Alive and kicking: A popular playground sport is revived for adults — with a social twist
Photographs by Kevin Drozenski
While it seems to have sprung suddenly out of left field, the kickball craze actually began in 1998, when a couple of post-college buddies, including local resident Johnny LeHane, were sitting in a Washington D.C. bar, lamenting their lack of a social life. “We weren’t sports guys,” recalls LeHane, who grew up in LaGrange but now lives in Rhinebeck. “We were engineering guys. I wanted to be outside, but I didn’t want the pressure of being on a competitive softball team.” LeHane, who like countless kids in the 1970s grew up playing kickball in elementary school, and his pals decided to start a kickball team — just for kicks.
They christened their fledgling group the World Adult Kickball Association (WAKA) (www.kickball.com) and it caught on like wildfire, ultimately spreading to 35 states with a current mailing list of 350,000. Over the last 12 years, in the Hudson Valley alone, more than 10,000 people have played. Our area has three leagues, each with about 300 players: the Poughkeepsie Mid-Hudson League, which has spring and fall seasons; the New York Action League, also in Poughkeepsie, plays only in the summer; and the Kingston Fire League, the newest group, which plays in the spring. The game follows most of the same rules as baseball, except a large, rubber ball is used, which is kicked instead of hit with a bat. Seasons typically last about eight to 10 weeks.
Of course, this is adult kickball. Some people can get competitive, according to LeHane, who says that each team has its own personality. Some allow overhand pitching, which is a bit rougher, he says, adding that people do curse — and some of the team names are unprintable.
At age 41, LeHane is on the tail end of the kickball demographic, which is in the 23-35 range. After the game, young professionals converge at the pub that sponsors its league (Mahoney’s in Poughkeepsie and Keegan Ales in Kingston) for drink specials. What goes on off the field is just as important as the game itself and many a couple have met through the sport. “We joke about kickball babies,” says LeHane. He recalls one couple who got married at the annual World Kickball Championship in Las Vegas. “The mother-in-law took a piece of the kickball and made it into the veil.”
When Mid-Hudson League team members (and opponents) Rob Johnson and his fiancée, Wendy Fiorio, get married in 2015, they won’t be going that far, but “there could be a kickball element,” hints Johnson. What he loves about the sport is the simple fact that it’s fun and doesn’t require specialized equipment. “It’s nice to go back to something from your childhood. But now you don’t have to worry about being picked last.”
In fact, teams usually take anyone who is interested: To play for a season costs between $70-$80. “Unlike other, more skilled sports, kickball is available to anyone. Anyone can kick a ball,” says Sarah Nelson, marketing projects manager for WAKA. “All you have to do is put on some sneakers.”
“The instant visceral reaction we get from people when we talk about kickball is, ‘You’re kidding. I haven’t played since fifth grade,’ ” says LeHane. “Then they say, ‘Where do I sign up?’ ”