CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

Playground sport is alive and kicking

Kickball leagues are organized, but it's really just for fun. Make those pitches slow and bouncy.

Happy to report there have been no drug suspensions so far this week in competitive kickball, though the players association has yet to approve full testing.

Till then, the only real controversies will probably involve "flip cup," a postgame drinking competition of some renown, and four or five babies produced as a result of couples who met while playing in one of the L.A. leagues — born, presumably, kicking and screaming.

So, hence, I now pronounce kickball America's new national pastime. Honestly, is there anyone who hasn't played?

The goal of these burgeoning organized leagues is to ... I'm not sure what the goal is. To meet as many women as possible? Find a husband? Make babies? This is perhaps America's most social sport, played primarily for fun. Thus, we can dismiss it summarily.

Wonder how such stuff caught on? Not to pick on a dull and declining sport, but what if baseball was played for fun? Or youth soccer? What would all those for-hire coaches do? Who would berate our children at the end of a long school day for a bad throw-in, or striking out with the game on the line? I don't even want to even think about it.

As I've always said, fun is no guarantee of a good time.

You should've seen these kids last weekend at the Rose Bowl, 300 players from as far away as Las Vegas. The tournament featured 18 teams, mostly in that dangerous 21-35 age group, folks who can't quote a line of Shakespeare but can recite, like, 15 "South Park" episodes word for word.

In short, my peeps.

Competitive kickball is played much the way you played the game as a kid, except you can't peg a runner in the head, which was 90% of the fun, especially if it was your sister.

Games are five innings, about an hour, and feature 11-players in the field — the usual baseball positions, plus an extra outfielder and a position known as the "crasher," who roves the infield to help defend against frequent bunts.

A good bunt is a pivotal weapon here, for fly balls and line drives are usually caught. So bunting, and ankle-high kicks, are the offensive tools of choice.

Balls and strikes are called, as in baseball, except with four fouls you are out. The strike zone extends one foot to either side of the plate, and one foot above it. Pitchers twirl the big red playground ball toward the plate, with backspin, forward spin, and even bouncing backspins.

"It's pretty cool to see a playground game played competitively," says Jon Bohrer, a pitcher for the Made in America men's team.

Those who have played soccer have an edge, as do those who've played a lot of baseball and softball, for reacting quickly to baserunning situations is key. A good player will get on base 75% of the time.

Competitive kickball has grown enough that there are both social and competitive leagues. Though the Rose Bowl tourney featured exclusively men's and women's teams, the vast majority of regular leagues are coed.

"Everybody plays softball, but it's hugely competitive, and soccer gets competitive too," player Migueo Pimenteo says of the sport's laid-back appeal. "This is just pure fun."

Who comes up with this stuff? The World Adult Kickball Assn, or WAKA, originated in 1998, the product of four friends sitting around a Washington, D.C., bar and wondering "what if?" The next day, one of them registered the domain name, today's equivalent of a patent.

WAKA now oversees play in 35 states, with an estimated 39 leagues in Southern California alone. The season culminates Columbus Day weekend with a national tournament in Las Vegas that will draw 5,000 players.

"Fifty to 60% of kickballers have not played any [organized] sport," says Sa Dao, a manager for WAKA in Southern California. "It's a party environment. We have a tremendous number of transplants who have moved to town and are looking to make friends."

Back to the action: The Beaver Fever has taken a 5-1 lead over the BABS team, which has brought actual cheerleaders, though one is a guy in drag. Or woman pretending to be a guy in drag. The world is no longer as simple as it once was.

But kickball sure is.

"I had no clue people still did this," one passerby says with a smile.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

Twitter: @erskinetimes

CHICAGO