Constable: Annual Wiffle ball tourney in Naperville turns these men into the Backyard Boys
Athletic and full of energy, a bunch of Madison Junior High School boys made Wiffle ball their Naperville neighborhood pastime a decade ago.
"The second the bell rang, we'd run home from school. School ended at 2:30 and we'd start a game by 3 p.m.," remembers Matthew Meier, 23, a management consultant for a health care company in Chicago. His parents, Terry and Cindy Meier, hosted the games in their backyard in the Farmington subdivision, and his younger brother, Patrick, 22, now an investment banking analyst, also played. The fenced-in yard had trees and a swing set in the field of play, but the boys made it work.
"In middle school, we would play all day and night," recalls Brian Wirtz, 23, a consultant for a Chicago accounting agency. "We'd bring lights out."
They even entered a Wiffle ball tournament in Rosemont in 2011 as the Backyard Boys and beat a few adult teams. Last weekend, as they have done every summer, the Backyard Boys left their homes and busy lives for a two-day tournament in the Meier family's backyard.
"People are dumbfounded. 'For a Wiffle ball tourney? What are you, 12 years old?'" says Mike Mlotek, 23, who flew in for the tourney from his home in Las Vegas, where he works in sports booking for DraftKings. "I haven't missed one yet."
The night before the tournament starts "is the closest you get to that feeling of Christmas Eve when you were a kid," Mlotek says.
Many of the participants were excellent athletes during their days at Naperville Central High School or Benet Academy in Lisle. Mlotek and Ryan Eiermann were standout baseball players. Matthew Meier ran track and was an all-area basketball player. Wirtz was a golfer. Jon Barker played football at the University of Dayton.
"Growing up, we always played sports," Wirtz says. "I think we all enjoyed Wiffle ball the most. Honestly, it was just pure enjoyment."
Ground rules haven't changed -- any ball that hits the fence is a double, or any ball that hits a tree is a foul ball but can still be caught for an out. First base is a bench, and third base is a tree. When the swing set gave way to a patio, Matthew Meier persuaded the builders to move it a few feet so it wouldn't be in the base path.
The neighbors on the other side of the home-run fence are happy to let the guys retrieve balls, but the players leave the foul balls that land in the yard of a less accommodating neighbor.
As kids, the players downed hundreds of frozen Popsicles. Rye whiskey has been added to the postgame festivities in recent years.
"It's definitely changed a little bit in terms of what we tap into, but it's the childhood connection I have with all these guys," says Barker, who lives in Chicago and works in software sales. "We all went our separate ways in terms of careers, friend sets, girlfriends and whatnot, but it's a weekend you look forward to."
Every year, captains draft among the dozen players to form four three-man teams, which play a round-robin tournament on Saturday and a double-elimination tournament that crowns a champion on Sunday.
"Eating freeze pops and hoisting a trophy hasn't changed," says Meier, who notes the winners get their names engraved on the permanent trophy. "Trust me, everyone gets intense."
They hit more home runs when they were little skinny kids, because now the pitching is so much better. Patrick Meier was on the winning team for a record fourth time this year, but everybody knows what it feels like to win and lose. Mlotek is a three-time winner whose team has lost the championship game the last three years.
"I'm still just overthinking some pitches I made in the 5th inning Sunday," says Mlotek, who let a 7-1 lead evaporate in the penultimate inning. "I gave up a 10 spot."
That's OK. There's always next year.