Joe Phillips -- that's the Commish to you -- lights a smoke and surveys the old, raised baseball diamond at Morey Middle School. He's getting a little impatient. It's past two in the afternoon and the only Denver Kickball Coalition booters present are Sweet Baby Jesse and Noel, aka the Plumber, who are originals, allies, guys who would show no matter what (think Cal Ripkens in thrift-store hipster garb, mesh caps and specially made DKBC shirts). Where's Charlie Hustle? CK1? Hell, where's everybody?
Out come the cell phones. Calls are placed, locations pinned down, fears of an early end to the weekly DKBC game assuaged. Slowly, the usual suspects trickle onto the locked field, either skinnying up through the narrow crack between fence and walkway on the northeast end -- not a trip for those with bad ankles or stout midsections -- or just scaling the chain link outright. Here come Mary, Teach, Sticky Fingers. More long-timers, kids who have been playing since the first game, or close to it. Since the day the Commish came out to prove to a bunch of Norwegians that Americans still know how to have fun.
It all began one night a year ago, at that inimitable bastion of good punk rock cheer, Streets of London Pub, when the Norwegians asked Phillips (not yet the Commish) if he'd like their extra shot of Jack. He took it and thanked them, striking up a conversation.
Eventually came the question: "Seriously, what do you think of this place? What do you think of us?"
The response? They thought it was "really sad," the Commish remembers. "That back home they'd spend a lot of time in the parks, go out and mountain climb and play soccer. He said that, as far as he knew, Americans didn't go out until night, and all they did was drink and smoke."
And in this case, it was true. "We were all just a bunch of drunks, scenesters -- you know," the Commish says. Nonetheless, it filled him with righteous American pride. Sad? In the country that gave the world the Beach Boys? Valium? Ziggy, fer chrissakes? He would show these unimpressed Europeans just what we were made of. Playground style.
"I said, when the weather gets better, in a month here, we'll go down to the park and play some football. He's like, 'No, I don't want to play football.' Well, how about volleyball? 'No.' Whiffleball? 'No.' He said he wanted to play soccer. And then, for some reason, I thought: kickball."
Kickball. That Jurassic baseball played with the feet, staple of a thousand afternoon recesses. It was the genesis moment. Within a week and a half, the by-then-undeniable Commish had organized a group of friends for a Sunday-afternoon pickup game, where they surprised themselves by having actual, honest-to-goodness fun.
But what's the surprise? After all, kickball was that bit of gym class where even the weakest, puniest writers-in-the-making could feel at least roughly equal to the letter-jacketed mullet cuts. It was the ball. That crazy-ass playground thing, impossible to roll, illegal to bounce, perfectly acceptable for throwing at Chet Football's head while he lumbered around second. (In the nineteenth century, this was a legal maneuver in professional baseball called "soaking.") The inherent unpredictability of kickball produces a more level playing field, one not based strictly on athleticism. One that embraces the essential inequity of the universe. Dodge ball without the gang violence.
And unbeknownst to the newly rabid DKBC acolytes, adult kickball had been undergoing something of a renaissance for several years. The World Adult Kickball Association, or WAKA, is in its sixth year of existence and enjoys the support of thousands of members. Self-described as "the pre-eminent adult kickball organization and the world-governing body of kickball," it sponsors a championship (The Founder's Cup), puts out a monthly newsletter (Kickball Today) and generally purveys kickballiana (you can even download "The Kickball Song" from www.worldkickball.com). WAKA opens new chapters continually, one of which, thanks to the Commish's late nights on the organization's site, is going to be in Denver.
Membership in WAKA will cost $60, which is $60 more than DKBC members pay, but by this point, that's immaterial. The two leagues will not merge. Free kickball, playground-sneaking kickball, punk-rock kickball will forever be the province of the DKBC. The stiffer competition of WAKA's organized leagues appeals to the soldiers, the ones who want to see how they do against the world. Like the Commish, who finessed his way on to the WAKA board of directors and will field a team -- made up of DKBC all-stars -- to play in WAKA tournaments.
But Sundays are still Sundays. And this particular Sunday, the crowd isn't even half of what it is normally. "We've been averaging about thirty people a week," Sweet Baby Jesse says. Today they get thirteen. (Part of that has to do with the recent formation of the BKBC, the Brooklyn Kickball Coalition, made up of Denver players who moved east and spread the gospel but left the DKBC a bit short-staffed.)
Talk of the new X-Men flick and everyone's various recoveries from various ailments -brown-bottle flu seems prevalent -- dies away when the Commish (whose kickball regalia includes aviator glasses, blue short shorts and a red-and-white '70s-style T-shirt with an American flag iron-on the front and "The Commish" on the back) selects two captains. Jeff Swank and the newly arrived Charlie Hustle pick teams, divvying up into the Wailers and Filet o' Fish to begin what might be the longest game of kickball the world has ever seen.
This is sport for sport's sake, played with abandon and goofiness and affection and little regard for things like innings or umpires; outs and strikes are agreed upon by general, if loud, consensus, with both teams having an equal say. There are good-naturedly snide comments, many of them courtesy of self-described "punk-rock librarian" CK1, otherwise known as Rob Bowman. There are late joiners like Nick Watts, who saw the action while strolling by, thought he'd jump in, and found himself at one point literally stealing home plate (a rubber mat with "home plate" written on it) to prevent the Commish from scoring. And then there are hard-core attackers like Teach.
"You gotta check out Teach's style," the Commish says. "First she intimidates it..."
And then she takes a running start and belts the hell out of the ball for a base knock. Teach, a slightly built woman named Erica who, naturally, teaches high school Spanish, started playing at the second game ever and is a lock for WAKA.
"It's funny," she says after the 25th -- or was it 26th? -- inning comes to a close. "It used to be a bunch of club kids who were like, 'These are $200 jeans; watch it!'" Such sartorial preoccupation quickly became impractical, given the rough-and-tumble nature of kickball, and sweats and exercise shorts soon replaced expensive denim. "It's cool because we got to know everyone as a bunch of dirt-asses."
Truly. Despite the less-than-stellar condition of the field and near-unanimous preference for shorts, not one dirt-ass half-asses a slide or a dive. Since a powerful nine-year-old could clear Morey's short porches, home runs are limited to three per squad, and the ability to drive the ball is at a premium. As are good hands. That damn rubber ball will hit you in the chest and bounce off, or stick to your fingers and then drop.
Imagine, then, playing in full protective biohazard gear, as CK1 once did. Or in a major snowstorm. Or following one, when the playground becomes Lake Morey. One time a guy had to get a tetanus shot because he cut himself on the fence getting in. And what about the emotional hurdles? The Commish lost a girlfriend to an enemy kickballer, a guy who played in a Washington Park game. How do you make the throw to home plate when your heart is sick? Or, more commonly, your stomach heaving? But they still come out -- weather, disease, love and booze be damned. Service-industry kids, college students, the usually sedentary population of Cool Denver. All for the simple joy of running like an idiot as fast as you can to hit your buddy in the head with an 8 1/2-inch rubber playground ball.
At nearly 6 p.m., the game winds to a close. The Wailers win 36-23, thanks to the kamikaze kicking of Teach, the sure fielding of Charlie Hustle -- whose line, "Man, our team's so bad, we form up like Voltron," was the day's best -- and the madman base-running of the Commish. Keeping alive the best tradition in sport, the two teams line up for good-game handshakes and drag themselves to Streets for a celebratory beverage.
Because there's nothing sad about a day like this, with sand in the eyes and dirt on the knees and air in the lungs.
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