Not Your Father’s Whiffle Ball… Better

By: Alex Barker

“Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones
There is something inherently young about a summer night, no matter how many birthday candles you’ve blown out. The long, orange sunsets hold memories reeking of grass-stains, and the gentle flicker then hum of street lights, one at a time, used to be the go-ahead for dirty faces and hands to hop on mountain bikes and head on home.

This kind of magic, caught in that space between 75 and 92 degrees Fahrenheit, is a welcome ambassador, a signal of hope, for anyone whose had one sleepover with a friend, then thought, “Screw it. Let’s make this a two-dayer,” before staying a second night in a row. This weather is late night comedy central in a friend’s basement while wondering what your crush is doing at that moment. Those summer evenings are glimpses into paradise.

If you could capture this nostalgia purely, in one event, how far would you go to make it a reality? If you’re Jake Riepma, the Midland, Michigan native, you’d go pretty darn far.

For Jake, summer meant whiffleball in his backyard. There has always been an empty lot next to Jake’s house on Partridge Lane, and it was on this hallowed ground that Jake achieved some of his most memorable victories and agonizing defeats… all to the hands of his best friends. This was a place for sunburn and scraped knees. This space was crafted into a whiffleball field by Jake’s older brother, Zach, and became known as Partridge Park.

Easily the largest whiffleball fanatic in Midland (probably in Michigan), Jake created base paths and a pitchers-mound while hanging a sign on the tree in left field that bears the field’s name still to this day. Unlike building a big league stadium, Partridge Park wasn’t a done-all-at-once project. The field was built one small feature at a time. Each with the proper amount of attention and care you’d expect from a man obsessed.

Part of what makes whiffleball cool is, just like in Major League Baseball stadiums, the fields are all different, and must be played as such. At Partridge Park, any ball is playable out of the branches of the tree, so long as it falls fair after ricocheting around the knobs of the branches. A shot to deep centerfield into the pool is an automatic homerun.  The field is maintained like the Yankees are coming for a three-game series tomorrow.

In 2010, Jake and a number of his closest friends came up with an idea: The Partridge Park Summer Classic. This tournament could define and crown whiffleball legends, thus ending every argument that ever kept a kid from dinner. The tournament was to be an all-ages and skill-levels contest, March Madness bracket-style, with single elimination gloom hanging over each contest. That first year, there were 14 teams that registered and competed in the 4 vs. 4 competitions.

Organized whiffleball with bragging rights, and an actual title on the line, is the kind of stuff that makes you melt like a Hershey’s bar left on the dashboard of your first car. Needless to say, the tournament was a huge success, and in 2011 the opening ceremonies of the tournament honored and celebrated the 26 teams with 175 people in attendance. This is all taking place in a backyard.Think of how many competitions, of any kind, that you’ve been in that have had at least 25 teams. Where those small in any way? Neither was this.

This past summer, from July 12th-14th, the 2012 Summer Classic took flight, this time with 29 teams.  It was my first time attending, and I, frankly, was going so I didn’t feel like the only loser in town with no clue what a “Partridge Park” is. I’ve been to a lot of sporting events in my life, at every level, and let me tell you right now that Partridge Park is better than ice cream on your chin after a 50-mile bike ride. It’s the super bowl for whiffleball, only better because you know every local celebrity in attendance, including the commissioner, Jake himself.

“We just put so much time and energy into our field, just for our own fun, we thought it’d be cool to make it an official event,” Jake said, overlooking what has become a cultural event in the northeast corner of the city after a mid-afternoon game this year.

The park fences, which bear local business sponsors for the event, show a shallow right field in front of the bleachers and scoreboard that sit behind them. The pine trees along the first baseline give ample shade for a couple dozen people waiting to play, and the bleachers along the third baseline give the most comprehensive view of it all. On top of the backstop, the commissioner sits alongside official DJ, and Partridge Park VP of Advancement, Ben Marsh. The two commentate every game from their perch. Through the microphones, their voices are able to be heard from down the block. Sometimes they made small talk, and sometimes they offered statistics on individual players that only someone who has seen every game at the park would know. For me, the commentary was the best part of the entire experience, especially when they’d start heckling.

There is a concession stand in the driveway that has candy, sandwiches, and drinks of all sorts (including meal-deals!), and the pool is filled with spectators swimming as well as soaking up the sun on the surrounding deck. This year, if people smacked a dinger into the pool’s depths, they received a free ticket to a Great Lakes Loons game (The Loons are a minor league affiliate of the Dodgers that are housed here in Midland).

The air was consistently filled with different kinds of music, or cheers, since each player is given a walk-up song of Ben’s choosing. During inning breaks there is music as well, but not even jock jams put the final touches on this mecca of fun. For opening ceremonies the national anthem is sang live, there are fireworks, and a smoke machine. I’m serious.

Still not convinced it’s worth the sweat? I decided to go back after watching a few afternoon games, and see a night game. The Park has sponsorships from NAPA Auto Parts, and The Midland Community Center, for floodlights, which surround the field on poles. You haven’t lived until you find yourself heckling a pitcher from the stands, along with the commentator/commissioner, at a night whiffleball game.

All of these descriptions can’t begin to explain the feelings that the park brings. It’s a certain happiness and excitement over little plays that are as satirical and oversized as a politician’s smile.  It is the intensity of a long trot and stare-down after someone’s plastic bat sends a ball to the pool for a Loons ticket… and the win. It is, everything you imagine when playing sports as a little kid, only, somehow, it has all come to life.

While it is only this huge event a few days a year, Jake is always ready for batting practice, if only you ask. Maybe he’ll even toss you a memory or two.

Follow along for entertaining updates on the field and how to get registered on Facebook, Twitter @Partridge_Park , or just go to www.partridgepark.com

 

Do you go through withdrawals between episodes of Breaking Barker? First of all, you’re not alone. Get yourself the medicine you need, follow @alexbarker763 on Twitter for daily insights and updates on the absorbing life of Alex Barker.

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