- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 7, 2006

Some are big, some are small; some are athletic, some not so much; some keep a hawk’s eye on standings, others show up mostly for the after-game beers. We’re talking about the thousands of soccer, Frisbee, softball, kickball, football and other sports players who compete on the Mall year-round.

“We don’t exactly know how many leagues, teams or players there are,” says Bill Line, spokesman for the National Park Service. “But we know it is a very large number.” He adds that the Mall itself, including the Hains Point area, has up to 60 athletic fields.

The intent and skill level among the thousands (probably tens of thousands) of players may vary greatly, but not their love of the people’s playground: the dozens of fields in the shadow of the Smithsonian museums, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln and National World War II memorials.

“I would go so far as to say, you haven’t really lived in Washington unless you’ve played softball on the Mall,” says Philip Hellmich, a softball player whose team is the Resolutionaries. “The vibrancy, the power, politics and history that surrounds you. It’s amazing.”

And in his case, the power and politics trickled down into league play. The Congressional Softball League, which is coed and nonpartisan, but has a Democratic commissioner, was split this year because some Republican members didn’t care for league rules. They formed the House league, Mr. Hellmich says.

“There’s still some tension between the groups, but we play in both leagues,” he says, and adds that it’s appropriate because his team is made up of employees from the conflict resolution group, Search for Common Ground.

But many people prefer sports with no ties to politics and other daily drudgeries. They play to get away.

Juan Carlos Perez-Segnini, a lawyer with the Inter-American Development Bank, says he plays pick-up soccer at least two, sometimes three times a week on the Mall, either next to the Washington Monument or in front of the Smithsonian’s American History and Natural History museums. He jogs there and back, which takes about five minutes each way.

“You get away from the office, you can forget about the stress and you just have fun,” says Mr. Perez-Segnini, who has been playing pick-up soccer on the Mall for more than 10 years.

He says there is no organized league and yet there are always enough players — mostly from the EPA, the Treasury and the World Bank — for a game every weekday at lunchtime, year-round. Everyone brings a white T-shirt and dark shirt, several people bring soccer balls and sometimes, if no one happens to bring cones to use for goal posts, T-shirts are used for markers, he says.

“It’s very laid-back,” he says.

As are the games of the coed kickball league, Play NAKID, organized by Joe Paternoster.

“Please, we do this for the beer. It’s kickball after all,” says Mr. Paternoster on a recent Sunday afternoon, when his team, the Tramp Stamps, barely beat the Ramrods after some questionable calls and limited athleticism. But fun times were had by all, including Ramrods team captain, Natalie Bain, who after scoring a run that changed the momentum — at least briefly — in favor of her team, almost collapsed at home plate. She had run hard and was winded.

“Now, I really need a beer,” she exhaled.

Most leagues, including Play NAKID (which stands for “No, Adult Kickball Isn’t Dumb,” and is also the text on league T-shirts next to a bottle that proclaims the league is 95 percent fun by volume and 5 percent competition) train and supply their own referees. But on this particular afternoon, Play NAKID didn’t have enough referees, which led to a players’ strike for a few minutes until it was decided a friend of Mr. Paternoster would step in to call a game.

Also on that afternoon: a few sprains and bruises occurred.

“This is a full-contact sport after all,” someone jokes.

Surely, the game, camaraderie and slapstick would become fodder for conversations at My Brother’s Place, a bar in Northwest where the teams congregate after games.

“That’s where the real competitions takes place,” Mr. Paternoster says. “That’s where we play flip cup,” a beer-drinking game.

Just a stone’s throw to east, though, right next to the Washington Monument, the atmosphere is a tad different — more serious, more competitive and dare we say it, the players are a little more athletic and a little younger. Penn State is playing Villanova in flag football, and on the sidelines are several injured, twentysomething athletes. The teams are part of the Capital Alumni Network flag football league, which is coed.

“Yeah, I was in the ER yesterday,” says Travis Hoffman, 23, who plays for the Penn State team. “They told me it’s just a sprain though,” he says about a back injury he got during a recent game with another league. Mr. Hoffman, who plays linebacker, hopes to play again in a couple of weeks.

Also sidelined is Justin Holtz, 27, a wide receiver with his arm in a cast.

“I like playing, but it’s also just a great way to network, meet new people,” say Mr. Holtz, a financial planner.

The social networking aspect is an important part of the rapid growth of the Capital Alumni Network’s flag football league, says league commissioner Jeff Welesko, which only a few years ago had fewer than a dozen teams and now consists of 56 teams.

“My personal view is that with D.C. being so transient, the alumni associations provide a great way to meet people,” Mr. Welesko says. “I have made a lot of friends … and we’ve even had marriages come out of it.”

Kristen Boehme, who plays Ultimate Frisbee through the Washington Area Frisbee Club, agrees on the social aspects of playing.

“I play with a lot of people from the EPA. They’re socially conscious, interesting, caring people,” says Ms. Boehme, an assistant principal at a local school. “You’ve played with someone for two years and then you learn they’re saving something, somewhere that’s important for the environment. It’s pretty great.”

The appeal is also the game itself — “one of the toughest on your body” — and the location, the Mall, Ms. Boehme says. Games last up to 90 minutes and can involve inadvertent physical contact.

“We used to play almost all our games on the Mall, but it’s become so popular that we have to play some games in Maryland and Virginia,” she says.

And it’s true. Weeknights are so popular that many teams apply for permits from the National Park Service, administered by the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation. If they receive a permit, they’re ensured play for a specific time and place.

But there are not nearly enough permits to cover all interested teams and fields, so, sometimes, teams send “squatters” to reserve a spot.

“I feel sorry for the poor interns who have to sit there for hours [on the field] in the baking sun in the middle of summer,” says Mr. Hellmich, adding it took him a long time to figure out the permitting process.

“I don’t know if I want to reveal the deadlines. … I worked for years to find out where to apply for permits,” he says.

The popularity of sports on the Mall is ever-increasing, Mr. Line says. And no wonder. Many find that no matter how disillusioned they get about the politicians and bureaucrats that occupy the buildings around the Mall, there is something special about this green, expansive people’s playground, bookmarked by the Potomac River to the west and the Capitol to the east.

Offers Mr. Hellmich:

“They’re not the best fields — many of them are actually in terrible condition — but the vibrancy and excitement in the Mall. … It’s unreal,” he says. “And it’s very romantic to see the sun set behind the Lincoln Memorial.”

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