Under the luminous glow of stadium lights, John Jowers strode with fluid grace toward the large, red rubber ball bouncing his way. Extending his left arm for balance, he pulled his right leg back, then whipped it forward like a sickle. Toe met rubber with a deep-throated “doink,” and the sphere soared towards skies of palatinate blue.
But the ball flew only a few yards, landing somewhere between third and shortstop, and Jowers fled toward first base, looking to the sidelines for further instructions as the fielder cradled the ball, heaved it with all his might, sending it bouncing across the diamond.
“I have no idea of how to run the bases,” said Jowers, a native of England with no interest in baseball. “My teammates have to tell me.”
But on a Boston playground on a balmy May night, Jowers’s faint grasp of the rules did not really matter, and his exploits earned him nothing but cheers. This was kickball, a game many of his fellow members of the team Ernest Plays Kickball last played in earnest back in grade school. No one was taking the game too seriously.
Kickball is gaining ground as a warm-weather social athletic pastime, leading to a proliferation of adult kickball leagues in the Boston area. The game offers adults an alternative to the traditional recreation of baseball, softball, that is more laid-back, easier to pick up, and less dependent on athletic prowess.
Even the best players can only rarely loft a kickball farther than the shallow outfield, and nobody can really throw one very far. Getting hit by an errant kickball is unlikely to cause harm, and even a novice can make contact when it is rolled toward him.
“No one’s played varsity kickball,” said Justin Obey, cofounder of Social Boston Sports, a recreational sports organization that he estimated has between 1,500 and 2,000 adults in its kickball leagues. “It’s all about the fun. We like to keep things social. We go to the bar after every game.”
Here is another divergence from the baseball tradition: The umpires, often reviled by both sides of the diamond in competitive ball, are the ones expected to grease the wheels of postgame socializing.
“We call them social facilitators,” said Matt Rubin, commissioner of Social Boston Sports, before Ernest Plays Kickball toed off against Black Magic at the William E. Carter playground near Northeastern University. “They’re trained in the rules of the game, but they’re also trained in how to fuel social situations . . . So they’ll meet people, talk to players when they’re at bat, talk to people when they’re at catcher, and try to find like-minded people to introduce to each other.”
For the most part, kickball borrows its rules from baseball, one main exception being that an out can be registered by hitting the runner with the ball (no head shots!). As a rule, kickball leagues are coed, and players are as likely to get involved for the opportunity to meet new people as they are for the competition.
“Kickball is popular because it is very inclusive,” said Sarah Nelson, marketing projects manager of World Adult Kickball Association Kickball & Social Sports, which operates more than 400 leagues across the country. “It’s purely fun and a little goofy, and players can’t take themselves too seriously when they are playing with a big red rubber ball. “
Goofy it may be, but the association also has a place for the competitive kickball player. The winners of its leagues are invited to compete in October for the title of World Kickball Champions.
Most leagues maintain “that recessy feel,” said Laura Nelson, who manages the kickball program at Boston Ski & Sports Club, which saw its spring kickball league burgeon from 65 teams last year to 80 this year.
“You don’t really need any skill,” she said. “If somebody does make a mistake or misses a ball or forgets to tag up, everybody laughs.”
“I haven’t played kickball since I was a little kid in elementary school,” she said. “I can run the bases, but I can’t really kick the ball.”
But the Ernests have more than a few holdovers from the team that made it to last year’s league championship game. They were more than a match for Black Magic, a team playing only its second game together. Ernest took a 13-0 lead in the fifth inning, triggering a mercy rule and ending the game.
Even in the rout, both sides were good sports: At least twice, Ernest players held up at third base when they could easily have scored. Black Magic took the rout in stride, exchanging smiles and high fives.
“We are a proud bunch of underdogs,” said player Holly McMahon. “And we are bonded together by common interest in fun.”