Washington Post: The Story

Written by - Posted 2009-07-18 19:57 in News

Les Carpenter (2-5, 1 R, 2 RBI) of the Washington Post spent a few weeks hanging out with the Potomac Wiffleball League during our Spring 2009 season. (I guess that’s what NFL reporters do in June and July.)

A feature story, video, and photos ran Sunday, July 19.

Part III: ‘Just’ Wiffle Ball? Not a Chance
Tony Ragano Lets His Competitive Fire Burn on the Fields at Fort Reno Park

By Les Carpenter
Washington Post Staff
Saturday, July 18, 2009 1:57 PM

On a gentle Sunday morning, with the sandstone castle towers of Fort Reno Park rising behind him, the most competitive player in the adult, co-ed, slow-pitch Potomac Wiffleball League tugs on a Camel Light and swears.

Tony Ragano loves statistics. But more than statistics he loves his strikeouts, which he gets in great abundance in Wiffle ball thanks to his two favorite pitches: a knuckle ball that dances as if it has been unleashed in a hurricane and a slider he deems to be “unhittable.”

And yet he doesn’t just get strikeouts, he bleeds for his strikeouts, bellowing words that should never be uttered in a child’s game when the little plastic ball fails to go where he wants or even worse, is actually hit by the yellow plastic bat.

For Ragano, there is an honor in being the strikeout king of a slow-pitch Wiffle ball league, a dignity in opening the league’s Web site, and seeing his name in all of the statistical leaders. At 33, with more than a few traces of white hair, he looks like the oldest player in the league. And probably is. He sees nothing wrong in gently giving a “yer out” thumb to a player who does not yet realize that Ragano has struck him out. It’s all a part of the battle.

“Yeah I guess it sounds silly,” he says. “But what can I say? I love to win, man.”

He loves it so much that once this spring he forced himself from bed with one of the worst hangovers of his life, simply because it was Sunday. Wiffle ball day.

Ragano does not miss Wiffle ball days.

Weeks later Ragano would come to look upon that morning with a pang of lament. Not for the binge that wrought his suffering but for the game that ensued: an extra inning, scoreless duel against a group of college-aged kids who call themselves the Blandsford Barnburners. A game decided on a curve ball that never curved, a flat, lifeless pitch that a Barnburners player smacked over the temporary construction fence 85 feet away for a home run that still haunts Ragano. A game he will call “a straight up war.”

His girlfriend, Laura Cullip, who is sitting next to him as he says this, sighs and says, “Tony, it’s Wiffle ball.”

Then, as if in a plea for perspective, she repeats herself, exaggerating each syllable: “It’s wiiiiii-ffffffff-llllllllll-eeeee ball!”

Only to Ragano it is never just Wiffle ball.

“No,” he replies somberly. “It was a war, man. It was a war.”

People are surprised to discover there is such a thing as a Wiffle ball league in Northwest Washington, especially one that keeps score of games and tracks official statistics. This is, after all, a child’s game played with plastic bats and balls. And yet the Potomac Wiffleball League is conducted with great formality over two seasons a year, with eight teams of three to five players each with names like Scared Hitless, Wackazoids and Ragano’s aptly titled Clubber Lang. They do this on two pockmarked fields at Fort Reno Park, on grass that is freshly trimmed and base paths lined with white paint. Games are videotaped by a pair of camcorders set up on tripods behind home plate. And when the games are finished, there are player-of-the-week awards, as well as MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year trophies to be given away — at, of all things, a season-ending awards banquet.

It is, in the words of its commissioner, Chris Gallaway, “as professional as I can make it.”

Only it would never be the same after the day last summer when Ragano, fresh after a move from Santa Clara, Calif., clicked on the Internet and found beckoning like Valhalla from his laptop.

“I was like ‘I’m going to dominate this league!’ “ Ragano recalls. “I’m the best Wiffle ball player in the world.”

He grabbed two co-workers from his new job as a systems engineer at Northrup Grumman and signed up for the fall season.

In its first 3½ years of play, the happy little association that was the Potomac Wiffleball League had never encountered someone quite like Ragano. His bellowing voice, sounding more North Jersey than San Francisco Bay, rumbled across the park. He slid into bases and snapped off curveballs with an obvious zeal, all while puffing on his Camel Lights.

Yet nowhere did Ragano announce his arrival as much as this May when he and his brother found a way to circumvent the league Web site’s software and hijack for Ragano a player of the week contest that another player appeared to be winning. Ragano’s reason? The perfect game he pitched was against a challenging team while the other player threw his against a team made up mostly of women that would win just one game the whole season.

“I had a good game against a decent team, man,” he says. “I think I actually earned it. And to see myself in a horse race against a guy who accomplished nothing?”

His voice trails off. He frowns at the audacity of the other player to think he deserved to be player of the week after such a meaningless perfect game.

Gallaway chuckles. “I think the dynamic of the league changed when Tony came along,” he says.

But there is also a big part of Gallaway that appreciates Ragano, that feels a kinship with anyone who can care so much about a Wiffle ball league. “I love the way that Tony throws himself into it,” he says.

How can Gallaway not? After all, he is the one who invented this thing.

A large man, Gallaway has always been something of an innovator. As a child in Dwight, Kan., he baffled his father by elaborately mowing a golf course — with fairways, roughs and greens — into the lawn of the family house. In high school, he confounded school officials when he exploited a ban on vending machine sales at lunchtime by lugging suitcases of soft drinks that he sold for a profit in the cafeteria.

And as an adult he was executive director of the Democratic Party in Kansas, a losing proposition in a Republican state until he helped to get a Democrat, Kathleen Sebelius, elected governor. Sebelius is now President Obama’s secretary of health and human services. But it wasn’t until 2004, when Gallaway moved here to become a vice president for Fieldworks, a political consulting company, that he dared to tempt his Wiffle ball dream.

The Potomac Wiffleball League was born the following spring.

The rules were simple. No throwing hard. Only three players — a pitcher, catcher and fielder — can be on the field at the same time. Outs are made by swinging strikeout, catching a ball in the air or on a ground ball that the pitcher controls — either by fielding it himself or by having the fielder throw it to him before the batter touches first. Fielders are also allowed to “peg” runners with thrown balls.

From the beginning it was a spectacle that only a true visionary could imagine. Gallaway chose to put his league at Gravelly Point, a park just north of Reagan National Airport that offered stunning views of the Potomac River and the Washington Monument. He designed the narrow fan-shaped field from literature provided by the Wiffle Ball Inc. in Shelton, Conn., placing the pitcher’s rubber 30 feet from home plate, the bases 40 feet apart and the outfield fences 80-100 feet away. In those early years he used rolls of plastic orange construction fencing for the outfield walls, holding them up with stakes he drove into the ground. For foul poles he bought telescopic swimming pool cleaners, removing the nets and attaching the poles to the edge of the fence.

“Chris is an organizer by nature, always has been,” his wife, Allison, says. “He isn’t the kind to sit around with his friends. He likes to go out and organize things and put them together.”

Which is probably good, because now he finds himself doing more work than ever at the Potomac Wiffleball League’s new home in Fort Reno Park. This year, because of a park construction project, the league is being played on the edge of a meadow that sits up against a galvanized, chain link construction fence. This gives the league a natural home run barrier, mitigating the need for much construction fencing. But since the meadow is overgown, Gallaway must pack his lawnmower into his trunk and drive to Fort Reno on the day before games to mow and then line the fields.

Then each Sunday morning he drives back to Fort Reno, where, after installing the foul poles and unspooling the little bit of orange fencing he still needs to put up, he pulls out a table, chair and tent. He places the table and tent between the two fields where he will sit for most of the two sets of doubleheaders, wearing an official Wiffle Ball cap and scoring two games simultaneously on portable computers.

At his feet he keeps a store display box of official Wiffle balls, ordered from the official Wiffle Ball outlet, each packed in its own official black Wiffle Ball box. Every time a ball goes over the fence, rather than search through the weeds, he pulls another official ball from the official box and throws it into play just like the big leagues, ensuring that an unscuffed ball is being used at all times. Gallaway concedes he could probably buy the same box of Wiffle balls from a local toy shop, yet he likes the feeling of buying from the official store, waiting for a package to arrive.

“It’s more authentic,” he says.

But in the end nothing is as essential to the league as the statistics Gallaway carefully tabulates each week — everything from batting average to ERA to slugging percentage. This is the thread that holds everything together, the lure that keeps players coming back season after season regardless of ability, even as jobs and time restrictions make it harder and harder to come out for Sunday morning Wiffle ball. Everybody loves to see their name on a list of statistics, even if the numbers say they aren’t very good.

“How do you measure yourself against other people if you don’t have stats?” he says. “How do you measure yourself against history if you don’t have stats? How do you measure yourself against someone from the 2006 season without stats?”

Ragano couldn’t agree more. He obsesses over his statistics, racing home to pore over them, running through each play of the day’s games to be sure the numbers are correct. If he allows any runs, a rare occurrence given his 0.58 ERA this season, he pulls out a calculator to see what his ERA would have been had those runs not scored. Then he spends the next several days agonizing over the pitches he threw that yielded those hits — usually hanging sliders — and wonders why he threw them in the first place.

Watching him pitch a Wiffle ball game is a lot like watching Bob Knight play golf. Mistakes, particularly his own, disgust him, eliciting so many sudden eruptions of profanity that some around the league refer to him as “[bleep] me Tony,” as if to distinguish him from other Tonys who might drift through.

One of his teammates, whenever he’s the catcher for Ragano, always makes sure to throw the ball back to a place where Ragano can’t catch it in the air, forever annoying him. When Ragano asked the player why he did this, the player told him he pitched better when he was ticked off.

Ragano laughs.

“What can I say? I don’t like to lose, man,” he says.

Away from Wiffle ball, Ragano is actually quite nice, a fan consumed with his teams, who loves talking sports. Gregarious but not obnoxious. Nothing like the person who snaps at his teammates when they fail to drive in runs.

It’s a dichotomy that almost doesn’t make sense.

Except to Cullip it does.

It goes back to high school, she says, when Ragano wanted nothing more than to pitch for the baseball team at Bellarmine Prep, a prestigious Catholic boys school in San Jose, only to be cut in each of his four years. Ragano nods, it’s true. The last was the worst. According to Ragano, the choice for the final spot came down to him and a younger transfer student with vast potential named Pat Burrell. Burrell went on to win the World Series last year with the Philadelphia Phillies and then signed a $16 million contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, while Ragano throws perfect games for Clubber Lang.

“His redeeming factor is Wiffle ball,” Cullip says.

Last October, Clubber Lang lost in the first round of the league’s fall playoffs, missing the World Series that Gallaway decided to play at night under a series of portable construction lights he rented from Home Depot.

Last weekend, Ragano and Clubber Lang advanced to the best-of-three-game spring World Series. This time the games were played on Sunday afternoon, with an American flag affixed to the fence along with a specially printed championship banner that dangled nearby. Gallaway provided updates on the Web site so anyone (namely Ragano’s brother) could follow along.

Clubber Lang lost twice to the Blandsford Barnburners, the group of college-age kids whose own dedication might rival Ragano’s, as they drive every Sunday from the Manassas area.

This was hard for Ragano, who set a league record for strikeouts in a season with 40 and yet will be forced to attend the Potomac Wiffleball League’s award banquet and watch as someone else receives the champion’s trophy he wanted desperately to be his.

The other day found him reliving the pitching mistakes that cost him the World Series. Each one a hanging slider. The thoughts made him curse.

Then he brightened. He has been working on a screwball to go with his slider and knuckleball, he says. A new pitch that he described as “filthy,” one he is sure will be ready by the start of the fall season.

“I will be flat out unhittable,” the most competitive player in the Potomac Wiffleball League says most assuredly.

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