The red playground ball scuffs across the dirt the same way it did when you were 10, and the kicker takes a mighty running swipe at it, hoping for one of those big, arcing kicks that no one can get to – or maybe a line drive that will tattoo the ball’s cross-hatch pattern onto some unlucky infielder’s forearms.
It’s Friday night at Veterans Memorial Park, and all four of the park’s softball fields have a kickball game underway. Welcome to the big kids’ playground.
Ann Arbor Rec & Ed started its first kickball league in 2005 with six teams. This summer there were 38. Team sports director Larry Dishman compares the vibe to the early 1970s, when folks of dubious athletic cred were coming out in even bigger numbers to play a laid-back, social sport called slow-pitch softball.
“You had people saying, ‘Well, I can play this game,’” Dishman said. “Right now you’ve got largely that same type of phenomenon happening with kickball.”
Twenty-eight teams signed up for the fall season, which runs through October. (Kickball, incidentally, features some of the best names in Ann Arbor recreational sports: Miracle on Dirt, We Got the Runs, Kicking Balls and Taking Names, Kick It to The Man…)
“It’s a blast,” said Ben Pierce, manager of The Untouchables, which on this night is opening its season against a team called Jiminy Kick It. Last fall Pierce and a buddy from work ran their own kickball league in Ypsilanti.
“It’s competitive; you get to run around,” he said. “We played like three times a week last year. This (Rec & Ed league) is even more competitive, and more fun.”
Across the diamond, The Chronicle learns that most of the members of Jiminy Kick It met in preschool – their kids’ preschool – Northstar Montessori in Saline. None of the kids are in preschool anymore, but they still come along on Friday night to play in the dirt by the bleachers while their parents play in the dirt between the chalked lines.
“No pressure, no outs,” someone calls from the sideline as a Jiminy player sets up behind the plate, staring down pitcher Jason Yax of The Untouchables.
But of course, there’s really no pressure anyway.
“As soon as somebody gets competitive, we’re like, ‘It’s kickball.” said Jennifer Fansler.
Jiminy pitcher Rick Gilbert wanders past the bench, where coach Katie Lyons is explaining how her team mostly learns by failure, and how she got her position by default because she’d played softball in high school.
“How much are we winning by,” Gilbert asks.
Lyons glances at her clipboard. “Negative two.”
Now, if anyone tries to tell you kickball isn’t competitive, they’re lying. It’s a contest. Someone wins and someone loses. It’s competitive by definition.
But it’s not cutthroat.
“You look for the person who looks like they’re not going to catch it and you aim for them,” said Pierce.
OK, not too cutthroat.
Pierce says despite a certain amount of playground mentality, the people he plays with now are much better behaved than the schoolyard players of yesteryear.
So that’s the benefit of 20-some years of maturity?
Nah, he says. Umps.
“I remember arguing a lot (as a kid),” Pierce said. “Now we don’t argue because we have the ump here to tell us to shut up.”
Nonetheless, Rec & Ed recreation specialist Sean Williams says umpires clamor to work the kickball games. It’s refreshingly different than small-ball counterpart.
Umpire Terry Condit has been officiating kickball games for three years. Before that he did high-level men’s softball. It took him half a season to adjust to the culture shift between men’s softball – with its high incidence of players who believe they’re just a step shy of the major leagues – to kickball, with its high incidence of players who routinely show up late.
He worked one game last summer where one of the teams showed up with every player dressed as a superhero.
“One woman was dressed as Isis, and I had to have her take off all these heavy bracelets, and her crown,” he said. “I had to make another guy take off his head because he could hardly see. Come to think of it, he wasn’t walking too well, either.”
(Public service disclaimer: Alcohol is not allowed in city parks. That’s all we’re going to say about that.)
So why kickball? Well, you don’t have to be a superhero – or even an athlete – to play, for one thing. Everyone’s there to have a good time, to laugh and run and wear a T-shirt with a nickname on the back. A lot of people find it’s just like they remember from fourth grade – only better.
“I don’t know that I ever played it as a kid,” said Chris Graham, whose T-shirt bears the nickname “Stay-Puft.” “So it was strange at first because I get to be athletic. That’s unusual for me.”
In the late innings Jiminy Kick It begins to show signs of wear. Karla Tensley, a runner in recreational real life, is stretching her right leg, trying to ease out the knot where a kicked ball hit her in the hamstring. Gilbert is sidelined with an eye injury. He sits on the bleachers, trying to shake it off.
He squints hard with his right eye, blinks, squints again.
He was playing with the kids, and one of them poked him in the eye.
A spectator watches a play not-quite-made and shrugs, “It’s better than watching the Lions.”
About the author: Amy Whitesall is a freelance writer based in Chelsea.