As a kid growing up on Long Island, one of my favorite summertime diversions was playing Wiffle Ball at Scalaghenny Stadium, in my back yard, where I’d be joined by Roger Smith, Ricky Volpe, Danny Knutsen and whoever else came by to take a crack at launching one over the Brick Monster in left field or making that plastic ball with the oval holes do mysteriously amazing things when you threw it.
This hearty band of 10-to-12-year-olds kept statistics, drank Kool-Aid, wore out spots on my father’s lawn — the batter’s boxes and pitching mound — and imagined that we’d someday be following in the footsteps of Tom Seaver, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Mays and Pete Rose on our way to the Major Leagues.
Never, though, did I imagine that I’d someday be playing for the No. 1 Wiffle Ball team in the United States.
Yet here I am, 40-some years later, a member of Breaking Balls, regular-season champions of the eight-team, two-division, co-ed Huntington Wiffle League and the best darn team in the land.
This is no idle boast. I’m still unclear about how the rankings are derived, but the National Wiffle League Association has determined that Breaking Balls, after going 20-0 and outscoring our opponents 89-5, is indeed No. 1 in the nation.
I’m but a bit player on this juggernaut, playing infrequently when I can get a Tuesday night off the Gazette sports desk. Not much was expected of the oldest player in the league (57) with a bad right knee and a worse left ankle, but I’ve done all right when I’ve made it to St. Cloud Commons in Huntington.
Breaking Balls’ swift climb to the top of the national rankings can be attributed mostly to some ball players you might remember from Nitro High School a dozen or so years ago — Drew McClanahan, Matt Gordon and Rob Stewart.
These three 29-year-olds — now a high school vice principal, a banker and an accountant — are, arguably, the HWL’s three best players.
There can be no sensible argument that Nitro Vice Principal McClanahan is not the league’s MVP. “Bub,” who pitched four years at Concord, is the mound scourge of the HWL, with the numbers to prove it: 15 shutouts, seven no-hitters, three perfect games, an 18-0 record, a 0.26 ERA with 149 strikeouts in 96 innings pitched. With a .452 batting average, McClanahan’s also one of the league’s top hitters.
During our season opener, the Wiffle Ballers’ Steven Atkins — who, it turns out, finished second in the league with 132 strikeouts — proclaimed, “Good luck, rest of the league” into the camera recording the action. (Yes, every HWL game is captured on video and may be viewed on YouTube.) It wasn’t until the 12th game of the season that McClanahan allowed a single run (a tip of the New York Football Giants cap to Mike McCoy, who took Bub deep for the “1” in our 21-1 win over the Green Bears).
Banker Gordon, a second-team all-state infielder during his playing days at Nitro, is the league’s best hitter. Gordo barely missed out on copping the HWL’s triple crown, topping the charts with 12 home runs, 30 RBIs and finishing second only Wee Willie Wiffle’s Jacob Dunkle in batting average (.489 to Gordon’s .467).
CPA Stewart led the league with 22 runs scored while hitting a robust .412, including a memorable three-home run, 10-RBI game in that 21-1 win over the Green Bears.
The rest of the team is made up of the Three Gazeteers — yours truly (.353), Ryan Pritt (.318, seven homers and his most important contribution — recruiting Nitro High School chums McClanahan, Gordon and Stewart) and my sports desk partner, Jeff Rider (the league’s leader with 25 walks … and a batting average he’d rather I not mention).
The HWL playoffs start at 6 p.m. Tuesday at St. Cloud, with Breaking Balls the obvious favorite, but we’re taking nothing for granted. Despite the unbeaten streak and the lopsided run differential, Breaking Balls was seriously tested during the regular season.
There was the Week 2 struggle with Honey Badgers that lasted eight innings (regulation games are but five frames) and ended with a walk-off homer by Gordo; McClanahan ended another scoreless duel into the eighth with another walk-off blast, this one against Wee Willie Wiffle’s Nick Kappra (the best pitcher I faced in my limited playing time); the game where the Honey Badgers’ Paul Hesson threw a no-hitter against us but lost on a bases-loaded walk to Eagle-Eye Rider; a 3-2 win over Team Bag Tag, where Pritt’s home run in the fourth provided the winning margin; and the midseason battle of division leaders when Sit On My Base had us locked in a scoreless battle until McClanahan and Pritt ended the suspense with fifth-inning taters.
No matter how the playoffs turn out, it’s been a blast, and none of this would have been possible if not for the tireless efforts of the HWL’s founder and commissioner, Josh Smith of South Charleston.
Smitty’s a substitute teacher for Kanawha County Schools and a store manager, but his heart and soul is attached to the little kids’ game with the holey ball and the thin yellow plastic bat.
He’s the one responsible for organizing the league, making the schedule, securing the fields and purchasing the equipment — bats, balls, bases, fences, foul poles, backstops and strike zones.
He’s also the guy who compiles the stats, records all the games on video, produces podcasts and writes articles updating the league’s happenings, all of which can be found on the HWL’s website, huntingtonwiffle.wix.com.
Contact him there if you’re looking for a low-impact, somewhat competitive, often hilarious way to get a little exercise, enjoy some friendly camaraderie and relive those distant summer days of your youth.
Reach Nick Scala at 304-348-7947 or firstname.lastname@example.org.