It can be a sad day for an amateur athlete when he or she comes to the realization that their days of sports stardom are running out.
Five life-long friends from Carbondale refuse to hang up their cleats and they have kept their competitive spirit strong by playing wiffle ball, which is like baseball but with a smaller field and a plastic bat and ball, in their own backyard diamond, Wiffley Field.
The team, nicknamed the SO-ILL Swingers, will put their talent to the test Saturday at the London Wiffleball Tournament in London, Ohio., with close to 100 other teams from 15 different states.
Saturday’s tournament marks the seventh time the team competes for a title in London. This year the Swingers enter the tournament ranked sixth out of 96 teams, according to the London Wiffleball power rankings.
Robbie Clark-Stokes first came up with the idea for a backyard ball field ten years ago at the age of 15.
“I got a job working at the mall for a family friend,” he said. “My parents had already gotten me an old car for when I turned 16, so I was able to think of other things that I could put my money into.”
Clark-Stokes noticed the trees in his parents’ Carbondale backyard lined up at a right angle that left the perfect landscape for a baseball diamond.
An avid Chicago Cubs fan, Clark-Stokes said he envisioned a field that mimicked Wrigley Field, though Wiffley Field didn’t start out looking any different than a normal backyard diamond.
“The field started out pretty simple,” Clark-Stokes said. “We put some wooden stakes in the ground and wrapped caution tape around them for an outfield fence, which was pretty goofy. We didn’t have any of the structures around the field, and the scoreboard was just an old chalkboard.”
Today, Wiffley Field flaunts two dugouts, a backstop, lights, bleachers, a scoreboard and a wooden fence complete with distance markers, so one can know exactly how far the homerun ball traveled that he or she hit.
Clark-Stokes adds a new feature to the field each year. The team is deciding if they will sod the field or add a sprinkler system for the next addition. Plans for a Jumbotron in centerfield are also in the works, Clark-Stokes said.
Friends and family have stopped by to check out the spectacle and even take a few swings over the years, but the core group of players has remained the same.
Leftfielder Matt Basler, shortstop Josh Jackson, centerfielder Adam Grabowski and pitcher Tyler Graham have been friends and teammates since the field’s earliest days.
Basler said the love of competition is what has kept the group together for a decade of wiffle ball.
“With the field starting out bare bones and watching it turn into the creature that it is now, it’s been really cool to be able to stay young and keep doing a sport,” he said. “There aren’t enough sports for people our age to be involved with.”
While the group no longer has the spare time they enjoyed in high school, the guys manage to get together about twice a week for a game or two.
As Wiffley Field enters it’s tenth year, the group said they have no plans of cutting back their time playing a “kids” game.
“Wiffleball is something that we have grown up with,” Jackson said. “It’s a great group of guys that comes out here. We just want to have some fun and make some memories.”