WAR of the WHIRLS
WhirlyBall smells like fried food, beer and an electric subway. It sounds like the clack-clack-clack of a train and the shouts of teammates...
Times Snohomish County Bureau
WhirlyBall smells like fried food, beer and an electric subway. It sounds like the clack-clack-clack of a train and the shouts of teammates in a basketball tournament.
It looks like a carnival.
But when all the parts come together, most players agree that WhirlyBall is simply a lot of fun.
Dubbed by its creators "the world's only totally mechanized team sport," WhirlyBall is a mix of basketball, bumper cars, polo and jai alai.
It pits two teams of five players against each other driving small vehicles called WhirlyBugs. Players maneuver and pass a whiffle ball using a track-ball-style scoop in efforts to score a two-point "whirlic" by tossing the ball through a hole at the opposing end.
It's easier than it sounds but more difficult than it looks. Best of all, players said, anyone can be competitive with this sport because the vehicle becomes your legs.
The game can be played by people 8 to 80, said Tom Choquette, the owner of the Edmonds WhirlyBall center, the only one on the West Coast. But on Monday nights at the center, on Highway 99 near Lake Ballinger, some of the world's best players converge, and things get serious.
Players such as Karl Straume, an auto mechanic, and James Gill, who is known as the best shooter in the nation on WhirlyBall Internet message boards, have led Edmonds' top team to the WhirlyBall international championship every year for the past 17. Their latest international win was in June.
World of WhirlyBall
Where: 23401 Highway 99, Edmonds.
Cost: $145 an hour plus tax for a 10-person game Sundays through Thursdays and until 6 p.m. on Fridays, $175 an hour plus tax on Friday nights and Saturdays. League play is $13 per person per night and includes two 30-minute games.
Hours: noon to midnight Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 10 p.m. Sundays.
League and party information: 425-672-3332 or www.whirlyball.net.
Other teams understand that Edmonds — known around the country as Seattle's team — is the squad to beat, except no one can beat it, Choquette said.
"Seattle's the Oakland Raiders of WhirlyBall," he said. "We're the team everybody loves to hate."
Year after year, a team of up to two dozen players travels to the international tournament at one of the 36 WhirlyBall centers in the United States and Canada. The trip is a weeklong affair, and every year the Edmonds players bring home trophies, which tower above the center's entrance.
"There would be nothing better for us than if there could be more competition," said Straume, who has played on Edmonds' top WhirlyBall team for nine years.
The team's top competition is from Michigan, Straume said, but Edmonds has always come out on top, though it won by only a few points this year.
"They just don't play as a team like we do," Straume said of other teams.
Among league players, some said, it's the competition that keeps them coming back. For others, it's the community of friends or just the fun of playing the game.
"There are lots of us that are friends and hang out. It's kind of like a family," said Gill, who has been playing since 1988 and met his wife playing WhirlyBall 15 years ago. They married last year.
Most WhirlyBall league players are what Choquette calls gray-collar workers, white-collar workers who work well on teams and in groups of people.
Choquette said it's programmers, store managers and people in service industries who keep coming back after their first experience with WhirlyBall.
"You get out there for fun, and then it gets competitive, then you want to play and play and play," Straume said.
A chance discovery
The game started with a golf cart, a stick and a tin can in an auto shop in Salt Lake City.
Kim Mangum, a part-time employee at his dad's shop, saw a can on the floor while driving a cart, grabbed a stick and hit it. His dad, Stan Mangum, immediately recognized the possibility for mechanized hockey.
And in 1961, WhirlyBall was conceived.
The pair struggled with the intricacies of their would-be game, however, said Kim Mangum, who is now the president of Salt Lake City-based Flo-Tron Enterprises, which owns WhirlyBall.
They couldn't use a ball or a puck that stayed on the ground because there was too much machinery there, they decided. So they threw a ball instead, creating a scoop out of a welding rod and a piece of leather.
Then they had to decide on a vehicle. First they tried a battery-powered vehicle, but it wasn't viable because it needed frequent recharging. They went to a gas-powered car, but the fumes made players sick. Conventional electric bumper cars were out of the question because of the poles attaching them to a power source overhead.
Furthermore, the game demanded that the car needed to be able to turn on a dime, not just drive forward. What they needed was something that moved like a water strider, a bug that darts and "whirls" across the surface of standing water.
Stan Magnum developed a floor grid that operated on such low voltage that it wouldn't be regulated by state laws and couldn't be felt, even if shorted with a bare hand or foot. He created a WhirlyBug that was steered with a one-handed crank and moved via a pedal.
Finally, in 1980, the sport was born, and centers started popping up around the country.
The sport is slowly expanding, especially on the East Coast, Mangum said. There also are plans to open centers in Southern California and Salt Lake City.
"We felt it would be better to go slow and prove the concept so people wouldn't ask, 'Is this a fad? Is this viable?' " said Kim Mangum about the spread of WhirlyBall.
"When you've been out there for 25 years, I think it's obvious that you have staying power."
Business has changed
Though leagues were important when the Edmonds center opened in 1986, they have taken a back seat to the parties and corporate events that have become the cash cows of WhirlyBall, Mangum said.
"Quite frankly, the corporate markets around the country are just eating it up," Mangum said.
Choquette said a Seattle accounting firm uses WhirlyBall as part of its interview process. The company puts prospective employees on the court to see how they interact with each other.
From watching people play WhirlyBall, Choquette said, he can tell whether they're going to be team players or whether they're shy, competitive, selfish or adaptive.
"It just all unfolds," he said. "You could interview them for the rest of the week and you will not know more."
The game attracts some celebrities as well, Choquette said. Sometimes a touring band playing in Seattle will come for a late-night game. Bill Gates had a birthday party at the Edmonds center once.
"We wined and dined him," Choquette said. "They had a good time — everybody in here does."
Brian Alexander: 206-464-2349 or firstname.lastname@example.org