SCHENECTADY — Looking out toward the left-field fence of the former Bellevue Little League field he played on as a kid, Justin Mara smiled Sunday morning.
“The scoreboard that used to be there, my first home run of my life, I hit the scoreboard and put a dent in it,” said the 34-year-old Mara, a Schenectady native who now lives in Rotterdam.
Now 25 years later, Mara is one of a number of adults swinging for the fences again at Hillhurst Park in the Bellevue neighborhood of Schenectady, as friends and competitors are reliving their childhood memories in the competitive Electric City Wiffle Ball League.
Mara said he gets some quizzical looks when he tells people he plays Wiffle Ball on the weekends. Then, he’ll show them a video or two of the action.
The typical response?
“Hey, how can I get in there next year?’”
Mara grew up and out of Little League competition and so did Bellevue Little League, leaving the site vacant — left to the elements and the environment that grew in an unattended open corner of the neighborhood. Ed Varno, a retired Schenectady firefighter, lives at the corner of Campbell Avenue and Fourth Street, and coached in the Bellevue Little League. Varno approached the city about the condition of the former baseball fields.
“It just went down the tubes,” Varno said. “It got overgrown. There were people living in the buildings that were here. We found needles, condoms; all kinds of stuff you don’t want to find in your backyard.”
Electric City Wiffle League (7 photos)
Varno teamed up with D&B Property Management and Rob Dobbs who created the Restorative Mindset 501c3 not-for-profit that secured a grant from the Schenectady Foundation to bring the overgrown field back to playing condition.
That was in 2019, but the pandemic soon halted the clearing of the park..
“It kind of got overgrown again so we had to have another big cleanup,” Varno explained.
Now the Hillhurst Park has become a field of dreams for the Electric City Wiffle Ball League.
Sunday was the last regular season contests to be played on the two fields, setting up the seeds for the upcoming playoffs.
The eight teams compete biweekly from late April through August on a field that’s less than 100 feet to center field.
The league’s roots go back to 2005 when Chris Hess, a Glenville resident, hosted a league in his home’s backyard. Anthony Auspelmyer is a former “Hess Field” player and the current commissioner of the Electric City Wiffle Ball League with Corey Zeh as the senior vice-president of on-field operations.
“The other league had more MLB-style rules,” said Auspelmyer, a Glenville resident. “We would run the bases and everything. Now, because there are fewer guys and a bunch of us are getting older, we have instituted no base running.”
Each team must field three players in the field with a maximum of five in the batting order, but with an unlimited roster size to encourage more members and allow flexibility with player obligations off the field.
The umpire behind the plate is a metal plate hung on a pvc frame dictating the strike zone for the pitcher and batter. Any ball that hits the plate or its frame is a strike on the batter, but pitches need to be thrown under 60 mph in the competitive league — a pitch clocked by radar behind the plate at 61 mph or higher is deemed a non-pitch.
Clean hits are measured as singles, doubles and triples based on the distance the ball travels, but sluggers can still strut around the bases on a home run.
“We do record a lot of the games so when people are watching it’s nice to see hitters trot out the home run,” Auspelmyer said. “People can celebrate and do all sorts of crazy stuff.”
Hess hit three home runs in the first two games on Sunday. Zac Longo, of the Smash Bros. team, is the league leader in home runs.
“As the game progresses, I’m picking up tendencies and what pitches they throw in certain counts,” Hess said. “Plus, I kind of have the advantage I’ve been facing these guys for over a decade.”
The Electric City Wiffle Ball League also allows pitchers to alter the surface of the Wiffle Ball itself. That’s something prohibited in Major League Baseball, but encouraged in the Electric City Wiffle Ball League.
“My pitches start outside the zone and then I try to hit the outside corner,” said Josh Longo, a crafty left-hander from Rotterdam. “Most people in the league are righties, so I’m trying to paint the outside corner and leave the ball in the strike zone as little as possible. I’ve been pitching for 15 years in Wiffle Ball. It’s about developing new pitches.”
As the first successful season heads toward its scheduled close, Auspelmyer already has plans for the second season for the Electric City Wiffle Ball League.
“People have contacted us about joining next year, but it would be nice to get more kids out here playing, just having a good time,” Auspelmyer said. “This isn’t the only Little League in Schenectady that folded. We’ve talked about maybe getting some Wiffle Ball games for the kids in the community.”