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updated: 7/13/2010 10:47 AM

Lombard restaurant owner seriously devoted to backyard fun

'Pasta Park' a Wiffle ball fan's delight

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  • Tony Maroney, 81, keeps his eyes on the ball during a Wiffle ball game at Pasta Park in Lombard.

       Tony Maroney, 81, keeps his eyes on the ball during a Wiffle ball game at Pasta Park in Lombard.
    Tanit Jarusan | Staff Photographer

 
 

The Meatballs are a lovable, if not motley, crew.

There's Tony Maroney, an 81-year-old widower, who hardly ever misses a game. The two little boys, ages 7 and 9, who live across the street. And a bunch of fortysomething guys who played baseball in high school and college but now get the biggest kick out of hitting a perforated ball with a plastic bat.

It's not as easy as it looks.

"You would think, 'Oh, man, I could crack one over those bushes any day,'" Keith Giagnorio says. "You'd be shocked."

The Meatballs are the team name given to the loose-knit collection of family, friends and neighbors who play at Pasta Park, the little Wiffle ball "stadium" put together by Giagnorio, owner of a local Italian restaurant, in a side yard of his Lombard house. While hot dogs roast on the grill, fans sit on rickety wooden bleachers salvaged from the scrap heap. This marks the second summer of the new park.

Giagnorio - a Lombard village trustee, former park district president and owner of Gianorio's Pizza and Pasta - says it's all about having fun.

The Meatballs play on Sunday afternoons. Games are seven innings and last about an hour and a half.

Each team has a pitcher, catcher and two outfielders.

Assuming the Wiffle ball isn't caught in the air, specific zones on the field determine whether a hit is a single, double or triple.

"The only time you run is when you're doing your glory trot when you hit a home run," Keith Giagnorio says. It's a home run if the ball clears the bushes along Harrison Road. Giagnorio discourages the outfielders from making heroic dives into the shrubbery, based on personal experience.

"Last year, I went face first into the bushes," he said. "It does a number on your face, believe me. It took about two weeks to clear that up."

Keith and Angela Giagnorio built their home nine years ago. Two years ago, they were offered the chance to buy the property next door, a little yellow house with a big yard in front of it. They jumped at it.

The Giagnorios rented out the house, but Keith knew he wanted to do something with the big yard besides mow it.

He brainstormed with some buddies.

"Four of us sat down one night and had a few cocktails, one thing led to another, and it's really grown from there," he said.

After checking out the dimensions for the diamond on a Wiffle ball website, Giagnorio and his son Joey, 19, headed outside with a tape measure. Then they set out to create Pasta Park.

Giagnorio found used bases at Play it Again Sports. He brought the electronic message board - for posting home run leaders - home from the pizza shop. A friend stenciled "Meatballs" on a white bench.

One sign is special: #36 Finek, in honor of one of Giagnorio's baseball buddies, who died of a sudden heart attack on March 6.

The "stands" are wooden bleachers that the Lombard Park District was discarding. The drink holders staked in the field - the catcher kept kicking over his beer - are from a yard sale and were adorned with decorative ladybugs. Someone painted a baseball over the bug body, but the little insect legs still stick out.

The tall bushes mostly hide Pasta Park from the street, but neighbors out walking their dogs often stop to watch an inning or two. Or they're welcome to join in.

"The neighbors have been terrific," Giagnorio says. "If they don't come out and play, they'll come out and watch."

Pasta Park even has lights for the occasional night game.

Wiffle ball can be as competitive as any other sport, but that's not how it's played in Pasta Park. Sure, there are some disagreements - especially "as it gets later in the afternoon and the beer consumption goes up," Giagnorio says - but it's all in fun.

"If you come out here and you're really serious, you're not going to fit in," Giagnorio said.

He played baseball at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park and Elmhurst College and in the park district's over-40 league. But his Wiffle ball days go back to his childhood days growing up with his 10 brothers and sisters. "We made our own fun," he said. Now, three of his brothers sometimes come out to challenge the Meatballs.

Giagnorio's 73-year-old father-in-law, Jerry Murrin, is one of the Meatballs' regular pitchers. "Why are you making Dad pitch so many games?" Angela asked once her husband. "He wants to," Keith said. Friends bring their kids to splash in the Giagnorios' pool, while the moms watch the game from the deck.

"It's 10 times more fun than I ever thought it would be," Giagnorio says. "It's a blast."

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