Our Lives Through Sport

Video
The Washington Post's Les Carpenter explores the Potomac Wiffle Ball League, where drinking, smoking and cursing are all part of the friendly competition.
Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 20, 2009; 11:30 AM

Washington Post staff writer Les Carpenter will be online Monday, July 20 at 11:30 a.m. ET to discuss his latest entry to the Our Lives Through Sport series and the NFL offseason.

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Les Carpenter: Good morning. We're here to chat this morning about the third part of the Post's OurLlives Through Sports series, this installment being about the legendary Potomac Wiffleball League. But quite frankly I'll talk about anything. So lets go.

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Manassas, Va.: I'm interested in the other players of the league that don't cuss, smoke and drink at the games. Seems like those are the one's that should be highlighted. Not sure the Camel smoking picture is a role model I would want to highlight.

I think it's great you have a league to promote sportsmanship, good times, and good fitness.

Les Carpenter: Hi Manassas. Interesting I get this question from the hometown of the Potomac Wiffleball League's champion: the Blandsford Barnburners. But the Barnburners are a perfect team to talk about. It's a group of college-age kids who apparently grew up playing baseball and wiffle ball together and say they have been looking for a wiffle ball league since they were in second grade. Needless to say, they are the best team, top to bottom, in the league. Great hitters, good pitching, good defense. It's probably a testiment to Tony Ragano that he was able to push his team's games against the Barnburners into extra innings.

Another talented team in the league is Scared Hitless, though they seem to drink a lot during games. I'd be remiss if I also didn't mention the league's top hitter this year, Kris Garcia. the fact is, the whole league is fun to watch, you just can't believe something like this exists

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Washington, D.C.: Why is wiffle ball two words but baseball is one word?

Les Carpenter: one of the great mysteries of life.

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Clifton, Va.: Wiffle Ball. Bring Dan Steinberg and come out to a herding trial. Most difficult sport I have ever tried. More difficult then hitting a baseball, surfing, rock climbing, football, rugby, and racing a car in the rain on a road course.

Unlike most sports your dog and the sheep have a mind of their own and they can disagree with your proposed course of action. A baseball can't decide in mid-course to change from a fastball to a change up or all of sudden after being hit just drop to the ground.

Les Carpenter: sounds great. I'll be happy to drop by. Send me an email to carpenterl@washpost.com

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Ville of Rock, Md.: Rumor has it that you played some wiffle ball against Tony Ragano. How did you stack up? Any stats for the game? Great article!

washingtonpost.com: Our Lives Through Sport, Part III: 'Just' Wiffle Ball? Not a Chance (Washington Post, July 20)

Les Carpenter: Funny, I was waiting for this question. One weekend, while reporting this story, a team -- the Wackazoids -- was a player short and on the verge of forfeit. They asked nicely if I could help them out. I couldn't let them down. Turns out they were playing Tony's Clubber Lang team. It gave me a great vantage point to see the brilliance of Tony's slider and knuckle ball. The slider was so untouchable that I started looking for his fingertips on the ball as he wound up, hoping that I could maybe get a bat on the knuckler. I did managed two hits, going 2-for-5, driving in two runs which destroyed Tony's ERA, driving it from something like 0.30 too 0.58.

Needless to say, he wasn't happy about this development and blames me for the failure of the league commissioner to nominate him for the Cy Young award.

By the time the next game was supposed to start, another Wackazoid player showed up, giving them a full team and I quietly retired protecting my .400 batting average.

If I ever go into the PWL hall of fame I'm delighted to know I will be inducted as a Wackazoid.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Sorry Les, got to ask, since you do a lot of NFL stuff. What do you see as Michael Vick's future? I know his sentence ended today. Will the NFL give him an additional suspension, or will he be playing in a uniform somewhere this year?

washingtonpost.com: NFL News Feed: Vick Released; NFL Decision Looms (Washington Post, July 20)

Les Carpenter: Ah a football question. I'm not sure Vick will immediately be re-instated and even if he is I think most teams will stay away from him. No need to bring that big a distraction into camp. If an NFL team doesn't take a chance on him when he is let back into the game (presumably by the end of summer) then I figure he will play in the new UFL when it begins play in October. That will give him a chance to show what he can do. It will also put the pressure of public scorn on one of the UFL teams and make it easier for an NFL team to take a chance on him in 2010.

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Washington, D.C.: Don't you think there should be a strike zone or at least a maximum number of pitches you see before you're called out?

Les Carpenter: This is the great PWL debate: strike zone or no strike zone. My understanding is that the league in its first three years was designed to be more of a hitters league, pitches were slower and had more loft. With the addition of Tony Ragano, the Barnburners and some of the newer teams, the pitchers are throwing harder and straight ahead.

If this trend continues, Commissioner Gallaway of the PWL is going to have some tough decisions about where he takes his league. He can either be the Mountain Landis of his league and usher in a glorious decade or he can be a corporate tool of management like Bud Selig. It's really up to him. My guess is the PWL is going to have to have a strike zone and go to ball and strike counts.

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Washington, D.C.: Great story. But a league of 40 people seems a little small for almost two pages worth of column inches in the Washington Post. What was your motivation to write this story? And, since I guess you can't put on pads and play in an NFL game, did the fact that you played in this league change your perspective?

washingtonpost.com: Our Lives Through Sport Series (Washington Post)

Les Carpenter: Nah I've played plenty of wiffle ball in my life. My perspective was long established.

The intent of the series is to find athletes or sports that are somewhat obscure, that in most cases people wouldn't even know they exist and then pull from that sport a larger story that tells us about who we are. I know that sounds like a bit of a reach, but it's an interesting experiment and one I have enjoyed more than I thought I would. In this case I think the PWL was a perfect subject. It was obscure but loaded with great stories. Ultimately I picked Tony because I had been looking for an example of the competitiveness in this community.

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College Park, Md.: Is drinking allowed in Fort Reno Park?

Les Carpenter: I guess we'll find out now

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Fairfax, Va.: Sorry folks, but beyond the backyard barbecue, wiffle ball should not be played by anyone older than 10. The bat is hollow yellow plastic. Wiffle ball? Please. Get a life or a wooden bat.

Les Carpenter: personally I think there should be a professional league.

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Alexandria, Va.: Seems like the wiffle ballers are as hung up on stats as they are playing the game. Are most of the folks out there to boost their numbers, or just to have a good time?

Les Carpenter: Good question. I'd say about half the players are serious and half just want to have a good time. While all the players there seem to have some interest in ther numbers, some are more consumed than others. If I had a worry about this league going forward it seems there are more and more serious players who are walloping the less-serious teams. I wonder if this will push out some of those longtime players who have been coming from the beginning but aren't nearly as athletic (yes I am using that word with wiffle ball) as the newer group.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Hey Les,

Awesome article on the wiffle ball league. Are you hooked on the league? Do you think you will join?

Les Carpenter: I would love to play, but the summer/fall league runs into NFL season. Also I'm not sure I could justify telling my wife I'm leaving for three hours on a Sunday to play wiffle ball.

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Leesburg, Va.: In your opinion, would you say Ragano was the most talented player in the league, or were there others?

Les Carpenter: Tony was the most outwardly competitive. He is an outstanding pitcher and a tough out at the plate. But as I mentioned before the entire Barnburners team is outstanding, especially with the Shannon brothers and pitcher Jake Tomko. Scared Hitless is an excellent team with Nick Dicrosta and Matt Dreyfus. Kris Garcia is a fantastic left handed hitter with a natural home run swing.

man, I know way too much about this goofy league.

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Fort Reno, Washington, D.C.: Can you explain how you heard about and tracked down Tony Ragano? I'm fascinated in how these stories get proposed and eventually come about. Can you walk us through the whole process?

washingtonpost.com: Our Lives Through Sport, Part III: 'Just' Wiffle Ball? Not a Chance (Washington Post, July 19)

Les Carpenter: A few months ago, while looking for ideas for this series, I wondered if there might be a wiffle ball league in town given that wiffle ball. After all, who doesn't love wiffle ball. That's when I came across the PWL website, I emailed the commissioner who claims he never saw the email and despite the deafening silence to my inquiry I decided to stop by on Sunday. It took me at least 15 minutes of circling the park before I finally spotted the fields right across from Wilson HS.

From the moment I walked up I knew this was gold. There were two fields with games going on, lines painted on the field, home run fences, video cameras taping the games and Chris Gallaway scoring both games at the same time on portable computers. After that it was just a matter of picking the right subject on which to focus the story. Usually with this series I've spent two or three days just sitting around watching, my notebook closed, chatting with people, trying to let the perfect story jump out.

On that first day Tony didn't even play. He was umpiring (everyone in the league has to take a turn umpiring), this meant he sat in a chair, drank beer and on occaison yelled out a call. It wasn't until I came back the next weekend and watched his first extra-inning duel with the Barnburners (the one he called "an all out war") that I thought he was my story. He threw himself on the ground after popups, screamed and swore. He was the perfect character. The next week, I emailed him wondering if he'd like to talk. It turns out he was more than happy to talk. We met on a Saturday afternoon and talked for two hours in a parking lot behind Whole Foods in Tenleytown. After that I dropped in on two more Sundays to watch him play in hopes of getting a broader picture.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you see the wiffle ball league growing due to the exposure? Or is it more of a niche thing?

Les Carpenter: it's a niche I think.

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Boston: Quick shots:

Does Tony wear cleats while playing?

Who keeps track of stats (and is he/she married -- I'd be surprised)?

Would they use a lawn chair for a strike zone like we do?

Is there "pegging" allowed (hitting a runner with the ball to make an out)? I don't think I'd want to play against Tony with that rule ...

Les Carpenter: An "is Tony married?" question. Who knew the PWL had groupies. Tony has a girlfriend, Laura Cullip, she of the unforgettable "It's wifffffffle Ballllllll" quote.

Yes Tony wears cleats, as do a surprising number of players in the league. Pegging is allowed, though rarely employed. I don't think I saw a single attempt to peg a player in the four weeks I watched games. And if they do get a strike zone I don't expect Commissioner Gallaway to use something as cheap and dimestore as a lawn chair. He'll come up with a very professional solution. Of this I am sure.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: With several cameras now available at NBA games, should the NBA allow replays for reviewing calls or miscalls affecting the score? Perhaps allow teams 2-3 replay requests per game (similar to the NFL), review requested replays during timeouts (thereby not interfering with a game's flow), and award, subtract or let stand points accordingly if the replay is conclusive.

A relevant example is 9:24 of Quarter 1 in Game 2 of this year's Finals. Dwight Howard's goaltend of Gasol's reverse layup wasn't called. After a timeout, ABC replayed a slow motion close-up of Howard's hand extending up into the hoop, entangling with the net and interfering with the ball's path thereby ejecting it from the basket. That miscall cost the Lakers two points. A correct call or replay review could've avoided the resulting overtime.

One day after Game 2, the NBA reviewed Gasol's attempted block at the end of the fourth quarter and found the officials made the right call -- no goaltend.

Doesn't all this seem to show that NBA games will benefit with replay reviews.

Les Carpenter: I hate replay in all sports. While I may be one of the few voices in the wind on this subject, I think football replay is a huge time-waster and often doesnt' come up with the right call. Umpires and referees are there for a reason and they are right about 99 percent of the time. To burn up 10 minutes -- sometimes for something as ridiculous as ball placement -- is absurd. Let the officials make the calls. If they make a bad one every once in a while, then they make a bad call. Life goes on.

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Damascus, Md.: Why weren't you guys out to watch the real wiffle ball competition out in Damascus, Md.? Fast pitch ball on a real diamond. Cover our games next Sunday!

washingtonpost.com: Facebook | World Series of Wiffleball

Les Carpenter: sounds great. I'd love to hear about other wiffle ball leagues in the area.

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Smoking Athletes: Who were you more impressed with: Angel Cabrera or Tony Ragano?

Les Carpenter: Tony by far. He looks like he enjoys it more. When he fills his lungs with Camel Lights then throws his head back and lets out a plume of smoke, it's like watching St. Helens erupt all over again.

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Arlington, Va.: What kind of message do you think Tom Watson's heartbreaking loss in the British Open sends to those of us entering our golden years? You can try, but you really can't turn back the clock, no matter how much you want to?

Les Carpenter: I disagree. Watson led a major on a tough course into stiff wind for four days and then came oh so close to winning. It almost seemed as if he might have let the scope of what he was attempting to do get to him on those last couple shots. Putting yips are ageless. If anything this weekend should give all of those in their "golden years" (though I hardly think of 59 as a golden year) some hope. You don't have to turn back the clock, just reset it.

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Arlington, Va.: Do you find it ironic that an area that has struggled to sustain a decent interest in baseball seems to have birthed up such a manic interest in a mock version of the sport?

Les Carpenter: Well I think there are pockets all over the country where there is manic interest in wiffle ball.

And the PWL imitates MLB. The league's worst team is the Gnats (known as the G-Nats) with a 1-13 record.

Some things never change whether its baseball or wiffle ball.

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Washington, D.C.: Wiffle ball? Why wiffle ball? I mean, where did that fascination come from? Maybe because of the connections with baseball, which is a more established national pastime?

Les Carpenter: It's an easy game to play with only two people in a confined space. The game was invented by a salesman in the 1950s in Fairfield, Conn. who wanted his kids to be able to play baseball without breaking windows. Since one of the products he sold was perfume that came wrapped in a small plastic ball for protection, he took some of those balls, cut holes in them to make the ball curve and rise and drop, and gave them to his kids.

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Washington, D.C.: Obviously there have been pretty noticeable differences between the different subjects of the series so far. My question is, what similarities did you notice between the different "episodes" you've covered? In particular, the speedskater and wiffle ball players struck me as pretty disparate cases.

Was there any connection, aside from the overwhelming passion they all had?

Les Carpenter: Ths is a really good question. I don't think you are going to find great similarites, which in a way was kind of our hope in this. Yes they all have passion, but they are all at different stages in their lives, looking for different things.

The first story was about a longtime boxing timekeeper in the area as he looked back at the rise and fall of a sport that used to be one of the region's best. The second was about an eight-year-old boy who was already so good at speedskating that he is beating kids nearly twice his age. And, of course, wiffle ball which was about a man in his 30s who was more competitive than anyone else.

There really is no one connection between all three. I have used vague labels to describe each: history for the boxing timekeeper, opportunity for the speedskater and competitiveness for the wiffle ball player But I think readers might draw something different from each. Who we are is a vague concept that can not be wrapped up in a tidy package. The same goes for these stories. I hope readers pull their own conclusions from each.

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washingtonpost.com: Our Lives Through Sport Series (Washington Post)

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Interstate 270, Md.: It's nice to see the Post covering Wiffle ball and some women's sports.

By the way, 'Wiffle' is a trademarked term, so it's split off from the word 'ball.'

Les Carpenter: You are right. The salesman I mentioned in an earlier answer actually took a huge risk in quitting his job, taking out loans and opening a Wiffle Ball factory in Shelton, Conn. It's still there and still in the family.

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Stony Brook, N.Y.: How do you see the Jets doing in the AFC East? I firmly believe that the Pats run is finally over, the Dolphins were a fluke, and the Bills will be around .500. I believe the Jets defense can dominate this division. Do you agree?

Les Carpenter: Sorry I'm still not sold on a quarterback for the Jets this year. It's far too much to ask Mark Sanchez to walk in and lead this team to the playoffs. Yes, I know Joe Flacco did that in Baltimore and Matt Ryan had a great year in Atlanta but both those players had more experience in college. Sanchez was a one-year starter. Even Matt Cassel had three years of learning the NFL in New England. It's going to take him time. Maybe in a year or two for the Jets. I expect the Bills to be improved. I don't believe the Pats are done at all.

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Manassas, Va.: Is there a cutoff for number of people on a team? Do all people on the team get an at bat and time on the field?

I've played on Softball teams where only the "good" people get to play. This was even on a C level team! I would come to every practice and improve and never be put in a game unless we were blowing someone out! I hated it and haven't played Softball since!

Living in Manassas, I'm interested in that team. Also saving gas and carpooling sometime. Which team is from Manassas?

Les Carpenter: The Blandsford Barnburners are from Manassas.

There doesn't seem to be a cutoff on rosters but since only four can play at once most teams have four-six players.

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Burke, Va.: I am sure, Les, you ran across this article when researching Wiffle Ball. It is a great story about an enduring invention - 56 years ago - and the inventor.

washingtonpost.com: What's 50, Curvy and Full of Air? (New York Times)

Les Carpenter: Actually I must confess this is not my first feature-length wiffle ball story. I did one about 15 years ago at my first job in Bridgeport, Conn. I wrote the whole history of the family, the game and even went and knocked on the door of the house where the game was invented. The woman who lived there knew what wiffle ball was but had no idea how historic a home she had.

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Les Carpenter: Well I think I have answered just about every question I could about wiffle ball. I'm stunned there were so many. I enjoyed this chat and maybe we can do it again someday.

Thank you

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