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Don’t let the hollow yellow bat and plastic ball fool you — the competition that takes place every July at Smithfield Community Park is serious.
With fields measuring only 140 feet to the deepest part of center field and bases just 50 feet apart, many first-time participants make the mistake of underestimating the North Carolina Wiffle Ball Tournament.
They learn quickly it’s not as easy as it looks.
“I’m not going to lie to you, when they talked about a Wiffle Ball tournament, I said, ‘Oh, this will be easy,’” said Nashville resident Mark Wooten, who grew up playing baseball. “I learned how hard it was coming out here. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be, so it’s definitely a challenge. You’ve definitely got to have skill to play it.”
The tournament, which started in 1982 as the Kenly Wiffle Ball Tournament by a group of teenagers, reached its 38th year with the 2019 edition, played Saturday and Sunday at Smithfield Community Park, and is among the top Wiffle Ball events played anywhere.
Now based in Smithfield, the annual summer contest is the longest-running state tournament in the country and the second-oldest in the world, behind only the World Wiffle Ball Championship in Midlothian, Illinois.
The game is played out like baseball, with players running the bases and changing sides after two outs. The games were limited to four innings to keep time down, though 2019 ended up being the longest in tournament history.
With top competitions, games can become heated, although a brawl in the 1992 championship game that was spurred by a runner who barreled over the catcher is the lone blemish on its record. Most of the aggression works its way out through play by friendly trash talk.
Over the years, the tournament has seen participants come from all over the state, though most teams come locally from Johnston, Wayne or Wilson counties.
With a base of players, some of whom have been around since the start, the tournament also serves as a reunion.
“Some of these guys I don’t see but once a year and that’s during this time,” Uncensored’s Jordan Adams said. “So it’s good to get out here and see everyone.”
After years of competition, the tournament thrives on tradition. It has a Hall of Fame, database of all-time performances and records that live on its official website. Director Jeff Davis announced the third installment of its all-decade team in between games on July 13-14.
“It’s almost kind of sad in a way that we still care this much about it, but they take it very serious,” Davis said. “In the last 10 years we’ve had hundreds and hundreds of guys play.”
UNCENSORED GOES UNDEFEATED
In 2019, 12 teams participated in the double-elimination format.
To enter, creative names were a near-requirement. Where My Pitches At, Urine Trouble and Get A Whiff were some of the fan favorites, but in the end, it was Uncensored from Johnston County that captured the title, its fourth since 2014 to respond to runner-up honors in 2018.
The team of Joey Creech of Kenly, along with Benson residents Spencer Griswold, Jordan Adams, Craig Hardin and Ryan Barefoot ran through the competition without losing a game.
After receiving a first-round bye, the team beat the Astros 9-0, then took down Clique before beating Super Smash Bros 3-1 in a walkoff, then 7-5 in the championship Sunday.
The eventual runner-ups of Daniel Westbrook, Reid Barefoot, Austin Lee and Adam Williams had been undefeated until meeting with Uncensored in the championship series.
HISTORY OF THE TOURNAMENT
As a 13-year-old in 1982, Jeff Davis and his friends played the first Kenly Wiffle Ball Tournament in the backyard of Ray Ballance, a local resident whose son participated in the game.
The kids who played, ranging from ages 9 to 19, constructed a fence made of chicken wire and played a rudimentary two-on-two version with five teams.
That first year, the Dream Team of Mike Grizzard and Chris Davis emerged victorious, beating out Jeff Davis and Ken Ballance in the championship game.
Twenty-nine years earlier in 1953, David N. Mulaney, a former Connecticut baseball player, designed the now-famous sports ball for his 12-year-old son and friends, who kept breaking windows with baseballs.
In Kenly, Davis said he and his friends got into the sport for the same reason.
“We broke windows all the time playing baseball, so we started playing Wiffle Ball,” he said.
Over the years, the tournament became legendary among local kids. Creech, an N.C. Wiffle Ball Hall-of-Famer, said he began playing in high school, when the tournament first became state-wide.
Creech has played in every tournament since then, except 2005 because he got in a car accident and broke his neck.
“I was out here still and umpired,” Creech said.
Hunter Grantham, a Kenly native who is now a junior at East Carolina University, trended on the younger end of participants. He grew up waiting to be old enough to play and won a championship in 2018 along with other fellow North Johnston High graduates.
“I started playing when I was 13,” Grantham said. “I knew Jeff all my life.”
Tradition binds the tournament together year after year for residents of all kinds. Davis said around the state, the reputation has driven it toward being known as the best Wiffle Ball competition of anywhere.
“We’ve got the best slow-to-medium pitch Wiffle Ball, seriously, in America, I believe,” Davis said. “That’s really the truth.”