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Welcome to the World of Competitive Wiffle Ball

Across the country, as the three true outcomes alter baseball’s spectator appeal, adults have picked up their yellow bats and adopted the traditional children’s game as a competitive sport. We traveled to the World Wiffle Ball Championship to explore the growing phenomenon.

Ringer illustration

Even at 7 in the morning, Memorial Park is hot. Really hot. By noon, the Weather app will put the heat index at 108 degrees; already, with the overnight dew still glittering in the outfield grass, some teams arriving early to the 40th annual World Wiffle Ball Championship are removing layers of clothing to shag fly balls shirtless, or gulping from buckets of water after completing a warm-up jog, or strategically positioning tents along the painted foul lines to ward off the rising sun.

But the main weather question has less to do with the heat than the wind, which Wiffle enthusiasts are quick to highlight as the key tactical concern when approaching a competitive game. “Is it blowing out?” one pitcher asks a teammate who has just returned from checking field conditions. “My ERA’s going to go up.”

Welcome to the world of competitive Wiffle ball, specifically the annual tournament now held in the Chicago suburb of Midlothian, Illinois, in late July, believed to be the oldest in the country but now just one of hundreds that dot the summer calendar nationwide. Long a sport that lived primarily in kids’ backyards, Wiffle ball over the past decade has boomed for adults, too: as a nostalgic reminder of youth, as a conduit for intense competition, and as a spectator sport all in one.

“It’s something for us to be competitive, but also have fun at the same time,” says Jay Ryans, pitcher for the Cult West Warriors, who entered this year’s tournament as the three-time defending champions. “It brings back the kid in you.”

Contrasted with its parent sport of baseball, which some spectators believe is suffering from the three true outcomes’ takeover, slow pitch Wiffle ball also brings constant action and excitement. And as other less traditional sports find new players and audiences—ultimate frisbee, bowling, an upcoming tag TV show—Wiffle ball is capturing that alternative energy, too. Over the course of the weekend tournament in Midlothian, these Wifflers will explain the past, present, and future of the sport’s appeal—and why it has spread, been legitimized, and even displaced more traditional sports as the game of choice throughout the summer.

Photos by Zach Kram

The World Wiffle Ball Championship was born in 1980 in Mishawaka, Indiana, a suburb of South Bend, where a 19-year-old summer park director named Jim Bottorff was searching for ways to occupy a group of restless campers. They didn’t take to baseball or volleyball or any of the other activities, so as a last resort, Bottorff says, he brought Wiffle balls and a bat one day. The kids loved it and played the whole summer, and then he invited other groups from around the city to an eight-team tournament.

The WWBC grew organically from there, to 10 teams, then 14, then 24 by the end of the decade. Wiffle ball was a household institution by that point, the thin yellow bat and perforated sphere a staple in yards and playgrounds across the country.

The ball’s invention had come decades earlier, in Connecticut in the summer of 1953, when an out-of-work former industrial league pitcher named David Mullany learned that his adolescent son and his friends had developed sore arms from trying to throw high-effort curveballs in the backyard. Mullany’s grandson—also named David—now serves as the president of Wiffle Ball Inc., and he recounts of his grandfather, “Having been a semi-pro pitcher, he knew that that wasn’t the greatest plan of attack for these guys to be that young and snapping off curveballs. He said, ‘Well, maybe we can make a ball that will curve without a lot of effort.’”

Borrowing materials from a friend who made packaging for Coty perfume, the Wiffle ball patriarch set to work. “They tried all different combinations of cutting holes, adding weight,” the younger Mullany says. “It was all really trial and error. But when they stumbled upon the design that we use today with the eight oblong holes on one half, that worked the best. They could throw curveballs and sliders and sinkers and knuckleballs that were fantastic without really very much physical effort.”

The Mullanys made the ball the family business, and stores and consumers didn’t need much convincing to devour the new toy. Throughout the company’s history, it has recorded just one television advertisement: an early 1960s spot starring Yankees ace Whitey Ford showing a group of kids how to use a Wiffle ball to throw pitches “just like a major leaguer.” “Watch Jimmy curve the ball!” the voice-over intones after Ford has shared the secret. “Johnny’s learned, too!”

Fast-forward a few decades, and enterprising Wiffle enthusiasts like Bottorff began to organize the backyard game. “It was just as popular then,” he says, “but it had never been organized, so when people found out about it, that’s why this tournament grew over the years.” Other tournaments appeared soon after; in 1988, The New York Times claimed in a headline, “Wiffle Ball is Getting Serious.” By 2013, Bottorff had divested of his tournament, but when logistical troubles meant the Mishawaka tradition might be canceled, he returned and moved the tournament to Skokie, Illinois, a Chicago suburb where he serves as marketing manager for the park district. There the WWBC remained for five years before moving again, to Memorial Park in Midlothian, because the tournament outgrew its Skokie venue and needed more room to satisfy all the interested teams.

While Bottorff again handed off the reins after the 2017 edition, the tournament’s new commissioners attribute the growth to increased visibility, courtesy mainly of social media. “The people that played in our tournament in the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, a lot of that was local teams,” says Nate Hansen, an insurance broker who spends his off-hours planning the WWBC, which he’s played in since the age of 10. “And then once the internet started and got bigger and bigger, we started seeing more teams coming from different areas.”

The majority of WWBC teams come from Illinois or Indiana, but 12 total states are represented in the 2019 tournament field, and all bring enthusiastic participants to Memorial Park. The Duncan brothers from Sioux City, Iowa, for instance, have made the trip every summer for a half-decade after seeing the WWBC featured on a quick SportsCenter clip.

Some teams travel even farther. Andrew Sarkisian, brother of football coach Steve and donning a University of Alabama ball cap accordingly, flies all the way from Long Beach, California, to participate. Sarkisian first learned about the tournament in 1994, from a friend of a friend who played in the early days in Mishawaka, and decided to make an annual pilgrimage to the Midwest to play. So many Long Beach friends were interested in joining him that they had to split into three teams.

Some out-of-state teams represent a Mishawaka diaspora of sorts; the captain of the Alpha Team from St. Louis used to live in the northern Indiana town, while the Ohio Knuckleheads, a team of friends in their early 20s, know about the tournament because one of the team moms grew up there.

Whatever their home base or particular Wiffle origin story, in 2019, they all arrive in Midlothian, early on a Saturday morning, ready to pick up a bat and play ball.

The first observation as teams trickle into Memorial Park for the first of the tournament’s two days isn’t the weather, but the variety of teams and players that comprise the WWBC field. The 300 or so players who make up the tournament field range in age from 7 to 60. They range in musical taste: The boombox that one team carries around plays Chuck Berry and Queen; another’s plays 2Pac and Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise.” They range in team support, with some bringing large tents full of fans and others with sidelines as barren as the upper deck at Marlins Park. They range in baseball experience and preparatory intensity before games begin. Some teams hit towering home runs in batting practice; one team sits in the shade near the concession stand and shares a pre-tourney vape.

The clothing, to demonstrate this assortment, ranges from professional-grade to casual to downright silly. Some teams come prepared with customized baseball jerseys, the team name emblazoned in capital letters across the chest. Others dress simply, with unadorned single-color T-shirts, or reflect the Chicago locale with innumerable Cubs logos and one exclamatory “Fire GarPax” tee. One team wears matching pastel polos with the sleeves cut off to show muscles. “The goal was to look dumb” one of those players says after receiving a compliment on the choice of attire, “but it’s actually going well.”

Sixty teams have entered this year’s WWBC and split into 12 groups of five teams apiece, where they will spend Saturday in round-robin play to determine which teams advance to Sunday’s single-elimination bracket. Every Wiffle ball tournament has its own house rules, and the WWBC’s do their best to encourage a fast-paced, action-packed game. In six-inning games, teams roster four fielders, with an optional fifth player joining them in the lineup as a designated hitter. Fields are triangular, the fence measuring 100 feet down each line and 86 feet to center, the bases sitting just 40 feet apart to reward speed and daring. There are no called strikes and no balls; strikeouts are rare because they require a swinging strike three, and walks nonexistent. Pegging baserunners with a live ball to record an out is allowed, but stealing bases is not—except for thefts of home, which can swing a game’s momentum if a catcher gets caught unaware.

As play begins under the sizzling Saturday sun, Memorial Park—where five softball fields have been subdivided into the smaller Wiffle ball triangles—plays host to a sort of controlled chaos that defines this crowded tournament. In all directions, the sights and sounds of the backyard sport combine into a whir of activity. A shirtless, well-muscled player slugs a home run over one field’s fence, while a few dozen feet away a younger player in a Gleyber Torres shirsey dives to snag a foul pop-up, while a few dozen feet in the other direction a speedy runner plays small ball by scoring from second base on a sacrifice fly.

Bright yellow bats cleave the air; runs score; teams cycle through their round-robin schedule as the day progresses. The variation in team approach to the tournament persists. After one afternoon session finishes, a losing player leaves the field carrying a bat, a ball, and two crumpled beer cans he’s emptied during the game. Several fields over, the Alpha Team employs a scorekeeper who uses an actual baseball scorebook to take diligent, sober notes on the game’s play-by-play.

What has compelled so many people, and so many kinds of people, to formalize a casual backyard pastime? One oft-mentioned reason is the sport’s low cost and ease of entry; the WWBC requires no extra equipment—no cleats, no gloves, no three-figure Louisville Slugger–model bats—behind the classically inexpensive bat and ball. “There are barriers of entry to baseball that don’t exist for Wiffle ball,” says co-commissioner Mike Baniak, who along with Hansen has played in the WWBC since he was a kid and won four titles from 2004 to 2012. “You can just go to CVS on the way here and buy a bat.”

Players at the tournament offer a variety of explanations for what draws them to the sport. Scott Soos of the Cult West Warriors, whom multiple WWBC participants call the tournament’s best player because of his well-rounded game—he looks, at points, like Mike Trout crossed with Andrelton Simmons—says the smaller fields help reduce the sport’s “wear and tear,” and a diminution of injury risk is important for athletes who also have to care for children. Whitt Huffer, who says he “fell in love instantly” when he debuted at the WWBC in the mid-aughts, compares the sport favorably to softball because the smaller roster sizes mean much more frequent participation; instead of waiting an hour between at-bats and potentially going an entire game without encountering a play in the field, Wiffle ball provides its players with regular action. Still more attendees cite the consistent speed of games, the surprisingly intricate strategies (more on those later), and the family friendliness as reasons to pursue Wiffle ball in lieu of more traditional organized sports.

While shirtlessness, beers, and the occasional vape might not convey that sort of image, attendees of all ages swear by the tournament’s family appeal, which even in a competitive atmosphere reflects the sport’s child-sized beginnings. Like many teams at the tournament, the Cleveland-based Knuckleheads call their participation a “family thing.” Robert Trhlin, the team’s leading home run hitter, says that they started playing years ago with their fathers, “and now it’s our turn to come up and play” while the dads are relegated to coach status.

The Knuckleheads took some years off for college, but now they’re back and looking to improve on their mediocre tournament results as teenagers. Each player took at least 30 minutes of batting practice every night for the past week, Trhlin says after a win in pool play, so the team feels prepared and is “hoping [to finish] at least top 10”—at which point one of the team’s dads, walking by, comments, “He’s BSing. We didn’t travel six hours to take 10th.”

Other teams don’t expect to advance that far—at least not yet, early in their Wiffle ball careers. The commissioners say it’s common for new teams to be slow to adapt to the WWBC’s particular rules and strategies, but the learning curve is steady, and satisfying enough that teams typically want to continue. “When we started, we were terrible,” Baniak says. “And then we gradually got better and won a couple times. But I think I can sympathize with the progression of young kids that come in, kind of take their lumps, but still have fun doing it.”

One advantage to this tournament setup is that it allows kids to compete, and while several of the younger participants play on teams with their parents—that’s how many of the best players got their WWBC starts—some teams are comprised entirely of young’uns. One such roster features not just diversity of age, but gender as well—an unusual quality for a tournament that registers as overwhelmingly male. Not the Click Clack Patty Whack crew, though, for whom Diana and Faith McGrath, 16- and 14-year-old softball-playing sisters, are competing for the second time.

Like other new and young players, the McGraths struggled in their debut WWBC appearance. “We’re not super competitive,” Faith concedes. “Last year, we didn’t get many hits.” In their first two games of the 2019 tournament, those challenges continue with a pair of shutouts. But they win their third game of the day and enter the final pool play game with the chance to advance, if only they can swing a second consecutive win.

The thought cheers Diana, who notes that her mostly older male opponents are friendly but can sometimes underestimate the girls. “And then,” she adds, adopting a celebratory pose, “I like to hit a line drive and be like, ‘Yeah!’” In their final game, the sisters trail 6-3 entering the bottom of the sixth inning, before Diana smashes a homer to left and Faith doubles off the top of the wall to bring home another run. The rally fizzles and they fall one run short of tying the score, but the young team isn’t dissuaded. They walk by the scorer’s table to say their farewells before departing for the day. “See you next year,” chirps Faith.

One other factor helps the WWBC in particular attract a diverse crowd: The tournament features slow pitch Wiffle ball, as contrasted with the medium or fast pitch varieties that have also gained popularity over the past 10 or 20 years. Although hard, national data is not readily available—attempts to form an overarching governing body for adult Wiffle leagues have sputtered—it seems clear from the proliferation of online excitement alone that participation in the sport has grown. And for the most hard-core Wifflers, fast pitch carries obvious appeal. Rob Longiaru, co-commissioner and New York regional director of the Golden Stick Wiffle League, says many of his league’s competitors played high-level baseball growing up, so they enjoyed a natural transition to this extreme version of Wiffle ball.

Most recent stories and videos about the sport’s growth concern the fast pitch variety, too, and it’s not difficult to understand why. “Fast pitch wiffle ball is a lot more GIFable,” Baniak says. “You could go to YouTube and see videos of these crazy Wiffle ball pitches, and that’s cool. It’s not nearly as exciting to see somebody field a grounder.” Videos with titles like “Crazy WiffleBall Pitcher!!” and “SICK Wiffleball Pitches (Original)” have view counts in the millions, and there is something surreally impressive about watching pitches that dance and bend and glide like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat.

But the very quality that increases fast pitch’s online awe also might prevent it from gaining more traction among the Wiffle ball–playing populace. Fast pitch offers an incredible challenge for hitters, and thus a distorted overall game. MLB pitchers can generate a maximum horizontal break of about a foot on any given pitch; a 2009 Sport Science clip found that a Wiffle ball can break four feet, and some Wifflers surveyed for this piece estimate that a proper scuff of the ball can bump the break up to five feet.

Imagine trying to hit a pitch that swerves nearly the length of José Altuve as it approaches the plate, and then consider the velocity at which it arrives. In the Palisades Wiffle Ball League, a prominent fast pitch organization in New York, the top hurlers can reach the high 90s in miles per hour from mounds located just 45 feet away from the plate, which gives the equivalent reaction time to hitters as a 130 mph fastball would from an MLB mound.

A game of fast pitch Wiffle ball can therefore look like a manifestation of the most hysterically hyperbolic concerns about baseball in the high-strikeout era. A 2018 New Yorker piece on the Palisades league noted one player’s career 0.63 ERA and the fact that half the league’s players hit worse than .150. According to the league’s website, the 2018 Cy Young winner—who told The New Yorker he’d been clocked at 98 mph—posted a 0.19 ERA and struck out 12.17 batters per five innings, the equivalent of a 22-strikeout average over nine innings.

“Fast pitch can be a bore,” admits Longiaru, and “the learning curve is years before you can really handle it.” Golden Stick is a premier provider of high-intensity Wiffle ball, but now, he says, “yard league is king”—referring to the organization’s medium-speed leagues, which have a pitching speed limit of 50 mph enforced by honor code.

In fast pitch, Longiaru says, “If you’re not a pitcher or you’re not a really good bat, you really don’t have much value.” Slow down the speeds from fast to medium, or then again from medium to slow, and more potential athletes can participate and enjoy their time on the field.

For Hansen and Baniak, the slow pitch nature is a central component of the WWBC’s appeal. Hansen says he recently saw a highlight package from a fast pitch league “where they were talking about a six-inning game where someone struck out 17 guys. And it’s like, OK, that’s kind of cool, but I couldn’t imagine playing in that game or watching that game because it’s just walks or strikeouts. It’s kind of like the argument you sometimes hear on sports radio about baseball where you see things being either a home run, a walk, or a strikeout. We’ve tried to eliminate two of those so there’s a lot more action.”

Adds Baniak, with a laugh: “Three true outcomes players are not really common in slow pitch Wiffle ball.”

Walks are indeed absent and strikeouts rare, but home runs—perhaps the most exciting of the trio of true outcomes—are still a large part of the sport, especially when the wind blows out from home plate toward the outfield fence. The Onion yarn “Slight Breeze A Major Factor In Wiffle Ball Game” is actually true: With the wind blowing in, potential home run balls look like they hit a brick wall before hovering in the air for an easy outfield catch, so small ball is imperative; with the wind blowing out—well, Hansen summarizes strategy with a rhyme: “Hit it high, let it fly.”

At the WWBC, this dichotomy is evident early on with the play of the Alpha Team, a group of WWBC veterans that has appeared at every tournament since 2001. On a wind-in field, the Alphas win their first game 1-0; with the wind blowing out in their second game, they crush three homers in their first five at-bats and end up scoring 15 times to bring the tournament’s mercy rule into effect.

“You live and die by the wind,” says Leslie Montgomery, Alpha’s scorekeeper and the mother of two of the team’s members. As she diagrams columns of neat, filled-in diamonds in her scorebook, another tangible example of the wind’s power appears: The gusts on some fields, in true fulfillment of Chicago’s “Windy City” moniker, swirl so strong that team tents buckle, and one blows over and somersaults through the infield to interrupt a game.

In both wind-in and wind-out games, more importantly, the structure of slow pitch Wiffle ball allows defense to take center stage, rewarding both constant sure-handedness—the lack of strikeouts means almost every out involves some fielding effort—and frequent displays of spectacular athleticism. Consider the home run robbery, which Ben Lindbergh called “baseball’s most breathtaking play” in a piece for The Ringer earlier this year, and which occurs about every 30-60 games in MLB, depending on the year. In the WWBC, robberies at the 4-foot fences come at least once per game, and often once per inning.

“We actually have great athletes out here playing, and it’s almost not recognizable the way it’s played now,” tournament founder Bottorff says, comparing the modern WWBC to its ancestor. “We have all kinds of guys that can go over the fence and rob home runs.”

In the first elimination round on Sunday, as the quality of competition escalates, examples appear in quick succession. On one field, Trhlin, the ambitious Ohio athlete, jumps straight up at the fence to pull back a longball, catching the would-be dinger at the height of his leap. Not five minutes later on the field immediately to the right, one outfielder vaults over the fence to tap the ball back into play—and right into the hands of his teammate, who snares it to complete the combined robbery.

It’s not just home run thefts; defense dominates the tournament from first pitch to last. The WWBC employs a “pitcher’s hand” rule, meaning that the pitcher serves as the de facto first baseman, needing to secure the ball before the batter-runner reaches first base for a force-out. This rule produces a sort of choreographed dance on most batted balls: With a grounder to the left side, for instance, the left fielder will charge in and scoop the roller up and back in toward the onrushing pitcher, who’s pivoted from his pitching motion to sprint toward his fellow fielder and complete the transfer. And because the fields are so small, all this motion must occur in a blur, only amplifying the poetry of a play well made.

Baserunning is also important here, unlike in some leagues that use ghost runners and lines or other markers to determine a batted ball’s result (i.e., hit it past the infield and it’s a single, reach the wall and it’s a double, etc.). And thus the two most kinetic elements of a bat-and-ball sport, the ones that send its athletes scurrying around the grass, are not just preserved but emphasized by the rules.

The WWBC attempts to maintain a sort of aesthetic purity with its equipment, too, as one of the fiercest debates in the world of Wiffle ball concerns the sport’s products itself—the very bat and ball that define the game for a casual participant. In fast pitch leagues, pitchers typically supply their own balls and use a variety of tools—X-Acto knives, cheese graters, and so on—to alter the specifications of a standard Wiffle ball to their own design. It’s as if Burleigh Grimes were not only permitted to throw a spitball, but encouraged to experiment with the substances he applied before pitching.

The classic yellow bat is also a matter of disagreement; as the Wiffle ball market has grown, so have alternate products made from more powerful materials and advertising increased ability to hit home runs. One ranking system gives the yellow one just 17 points out of a possible 30, across categories for pop, distance, and grip, making it one of the worst bats for sale. But that hindrance doesn’t stop folks at the WWBC. When asked about the debate, most players at the tournament say they’ve never even tried using a fancier bat; they all agree that they wouldn’t want to compete with anything else. “It’s not Wiffle ball if the bat is not that color,” one remarks. (Wiffle Ball Inc. agrees, having trademarked bats featuring that particular shade of yellow.) Here, the only allowed alteration to the ubiquitous yellow stick is one layer of tape on the handle for grip—typically plain electric tape for the less competitive teams and a colorful, patterned product called Lizard Skins for the pros.

For its part, Wiffle Ball Inc. is happy that people use its products, period, and not overly concerned with how. Although the company’s site lists “Suggested Rules” for the sport, Mullany emphasizes that those are really just suggestions, not dictates. “For me personally,” he says, “I never really saw the point in trying to throw 95 miles an hour with a plastic ball. The ball was not really designed for that, but it’s kind of developed into that over time amongst certain people, and that’s fine. Slow pitch is fine, medium, whatever. You want to play like a baseball style? Go for it. … A little bit of improvisation and playing a game that suits your needs is perfectly fine.”

If any societal taboo against adults competing in a kids’ game once existed, it has since dissipated, or at least disappears after just one day at the park. Anna Baniak, the co-commissioner’s wife, recalls, “When Mike told me he played in a Wiffle ball tournament, I said, ‘You’re such a dork.’” Now, though, she is just as invested in the tournament’s logistics, and says she looks forward to a weekend at the ballfield every year.

Longiaru says that the next step for the sport, if it is to continue to expand over the next decade as much as it did the last, is to use recreational events to draw in curious Wifflers, and then “you’re going to find the guys or girls within that that are like, ‘Hey, this was really fun, but is there something more competitive?’ … And that’s where you find the people for your league.” That kind of dynamic—casual attraction leading to greater intensity—appears not just on a macro level, but at the WWBC itself, too, as Saturday turns to Sunday and the tournament field dwindles to the very best teams.

The WWBC Wifflers aren’t playing for money—the winning team’s prize is a custom-made trophy with eight bats surrounding a ball—but the elimination rounds are no less intense for that fact. A home run in a tie game yields raucous whoops; when the Ohio team loses, falling one run short in an extra-innings thriller, one player tries to break his bat over his leg in frustration. (Because it’s made of plastic, the bat doesn’t snap, but rather ricochets and spins off his leg to fly through the air.)

At the WWBC, many of the top teams’ players say they are exclusively Wifflers now; they don’t play softball or rec basketball or any other sport that one might expect from an athletic crop of 20-somethings. Instead, they seek out as many tournaments and weekly leagues as they can, which in turn allows them to hone their skills and become even more competitive. The WWBC draws from a dozen states this year, but every champion since 2001 has called northern Indiana home, and all eight quarterfinalists in 2019 hail from the South Bend–Mishawaka area. The tournament might attract teams from other places, but they can’t yet compete with the Indiana powers.

“Northern Indiana seems like the hotbed,” says Soos from the Warriors, adding that leagues and tournaments “are just popping up everywhere.” A sort of ripple effect plays a role here: One ambitious player enjoys the WWBC and decides that one weekend of Wiffle ball each year isn’t enough, so they create a new tournament. And then a player at that new tournament feels the same way, and yet another is born, and so on.

All this growth means a deeper and more competitive tournament field this year—the best ever, according to a survey of attendees. “There are just so many more teams and so much better talent,” says Mike Schuster, a Mishawaka native who won the WWBC as a player in 1985 and now attends to watch his sons, who have reached eight finals since 2007, winning four. “I mean, I played it informally, but kids now are playing this game more organized, and they’ve always known this game.”

This year, in an unfortunate illustration of that dynamic, the perennially contending Schusters’ team falls in the round of 16; the commissioners fare even worse, losing in the round of 32 to open play on Sunday. (At least they saw an earlier exit than usual coming. Baniak joked before the tournament began, “I think our team is like the Giants of the Wiffle ball tournament. We’ve had our moment but we’re aging out, and I think we’re going to be sold for parts pretty soon.”)

Still, even a bracket more congested with talent cannot slow the Warriors, who advance to the final round to face the Maple City Magic, a team made up of Wiffle veterans who—like the Warriors, and other quarterfinalists—have played most weekends throughout the summer. Both remaining teams are experienced and cool under pressure: In the quarterfinal round, the Magic face a deficit heading into the last inning, then score five runs in five swings to advance.

But in the championship game, neither team can open a gap in the score; they’re both so sturdy on defense, so in-tune with the fielder-to-pitcher flip, that the entire game features just one hit that isn’t a home run. Through six innings, the teams are tied 2-2, having bashed two solo homers apiece into the swirling wind. Organizers note that this is the first championship game in the tournament’s 40 years to reach extra innings.

To speed along defensive duels, extra innings in the WWBC start with a runner on third and two outs. No runs score in the seventh inning, but in the eighth, Warriors batter Danny Hernandez crushes a two-strike pitch to dead center, so far beyond the fence that the Magic cannot even attempt a game-saving robbery.

The Warriors roar, having secured their fourth consecutive title, and reward Hernandez by dousing him with an ice bath as he stands for an interview about his moment of triumph. “All tournament, I was not feeling good, wasn’t hitting the ball well,” he says. “I even told these guys, I said, ‘One of these games I’m going to come up clutch, something’s got to give.’ And he threw me that perfect pitch, and I swung as hard as I could.”

The moment contains all the usual markers of a full-fledged sport: unmitigated joy from the victors and crushing silence from those in defeat; an on-field trophy presentation; an anodyne postgame quote interrupted by a shower for the hero. “You’re playing Wiffle ball, it’s a kids’ game,” Hansen had explained of his commissioning philosophy before the tournament. “No matter if you’re 15, 25, 35, 45, everybody we hope is out there for the same reason, to enjoy themselves.” And as the Warriors run around this tiny field in celebration, Hernandez clutching a trophy after what he calls the greatest hit of his career, it’s not hard to see that twinkle in the sport, and to think of how many other players that feeling might soon reach if they feel the pull of nostalgia and re-grip the yellow bat of their childhood, and step into the sun to swing into the wind.

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