HAMILTON — It was getting late on Saturday at Patton Park in Hamilton, and Matt Griffin was stalking around the mound yelling at himself for making a bad pitch, as he is known to do when the games get down to the knockout rounds and he’s facing a team from New York.
He’d hung a slider over the plate and the batter drilled it foul, so when he got set again on the mound, he went with his best pitch. They call it a “drop.”
Griffin, a 32-year-old from Danvers, went into his windup, dropped his arm low to the side, and released the ball on a line headed straight to the top of the backstop. But halfway to the plate, the ball suddenly dropped four feet like the bottom fell out, right into the strike zone.
This was a game of Wiffle Ball, but not the casual kind you play in the backyard. No, this is the obsessive world of the Golden Stick Wiffle Ball League, an ultra-competitive collection of the game’s top players, men who swing $200 carbon-fiber bats and spend hours carefully carving patterns into the plastic balls to make them behave like the laws of physics are drunk.
As the slogan on the backstop says, this is “a backyard game taken way too far.”
Thirty teams were here from around the country for the national championships, but most are from the two places that have taken it the farthest: Boston and New York.
The competitive game was born in Massachusetts, and its teams dominated for decades. But in recent years, the unthinkable has happened as teams from the New York area have come to rule the nationals, leading to a seething rivalry. They used to hold an all-star game pitting the best players from each region, but it would often get very heated. They no longer have that game.
Invented in the 1950s, Wiffle Ball was designed as a way to play “baseball” in a small space without breaking everything. It was developed by David Mullany, a Connecticut dad who saw his son and some friends trying, and failing, to play in his backyard using a small plastic golf ball. Mullany created a baseball-size plastic ball, into which he cut eight oblong holes on one half, allowing it to do what the plastic golf ball would not: curve easily.
By the 1960s, the low-cost Wiffle Ball and its slender yellow bat — the set still costs only about four bucks today — were a national hit. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the competitive game took off in earnest, when a man in Hanover named Rick Ferroli built a Wiffle Ball field that looked like a miniature Fenway Park in his mother’s backyard, complete with a 15-foot plywood Green Monster.
So many people wanted to play on his mini Fenway that he began hosting tournaments that he dubbed the “national championships.” Working from Ferroli’s basic rules — the most notable being there are no baserunners, with the distance of the hit determining whether it’s a single, double, triple, or home run — those national championships have continued on in various evolutions to today. There’s also a separate tournament in Illinois that calls itself the World Series.
But at the nationals, there had been one unbroken constant in the decades since Ferroli’s backyard: Boston-area teams have dominated the game.
That is until recently, when the center of power, and popularity, has shifted to Gotham. Here at the nationals, New York teams outnumber Boston teams two-to-one.
It’s a change that leaves such players as Griffin — a fixture at the elite level since he won the nationals as a teenager — desperately trying to reclaim what they once considered a birthright. His team lost in the finals last year, and as they pushed their way through the knockout rounds on Saturday night, Aug. 24, toward the finals the following day, you could feel the intensity rise with each pitch.
“Let’s go,” he screamed at no one in particular after his drop ball landed for a strike.
On the sideline, Lou Levesque, the president of Golden Stick, let out a satisfied smirk. “The teeth are out now,” he said, “and they’re going to stay out until the end of the tournament.”
The competitive game of today has come a long way from that Connecticut backyard. The balls are technically the same, but each one is heavily modified in a process known as “scuffing” or “knifing.” Before the game, pitchers carve an intricate pattern into the ball that makes it break more consistently and dramatically.
The yellow “banana bat,” however, is a thing of the past. In its place are $200 carbon-fiber bats, made by a company called Moonshot, that deliver considerably more pop on contact.
Games are played on small fields — 16 of them were carved out of two baseball fields in Hamilton — that have an outfield fence about 100 feet from home plate. There is no catcher or umpire; instead, pitchers aim for a 2- by-3-foot piece of metal hung behind the plate that lets out a percussive ding each time it is struck. It’s 43 feet from the mound to the tin. Two strikes and you’re out.
For this tournament, there were two fielders, in addition to the pitcher.
As Saturday night gave way to Sunday, a familiar pattern was playing out at Patton Park: New York teams were rolling, and Massachusetts teams were falling.
Griffin and his “Seventh Floor Crew” teammates, Brian DiNapoli of Everett and Eric Stevenson of Georgetown, were the last survivors, clawing their way to the quarterfinals before falling in a 1-0 game.
As he sat on the sidelines and watched the all-New York finals, Griffin announced to no one in particular that he felt deflated.
Then he reached into the cliché bag for that old standby, the one you drag out when a New York team is on a roll and there’s nothing to do but watch.
“There’s always next year.”