Trends: All for the Love of the Game

Amy Smith, 25, wasn't exactly out for blood when she ambled up to home plate in Allsopp Park in Little Rock, Ark. She sized up the pitcher as he rolled a large red rubber ball in her direction, then cocked her right foot back and connected--barely. The ball dribbled out a few feet, just enough for her to make a slow jog to first base. A few minutes later, she got tagged out at second. Hardly anyone noticed. Play was suspended as both teams swarmed into the bleachers for fresh margaritas prepared by their fans.

If you made it through second grade, chances are good you're familiar with kickball. Now tens of thousands of adults are forming kickball leagues for grown-ups. The World Adult Kickball Association (which charges players $60 to join) boasts 20,000 players who compete in tournaments and win prizes. Scores of independent leagues --whose players often show up for games wearing antlers, throw water balloons during a dull inning and use a Slip 'N Slide instead of a base--are holding weekly practices and games from Seattle to Brooklyn.

For some, it's a team sport perfectly adapted for middle-aged knees. Others say it's a reaction against the sports industry. Kickball players, says Shawn Madden, 28, of Seattle, are sick of lockouts, steroid scandals, players making millions and $8 beers. "People want to connect with sports on their own level. They want it to be a game, not a corporate machine." Other kickball players say the game is a surefire way to socialize and reconnect with the joys of childhood. "We're not serious about winning," says Chris Hardesty, 27, an orthopedic intern and member of the Little Rock Hot Tamales. "But we are serious about having fun."

The rules of the game are pretty much what you remember. No overhand pitches. No fireballs (fast pitches). You can tag out a player as he runs for a base or simply hit him with the ball. Everyone has to keep his shirt on, although some leagues allow--even encourage--women to play topless. WAKA players show up for practices and games in matching jerseys and socks; players on an independent-league team out of Milwaukee dressed as sausages.

And then there's the drinking. On some teams, players round the bases beer in hand. Midwestern leagues, which play on public-school fields where drinking is forbidden, are sponsored by local bars that welcome both winners and losers after the game. Jim Pierce, of Little Rock, who at 59 describes himself as the oldest living player in the league, doesn't mind the defibrillator jokes. "I'm not athletic, never have been. I just have fun doing this. I have fun, I guess, pretending that I'm young again." And in the likely event he gets tagged out, he says, he always brings his chair and his cooler.