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When adults play kickball, it's strictly for fun
It begins with a birth.
Kelli Auerbach grimaces. Teammates steer her gurney. Blood's everywhere. Breathe. Push. Do something, they say.
Then it happens. The delivery's done. And it's, it's a… kickball.
Kickball? You can't be serious. No one here is. It's not allowed.
"We all agree," says Jason "Death Foot" Pontius, captain of the Trauma Center team. "It's way more fun when it's fun."
The fourth season of the Providence Kickball League -- official motto: Don't be a jerk. Play kickball. -- started Saturday at the Bridgham Middle School. It ends in August, after eight weeks. The top two teams will compete for the championship trophy. The worst two teams will compete in a "Festival of Losers" for the equally large and impressive Vincent Cianci Cup.
"It's incentive to not take this too seriously," says Jed Arkley, the league's founder and director of kickball operations. "You can be a failure and get something for incompetence."
How, you wonder, does something like this happen? What could possibly motivate adults -- lots of them, about 150 on 12 teams in two divisions -- to revert to childhood, theatrical antics and a schoolyard game? "I think beer was involved," says Michael "Tucker" Terzian of Providence. "It's always involved."
A close examination of the official PKL logo suggests as much. The design, fashioned after the National Basketball League's, shows a man spastically kicking a ball while holding a bottle of beer.
"I'm not aware of any athletics going on," says Adam "Cold War" Boretz of Providence, who's a player as well as the league scribe/killjoy. Terzian also isn't simply a player, but the league commissioner. It's his job to deal with those who attempt to take the game seriously.
"I've had to move a couple of times," he says.
Let's define terms.
Kickball, for those who've just come to America or consciousness, is exactly as it sounds: Kick the ball.
It's basically softball without bats, and with one big rubber ball. In the pantheon of sports, it holds the same lofty status as four square, dodge ball and crab soccer.
Jesse Von Doom, 28, of Providence, joined the league three years ago. Now he serves as a league umpire. Before this, the last time he played kickball was in fourth grade. That, he says, is "when you're supposed to stop."
"My career wasn't going where I wanted," Von Doom says. "When I went from short to third, it was over."
The idea for this league came to Arkely four years ago on a dark and cold January day. Contrary to popular belief, beer wasn't involved; coffee was. Arkley was working at his Providence coffee shop, White's Electric. He daydreamed about summer.
"All of a sudden I just said, 'I want to start a kickball league,' " he says. The word went out. Seven teams formed. The rest is theatrical athletic history.
"It's grown men in costumes playing kickball," Boretz says.
Actually it's more than that. It's grown women, too. "It evokes memories of warm summer nights in pastoral fields of wild flowers," says Ilana Friedman of Providence, a member of the Guerilla Gardeners.
On this day, Friedman pitches ritualistically. She raises the ball overhead each time before releasing it, holding it up to the sky as though to invoke a blessing from the kickball gods.
But she says that's just "an organic part of sending a smooth straight one over the plate." Other ones over the plate aren't acceptable. Spinning's not allowed. "There's none of that fancy junk," Von Doom says. "It's deceptive. It's not honorable."
The PKL, which uses a handmade portable scoreboard, referees in uniform and a public address system (boom box with a microphone), has come a long way from its inception. In the league's inaugural game, bases were pizza boxes. And balls were few.
"We've had dogs run out and bite them," Terzian says. "I've had to stop games, run home and get my ball."
Once, a ball went over the fence. A man caught it. The players waved at him. Toss it over, they said. The man paused. Then he bolted. "We jumped on our bikes," Arkley says. "It was a high-speed chase." The guy got away. Terzian, at 48, is the senior statesman of kickball. Most players are in their 20s or 30s. And most are not accomplished kickballers.
"These are all the players who didn't get picked in gym class," Arkley says. "At the end, it was always me [and] a fat kid. I was always the last picked."
This year, according to the commissioner, PKL solidifies its grasp on silliness. "The league has gotten a little too serious," Terzian says. "We want to bring it back to its roots."
Last year, which Terzian calls "a watershed," a team won the championship by taking itself and the game seriously, as evidenced by their second-place finish the year before.
"That year you could hear the Darth Vadar music," Terzian says. "They went over to the dark side."
There's a place for competitive kickball, Arkely says, but it's not the PKL. It's the World Adult Kickball Association. Yes, that's an actual organization.
"It's the epitome of everything we don't want," he says. "It has eight pages of rules; we have eight:"
1) Games are five innings or 50 minutes, whichever comes first.
Theoretically you could stand all day at the plate waiting for the perfect pitch. But that never happens.
"There is peer pressure," Arkley says.
"And people would throw things at you," Boretz says.
3) Kick four fouls and you're out.
Kickball is coming on strong, according to its practitioners. You've got the national WAKA network. And for those who like a little levity with their sport, there are numerous light-hearted leagues from Providence to Seattle. That's where Arkley's twin brother, Todd, started a league one year after the PKL.
"Why play kickball if it's not ridiculous?" Arkley says.
In PKL pre-game theater, where teams are rewarded base runners for being more creative than their opponents, there have been simulated prison riots and live music performances, which continued through the game, performed by the players. "Do you know how hard it is to catch a ball when you're holding a saxophone?" Terzian says.
On this particular day, we've got the birth of a new season, as symbolized by a newborn kickball. The skit gives Auerbach and her Trauma Center team a two-base-runner advantage over its Guerilla Gardeners opponent. But the Gardeners prevail, 9-8, over Trauma Center.
As those teams close their game, two others prepare to take their place.
The Word Nerds, who each have a big letter on their chests, and while
sitting on the bench repeatedly arrange themselves to form incomprehensible
"Watch out for their vocabularies," she says. "They're going to use big words." The Decatur Defenders are the black-T-shirt-wearing Hell's Angels of kickballers. Before the game, Seddon encourages her team to warm up, from the inside out. They smoke cigarettes.
"I think it helps," she says. "When they have coughing fits, it distracts the other players."
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