LIGONIER – For 11 years, Zach Freeman has turned a sleepy Saturday afternoon activity in Westmoreland County into a full-fledged event, and one that helps in the battle of Type 1 diabetes.
Freeman, who has the childhood form of the disease, said he played Wiffle ball through his childhood, emulating his favorite big-league stars.
That sparked the idea of a fundraiser featuring the game.
“I loved it,” he said. “I always wanted to be like Brian Giles, Jason Kendall, Jeff Bagwell, Ken Griffey Jr. ... Me and my friends would just hit home runs over the fence. It was great. I looked at my neighbor’s yards and thought ‘We could play Wiffle ball here.’ That’s how we got it going.”
Wiffle Ball Bonanza has raised more than $65,000 for the fight against Type 1 diabtes.
The funds raised from this year’s event will go to Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, specifically the facility’s endocrinology department.
This year’s Bonanza on Knox Street in Ligonier, held Saturday, attracted 16 teams of at least six players.
Add in spectators from the community along with family and friends from all over, and the event drew nearly 500 people – including pets that are brought along to enjoy the day outside – according to its website, wiffleballbonanza.com.
“I didn’t think it would be what it is now,” Shawn Proskin, of Stahlstown, said. “But knowing Zach and his will to see this succeed, and for what cause this is, I’m not surprised at the success – knowing Zach is the guy that he is.”
From a dozen to dozens
The first Wiffle Ball Bonanza in 2008 had 12 players. Freeman, then a senior-to-be at Bishop McCort High School, recalled making last-minute phone calls to just get a dozen players to the field that day.
That’s not a problem nowadays, with the Bonanza boasting action from 8:30 a.m. until a championship game that was scheduled to start under the lights at 8:45 p.m.
After about 10 hours are taken to whittle the teams from 16 to six playoff squads, a three-round bracket plays out to determine a champion.
Toss in a home run derby and the on-field event has grown beyond Freeman’s initial expectations.
“I never envisioned any of this,” Freeman said. “I never had big picture in my mind or anything.”
What started to get it into a bigger picture?
“The next year was my graduation party from high school,” Freeman recalled. “I thought there would definitely be more people here. ‘Maybe I’ll get some T-shirts made.’ We had six teams and 36 people.
“It got a little bit of legs. Facebook was starting to kick in. Online presence was essential to what we were doing. We could invite people that way.”
Freeman said the tournament grew beyond the limitations of the backyard on Knox Street in Ligonier for the 2015 tourney, spilling games onto a nearby Little League field in the borough. While that made for a deeper tournament, it also took a bit of the close vibe created by Wiffle Ball Bonanza away from its epicenter, Freeman said.
With the interest the event has generated in the area and out of state, it’s not long before the slots are filled, even at $250 per team, once registration opens.
“Normally around April or May, I’ll send out an initial email to people who have been here in the past to give them first dibs,” Freeman said. “Normally, on May 1 is when the tournament will open to the public.
“I’ll post something on Facebook, or send a text to a wider group of people. It only takes 3-4 days – tops – for the tournament to get filled up.”
‘A classic ballpark’
As the Bonanza grew, so did the need for a second field. While McGinley Park – named for a family that has been a key sponsor in the tournament – is the showcase field, there’s also a second field named Big Apple Park.
McGinley Park is the field that generates the most buzz, however. Any backyard Wiffle ball setup designed to be a small-scale replica of Forbes Field, complete with the scoreboard in left field, will draw attention in western Pennsylvania, as McGinley has since 2014.
The scoreboard is painted to reflect the moment when Bill Mazeroski hit a solo home run to end Game 7 of the 1960 World Series – 3:36 p.m. That long ball sank the New York Yankees and created a moment that lives forever in Pittsburgh lore.
“We needed a big punch,” Freeman said. “I’ve always been a Pirates fan, but I also love the nostalgia of baseball and the old parks … And I don’t have the Allegheny River in my side yard, so Forbes Field was an easy decision. It’s a classic ballpark.”
Big Apple Park, while not as decorated as McGinley Park, has been scaled to replicate the dimensions at Yankee Stadium.
‘The cause is great’
Freeman noted that he ordered 120 Wiffle balls for this year’s tournament – to be distributed across the two fields. Wiffle balls from previous tournaments are also used, meaning that the games will go on without much fear of losing necessary equipment – even in the event of canine thievery.
Once the games are in action, Freeman says that the arms hold the edge over the bats, though an 89-foot rip puts a ball over the replica Forbes Field Wall in left at McGinley Park. A 93-foot shot puts the ball over the fence in right.
The level of seriousness among the 16 teams in the field may vary, but there is a shared passion for the day and its cause.
“We love coming every year,” said Maggie McGinley, a member of the main field’s namesake family and general manager of the Bonanza’s 2017 champion Jane Street Jags. “It’s the boys’ favorite weekend. Zach does such a great job. The cause is great. The whole day is just always a great time.”
Putting on the tournament is a labor of love, given that the walls and fencing are set up the night before. It’s a process that was eased with the tournament’s first volunteer day on Friday.
At the McGinley Park field, a public address announcer – Dave Donaldson – calls the action all day while scorekeepers are enlisted at both parks.
Umpires on the corner bases are usually volunteers. An organist also provides a soundtrack during the action.
Away from the fields, there is a tent with food ranging from standard grilled and picnic fare to wings from Dino’s Sports Lounge near Latrobe. A margarita bar is also on site.
Meanwhile, 50-50 tickets are sold and winners drawn throughout the day – along with a basket raffle.
Close friends, family and even new friends will jump into all the necessary roles to keep the Bonanza running.
Freeman points out that there’s even a board of directors for the event.
How to help
While the 2019 event is months away, Proskin – a key contributor in the tournament’s web presence – notes that donations to aid in the battle against Type 1 Diabetes can be made all year round through the website.
“It’s through PayPal,” Proskin said. “There’s a donate link on the site. It’s a couple clicks, and you can make a donation with a valid PayPal account.”
This efforts of this year’s Bonanza raised a reported $18,000 for the fight against Type 1 diabetes, as announced following Saturday’s championship round.
Championship honors went to Beck’s Runnin’ Rebs – Freeman’s team – which beat Frosty Mugs by a 2-0 tally in the final.
It’s the first time that a team Freeman was on won the Bonanza.