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RECREATION: Adult kickball leagues in Rochester 

Follow the red bouncing ball

For a team that just lost a game 15-0, the members of the Kickball All-Stars are surprisingly upbeat.

They've just gotten their butts handed to them by the Tulips and Blue Balls team in Kickball League of Rochester play, but for some reason the All-Stars aren't having much of a problem shrugging off the loss at Genesee Valley Park.

"This was a practice," says team captain Beth Coia with a guffaw as her teammates gather at the picnic table that serves as a dugout for the game.

As her teammates break into a case of Coors Light and slip on sweatshirts on the unusually chilly and overcast June evening, Coia sips on a bottle of Corona and explains why it's so easy to bounce back from such a loss. While it might be just a hackneyed cliché in other athletic pursuits, in the Kickball League of Rochester, the competition is almost secondary. What matters, Coia says, is the merriment factor.

"We do this because it's fun," she says. "We like just hanging out and playing for the love of kickball."

Across the diamond, similar sentiments are shared by members of the victorious Tulips and Blue Balls squad. With a bottle of Guinness in her hand, Heather Yurka sports a wide grin and espouses the allure of kickball.

"You don't need athletic talent to play, you meet a lot of new people, and you get to drink a lot of alcohol on a Tuesday night," she says.

Most of the Tulips and Blue Balls roster works together at StrongMemorialHospital, where they absorb their fair share of stress. Playing in KLOR, they say, gives them an outlet to release a lot of that pressure.

"We all work a lot," says team member Jodie Howell, who supplied a case of Bud Light for the evening's festivities, "so this gives a chance to get out and do something else."

They certainly aren't the only ones who feel that way. After launching in fall 2007 with just four teams, KLOR's summer league now includes a whopping 88 teams and roughly 1700 players. Thanks largely to Facebook and word of mouth, kickball - a sport for decades associated with children - is now huge with 20- and 30somethings in Rochester.

"We knew we were on to something big," says league commissioner Ryan Kimball, "but we've been blown away by this."

The game of kickball most likely had its origins in the 1940's among U.S. soldiers who played it during their down time from the war. From there, kickball developed into a popular pursuit during gym classes and school recesses across the country.

The game utilizes many of the basic tenets of baseball - a four-base diamond, a scoring system based on runs and outs, and a pitcher starting the action - but substitutes a big, rubber ball that's kicked in place of a baseball that's hit.

While rooted in the gymnasiums and playgrounds of America, in recent decades kickball has blossomed as an adult sport, one that allows grown-ups to revisit one of their childhood loves while having a blast with likeminded people.

The pastime had matured so much that by the late 1990's, adult kickball fanatics saw an opportunity to unite impassioned players not only across the country, but all over the world. The result was the World Adult Kickball Association, founded in 1998 in Washington, D.C. Much like the Rochester organization, WAKA's mission is simple.

"Kickball brings people another opportunity to relive their youth by playing a sport they haven't played in years ,in an environment that fosters competition and love of the sport," says Josh Bob, manager of WAKA's North East Region. "Kickball is becoming a new pastime. We feel very strongly that people enjoy WAKA kickball not only for the athletic aspect, but for the social aspect as well."

Locally, the seeds of the Kickball League of Rochester (which isn't affiliated with WAKA; more on that later) were sown in 2007, when Kimball struck up an idea to start a kickball club based at J.D. Oxfords bar and restaurant on Monroe Avenue. As he was drumming up interest, another Oxfords regular, Dave Hofstetter, playfully mocked the whole idea of a kickball league.

"I was like, 'What, are you kidding?'" Hofstetter says now.

But Kimball persisted, launching KLOR in fall 2007 with just four teams. Eventually, Hofstetter became a convert to the crusade; frustrated by the often stifling hyper-competitiveness of many local softball leagues, he saw kickball as a less stringent and more entertaining pursuit.

Hofstetter became so impassioned about kickball that he eventually became KLOR's president. Without spending a dime on advertising, the two developed a website and soon created a Facebook group, both of which spread the word about the league and helped draw in hundreds of new participants.

By summer 2008, KLOR had cultivated 17 teams, a number that grew to 44 this past spring. Drawing financial support from sponsors in the local business community, the league now boasts 88 teams in the current summer season, with squads divided into several brackets that play at Genesee Valley Park on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday nights. (Kimball and Hofstetter say demand is so great that the league could also play on Wednesdays, but softball leagues reserve the park's fields on that night.)

In fact, such logistical considerations are the only things preventing the league from getting even bigger. "I hate to do it, but we've started turning away teams," Kimball says. "There just isn't enough room."

For Kimball and Hofstetter, KLOR is truly a labor of love. Both estimate that they spend 40 hours a week managing and administrating the league on top of their regular jobs (Hofstetter is the director of human resources for Bill Grays Inc., while Kimball is director of customer relations with Simco Capital LTD.) In fact, Hofstetter notes on one Sunday in May, he began drawing up the summer league's schedule at 8 a.m. and didn't finish until 4 a.m. the next day. Adds Kimball: "I don't see my house for days or even weeks." That doesn't mean they've stopped playing: Kimball plays on four different KLOR teams, while Hofstetter is on the roster of three squads.

But, they both add, too many potential members is a good problem to have. For them, the exponential growth of the league means they've struck a chord with young adults in the area. There's no residency requirement or limits on team size, and players must simply be 21 or older to take part.

The league's leaders say that KLOR's freewheeling nature has also been a huge draw for many players. While all participants are urged to drink responsibly, beer is a key part of each night's festivities. Instead of a coin toss to decide who kicks first, teams send representatives to home plate for a beer shotgun competition before the game, and players frequently take cans of suds with them when they take the field for defense.

But for Kimball and Hofstetter, kickball's draw goes beyond all that. The rules of the sport are also extremely simple, and a season of league games allows participants to cultivate new friendships and social networks. The league also features pub crawls and theme nights, such as on Halloween, when water balloon wars are known to break out. And teams are encouraged to be, shall we say, creative when naming themselves; summer team monikers include Puttin' Pitches in Their Place, My Kick Is Bigger Than Yours, Menace to Sobriety, and Kitty Punchers.

However, the biggest plus, the organizers say, is the total lack of athletic and competitive pressure, a situation that encourages even the most clutzy or out-of-shape player to, ahem, get a kick out of the game.

"When you make an error in kickball, it's funny, not a screw-up," Kimball says. "It's funny when people fall down in kickball."

Athletically speaking, he adds, there's only one requirement. "If you can kick a ball, you get to play," Kimball says. "You don't have to be good at it."

Adds Hofstetter: "And you're not chastised if you're not good."

In fact, perhaps the only real competition on the local kickball scene might come from between different leagues, not players on opposing teams. WAKA rep Josh Bob says his organization is planning to start its own Rochester league to rival KLOR.

WAKA brings with it a massive, mutually supportive, global kickball community, with roughly 300 divisions, more than 3000 teams, and 75,000 players around the world. Because the association also features standard rules of play for all league competition - including official WAKA game balls, team size requirements, organized playoffs, and even a world championship competition, slated this year for October in Las Vegas - the new WAKA league should provide an alternative to players who don't like KLOR's loosy-goosey approach to the sport.

Bob says the presence of two leagues in the Rochester market will actually be a good thing. "I don't necessarily see that as a problem," he says. "There's certainly something to be said for a little healthy competition. We're looking to provide a service to the citizens of Rochester, who now will have two options to choose from."

For their part, Kimball and Hofstetter say they declined to join WAKA because of the organization's more structured system of play, which they feel is too stifling. KLOR uses different sizes of balls and its own league logos and shirts instead of those required for WAKA members. Cost is also a factor - in KLOR, teams pay $600 per season to play, while WAKA charges between $60-$70 per player, according to its website.

"It just doesn't suit our culture," Kimball says of WAKA's guidelines. "It's a lot stricter, and the fees are higher."

Kimball is confident that KLOR can beat back the WAKA challenge. Logistically, he says, the city doesn't have enough fields to support two leagues, while KLOR has simply established a strong foothold among a very loyal member base.

"We can't stop [WAKA] from doing what they do," he says, "but I can't see people leaving our league to join theirs."

Such dedication was evident on that cool June night at Genesee Valley Park. After the Kickball All-Stars and Tulips and Blue Balls filtered away from the field, the teams from the night's next contest begin to gather around the diamond.

One of the squads, C U Next Tuesday (consider the acronym), has been with KLOR from the beginning. "We're the OG," says team member Lesley Havens. When asked why she plays, she says it's simple. "Because it's awesome," she says, a can of Labatt Blue in her hand.

Another teammate, burly and Belushi-esque Nick Tatar, ambles to the team's table after winning the opening beer shotgun challenge. Upon overhearing the question and Havens' subsequent answer, Tatar blurts out his own rationale, one that pretty much sums up the appeal and spirit of adult kickball.

"Because," he shouts with a huge grin, "we're not picked last!"

For more information on the Kickball League of Rochester visit kickball-rochester.com. For information on the World Adult Kickball Association check kickball.com.

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