Sunday, June 19, 2016
The College World Series is still one of the purest sporting events around, a week of rally caps and dogpiles that not even those killjoys at the NCAA can muck up.
But I’m here to tell you: I found something way purer. On a recent Saturday, I drove over to J.E. George Boulevard and wandered into the most huggable, lovable sporting event ever held in ... a backyard.
Here, the pitcher’s mound is a dirt circle, because that patch of backyard grass has been systematically killed off by hundreds of wannabe Jake Arrietas and Clayton Kershaws firing fastballs. Here, the batters box is two old car mats laid where the hitters stand.
Brian Kelly changes the score during the Dundee Wiffle Ball Classic.
Here, the left field fence is guarded by Mrs. Kelly’s hostas, and the short right field fence is the house itself, and my gosh watch out in center field — that’s a mighty gnarly bush to chase a line drive into, though they do it anyway.
Here there are no umpires, no instant replay, no bickering youth-league parents, no national TV contracts, no multimillionaire deals and no screaming Stephen A. Smith.
Here there are only 75 or so players, ranging in age from 12 to 27 and in ability from “college baseball stud” to “avid baseball video game enthusiast.” And on Saturday dozens of spectators show up, too, including a familiar-looking man in khakis and a baseball cap who can’t stop smiling.
“This is so cool!” says Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, who in his spare time is also part-owner of the Chicago Cubs. “I had to go get my kids and bring them back to show this to them. How cool is this?”
Gov. Pete Ricketts, center, with daughter Margot, behind the tree, and son Roscoe, between them, watch from the stands during the Dundee Wiffle Ball Classic.
Two outs to an inning
This is the Dundee Wiffle Ball Classic, and on this point I must agree with the governor: It is cool.
This one-of-a-kind sporting event began eight years ago, the brainchild of four brothers who can never get enough Wiffle ball.
Rory, Henry, Kieran and Brian Kelly grew up pitching Wiffle balls to one another in the front yard, a direct result of their parents Catherine and Joe Kelly’s first rule of child rearing: no cable TV in the house.
They moved to the backyard as they grew older and banged one too many Wiffle balls into parked cars. Before long their loosely structured batting practice sessions took the form of two-on-two games. They developed their own rules, like “two outs to an inning” and “if the ball rolls into the gutter on the roof it’s an out” and, fatefully for Catherine Kelly’s landscaping, “the hostas are in play in left field.”
Then one day in 2009 they decided: Why don’t we invite our friends over and host a tournament? The Dundee Wiffle Ball Classic started small, with just four, four-man teams, most of them Creighton Prep students or recent graduates, including one young man who wore cleats and destroyed the backyard as he tore around the basepaths. A team named Red Man, led by a player named Gus Thiel — “the Babe Ruth of the Dundee Classic,” Henry Kelly says — won the first title.
A funky sports tradition was born.
Kieran Kelly started keeping stats on an Excel spreadsheet from his perch in the “press box” (aka his open bedroom window). Today he can calculate the averages and slugging percentages of the 100-plus hitters who have walked to the plate in the Dundee Classic.
Peter Schropp applies sunblock during the Dundee Wiffle Ball Classic.
Just don't paint the gutters yellow
The brothers designed a traveling trophy for the winning team and an MVP trophy that’s a gold high-heeled shoe Krazy Glued onto a block of wood. (“‘Does the shoe fit?’ is like a patented Dundee Classic term at this point,” says Brian Kelly.)
They improved the field, adding a piece of plywood for the backstop, spray-painting a white circle around the pitchers’ mound and putting up foul poles down the lines. Henry and a buddy built bleachers. In other words, they really messed up the backyard, a fact that the Kelly parents accepted with remarkable good humor.
“The only thing they ever said no to is when we wanted to paint the gutters yellow,” Henry Kelly says. “They were like, ‘Someday we will have to sell this house.’?”
Henry started releasing tongue-in-cheek highlight videos. Kieran and Brian started taping a selection show while wearing ill-fitting suits and pretending to be ESPN announcers.
Rory led the brothers down to Dundee Bank, where they solicited their first corporate sponsor. Today, local businesses such as the bank and a dentist office help pay for T-shirts. The first player to hit a grand slam wins a donated growler of root beer from Upstream Brewing.
All the while, the Dundee Classic kept getting bigger. Friends asked to play, then friends of friends, then casual acquaintances who happen to be Division I college baseball players. It went to eight teams, then 12, then 18, and the neighborhood kids and then their parents simply started showing up to watch.
As I walk into this year’s Classic, the first person I see is Ricketts, who had to decline an offer to throw out the first pitch due to gubernatorial duties but nevertheless showed up during the morning games to check it out. A Creighton Prep priest is here — he delivered the pre-Classic prayer — as are dozens of teenagers beating the heat by watching the game from inside the Kelly home’s air-conditioned basement.
Kieran Kelly, right, keeps stats with Sam Jenkins, left, during the Dundee Wiffle Ball Classic.
The Wiffle ball tournament has been going on for eight years.
The great equalizer
The crowd watches the Savages, a team of D-I baseball players that includes Creighton star Brett Murray, take on the 2005 Milwaukee Bucks, a team wearing old Bucks jerseys who Rory describes as “good at MLB Baseball on PlayStation.” And yet, somehow the Bucks defeat the Savages, a seemingly unthinkable upset that the Kelly brothers say happens all the time.
“Wiffle ball is the great equalizer,” Kieran Kelly says. “Anything can actually happen.”
The crowd watches a team of Creighton students called Make Wiffle Ball Fun Again who are today wearing matching red-white-and-blue shirts they found at Walmart. Make Wiffle Ball Fun Again bashes its way to four straight wins and into the title game. There they finally fall to the D-Block, a juggernaut of a team that includes John Carter, a stud ex-Omaha Central athlete, and Sam Davey, a former state ... math champion.
Between games, Make Wiffle Ball Fun talks strategy. Not baseball strategy. Uniform strategy.
“Next year, we really need to get tank tops,” sighs Bob Ryan as the temperature soars near 100.
The games come rapid-fire, every 15 minutes or so. The bleacher bums cheer the home runs, and several players risk massive injury by diving into the bushes or sprinting through first base and slamming into the side of the house.
When there’s a close play, the crowd decides by voting, often deferring to Father Robert Tillman, who is after all a priest. After each game, the players slap hands, grab a bleacher seat and begin excitedly discussing that time five minutes ago when they smacked a ball into the hostas.
Players grab flavored ice pops during the Dundee Wiffle Ball Classic.
Because why not?
A thought dawns on me as I watch: This is what happens when kids create a sport in their own image. This tournament, designed by teenagers who are now young adults, stays true to its child-like beginnings, when we all played to win or lose, sure, but mostly because it beat the heck out of doing anything else.
“As a dad, I look at this and think, ‘What better use of a neighborhood backyard than this?’?” asks Joe Kelly. “It’s 100 friends over on a Saturday. It’s healthy … although I do buy additional umbrella insurance for this every year.”
Ryan of Make Wiffle Ball Fun Again has an even simpler answer for why he’s playing in his fourth Dundee Classic. “This is just the best time,” he says.
And it is. In a backyard on J.E. George Boulevard, the Kelly family is making sports fun again, one Wiffle ball game at a time.