Ann Arbor News, July 18, 2001

A whiff of baseball
Players create Wiffle Ball diamond in rough
News Sports Reporter

Jim Haynes’ backyard is looking a little ragged these days.

The grass is completely gone from a spot near the deck of his home off Platt Road in Pittsfield Township. Similar well-worn paths dot his nearly half-acre lot.

Blame it on Michigan’s unending dry spell?

No, blame it on a bunch of teenagers and twenty-somethings who have, much to Haynes’ delight, built their own “Field od Dreams” in the area behind his home in the Warner Creek subdivision.

Welcome to Pittsfield Yards, the Wiffle Ball capital of Washtenaw County.

This is where Haynes’ son, Kevin, had a Kevin Costner-like of ambition one day last month. The 18-year-old Saline High School graduate tied string to wooden stakes to serve as outfield fences, threw down some rubber bases, painted foul lines, bought seven Halogen work lights and four floodlights at Home Depot, borrowed ladders and extension cords from neighbors – and invited friends, fellow high school baseball players and casual acquaintances to become part of his grand plan.

And this is where, up to five evenings a week, this same core group of 10-12 young men have been gathering over the last few weeks for intense but friendly sessions of Wiffle Ball – a childhood variation on baseball where plastics bats and balls replace the harder versions.

To Haynes and his buddies, this is serious stuff. So serious that they record boxscores and maintain statistics on the 29 different players who have swung a bat at Pittsfield Yards so far – batting averages, home runs, on-base percentages … you name it. They play as many as seven seven-inning games in a single night, sometimes not putting their bats down until 11:30 p.m. after four hours of swinging at crazy curves and catching lazy fly balls with the hang time of an Arnold Schwarzenegger chin-up.

“When we play, it’s very serious,” Haynes said. “But the minute it’s over, we’re friends again.”

All of this is serious to a point, of course. Proof of this is their web site (www.salineguide.com/wifflet), where the stats are accompanied by pseudo-serious articles about mythical all-star balloting, light trash-talking and on-line polls (“What would you like to see happen at ‘The Pitt’ before summer winds down? A – Jordan Walker to never win another games; B – Kevin Haynes’ [on-base percentage] to reach .600; C – Derek Haynes [Kevin’s 20-year-old brother] hurdle the outfield fence and make a catch”)

“If they didn’t do the stats, it wouldn’t be serious,” said Kevin Hartman, one of the players.

The neighbors? Few have complaints about how Haynes and his friends have brought back a little bit of lost Americana. This is sandlot baseball, only with no sand and hollow balls instead. On a typical evening, many will stop by to admire Kevin’s handiwork – and, if they dare, accept an invitation to take a few swings.

Or, in the case of next-door neighbor John Lapsley, become part of the peanut gallery. On
a recent Sunday night, the middle-aged salesman put two steaks on the grill and settled in a comfortable chair to watch the action.

“These are luxury boxes over here,” said Lapsley, who lent Haynes an extra-tall ladder where two of the larger Halogen lights have been placed. “It’s funny just watching them, seeing how much work they put into it.”

John’s wife, Linda, also approves, noting that she never hears the players swear or argue despite the apparent intensity of the games. “They’re great kids,” she said of the Haynes brothers. “We’ve known them forever.”

Over at the Pitt, Eric Ichesco steps to the plate. An All-State baseball player at Saline who wound up with more career hits than anybody in Michigan history, the 18-year-old has been assured a non-scholarship spot on the University of Michigan baseball team next spring. It was his father Wesley – a dentist, whose shingle hangs in the outfield along with an assortment of political yard signs – who inspired Kevin Haynes when he set up a no-frills Wiffle Ball field at Eric’s graduation open house this past spring.

Ichesco sees a pitch he likes. and before the ball can reach the cardboard rectangle set up to serve as both strike zone and backstop, he smashes the ball.

Up it goes. Over the heads of the pitchers and three fielders. Over the new scoreboard making its debut this past weekend. Over three small pine trees and onto a patch of grass, where a resident had just been walking his dog.

“Where’s the tape measure,” Lapsley yells out from his chair.

As a grinning Ichesco rounds the bases, someone goes out to retrieve the home run ball, planting a utility flag where it hit the ground. On Monday, the distance will be measured to see if it broke the all-time record of 148 feet.

It didn’t, falling 11 feet short.

Despite his big-time baseball credentials, Ichesco is not always the most dominant player at the Pitt. He’s hitting .279, only 30 points better than the players’ cumulative average and way below his career .460 average in high school. Brian Keates, who has never played organized baseball, is the only regular batting better than .300 at .308.

“I always like Wiffle Ball better than baseball just because I’m bad at (baseball),” said Keates, 20, a Michigan State junior.

Because the ball is slow and the field small, most Wiffle Ball games are 3-2 and 1-0 defensive battles. The hole-filled ball can curve like a Bugs Bunny pitch without too much effort. And just hitting the ball as hard as you can won’t accomplish anything.

“You hit the ball too hard and it just spins the ball up,” said the 19-year-old Hartman, a Miami (Ohio) University junior who went hitless in his first 12 attempts, but is now batting .294. “You have to hold the bat back and use a lot less muscle”

No one knows if The Yards will exist after this summer. Many of the players are poised to go their separate ways.

“I wish I had done this five years ago,” Kevin Haynes, who will be going to Clemson this fall, said wistfully. “It’s one reason why we play so much. We’re very aware of the time factor involved. This could be our only time for something like this.”

It’s also why Kein’s father can accept all those ugly ruts in his once-green lawn. “I’ll sacrifice my grass,” Jim Haynes said. “I’m not sure how many days we have left with (Derek and Kevin) around. We’ve got to enjoy this.”