I hated rainy days in elementary school. Inclement weather meant only one thing in third, fourth and fifth grades: It was time to go to the gym and play kickball, the most stupid and humiliating sport ever invented.
First, there was the dividing of the teams. Any person who has ever participated in this silly rite of passage knows that it is pointless beyond reaffirming who is good at sports and who is not. At my school, these wünderkids were easily identified by the Green Sweatshirt given to members of the local traveling classic soccer team. God, I hated those sweatshirts. (Or maybe I secretly wanted one. Is this why people form gangs?) I was usually a middle-of-the-pack kickballer, but just far enough on the bad side that the captains paused before their choices, whispering with their grandly engineered team about who was the least worst choice.
Once the game began, I was usually out in some far-reaching part of right field (or the gym's equivalent) and hoping not to have any ball come my way. You knew when one of the Green Sweatshirts was coming up because the outfield came alive with a buzzing of whispers, saying, "Back up! Back up! He's really good!" After we all had backed up somewhere into the next ZIP code, the Green Sweatshirt would blast the red kickball, sending it pinging around the gym like a pinball on speed.
So it is with trepidation that I arrive at Pullen Park in Raleigh for the opening night of games of the World Adult Kickball Association. Thankfully, there are no green sweatshirts in sight, only green T-shirts, worn by team Alligator Mailbox Part Deux, who are playing the Griswalds, dressed in black. Seeing as the first base referee is talking on her cell phone and the coach is sipping beer from a Nalgene, it looks like I am a world away from my elementary school torture.
Felipe Godinz of Durham, captain of team Red Headed Step Child, waits for the rest of his team to arrive for the next game. I have to know: Had he hated it in his youth, too?
"Most of us were probably rejects in school. We're just taking out our aggression now," he says, laughing. His teammate, Drew Watson of Raleigh, disagrees. "I was elected as a kickball representative for my school's big fourth versus fifth grade game," he says, followed by a contemplative pause. "I don't think I was chosen because I was popular, though ..."
WAKA (kickball.com) is the preeminent kickball organization and the governing body of kickball, but don't let the superlatives intimidate you. Established in 1998, it organizes teams all over the country, with a fall and spring league in Raleigh and a summer league in Durham. Anyone can create a team or join one for a fee of $63. The current local season fields 16 teams with 20 players each.
Jenn Coch of Raleigh first played kickball in Boston and then used WAKA to get hooked up with a team when she moved to the Triangle. She is now the captain of team Hold Me Closer, Tony Danza. She proudly introduces me to the team's mascot, her bull mastiff, Bella, as well as the team's "spiritual adviser," a poster board print of a 1970s teen magazine featuring Mr. Danza squatting in boxing shorts against a set of lockers. Does Coch have any sort of practice regimen or training schedule for her team? "Oh, no!" she says. "Except maybe parties." The Ale House sponsors the local league and provides discounts after games, plus pre-, mid- and post-season celebrations.
This social camaraderie seems to be the main pull for many players. Though there are rules, such as each team must have four women in the outfield at all times, the atmosphere is relaxed and silly. Team 2 Legit to Kick is celebrating a birthday and the game is no reason to stop, as they brought cupcakes, streamers, party hats and a Dora the Explorer piñata. Team Captain Missy Wheeler of Durham is playing in her third season and sweetly affirms that "This is such a fun league" before blowing out my eardrum with a scream of "GO MONICA!" as her runner rounds first. Her competitive nature isn't for nothing: Teams play 10 games with a playoff at the end, and the winner gets a spot in the Founders Cup World Kickball Championship in Las Vegas. But losing teams still have team spirit to spare, as many collect such sundry items as punch bowls, traffic cones and gold spray paint to make their own Stanley Cup-inspired team trophy.
Since we're in the midst of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, I had to ask if kickball should be added to the 2012 schedule. "It should be!" is the answer of more than one player. Perhaps one day I'll field my own Dream Team. Green Sweatshirts and Rejects all welcome.