Jason Kutcher was out. Then he was out again.
Kutcher, a 24-year-old legislative affairs assistant, had knocked the big, red rubber ball into the hole between first and second base and shambled toward first.
“Go, Jason, go!” his teammates chorused. “Run! Run!”
But the young woman playing first for the Project Kickball team in Washington's DC Kickball league scooped up the ball and stepped on the bag for the out. Then, for good measure, she pegged the ball at Kutcher's stomach, tagging him out yet again.
“That was fun for me, too,” he said, back on the sideline. “Humiliating and emasculating at the same time.”
But humiliation and emasculation don't carry quite the same weight when the player is laughing, the game is kickball, the name of your team is too risque to appear in a family newspaper, and the stakes are, well, playground pride. (For the record, Project Kickball won, 4-0.) Standing on the grassy field as the sun set behind the Washington Monument, Kutcher was merely one of tens of thousands of young adults in the US who are playing kickball in organized leagues.
That only a few fans showed up — a lone girlfriend, a few friends, a jogger who stopped to watch and a handful of players waiting for their own game — didn't much matter to the four teams that played the early games one recent weeknight and then, perhaps more important, headed to a local pub afterward.
This is kickball, after all — yes, kickball, of recess necessity and grammar school superstars — and half the fun is just in playing a game that once seemed destined for playground nostalgia.
Washington lays claim to being a center of organized kickball. Besides DC Kickball and other smaller leagues, the city is home to the World Adult Kickball Association, or WAKA, the sport's largest sanctioning body.
“It's a youth-oriented thing, so it has this great reminiscing quality, and everyone remembers being great for some reason,” said Johnny LeHane, a WAKA founder. “It's something everyone can play.”
If part of kickball's appeal is its simplicity, WAKA's founding in 1998 was simpler still — just four young guys in the Washington area looking to do something that was fun and that would allow them to, yes, drink beer and meet young women.
Even as the association expanded nationwide, the game stayed much the same — five innings, a minimum of four men and four women on the field at all times (11 altogether) and, of course, a nearly mandatory postgame trip to a cherished bar. The sport most closely resembles baseball, but with the playground twist in the form of the big, red ball that players must kick before running the bases.
In Los Angeles, Christopher Noxon and a few of his buddies started playing Sunday pickup games in their neighborhood in 1994. “It really was sort of not very athletic, misfit, struggling professionals who were working off hangovers in the park,” he said.
He also knew a trend when he saw one, which led him to write Rejuvenile: Kickball, Cartoons, Cupcakes and the Reinvention of the American Grown-Up (Crown), which describes the phenomenon of eternally young grown-ups; it was published in June.
Kickball's popularity, he says, reflects the tension between poetic ideas of childhood and the notion of a more serious adult self. The “rejuvenile,” he argues, manages to bridge that gap, and the resurgence of kid games like kickball is a manifestation of the breakdown of traditional age norms and social roles.