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A whirl of fun Seattle Post

For the past five years, Pete Brown has had a date with his family on the first Sunday of every month in the fall and winter. His large, extended family and a few friends—20 people in all—gather to play WhirlyBall.

For the past five years, Pete Brown has had a date with his family on the first Sunday of every month in the fall and winter. His large, ex­tended family and a few friends—20 people in all—gather to play WhirlyBall.

After a nephew dis­cov­ered the game—which is like a com­bi­nation of basketball and lacrosse, played from elec­tric cars—for his 30th birth­day party, the Brown clan was hooked. Now they play in their own family league of four teams, each with five players.“Everybody can participate and everybody enjoys it,” said Brown, 53, who even writes a newsletter for the group. “People are just out there grinning ear to ear on the court.” And that’s what Whirlyball is all about—fun.

While ma­neu­vering the Whirlybug car with one hand, players pass and shoots a whiffle ball with a plas­tic scoop. They try to score goals by hitting a target on a backboard. Whirlyball is a flashback to car­ni­vals of childhood—the days when you ate a puff of cotton candy, threw a soft­ball into milk jugs for a chintzy stuffed ani­mal, and thought nothing was more fun than crashing into a com­plete stranger—or your sibling—in a bumper car.

The owner of Washington WhirlyBall in Edmonds is so con­vinced that any­one who tries it will have fun that he’s offered a money back guar­an­tee since opening nearly 18 years ago. Only one person has ever asked for, and received, her money back. In WhirlyBall, two teams of five face off for 15 min­utes, with a referee over­seeing the action and score. Players can score 2, 3, or 5 points, de­pending on the distance of the shot. A team can also score by gaining pen­alty points when the other team vio­lates rules. Players need to be about 4 feet in height, and usually, age 8 or older.

Kim Mangum, founder of the game and president of Flo-tron Enterprises Inc. of Salt Lake City, calls WhirlyBall the “world’s only mecha­nized team sport.” He said there are 29 WhirlyBall courts in the U.S. and Canada, with an­other 12 scheduled to open in 2003.

Before a match, participants are told how to play. One recent day, Bernie Tiffany, the manager of WhilryBall Washington, gave the spiel. “These are not riding crops,” Tiffany joked as he held up a scoop. “Those are not horses,” he added, pointing to the bumper cars. There is the ‘one butt-cheek” rule: i.e., half of your posterior must be parked firmly in your seat. And everybody wears a seat belt. While you are allowed to bang into a WhirlyBug from the side, the rules ban hitting someone head-on or straight from behind. Unlike hockey, there’s no body checking or even hacking at somebody’s scoop with your own. And the only time you can touch the ball with your hand is if it lands in your car or your lap or gets stuck in the scoop.

Whirlybugs run on a 12-volt battery on an electrically charged floor, which is turned on or off with the flip of a switch. If someone fell on or touched the floor, they’d probably feel a harmless zap. The cars rumble across the floor with loud click-clack sounds, traveling at a maximum of 5 mph across the 50-by-80-foot court. Elite tournament players like Tiffany, who’s been on several national championship teams, ma­neu­ver the cars like a hot knife slicing through butter.

Beginners look more like weaving toddlers learning to walk. They’re also more apt to travel in a big blob that moves up and down court, rather than playing positions or minding defense. You don’t have to be in shape or have a sports background to play WhirlyBall, though good hand-eye coordination helps. That inclusive nature is one of the things the Brown clan likes about the game. Brown’s 70– and 72–year old sisters have joined in a few times. “Ten people get to sit and watch or heckle, while 10 play,” said Brown, who loves near Mill Creek. “We try to keep it on the lighter side.”

The family lets the younger children drive the cars for fun, but they keep the games among the adults.In competitive WhirlyBall, nationally there are about 20 to 25 strong teams in the unlimited division. But locals have a near-monopoly on the national title.

The “holy grail” of the sport—the silverplated WhirlyBall Memorial Cup—has called Edmonds home since 1988 and rests near the door of the local facility. “We win it almost every year. We are the dynasty,” Tiffany said. “The reason we’re so good is that we have so many league teams.” Each week WhirlyBall of Edmonds hosts three league nights: one each for advanced, intermediate and beginning players.

But most people aren’t as serious about it and may not think of it as a sport. On weekends, WhilryBall is popular for children’s birthday parties. During the week corporate groups—often from Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon and Immunex—pack the two courts.

To play, one needs to organize a group of at least 10 players and reserve an hour of court time for $145. On one recent day, three separate Microsoft groups played WhirlyBall for morale-building or to celebrate a promotion. “It’s so unique, it’s not a thing most people have experience at,” said Dan Schiappa, director of program management for Microsoft Passport. “So it levels the playing field.”

Schiappa brought a group of about 15 employees, who all seemed to be having fun. “In some ways it’s stress relieving to go out there and smash into people. It’s a lot more fun playing it than watching it,” Schiappa added.

On the next court over, over grown men became boys with toys. “Let’s get ready to rumble,” yelled Joe Brown, from another Microsoft group, to his opponents. Mike Tayebi fired back, “You guys are going to lose.” The 10 players, all men, whooped and high-fived each other between shots. When Mike Morton’s car was tapped gently by another car, he appealed unsuccessfully to the referee for penalty points against the other player. “He nailed me,” Morton hammed it up. “Ow! Ow!”

Morton recovered quickly, then rammed a member of his own team for sheer fun of it.

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