By Rachel Bachman
IT’S OLD, IT’S NEW, IT’S . . . KICKY
A CHERISHED PLAYGROUND MEMORY, KICKBALL IS MAKING A COMEBACK AS A SPORTING/SOCIAL EVENT IN PORTLAND
The newest adult sport has no celebrity endorsers, no Nike-stamped equipment, no TV contracts. News of games often travels by word of mouth, and most teams do not even have T-shirts, much less uniforms.
Kickball is back. But this time it is 20- and 30-somethings playing the game born on baseball diamonds and in grade-school gym classes. All that’s needed to play is a $4 ball, a few friends and a thirst for something different.
“When people pass by in the park, they’re always so excited, like, ‘Hey—kickball?’ ” said Megan Fiero, a 28-year-old adolescent therapist who threw a kickball party recently at Southeast Portland’s Sunnyside Park for a friend’s birthday. “We don’t even really care about the score. It’s just fun to have a lot of people together and do something active that is kind of silly at the same time.”
Adult kickball games have sprung up around the country in recent years, mostly in urban areas thick with young professionals.
A 20-team San Francisco league started up during the dot-com boom three years ago, then continued with pickup games for pink-slip victims. A league started last summer in suburban Detroit.
The movement even has a 4-year-old organization—the World Adult Kickball Association, the brainchild of five buddies in the Washington, D.C., area—that has 3,600 players on the East Coast and plans to take the sport nationwide.
“Sport is a pretty strong word,” said Stephen Dippel, 34, a Portland library clerk and casual kickball player. “But I always loved kickball as a kid, and you don’t need as many technical skills as to put a game of baseball together.”
Kickball rules are similar to baseball’s, except the ball is rolled instead of pitched and fielders can throw the ball at a player to get him out. But at most games, regulations are secondary to energy and spirit.
“Nowadays, people are looking just for ways to have fun, and a lot of the so-called adult recreational leagues are too serious for some people,” said Steve Burke, director of the Urban Youth Sports Health Connection for Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society in Boston.
Kickball’s resurgence reflects adults’ urge to return to a time when they made their own fun, Burke said. Local kickball players—it seems to be particularly popular on Portland’s east side—are less analytical. They just groove on the game.
“It’s the definition of sport in its purest essence: cats getting together in the neighborhood, hanging out in the sun, wanting to be a little competitive, just enjoying their day,” said teacher Ron Morgan, 25, who plays on Sunday afternoons at Buckman Elementary in Southeast Portland. “It’s not like the game must start at 9 o’clock and you have to wear your orange shirt.”
Morgan said he likes kickball’s variety. The group of players at Buckman changes each week, and start times are flexible. Playfulness and irreverence rule.
Leah Murphy, a 25-year-old musician, bartender/waitress and day care worker and occasional player, said she once showed up for a game in Southeast Portland and met a slim turnout. Then she turned around and spied another kickball game across the street, complete with a cooler of beverages and a sign inviting all comers. Her group joined in.
“Some people are out in the field with their beer and a cigarette, just waiting for the ball to come to them,” Murphy said.
Joe Biel, a 23-year-old organizer of the Portland Zine Symposium, said organizers used kickball as an ice-breaker at last year’s symposium. One zealous player booted the ball but had forgotten to secure his shoelaces. The ball flew, the shoe flew farther, and the players spent an hour trying to free the footpiece from a shoe-eating tree.
Angus Durocher, 30, who started the San Francisco league, recalled the day a few years ago when actor Keanu Reeves wandered upon a game after filming a scene nearby. Reeves chatted with players and autographed a kickball.
“We kept playing with it, so you can’t really see the autograph anymore,” Durocher said. “It’s a lot more valuable as a kickball than as a Keanu Reeves autograph.”
There is no official kickball league in Portland, and it is difficult to tell whether kickball participation is on the rise. But a few parks feature informal weekly games, and a Fred Meyer spokesperson said the company’s sales of those familiar rubber balls are up from last year. Coincidence . . . or kickball?
There even is a movement to form a Portland kickball league. Colleen Finn, 23, who is looking for work at a sports apparel company, said she first played adult kickball a few years ago in Chicago with her older brothers. When she moved to Portland and discovered there was no league, she e-mailed the leaders of the World Adult Kickball Association about starting one.
The organization has received more than a dozen inquiries from Portland-area players, co-founder Jimmy Walicek said, enough interest to explore placing a division in Portland as soon as next summer.
In the meantime, Finn has formed her own team, which plays semi-regularly at Northwest Portland’s Wallace Park. It is not uncommon for passersby to join games, and there is always a postgame trip to the pub.
“Kickball is such a fun, recreational gathering/social event where you can just mess around and kick a red rubber ball as hard as you can,” Finn said. “Who doesn’t want to play that?”
You can reach Rachel Bachman at 503-221-4373 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org