Getting Their Kicks

R emember fifth-grade gym class and those big, bouncy kickballs? Unlike most ball games, kickball is for the masses. It’s relatively easy to make contact with the ball, to see it arcing slowly overhead, to catch it in a bear hug. Even the unathletic have a fair chance of getting on base.

Hundreds of kickball players, mostly young professionals, try to do just that in New Haven every week from April to October. On a recent Wednesday evening, East Rock Park’s Blake Field was swarming with twenty- and thirtysomethings wearing solid-colored T-shirts in pink, purple, orange, yellow, white and coral. A couple of players set out small orange cones to mark the fields while others, preparing to keep score, carried clipboards. Mostly, people were hanging out with friends, trash talking, laughing and eventually, when they got around to it, playing kickball.

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The Knights of Columbus Museum

Organized by the national group ClubWAKA (WAKA stands for World Adult Kickball Association), New Haven’s league kicked off in 2008. ClubWAKA was founded in 1998 and now hosts leagues in 50 cities. Three different seasons of local play each have their own flavor, says Kyle Settle, senior community coordinator for New Haven. The summer league, CT Elm, runs from mid-June to mid-August with about 150 players on six teams.

“Summer is very relaxed, very social,” Settle says, “so we have relaxed rules.” Fields are set up closer to the ballpark’s fences to enable more home runs—because who doesn’t love a home run?—and I heard the question, “Wait, what’s the score?” more than once. Following the game, it seems, often plays second string to socializing on the sidelines. Standings are posted on the ClubWAKA website, but no one seems too concerned about those. When asked, several players can’t even tell me the official name of their team.

Fall and spring are a different story, Settle says. Those leagues, both called CT Ivy, are bigger—300 to 350 players in the fall and about 500 in the spring—and more serious players travel from as far away as New York and Massachusetts to join in. The Connecticut market, Settle says, is the second-largest in the nation after Southern California. “If you’re playing [in] a real competitive atmosphere, you’ll see a whole completely different game,” Settle says. There’s more strategy to the kicking—kicking short, line drives, “trying to find that empty space in the field to kick it to”—and more investment in the standings. Settle manages the schedule to have competitive teams play each other and social teams play each other, at least until playoffs. “You try to make it so that everyone is having fun.”

Fun doesn’t seem to be a problem here at Blake Field. There’s plenty of cheering, clapping and high-fiving, and it’s clear that real friendships—even romances—have grown on the field. Sarah McQueen met her fiancé, Jason Kline, playing kickball. “There are a lot of kickball couples, actually,” McQueen says. “Kickball couples, kickball babies and kickball friendships.”

Player Andrew Benson gives the same reason for joining ClubWAKA as pretty much everyone I ask. “I moved to New Haven a couple of years ago and was looking to meet people,” he says. “Kickball is a great way to do that.”

Claudia Williams of Stratford is in her fifth season of play, and she says her game has improved over that time. “I know the rules, at least,” she says. “It’s more about having fun.” Players meet not only on the field, but also at after-parties held at Brother Jimmy’s BBQ on Crown Street, New Haven ClubWAKA’s official sponsor.

On this evening, the yellow-shirted team Holy WAKAmoly That’s a Big Kick whomps the orange-shirted Renegade Ballers (Settle’s team) with a score of 11-6. ClubWAKA games run six innings or 50 minutes, whichever comes first—long enough to allow every team at least one game in the two-hour window of play. Registration for this summer is closed, but the fall CT Ivy season, with Sunday games, is accepting registrations now and will start its regular seven-week season on August 19. Teams sometimes form themselves, but according to the CT Ivy website, nearly half of new players come solo or with a small group of friends and are assigned to a team. Rosters require at least 8 men and 8 women, and with 11 players on the field, at least 4 must be men and 4 women.

Even if you’re not playing, it’s fun to stand on the sidelines of a loud and scrappy game. There’s something nostalgic and almost comical about watching players in the field try to throw that big, unruly ball, and hearing the thwunk of a sneakered foot that’s swinging for the fences.

ClubWAKA New Haven Kickball Leagues
Blake Field, south of Willow St and Mitchell Dr (map)
CT Elm (summer 2018): Wed 6:15pm through 8/15
CT Ivy (fall 2018): Sat 11am 8/19-10/21
www.kickball.com/newhaven

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter at KathyLeonardCzepiel.com. Her favorite New Haven scene is a packed summer concert on the Green with dinner from the food trucks, and she loves that there’s always something new to discover here.

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