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Fitness for the Easily Bored: Dodgeball

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Los Touristas de Whittier, Winners of the Stay Puft League's Season Finals

I’ve always been a worker-outer. But lately, as I’ve spent more and more time on the cardio machines at 24 Hour Fitness, I can’t shake feeling that I’m just a hamster on a wheel in a vicious human experiment. To combat my paranoia and possibly find a mentally healthier hobby, I’ve decided to scope out what else L.A. has to offer in a weekly series, “Fitness for the Easily Bored.”

Last week, I began with Hoopnotica. This week, I'm getting ballsy with...

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L.A. Dodgeball Society

The Hollywood Rec Center smells like testosterone and sweat as rubber balls fly through the air. It's Tuesday night, and the playoffs for the L.A. Dodgeball Society’s Stay Puft league are swinging into high gear. And as I tentatively stick my head into the brightly lit gymnasium, Team "Oprah’s Book Club" and Team "I Balled Your Mother, Too" are locked in a vicious, balls to the wall, knock-down drag-out game of dodgeball.

Within five minutes, a tall redhead has been nailed in the dome so hard that she turns bright red and begins to tear up. She’s fairly open about her pain, but still puts on an it-didn’t-hurt-that-bad smile, despite the drops of salty water sliding down her cheeks that are flat-out giving her away.

I was there to play, and I was terrified. I hate pain, I hate being on the spot, and I hate teamwork. I had already spent a very uncool five minutes trying to find my way into the gym, so I was feeling like a loser, and as I watched, I was reminded of a core tenet of dodgeball. Someone always winds up stuck being the last person standing, as a crowd of angry members of the opposing team crowd surround them with the sole goal of to pummelling the hell out of them with rubber.

I briefly considered leaving, but I am committed to LAist, to this column, and to uncovering the dirty secrets of L.A. fitness. After standing awkwardly in a doorway for a few seconds as balls flew past my head and sweaty players bobbed and weaved within inches of my person, I finally shoved myself as far into a corner as I possibly could and watched for a few minutes.

The first few teams were dodgeball purists--Silverlake/Echo Park hipsters. As one might expect in this post-millennial incarnation of a sport once popular in the 70's, tube socks abound, as do sweat bands, mustachios, leggings, and short-shorts. One young woman was actually flashing cheek from beneath her pantaloon irony. I don't doubt that the money spent on these outfits has footed a hefty portion of Dov Charney's lawyer bills.

But moving beyond the unsurprising garment choices in a dodgeball league that regularly references Burt Reynolds, this is intense. I have never seen hipsters look so sincerely serious. It's very, very scary, like the mean girl in middle school who would take play-fighting too far and actually kick you in the shins. At one point--and I may never again in my life have the chance to say this sentence, so I have to say it now--I actually bore witness to a full-grown man executing what appeared to be a pike jump in celebration of an opposing team member getting taken down.

The Society was started in L.A. a few years ago by Michael Costanza, now 33. Lanky and on the short side, with the self-proclaimed same amount of bicep muscle he had in eighth grade, Costanza was wearing Hammer pants, a blue tank top (not a wife beater--a tank top) and a trucker hat with graffiti-style art when I made my introduction.

From afar, he looks like the kind of perpetually ironic guy that's frequently photographed by the Cobrasnake, the kind who appears to have been waiting all night for someone to take his picture with his hoodie up, squatted in the corner of a club under bad lighting. It made me wonder if this league was really just an excuse for Eastsiders to bust out their most ugly-sexy retro gear and compare notes.

But contrary to his appearance, Costanza is completely sarcasm and cynicism-free, and he honestly cares about dodgeball and about making it fun. "Everybody's gonna have their moment in the sun," he said, talking about why he likes the game so much. "Especially the way we play."

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Costanza threw me onto a team called the Torn Pages, and my ten or so minutes on the sidelines were my introduction to how the game is played. He hollered at a guy named Steve on my team, telling him, "Hey! Take this girl under your wing." I felt in good hands.

The rules were easy. At the whistle, run up and grab a ball, then run back and let the massacre begin. "I'm a little nervous," I told Steve.

"Just hang back at first," he told me. "You'll get the hang of it."

I did get the hang of it, and the hang of it seemed to be funnier to me than it was to some of my opponents. I got up the nerve to grab some rubber and trot tentatively up to the line of scrimmage. Like a pack of hungry wolves, three men on the other side gathered in front of me in what I later found out was a strategic move, holding their balls (it's too easy), looking as though they would really be happy about hurting me. I couldn't help it. I laughed. And then was promptly blindsided by a well-placed ball, thrown by a wily and sneaky girl. Damn!

My team was taken out of the playoffs, and therefore the evening's activities, in five very fast rounds, but I nevertheless worked up a sweat and got out of breath. This may have been in no small part due to my semi-hyperventilating from anxiety, but even once I calmed down, those sprints to the line of scrimmage and back were for real.

Michael later assured me that despite the rampant pissing contest that the game appeared to be at the outset, he has worked hard to make it "less aggro."

"If someone played sports in college or in high school, they feel like everyone should have their same skill level," he says. But in his league, the sport can be "whatever you want it to be."

This was especially important after the movie "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" came out, Costanza tells me. "It got a little too intense after the movie," he says. Which is why now, he's committed to being clear about the lightheartedness of the league. He promotes it partly with flyers featuring 1970's Reynolds, fully 'stached (and not necessarily fully clothed), and he also makes sure that the core group is diverse, including "artists, techies, nerds and musicians."

After my team got ousted, I spent the rest of the night watching. Not a very good workout, but pretty entertaining. And true to what Costanza told me about less aggro, I was relieved to see that the Society is open to folks who don't necessarily want to channel a snarky modern-day Farrah Fawcett or Erik Estrada. A lot of teams after the first two wore sweats, jeans, and sneakers, and I saw more than a few people burst into laughter over being hit.

It also turns out that on nights that the Stay Puft league plays, the balls aren't as hard as the regular balls. Yes, for as frightened and cowering as I had acted, this is the soft-core night. On all other nights, the balls are the real deal--the red rubber, sting like crazy balls.

My teammate Judy T., 30, told me that dodgeball is a great workout, even if the players may seem unusual. The first night she came, "Everybody was crazy," she says. "Someone was dressed like an elf. Some others were dressed like pirates."

She also supported my contention that from my chosen vantage point, I was in grave danger. "It's not a sport you can just watch," she said. It seemed like she was about to wax poetic about the desire to get up and participate, to be a part of something, to be free and expressive through the slinging of soft spheres. I felt motivation swelling up. "You have to play it," she went on. "You're more likely to get hit on the sidelines."

It's easy to sign up to play through the website, and wanna-be ballers can come as teams or as singles who then get hooked up with a team. So if you're waxing nostalgic for the days when your biggest concern was a red ball flying at your head, throw on your mullet and your leotard--or don't--and sign up for a little good old fashioned ball-handling.

Overall Workout: Decent -- would have been better if I had played for longer
Hobby-Developing Potential: High. It's Dodgeball.
Next-Day Pain: Slight. Felt it in my chest.
Cost: $50.00 to join for the season, $5.00 for one-time playing on Sundays

L.A. Dodgeball Society

Photo by Jessica Pauline for LAist