COLUMBIA — Andrew Mikusch stared down his nose at the batter about 30 feet away. His right hand held the ball firmly behind his back.
As the wind began to pick up, Mikusch stepped back from the “mound” and shouted up at the sky, “Hey, wind, just keep on blowing! Yeah, there you go!” Mikusch’s head snapped back to the batter, and he fired the pitch in as the wind continued to gust.
With a mostly overcast sky and a temperature near 70 degrees, March 12 wasn’t a bad opening day for the rain-or-shine Wiffle ball Wednesdays crew. But the weather isn’t always so cooperative.
“Last year, I remember we played a game in pouring rain,” Mikusch said of a day that drew only three other players. “We had a home run derby instead of a normal game. It wasn’t ideal — we did get soaking wet — but it was still fun.”
MU junior Nick Straatmann originally started organizing weekly Wiffle ball games after a game on a pleasant day at the beginning of the 2007 fall semester went particularly well. Now the games are scheduled every Wednesday on the calendars of many Mark Twain Residence Hall residents and their friends.
“Its gotten a lot bigger. Originally, we used cut-up cereal boxes as bases,” said Straatmann, who has since invested in a set of rubber bases along with a collection of bats and balls. “There are no set dates for the start and end of the season. We stop in the fall when it gets cold, and we start in the spring when it gets warm.”
Wiffle ball Wednesdays soon caught on, largely with the help of a Facebook group Straatmann set up to facilitate communication about the set-up and game times. About 15 to 18 people, ranging from freshmen to seniors, now show up for each game.
“It’s just a thing to take a break each week and have fun,” Straatmann said. “Its grown into a big thing, and a lot of people really like it.”
Freshman Lindsey Abell joined the league in August as a way to meet people.
“We weren’t really in a position to turn down friends,” Abell said of herself and her roommate, who became regular members.
Mikusch, a sophomore who found out about the league once he saw all his Facebook friends joining the Wiffle ball group, said playing has helped him meet people who live in a different dorm. Mikusch lived in Wolpers Hall as a freshman and now lives in Excellence Hall.
“People do make friendships through it, and I think that’s good,” Straatmann said. “You finally get to get out and meet some new people.”
But even with the emphasis on the social aspect of the game, the group still takes Wiffle ball seriously.
Members are encouraged to keep track of their statistics on an honor-system basis and e-mail them to Straatmann, who compiles them throughout each semester and makes baseball cards for each player that are posted on the Facebook group.
The players also host a home run derby, where records are kept for most home runs and the longest home run, and an award ceremony at the end of the season, where Straatmann presents plaques he makes out of pieces of wood painted gold. Among the awards doled out are the “110 percent award” to the “best hustler,” the “iron horse award” to the player with the best weekly attendance, the “Benny the jet award” for the player who exhibits “outstanding leadership on and off the field” and, Straatmann’s favorite, the “She’s OK for a girl award” to the female MVP.
Playing on Francis Quadrangle, the group members often have to deal with puddles and less-than-ideal field conditions.
“Sometimes after a decent rain, it can be muddy and a little slick,” Mikusch said, while adding that games are only canceled if no one shows up. “I remember after Homecoming, there were some puddles on the field, but we still went out and played regardless. People like Nick were running and diving at bases. It really didn’t stop us.”
Straatmann and Mikusch both said the dedicated attitudes they bring to Wiffle ball largely stem from their passion for baseball.
“I take it seriously because it’s the closest thing I get to play to baseball,” Mikusch said. “I’m from the best baseball town in country. I like the skill and athleticism of it, to pick up the bat and see how far I can hit it. I can throw breaking balls and sliders I could only dream of with a baseball. It’s almost like I do keep coming back for the sport.”
Straatmann, though, knew from the beginning that Wiffle ball was more viable as a recreation sport than baseball.
“It keeps me close to something I have a passion for,” Straatmann said. “Baseball’s probably still a little too competitive, though, and that’s something we wouldn’t want. Wiffle ball is a sport that neutralizes gender abilities, so everyone’s on the same playing field.”
On opening day for the spring semester, turnout was so good — including more women than men — that the group almost had to divide into four separate teams, and despite a number of simultaneous, tangential conversations, most of the attention remained on the Wiffle ball at hand. Good fielding plays were met with cheers from both teams, and trash-talking was in ample supply, even as the game went into extra innings.
“It may be difficult to have a game in say, 14 inches of snow, but we could probably make something happen,” Mikusch said.