When Michael and Meggan Saulo were set up on a blind date, it seemed obvious a relationship between them would never work: He was a Kickin’ Chickin’ and she was Totally Sweet.
They were, in other words, kickball rivals.
But, surprisingly, the couple discovered that their time on the field— even on opposing teams— actually nurtured their relationship. Eventually rivalry transformed into romance. The couple married Oct. 1, 2005, and now live in Original Northwood.
The Saulos are just one of many couples who’ve met through the Kickball League of Baltimore, a downtown collective that began with just four teams and has now morphed into the Kickball League of America, with more than 250 teams in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Virginia. When friends Jim Figlozzi and Brannan Villee founded the league in 2001, they didn’t foresee it would be a fertile ground for matchmaking. But during the past decade, more than a few singles have found soul mates— not just teammates— through the league. One couple even paid homage to the organization with the groom’s cake at their wedding, which was in the shape of a kickball field.
When Villee moved to Baltimore for her first job in 1998, she only knew two people in town. And when she introduced them to each other, they fell in love, got married and moved away, leaving her alone in a new city. Things started to turn around when she met a woman who played football for a team in the Baltimore Sport and Social Club, the first social sports league in Baltimore. “I thought it was really cool that a girl played football,” says Villee, 34, a program manager for FEMA and commissioner and owner of the kickball league. She joined the club the next week.
“That’s when I realized that there were a ton of not only young people from Baltimore who were playing these social sports, but also a lot of transplants— people who had moved to Baltimore for their jobs, on their own, and didn’t know a soul,” she says. “They looked to the social league as a way to meet people and find new friends.”
In fall 1999, Villee met her husband, Mark, playing football. Then, in the summer of 2001, after hearing about a similar league in Washington, she and Mark, along with Figlozzi, decided to start a kickball league of their own. They put together four teams made up of about 60 people and started playing weekly at Riverside Park in South Baltimore.
The league continued to grow, and in spring 2002, Coors came on as a sponsor, allowing the kickball league to offer low registration fees to players and expand its reach. “It grew by 40 percent every season because everyone had so much fun playing and acting like a kid again,” says Villee. “In turn, they told their friends, and their friends told their friends. …”
Philip Rupp joined “Alcoholics Unanimous” in fall 2004. During a match in fall 2005, he met Beth Hedin, a player on the “Mutha Futhas.” Rupp actually began rooting against his friend’s team, charming the cute girl wearing knee-high socks. He and Beth talked on the field for a while that first night and went on two dates the following week. Two weeks later, they faced each other on the field and the “Mutha Futhas” dominated. That was the last season Beth and Philip played on different teams. The next year, Beth joined “Alcoholics Unanimous” and a year later she and Philip got married.
One night after a kickball game, Jason Lowy, a player for the “Chinkos Bailbonds” team, and some coaches from other teams went out to Mother’s Federal Hill Grille, a popular post-game hangout for the league. His best friend had started working with a woman named Bridget Barker a few months beforehand and was trying to introduce them. “So we’re at this bar and I’m one of those clowns that wears knee-high socks, a bathing suit, and Under Armour bands around my arms, looking like a complete idiot,” says Lowy a financial advisor. Three months after they met, Bridget joined Lowy’s kickball team. He proposed to her Christmas morning seven months later and the couple married on June 20, 2009. They still play kickball together every Thursday night.
None of these folks expected to find love on the kickball field. But, as it turns out, there are a lot of reasons why that can happen. Because no one takes the game too seriously, they’re more willing to expose their corny, weird— lovable— selves than in “regular life.” When Villee played on “Blue Balls,” the entire team would dress head-to-toe in blue. And league players regularly engage in a number of silly rituals, settling a tie game with an old-fashioned beer “chug off.”
“Even though there are people that are competitive, I think it’s really hard to take yourself too seriously when you’re running up to kick a big red ball and you’re out there on the field with a group of your friends,” says Meggan Saulo, a human resources officer for a Baltimore financial firm. “It’s different from football or softball, which don’t have that kind of silliness factor.”
And kickball is inclusive—Villee calls the game a “more-the-merrier” sport because players don’t have to be athletic, which is why she thinks it’s less threatening than other sports. “Because kickball is not a professional sport— nobody played kickball in college, nobody was a ‘D1’ kickball player— no one is so good that we’re not going to allow them to play in this amateur social league,” she says. “And, in the same vein, no one’s going to the kickball world series tomorrow, because there isn’t one. It’s more about coming out and playing and having fun in the moment.”
But there also may be something biological— something primal— that’s causing romance on the kickball field. In 2004 Paul Zak, an economics professor at Claremont Graduate University who specializes in the biological basis for social interaction, discovered that activities that induce moderate stress also increase levels of the love hormone oxytocin. While testosterone (which is generated by intense sports like football or basketball) manifests a high that leads to a stronger libido— and, in turn, potentially one-night stands— oxytocin fosters desire for companionship and long-term love.
“Something that induces moderate amounts of stress, like a roller coaster, is also very bonding,” says Zak. “So what happens in a sporting event? Well, there’s this stimulated moderate stress. We’re doing things in unison, that’s good; that releases oxytocin. And we have to all focus on some common goal and do something hard and do it together under moderate stress, which all creates a bonding action. So, sports are just a perfect way to meet somebody.”
In addition, Zak says a person’s behavior on the kickball field reveals a lot about how they’ll be as a mate. “Generosity is this primary mating criteria across every culture in the world: I want to make sure that my potential spouse is going to be sharing with me: sharing love, sharing resources, all kinds of things,” he says. “If I’m on a soccer team or kickball team with you, and I never, ever pass the ball— I’m a total ball hog— what do you think? ‘Selfish bastard,’ right? But if I’m a team player and I’m setting up shots for everybody else, I’m cheering people on, it shows that… I’m generous, I’m thoughtful of other people, I can see the bigger picture, and it’s not just all about me.”
Villee estimates that at least 200 couples have met or strengthened their relationships as a result of participating in the kickball league. She believes the kickball dating craze will continue, as recent college grads move to Baltimore and meet up on the kickball field. “They fill the ‘kickball shoes’ of those of us who have already met playing sports, fallen in love, gotten married, and now have children and are too busy to play anymore,” she says.
Jason and Bridget Lowy come close to matching that description. The day before they married, the Lowys went back to Mother’s in Federal Hill to reminisce about how they met. “It was one of those things where we went back to the scene of the crime,” Jason said. They ordered a couple of beers and slumped at the same bar stools they’d sat on three years ago.
Jason, now 29, and Bridget, 27, said they might move out of the city in a few years. But Jason worries. “If I lived out in ‘the burbs’ and didn’t have anything like the kickball league,” he says, “I think I’d grow too old too quickly.”