From a distance, it might look like just another softball game. It's a beautiful May evening. The sun is setting, creating long shadows on the fields, and there's a slight breeze. As people watch from nearby bleachers, a team of 20- and 30-somethings in yellow T-shirts fields the ball. On closer inspection, you can read the team's shirts: "Will kick for beer." Then you notice the ball: 10 inches of red rubber.
Call it regressive therapy. Since last summer, the ball fields at Tobey Park have hosted an adult kickball league on Wednesday evenings.
"It's like a third-grade reunion," says Patrick Halloran, co-founder of the league. "It's our flashback to childhood ... with adult beverages."
The rules are roughly the same as co-ed softball: Teams "at bat" have to alternate boy, girl, boy, girl, and there's no stealing base. "The only difference," says Halloran, "is that you can hit them with the ball. It can turn into a dodge-ball match."
Halloran and Justin Lachey founded the league last summer with four teams. They said they had played kickball as part of a charity event and enjoyed it. Lachey also had a friend who told him about a kickball league in Washington, D.C.
"We thought it would be fun to start a league," says Halloran. "I tell people we're playing kickball and they say, 'Kickball? Like what you did in third grade? That sounds kind of cool.'"
Now in its third season, the league has grown to eight teams, mostly by word-of-mouth. Friends of team members come out just to fill in and find themselves wanting to join a team. Even some softball players on nearby fields want to get in on the action.
For those who might not remember third grade very well, in kickball, the pitcher rolls a rubber ball toward the "batter." It's difficult to get a strike, let alone strike out, but that doesn't mean you can't embarrass yourself by kicking poorly. Like, say, by tripping over the ball. After you kick, you run to first base.
When asked the best way to "bat," Halloran says it depends if you're a guy or a girl. A guy, he says, should just kick it far, while a girl should kick it down. (A short, high kick is an easy out.) And if there's a dispute over a call, it's easily solved with a quick round of rock, paper, scissors. Says Halloran: "It's like one, two, three ... shit, I'm out."
When Lachey and Halloran began to talk about starting a league, teammate Bobby Smith thought they were nuts. Now, he says, Smith sees the game as a good way to hang out.
"Softball is too competitive. You have Mr. Softball who comes out in full cleats with his ball bag," says Smith. "We're just out to have a good time. There's competitiveness, but it's a fun competitiveness."
With four restaurant/bar teams and two teams from Morgan Keegan, there are some loose rivalries. The other two teams are a neighborhood team and one composed of people who work at FedEx. Last year, the Half Shell team took home first place. But rivalries aren't the point. In fact, players gladly fill in with other teams if they don't have the needed men or women.
There have been a few injuries, such as pulled hamstrings and quads and a couple of twisted ankles, "but no blood yet," says Halloran. "You've got to stretch. People kick the ball and then take off running as hard and as fast as they can, and they almost die." But more than one player begins their warm-ups by popping open an aluminum can.
Injuries notwithstanding, the kickball league seems more a social activity than an athletic one. In the stands, there's an easy camaraderie -- and several coolers. A few people discuss Cinco de Mayo plans and two players arrive in sombreros. An older homeless man who often watches the games has been dubbed "Blue," after a character in the movie Old School, in which a bunch of 30-somethings relive their youth by starting a frat.
Near the end of the game, a player arrives and asks where his team is scheduled to play. The answer is a field on the other side of the park. Halloran says it's either a long walk or a short drive. "You came out here for exercise anyway," says Lachey. But that's not entirely true.
"Most of the players go out afterward," says Halloran, "either to Central Barbecue, because they've got a team, or to the downtown [Blue] Monkey. It's mixed too. It's not like a certain team goes to a certain place."
Now if only they could bring back freeze tag, kick the can, ghosts in the graveyard, and four square.
Kickball playoffs are Wednesday, May 12th and May 19th, at Tobey Park. To inquire about forming a team, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.