Kicking Back

The hottest new trend in sports isn't found on TV -- it's kickball, on the rebound straight from the school yard.
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While the origins of kickball are uncertain -- some believe World War II soldiers invented the game -- most people remember it from elementary school gym class.

Played on a softball diamond but with a big red rubber ball, kickball has bounced from the school yard into the adult world of coed sports leagues in the past several years.

These leagues are an ever-popular and relaxing option for exercise-seeking adults, amateur athletes or colleagues looking to let off some steam.

However, in recent years, that company softball league has gone retro -- really retro. As

Rejuvenile

author Christopher Noxon notes, adults are now modeling their leisure pursuits on those of their childhood.

Noxon, whose book details the emergence of adults who openly play childhood games, says, "It's one of the greatest de-stressors I know ... You go play golf or racquetball -- you're going to be a little more worked up afterwards.

But five innings of kickball, a bar afterwards, and you'll forget all your troubles."

Play Ball

The rules of kickball are similar to softball: Most games last five innings, with each team taking turns at bat and in the field.

There are a few key differences, however.

Kickball players can be tagged out by a thrown ball; and while the 10-inch rubber ball may be easier to catch than a softball, it is definitely harder to throw.

However, the ultimate difference between playing on a coed kickball team and on a softball team lies in the fun factor.

Baton Rouge, La., league player Casey Kayser, 27, notes that kickball is far less intimidating than softball.

"I always wanted to play softball, but I was scared of the ball. I just sat on the sidelines and drank. With kickball, for once I wasn't on the sidelines, but out there playing. It's a fun, supportive environment," Kayser explains.

Scott Murry, 27, founder of Baton Rouge's

Kickball League, claims the sport is so enjoyable because "there's no stress associated with it. It's not like growing up playing softball or baseball, where most people had coaches and teachers telling them what to do. Kickball has always been a playground sport."

Kevin Dailey, 36, co-founder of the

Brooklyn Kickball League, which plays on Sundays in McCarren Park in Brooklyn, N.Y., points out that kickball "is promoted as a social event as much as a sporting event. It's more social than softball."

Kickball is often marked by a spirit of irreverence that's quite refreshing in today's world of hypercompetitive sports.

Teams bear names like the Kick Asphalts, Midlife Crisis, Orange Jews and Thick Femurs. Noxon writes about a team whose players even dressed up as nuns at the recent

WAKA (World Adult Kickball Association) Founder's Cup in Miami.

Much of the fun of is in the apres-kickball socializing. Noxon met his wife playing kickball, and subsequently proposed to her on the kickball diamond; the Brooklyn Kickball League even hosts a popular annual dance, dubbed The Kick Ball.

Dailey says that in 2005, 200 people went to the ball. This year he expects 300 to 400 attendees for the Sept. 16 event.

Noxon says that kickballers enjoy themselves "in a way that's less pretentious than most people in their twenties. Once you've made a total fool of yourself on the kickball field, you can't keep up that 'cool guy' image."

A League of Your Own

Those interested in joining a kickball team can check out WAKA's site. However, Murry notes that WAKA can be (relatively) expensive -- annual dues are around $60 a player.

Independent leagues like those in Brooklyn and Baton Rouge are much cheaper. It costs about $10 a player per season in Baton Rouge, and teams in Brooklyn pay about $30 a team per week. (Dues cover field rental and referees.)

For independent and WAKA leagues in your area, check out

Kickball 365.

Rules vary throughout the coed leagues.

Some have specifications about the number of women on a team. And although team sizes vary throughout the leagues, the standard number of players is 10.

Single players are usually welcome -- Dailey invites New Yorkers to come down to McCarren Park any Sunday night, April through October, and join in.

Seasons do vary by region: Most leagues have at least two rounds of play each year, culminating in a final match between the teams that have won the most games.

Also gaining in popularity are one-day kickball tournaments.

Baton Rouge recently held one just for service-industry workers. And area restaurants pulled together teams that played in an all-day elemination match, sponsored by

Budweiser

.

And clearly, kickball is here to stay.

Murry's original vision was a group of people who played pick-up games -- but the Baton Rouge league doubled in size in less than a year.

"Initially, I planned to have two seasons per year, but everyone got so upset about having a break that we're going to be running it year-round," he explains.

And now, Murry has problems finding referees for games, because "everyone wants to play," he explains.

Batter up!

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Penelope Dane is a writer and sociologist living in Baton Rouge, La. She is currently working on her M.F.A. in fiction and conducting research on teen poetry.