Brian Vervaet of South Bend takes a cut in Saturday’s World Whiffleball Championship tournament in Mishawaka.
Tribune Photo DAVE WITHAM
MISHAWAKA — They come to Ward Baker Park from near and far. All for love of the game.
The game of Wiffle ball, that is.
Twenty years ago, a few Homeboys, as they call themselves, from Mishawaka mustered eight local teams to whiff the day away.
Who knew their little gathering would come to be known as the World Whiffleball Championship, drawing almost 50 teams from around the nation, 20 of which are from outside Indiana?
Certainly not Jim Bottorff, an original tournament founder and member of the Homeboys team, which played its twentieth straight year on Saturday.
“We never saw it growing into anything like this,” said Bottorff, who now resides in Oak Park, Ill. “We were just a group of guys getting together for some fun.
“I never would have thought we’d have teams coming in from as far as Los Angeles, Baltimore, Atlanta, or Eugene, Ore.”
He sees the chance to play with his neighborhood buddies as a path to eternal youth.
“It’s a Peter Pan weekend for us,” Bottorff said. “We get to be kids.”
And while that seems simple enough, he admitted also liking the idea of bringing diverse groups of people together.
As the Homeboys branched out professionally, moving from one city to another, wherever their careers would take them, they passed along word of their annual hometown event, bringing in new teams … and building an even richer tradition.
“It’s great to have people from all over,” Bottorff said. “Some people never leave St. Joseph County, so this is a great way for them to get to know people from far-away places.”
Like Barcelona, Spain, where Scott Ermeti, another tournament founder, relocated after living in several cities throughout the United States.
“I get teams together wherever I live,” said Ermeti, who in the course of the year treks home to Mishawaka for only two occasions: Christmas and the Wiffle ball tournament.
“And many of the teams keep coming out. Once they see what the tournament is about, they love it and want to come back year after year.”
The CHUDS, one of three L.A. teams to participate in the event, have a fervor and dedication that has driven them to fly in seven consecutive years.
For those wondering, CHUDS is a Southern California term defining the couch-surfing lifestyle after a few too many nights out.
Initially surprised by the size of the event, Bryan Lester, of Redondo Beach, Calif., said, “It’s big! When you pull up you don’t expect to see this many people here, that it’s purely a recreational thing — but this is serious.”
Mayor Robert C. Beutter knows just how serious the tournament is.
For the past 13 years he’s thrown the first pitch, and he once invited Indiana Lieutenant Governor Joseph Kernan, then mayor of South Bend, for some friendly competition.
“I challenged him on the tournament’s tenth anniversary,” Beutter recalled.
“And I beat him in a 3-2 cliff-hanger!
“This is just a real exciting event.”
Beutter said that while Indianapolis has its 500 and Louisville has the Kentucky Derby, he’s proud to say the World Whiffleball Championship is Mishawaka’s.
Unable to attend the event this year, Beutter sent a police escort for the opening ceremony, which featured second generation Wiffle baller Alexa, the 11-year-old daughter of founder Larry Grau, a Mishawaka native now living in Indianapolis.
And while he welcomes teams from around the country, Beutter said it is his hope that a Mishawaka team will keep the title at home.
Mishawaka’s Chowder Box proved to be likely contenders, finishing second last year — its first time in the tournament. And team members said they are confident they can go the distance again, despite heavy competition.
“We’re the second best team in the world, mind you,” said 21-year-old Dave Thomas, aware of the tourney’s significance.
“People don’t know what it’s like till they come out and watch.”
The top 16 teams will compete in a single elimination format, beginning today at 9 a.m. with the championship game scheduled for noon.