Recess returns

A woman about to kick a kickball on a baseball field

I

t came from Columbus. Or was it Richmond? Or maybe it was simply the playgrounds of our youth. Now it has invaded Mt. Lebanon, specifically a few elementary school grounds on certain summer evenings.

A man who just kicked a ball, his leg high up, the ball high in the air
Gary Oden’s teammates call him their spirit animal. They also call him Thor.

It makes kids out of adults. It makes gawkers out of kids. It usually ends with a trip to a local watering hole. It has the power to forge friendships and generate grins. And pretty much everyone who participates, well, gets a kick out of it.

Behold the Mt. Lebanon Adult Kickball League. Red rubber ball and all.

Yes, the same game you might have played when you were 10, but now it’s for those 26 and over (although that minimum age could come down) who gather on six Thursday nights each summer, usually at Lincoln Elementary and occasionally at others.

“It’s such a fun, cool atmosphere,” said player/coach Chris Reidenbaugh, 45, McFarland Road. “We’ve met so many good friends. We do Christmas parties together. We go to The Saloon. We watch Steelers games together. It’s a really, really, really neat thing for the community.”

Reidenbaugh, whose wife, Michele, is one of his teammates, pitches or plays shortstop. He has been involved from the start. The league opened play in 2019, got shut down for two years because of COVID-19, and returned last summer.

Last year the league fielded four teams, although organizers would like to double that number.

“I think eight teams would be great,” said Jeff Siegler, 46, Arden Road, who mostly plays second base.

Credit Siegler with bringing the idea to Mt. Lebanon. He started playing as a graduate student in Richmond, Virginia, in an established league and enjoyed it enough that when he moved to the Columbus, Ohio, area in 2016, he started a league there. It prospered, with some 200 players.

“The mayor even played one year,” Siegler said. “I’m a big believer that it was something that really brought the
community together.

“I’m franchising, I guess.”

Siegler didn’t have much luck with a kickball league in Mt. Lebanon at first. He found it very difficult to book field time without an “in.”

That’s where Tim Defeo comes in. He has been involved in soccer leagues in Mt. Lebanon and runs some adult leagues, including softball. When Siegler approached Defeo about adding kickball, it seemed like a perfect fit.

Defeo wanted to add more adult sports leagues. Football and dodgeball seemed too dangerous, and insurance costs were prohibitive. He gave basketball a whirl, but it didn’t blossom.

“We thought kickball would be less (physically) impactful,” said Defeo, 46, McNeilly Road. “It would be easy, nostalgic, fun. It was meant to improve the social aspect. Kickball is also low equipment, low cost. Kickball is $50 and you get six weeks and a team T-shirt.”

Defeo became not only the overseer of the kickball league under his adult sports leagues umbrella, but also a player.

“It was a blast,” Defeo said. “I was always a good athlete as a kid. All of a sudden I’m back on the pitcher’s mound being good again. Like, I’ve still got it.”

He likes it so much that he is determined to play again this summer despite ongoing recovery from a stroke earlier this year.

Others who try the sport overwhelmingly seem to like it and stick with it.

A kickball team of men and women posing for a picture
Looking for a game: From left, front row: Elle Kartik, Jess Ehrhardt and Hilary Wheatley. Middle row: Susanne Morgan, Michele Larson, Tiffany Oden, Chris Reidenbaugh and Anastasia Angelopoulos. Back row: Chris Ehrhardt, Jeremy Nelson, Rohit Dharwadkar, Kevin Corcoran and Thane Osterdahl.

Tiffany Oden is a charter league member. She is more into outdoorsy activities but agreed to give this team sport a try. It helped that her husband, Gary, also agreed to play.

“I hadn’t played it since elementary school. My husband and I literally watched a couple of YouTube videos and bought our own ball, so two times before we played, we went out to practice kicking the ball so we wouldn’t look like doofuses,” Oden, 42, of Marlin Drive West, said. “We all still look like doofuses, but we all bonded over it. We’ve met people who I never would have met otherwise and still am really good friends with.”

Oden, an outfielder, appreciates the coed rules the league employs. In the lineup, women are required to come to the plate at least every third player, and there are quotas for women in the infield.

a woman holding a kickball about to throw it at someone
Flo Angelo keeping a runner at bay.

“It is fair because everyone gets a turn,” Oden said. “No one likes sitting on the bench. The rules are fair and good. And no one feels judged.”

The rules are pretty much what you might expect. There are 10 fielders. Pitchers roll the ball toward home plate. Kickers–you can’t really call them batters–try to kick it where fielders aren’t. Fielding and baserunning are standard, except of course there aren’t any fielding gloves for a ball that size. Bounce passes to fielders manning the bases or home plate are allowed.

Because kicking a ball is easier than the hand-eye coordination required in baseball and softball, strikeouts almost never happen and contact is standard, making for a lot of action in the games that last 55 minutes or six innings.

Curiosity often gets the better of neighbors out walking, or kids on nearby playground equipment.

“Some people stop by and wonder what the heck is going on,” Siegler said. “They wonder what a bunch of grownups are doing running around chasing a big red ball. I think it’s fairly entertaining to witness.”

For those who have forgotten, what does it feel like to really land a solid kick?

A man in the process of kicking a kickball really hard, a woman in the background watching

“It feels really good,” Oden said, “but then you’re like, ‘Oh no, now I have to run.’ It’s hard because you hope you don’t kick it too high because it’s likely to get caught, and you don’t want to kick it too low because it’s easier for an infielder to get.”

Kickers don’t need helmets because there is no danger of getting hit in the head with a pitch. Typical outfits are shorts, athletic shoes and uniform T-shirts.

With players ranging up into their 50s, there are some safety rules, enforced by sanctioned referees. There is a halo, or in-the-vicinity, allowance on force plays so there aren’t runner-fielder collisions. Fielders must tag runners below the head; otherwise they are safe.

“This isn’t Major League Baseball rules here,” said Reidenbaugh, who despite the safety rules took a horrendous spill trying to dive over a tag last summer, breaking an arm, an ankle and two toes, and tearing his rotator cuff.

“I really did an awesome number,” he said, quickly adding, “I’m 100 percent playing this year.”

There are no on-field or organizational details that specifically adhere to any national or international governing body, and no affiliation with such entities. The league does use a sanctioned red rubber kickball, although Defeo admits they “deflate the ball a little bit” to make playing a little easier. Perhaps Tom Brady would approve.

This is strictly recreational and social–and local, for Mt. Lebanon residents. So there is no path to a national championship. And that’s OK.

Officially, the score isn’t kept, although it’s not difficult for the players to keep track. But hard feelings are rare.

“We always shake hands at the end of the game. That’s why we all go out for beers afterward,” said Reidenbaugh, who is ambipedal–he can kick with either foot and does so strategically, but said it’s because “at my age, I try and work smarter, not harder.”

The generally low-key approach is part of the organizers’ and players’ recruiting pitch to fellow Mt. Lebanon adults.

“I think some people are intimidated—‘I’m not going to be good at kickball, so I don’t want to play’ but it’s not even about that,” Oden said. “Every now and then you get the super intense dude who brings their cleats to play some serious kickball.”

The players have a way of dealing with those outliers.

“We say if you take it seriously, you’re doing it wrong,” Siegler said. “Everybody strives to play well and win, but if people get overly competitive about it, they usually get made fun of. It is meant to be low-key, fun, nostalgic and social.”

Registration for the 2023 season runs through June 10. Email leboadultkb@gmail.com and check out the kickball zone at www.shsportzclub.org for more information.

Photos by Ken Lager