Part III: 'Just' Wiffle Ball? Not a Chance
Sunday, July 19, 2009
On a gentle Sunday morning, with the sandstone castle towers of Fort Reno Park rising behind him, the most competitive player in the adult, co-ed, slow-pitch Potomac Wiffleball League tugs on a Camel Light and swears.
Tony Ragano loves statistics. But more than statistics he loves his strikeouts, which he gets in great abundance in Wiffle ball thanks to his two favorite pitches: a knuckleball that dances as if it has been unleashed in a hurricane and a slider he deems to be "unhittable."
And yet he doesn't just get strikeouts, he bleeds for his strikeouts, bellowing words that should never be uttered in a child's game when the little plastic ball fails to go where he wants or even worse, is actually hit by the yellow plastic bat.
For Ragano, there is honor in being the strikeout king of a slow-pitch Wiffle ball league, dignity in opening the league's Web site, PotomacWiffleball.org, and seeing his name in all of the charts of the statistical leaders. At 33, with more than a few traces of white hair, he looks like the oldest player in the league. And probably is. He sees nothing wrong in gently giving a "yer out" thumb to a player who does not yet realize that Ragano has struck him out. It's all a part of the battle.
"Yeah, I guess it sounds silly," he says. "But what can I say? I love to win, man."
He loves it so much that once this spring he forced himself from bed with one of the worst hangovers of his life, simply because it was Sunday. Wiffle-ball day.
Ragano does not miss Wiffle-ball days.
Weeks later, Ragano would come to look upon that morning with a pang of lament. Not for the binge that wrought his suffering but for the game that ensued: an extra-inning, scoreless duel against a group of college-age kids who call themselves the Blandsford Barnburners. A game decided on a curveball that never curved, a flat, lifeless pitch that a Barnburners player smacked over the temporary construction fence 85 feet away for a home run that still haunts Ragano. A game he will call "a straight-up war."
His girlfriend, Laura Cullip, who is sitting next to him as he says this, sighs and says, "Tony, it's Wiffle ball."
Then, as if in a plea for perspective, she repeats herself, exaggerating each syllable: "It's Wiiiiifffff-fffffllllle ball!"
Only to Ragano it is never just Wiffle ball.
"No," he replies somberly. "It was a war, man. It was a war."