Matt Wilner is a budget analyst for the Internal Revenue Service, where he sits in a cubicle studying figures on a computer screen. After work, in cleats, knee-high white socks and a yellow jersey, he charges onto a pockmarked Adams Morgan field to commune with his past.
Fourth grade, to be precise.
His game is kickball, that rite of elementary school recess that's now luring legions of overworked attorneys and policy wonks and congressional aides when they have broken free of their cluttered desks.
"Boring IRS guy by day, kickball superstar by night," said Wilner, 24, of Cabin John, buzzing over pitching his Team Scoregasm to a recent victory, one so lopsided that their foes begged to quit early to mull it over at a nearby bar.
Travel the metropolitan region and there are the familiar signs of sporting life, the joggers running along the Potomac, the kids playing hoops off South Capitol Street, the Frisbee players tossing discs in Rock Creek Park. But among young professionals, the passion of the moment is kickball, a staple of pre-adolescence that has enraptured some 7,000 across the area, from Alexandria to Annapolis to Bethesda, and thousands more nationwide. "It came out of nowhere all of a sudden. It was a phenomenon, viral almost," said Terry Lee, a public information officer for the District's Department of Parks and Recreation.
The lure of kickball, a game played with an oversized red ball and modeled after baseball, is rooted in the chance to relive grade school, scuffed knees and all, as well as the same adult-as-child irony that has fueled interest in movies like "Dodgeball." There are teams with names like Running With Scissors and Last Kid Picked and The Well Hungarians.
But the greatest draw appears to be the chance to meet single men and women and drink beer, not only after the game but before. "We have the whole bar!" John Bett, 25, a Rosslyn software engineer exclaimed on a recent Thursday night at the Adams Mill bar in Adams Morgan.
In recent years, kickball leagues have popped up in cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia, but the World Adult Kickball Association -- hatched by four buddies from Northern Virginia over drinks in 1998 -- may be the most far-reaching. Their vision has spawned leagues in 15 states, with plans to start divisions in 10 more, everywhere from Los Angeles to New York, all of it connected by an Internet site where players post statistics and shop for paraphernalia (a kickball goes for $14.99, a score book for $9.99).
At the moment, the kickball capital is the Washington area, home to nearly half of the kickball association's 60 divisions, each of them made up of teams consisting mostly of players 25 to 35 years old. In the summer and fall, kickballers can be found on fields from Falls Church to Richmond to Gaithersburg. The teams that play Sundays at the Ellipse -- where Secret Service agents recently cleared the field while President Bush's helicopter landed at the White House -- are a regular conversation piece for passing tourists.
"Next thing you know, they'll have a National Tag Association," scoffed a man from Philadelphia, walking to the Washington Monument.
The players are accustomed to raised eyebrows, having experienced a bit of skepticism when mulling the prospect of paying as much as $68 to join. But they did. "It's not like there's no skill involved," said Steve Page, 28, of the Rookies.
In Page's case, the game has had certain tangible perks. With help from a teammate, he landed a job as a project analyst for a financial company. Jason Knight, 32, a Fairfax multimedia developer, met his fiancee, Jennifer Gruda, while playing kickball. Their fondness for the game inspired Knight to suggest that they begin their wedding ceremony by rolling a ball down the aisle.
Her response: "Uh, no."
Liz Roberto, 25, sees a larger purpose to kickball, one that she said contradicts a book she read as a graduate student, "Bowling Alone," by Harvard professor Robert Putnam. The author argued that the disappearance of bowling leagues is symptomatic of a culture that has grown less communal.
The book says "there are no social networks anywhere, but this proves that it still exists," said Roberto, who plays for the Rookies when she's not a research analyst for the U.S. Department of Transportation.
"We're building social capital," she shrugged before bursting into laughter. "Is that going to make me sound like a nerd?"
Reached at his office last week, Putnam acknowledged that maybe kickball is a sign of people forging ties, though he wasn't all that confident that it would ever match bowling in its national hold. "I don't want to sound like a grouch," the professor said. "I would cheer if kickball sweeps the country."
Socializing may be the goal of many players, but few can snuff an equally basic yearning to win. Arguments over rulings are so common that a referee recently wrote on a Web site: "Remember, you joined this league to have some fun."
The feuding, at times, gets a tad personal. Jack Burriesci, 29, a member of the Rookies and an analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, is known to opponents as "Little Napoleon," not only because he's smaller than most players but because he brings a certain Lombardi-like intolerance for defeat. Burriesci responds: "You don't think they want to win?"
League founders did not fully anticipate such intensity. "We wanted to meet more girls; we wanted to have more parties," said David Lowry, 36, who quit his job as a director of the American Society for Public Administration to become the league's executive director.
They have also found themselves atop an enterprise that they say now totals 15,000 members. Three of the founders have quit their day jobs -- one worked at America Online -- and they have hired seven employees. By the end of the decade, they hope to have signed up 250,000 players. "I want to see it become the new American pastime," Lowry said.
For now, the players' focus is more immediate but no less grandiose, as they battle in kickball's version of the playoffs, which lead up to next month's President's Cup.
"I got the fever," shouted Greg Seitz of the Gym Class Allstars and the owner of a technology company, as he ran out onto the Ellipse, looking, for the moment, far younger than his 37 years.