorney and a defense lawyer who share a bat decorated with
Suzanne Somers stickers. The image of the actress receives a
smooch after each homer.
Games are as freewheeling as the players. A 1-0 duel last year
required 23 innings and two days to complete. Other games break
the 60-run barrier. The losing pitcher in one game stumbles off
the field and proclaims that his ERA is now closer to his
bowling average. A teammate quickly replies, "Hey, dude, you're
not that good a bowler." A short time later the same pitcher
throws a three-hitter.
A Wiffle pitcher can work all day (some hurlers make close to
1,000 throws in this tournament), and he is identifiable after
the tournament by the way he carries his pitching arm in his
other hand. Balls move toward the plate as if jerked by strings,
breaking, hovering, whipping by. And while every pitcher has a
slightly different style, many of the styles are variations on a
theme. The no-look approach of the legendary Luis Tiant is
popular, as is the sidearm delivery of former reliever Kent
Tekulve. Jeff Marshall and his U-turn curve pay homage to
Chicago White Sox reliever Rob Dibble.
Today, however, Marshall is slightly off his game and his team
finishes third, knocked out by a team formed during breakfast.
In the semifinals, Marshall fouls off a pitch that travels 30
feet and into the next field. It is quickly retrieved and tossed
back into play. Someone mentions that in the old days that ball
would have landed in the cranky neighbor's yard or knocked over
an office fern and ended the game. Marshall nods, then steps
back into the batter's box with a smile that straightens his
"I love this place," he says.