A fairy tale script, so it seems. A crazy idea simply to have fun. Now, 14 years later, the project has grown into something more than ever intended.
In 1980, Jim Bottorff grabbed a few friends together to play Whiffleball at Mishawaka Park. Soon, they thought it might be fun to make a tournament out of it , so they chalked up the fields and invited some more people. Eight teams showed up to play.
“We laughed about it at the time,” Bottorff said. “I was 19 then and here I am, 14 years later, still doing it.”
Only now the fantasy tournament has branched off into four regional areas around the country, where four-player teams battle for the right to come back to the sport’s roots in Mishawaka to play for the World Whiffleball Championship.
Saturday and Sunday, 40 teams from around the nation will play for the unheralded outdoor plastic bat and ball sport title at Mishawaka’s Ward Baker Park, the largest known Whiffleball complex in the world. Games will be played on 19 fields simultaneously.
“Four other people are instrumental in helping me build the tournament, along with my understanding wife,” Bottorff said.
Along with co-founder Larry Grau, who helps with the Mishawaka tournament, they are: Perry Baert, a Mishawaka organizer; Scott Ermeti, who runs the Los Angeles regional; Mark Waumans, who started up a Baltimore regional; and Jim Prewitt, tournament director in Seymour, Ind. The Baltimore tournament has since moved to Syracuse, N.Y.
Games are played on triangular fields (100 feet down the right and left field lines and 85 feet in center) with a six-foot fence. The bases are 40 feet apart.
“Ordinarily, Whiffleball is a sondlot game,” Bottorff said. “We kind of standardized it, but the rules are a little different.”
In this league, there are no umpires — players call their own games — and defensive teams can get baserunners out by hitting them below the neck with the ball. Also, players can’t lead off or steal until they reach third base.
Bottorff knows of three other Whiffleball leagues around the country, but as far as he knows, his is the only one with regional sites that lead to a championship. In Boston, one league is played in a man’s backyard, which was designed into a replica of Fenway Park.
“I’ve been there,” Bottorff said. “It’s pretty neat. But there game is a lot different. They play fast pitch with no defense. It’s basically what we call line ball where you hit for distance. They don’t run the bases.”
“Our game is very action-oriented with defenses trying to make home-run saves over the fences. We don’t play fast pitch and we run the bases. We use the yellow plastic bats made by Wiffleball. They use sawed-off wooden bats with pipes laid in them. In my opinion, their game is not as exciting.”
While other Whiffleball tournaments are played for money, Bottorff claims he has never made a profit on his tournaments.
“The whole thing was started very tongue-in-cheek,” Bottorff explained. “It still is. The idea is that it’s supposed to be like when you were a kid out there fending for your self.”
“People laugh when they hear about it, but I don’t think they realize how competitive it is. If more people knew about it I think it would be a neat spectator sport. Once I get people to come out and play, I rarely lose anybody.
“It’s sort of a fantasy thing. I know the reason I played Whiffleball when I was a kid was because I could never swing a baseball bat. It allows you to go out and be a kid for a day.”
Even public figures can relive there childhood days.
In 1987, Bottorff wrote a letter to Sports Illustrated writer Franz Lidz after reading an article that expressed Lidz’s interest in Whiffleball. Bottorff invited the SI writer to play in one of his Mishawaka tournaments. Lidz responded by flying in a team of boyhood pals for a Whiffleball reunion.
“When that happened, television became interested,” Bottorff said. “Ever since then we’ve gotten local attention and I’ve been on the news a couple times. I don’t know if we would be as big as we are now if that hadn’t happened.”
“I’ll take the attention any way I can get it. We never intended for it to be like this. We’re ecstatic that it’s gotten this big, but I don’t think I’ll be quitting my day job anytime soon.”
Maybe not, but he’s done his share of promoting the unique recreational sport. A few years ago Bottorff ran an add in Sporting News, trying to draw in more participation. Weeks later he came home to find a message on his answering machine. The only problem was that it was in Japanese.
“I never had it translated,” he said. “Maybe it was a Whiffleball message. They (the Japanese) love Whiffleball over there.”
Bottorff considers his game to be a family sport for all age groups.
“We’ve had guys 50 years old bring in their 8-year-old sons,” he said. “The idea is to have fun. Half the teams are out there just to have a good time. They don’t care whether they win or not.”
“It’s hard to explain. I think you just have to be there.”