As Larry Gamache walks toward home plate, his once placid dress shoes are covered with a thin veil of dust, and a white Carfax T-shirt with the No. 5 on the back is tucked into a pair of unwrinkled khakis.
He is smiling, but inside the pressure is building. He hasn’t done this is almost 28 years, and his colleagues are watching.
Things seemed easier in fourth grade.
“Take it easy on me,” Gamache says to the pitcher.
The pitcher releases the ball, and after seven hops, it reaches home plate. Gamache takes three steps and slams his right foot into the red rubber ball, which bounces to the shortstop.
Gamache’s teammates cheer as he reaches first base safely and celebrates with a victory dance.
On Friday nights, there are countless displays of youthful fervor at Cosmopolitan Park in one of two coed kickball leagues.
“This is the first time, I have to admit, in 28 years I’ve kicked a ball,” Gamache said. “I got on base, too.
“I have to admit the pressure is higher as an adult because when you’re in fourth grade everybody’s like uncoordinated and pathetic, but now we have really good athletes. You’ve got to live up to these standards and, you know, I’m one of the directors, so you can’t look bad in front of all the other staff.”
Gamache, 36, a communications director for Carfax in Washington, D.C., arrived in Columbia on June 25 and said colleagues dragged him out to play the next day. On Saturday, a day before Gamache was scheduled to leave, they played kickball at the company’s picnic.
“Good ole Midwest hospitality,” friend and colleague Jamie Sapolsky said.
KICKBALL CATCHING ON
From the release of “Dodgeball,” starring Ben Stiller, to the formation of kickball leagues, thousands of adults across the country are rediscovering the joys of playground games.
Columbia is no exception. Based on nationwide popularity as well as local interest Carol Riney, a rec supervisor responsible for sports programming at Columbia’s Parks and Recreation, decided to bring kickball to town. Two co-rec leagues started in May and play Friday nights at the Rainbow Softball Center at Cosmo Park.
Games start at 6 p.m. today at the red and yellow fields.
“Adults like to play and be active as much as children do, and everybody can play kickball,” Riney said.
The leagues are not affiliated with The World Adult Kickball Association, which is the governing body of kickball and has leagues in Kansas City and St. Louis.
Local interest has been so high that Parks and Recreation is expanding the number of kickball leagues in the fall. Space is available for 28 coed, seven women’s and seven men’s teams. The six-week season costs $120, and registration starts July 12.
Riney said Parks and Recreation will also offer adult dodgeball in future seasons.
“Everything I’ve heard has been positive,” Riney said. “Everybody loves it. My umpires would rather do that than softball.”
Larry Calhoon, 32, has played softball for years and was excited about the opportunity to fit kickball into his schedule. Lisa Boos, a coworker in the MU Athletic Department, approached him about the league.
“When she brought it up, I was like, ‘Yeah, sounds like a good time,’” Calhoon said. “It’s been awesome. I mean I can see this thing ballooning out here, and a lot of people I talk to, a lot of my friends, I tell them I’m playing kickball. And they don’t believe me. All of them are interested in it.”
RULES BASED ON SOFTBALL
The kickball leagues are played much like softball in Columbia, with slight alterations.
There are seven innings, and games typically last 20-30 minutes. Ten players, five women and five men, are allowed on the field, and they must alternate plate appearances.
Although batters may take as many pitches as they like, they must kick the ball within the 8-foot circle surrounding home plate. If they miss the ball or kick it foul, it is an out.
Unlike softball, players can be hit with the ball for an out, but if a base runner is hit above the shoulders, he or she automatically scores.
“It’s relearning all over again,” Calhoon said. “I just didn’t remember any of the rules.”
IT’S ALL FUN AND GAMES
If it’s not clear from team names such as “Big Red Ballers” and “Precious Puberty” that kickball is more laid back than its counterparts, like softball and baseball, one need not look further than the games.
Trash-talking, joking, goofing off and drinking are a few common pastimes of kickball.
“There’s no pressure whatsoever,” Bryan Lee, 28, said. “You can trash-talk and it don’t mean anything.”
In their game against the K-Ballers, the Big Red Ballers trailed 8-0 in the bottom of the second inning and didn’t seem to care. When Daryle Bascom scored the Big Red Ballers’ first run, Tad Dunn yelled, “There will not be a skunk,” to which Bascom responded, “I’ll drink to that.”
Lee, a player for the Big Red Ballers, said it’s hard to get too serious when you’re playing kickball.
“Sometimes whenever you get into competitive sports it gets a little too serious,” he said. “But you can’t get too serious in kickball, and if you do you should not be playing kickball.”
Nevertheless, Lee’s teammate, Calhoon said there’s a drive to win, especially when you’re trailing 9-2 entering the bottom of the fifth.
“That’s when the competitive heart in you comes out, when you’re down 9-2,” Calhoon said. “You’re thinking, ‘Man, this would be good if we could come back. This is going to be fun. I think we can come back.’”
Dunn sparked a rally, lofting a two-run home run over the left-fielder’s head in the Big Red Ballers’ four-run fifth inning.
In the sixth, the Big Red Ballers’ Kathy Ungles, 29, turned a double play to end the top half of the inning and then capped another four-run outburst with a two-run double in the bottom half. The Big Red Ballers held the K-Ballers scoreless in the seventh to win 10-9 and end a three-game losing streak.
“That is huge for us; we came back,” said Amy Stuck, the Big Red Ballers manager. “We were almost to the point where we were going to give it up.”
Calhoon put the win into perspective: “Here’s the thing: If we would have lost we’d still be having as much fun.”
NOT AS EASY AS REMEMBERED
Laura Knoesel, manager of The Blue Birds, said kickball is “regression therapy.”
“Seriously, you revert quickly back to grade school,” Knoesel said.
Although players love to reminisce of kickball days gone by, they are quick to note that the game isn’t as easy as they remember.
Players routinely kick foul balls and fly balls, and rarely kick it out of the infield.
The fly balls also prove troublesome for fielders, who often let the ball bounce off their chest.
“It is a lot harder than you would think,” Stuck said. “I mean the last time a lot of us played kick ball was back in elementary school. It’s a lot harder than it looks.”
Calhoon said you have to quell your instincts to kill the ball.
“It’s a lot harder,’’ Calhoon said. “We came in to it thinking, ‘Man, we’re going to kill that ball,’ and the first two or three kicks go foul over the foul fence. Yeah, it’s a lot harder than I remember.”
Lee said he blames his troubles on nearly 20 years of growth.
“I think maybe I was better when I was a kid,” Lee said. “But I was closer to the ball back then. My judgment is all off.”
Ungles said it took a couple of games, but the Big Red Ballers learned that there is strategy to kickball.
“It’s amazing now that we are older there is actually strategy behind it, whereas when we were kids you just went outside and played,” Ungles said. “You’ve got to keep it on the ground, otherwise you’re never going to score.”
Umpire Mike Sarrazin said he has also seen improvement since the season began.
“When they first came out, I was seeing a lot of out on balls that were kicked foul,’’ Sarrazin said. “Now people are learning to place the ball better. Some of the old stuff is starting to come back to them from fourth or fifth grade.”
KICKBALL CREATES CAMARADERIE
The smile on Gamache’s faces isn’t one of defeat. Although Carfax lost to T.O.F.T.S. 8-3, he is beaming. He has just relived the days of fourth grade competitions against the rival class.
“It’s all the best parts of being a kid without some of the pressures of being a kid,” Gamache said. “I would do it all the time. I like that nobody took it too seriously. It’s just fun and certainly not taxing in terms of your physical prowess or anything.”
As much as Gamache enjoyed kickball, he and most other players admit that kickball is mostly an excuse to have a beer afterward.
The camaraderie and excitement don’t stop there said Gamache’s colleague Keith Waitekus, 45.
“I’m amazed at the excitement around it, people are coming out, ‘I can’t catch the ball, but I want to play. I can’t kick, but I want to play,’’’ Waitekus said.
“They’re out here to have fun, and we have a blast. And the funny thing is after we play, almost the whole next week, there’s somebody talking about what occurred at kickball.”