More than 100 cities have signed on to be part of the Play Ball movement, and Piscataway mayor Brian C. Wahler was on hand Friday to say a few words of encouragement prior to the tournament. Wahler, who has been Mayor since 2000, said the Play Ball concept hits close to home for him.
"As a young kid growing up here in town, we would always have Wiffle ball games here through the Department of Recreation," said Mayor Wahler. "Those are your childhood memories, and you want to instill those memories in these kids. Maybe one day, their kids will play Wiffle ball here."
Piscataway shares the Rutgers University main campus with neighboring town New Brunswick, and the school's recent immersion in the Big Ten conference has intensified the city's sports fixation. The Rutgers football stadium and basketball arena are both located within eight miles of Columbus Park.
Karl-Anthony Towns, the top pick in the most recent NBA draft, hails from Piscataway, which was named New Jersey's top sports town by Sports Illustrated in 2008. Towns played in the city's Little League, which has nearly 300 kids under its umbrella, and there's also a thriving Pop Warner football league.
Piscataway Little League has a state-of-the-art five-field complex with three lighted fields and a field for disabled players. The Pop Warner league took a day's hiatus Friday to send its kids to the Wiffle ball tournament, which was attended by several local families and members of the community.
"We put a very big emphasis on sports here," said Mayor Wahler prior to the event. "We're the only town in New Jersey where if you're a kid and you want to get involved in sports, it doesn't cost you a dime. The Little League is separate, but Pop Warner and the local Babe Ruth league are free of charge."
Around 60 kids showed up for Friday's Wiffle ball tournament, and there were four games played simultaneously on the spacious fields at Columbus Park. The kids started the event with calisthenics and pushups, and then they got down to the business of splitting up into teams for the tourney.
Jim Bullard, a Piscataway councilman with long-standing ties to the city's Babe Ruth league, said there's nothing quite like sports to bridge the differences of people in the community.
"I feel as though if you bring out the kids and bring out the parents, you're really bringing the whole community together," said Bullard. "And the kids are going to learn a couple things. They're going to learn how to be a good teammate. They'll learn how to lose. And they'll learn how to win."
The United States Conference of Mayors has joined MLB in declaring August Play Ball Month, and cities on both coasts and in the heartland have joined forces in the initiative. City by city, they're celebrating the National Pasttime and the many ways the game has become ingrained into their communities.
"I think this is a great idea by Major League Baseball to partner with the U.S. Conference of Mayors, because the mayors are typically the ones who drive the train in their community," said Wahler. "We have a mutual interest in that we all want to see the kids have a good time.
"I'm very happy that MLB has started to reach out at the very local level. It's nice that kids can go to a Major League baseball park, but when you have parents working two or three jobs, they don't have time to take their kids to a ballpark. The closest they may get is a Minor League team park or by playing locally in their hometown."